PERSICHETTI: Selected Piano Music


Vincent Persichetti was one of the most widely respected American musicians of his generation. A prolific composer, brilliant educator and lecturer, and prodigious pianist, he composed more than 150 works in virtually all genres and for virtually all performing media, while serving for 40 years on the faculty of the Juilliard School, many of them as chairman of the composition department.

During his lifetime Persichetti influenced the musical lives of thousands of people from all walks of life, and his name came to signify a comprehensive musicianship virtually unparalleled among American composers. Countless young pianists were nurtured on his easier pieces, while many other young instrumental students first experienced serious contemporary music through his works for band; church choirs turned to his Hymns and Responses for the Church Year as an inexhaustible resource, while many young composers have found his classic textbook Twentieth Century Harmony to be an indispensable tool; among professional soloists and conductors his sonatas, concertos, and symphonies stand among the masterworks of American music. Throughout his life Persichetti encouraged healthy, creative participation in music at all levels of proficiency, while shunning dogmas that advocated one compositional approach at the expense of others. He immersed himself in all aspects of music with an infectious, childlike enthusiasm devoid of pomposity.

Persichetti’s music illustrates what he saw as the future of music: a broad working vocabulary, or “common practice,” based on a fluent integration of the myriad materials and techniques that appeared during the twentieth century. In a sense, Persichetti’s vocabulary of gestures and figures and the somewhat detached way they unfold and interact form a kind of private language, from which he created his own personal expressive world. Seen in this way, the music begins to appear as a personal metaphor, with cross-references and elaborations of ideas from other pieces winking slyly at the listener, conveying enigmatic allusions that call for a particularly intuitive level of apprehension. All this is carried out with a light touch, free of solemnity or pretension, yet far from trivial. The music at times suggests an imaginary world, peopled by a large cast of cartoon-like characters, created by an eccentric master-puppeteer who amuses himself by portraying his own metaphysical vision through the interactions of his puppets. This characterization is illustrated throughout the pieces on this recording.

Unlike that of many of his contemporaries, Persichetti did not turn to the symphony for his most important statements, although he did produce the requisite nine. But he was more inclined toward sparse gestures and epigrammatic forms—indeed, many of his large works are elaborate integrations of diminutive elements. Most representative are his works for piano—some 35 pieces, including twelve sonatas, six sonatinas, a concertino, and a concerto, plus works for two pianos, and piano, four hands as well. The music spans the years 1929 to 1986, and includes pieces for pianists at all levels, from the beginning student to the advanced professional. Perhaps no composer since Scriabin has produced a body of piano music that offers such breadth of meaning, such fluency of articulation, and such richness of invention—not to mention such comprehensive and imaginative use of the instrument’s resources. Indeed, Persichetti’s piano music embodies in microcosm the all-encompassing range of his expression and comprises the most penetrating lens through which to view his formidable output.

Persichetti’s creativity was often stimulated by poetry. During the late 1930s and early 40s Persichetti composed a series of what he called Poems for Piano—a collection of sixteen character pieces, each inspired by a single line, laden with imagery, taken from modern poetry—American, for the most part. Though composed when he was still in his twenties, before his mature language had fully crystallized, these brief sketches embrace a boundless array of moods, states of mind, and approaches to piano figuration, achieved with remarkable subtlety and economy of means. Their styles range from atonality—even atonal pseudo-jazz—to the immediacy of a popular song, yet with virtually no redundancy of either meaning or technique. Especially striking are two in particular: No. 10 (“Dust in sunlight and memory in corners,” T.S. Eliot) and No. 15 (“And hung like those top jewels of the night,” Léonie Adams). This latter is one of the composer’s most straightforwardly beautiful melodies.

Persichetti’s six sonatinas were written during the early 1950s, when the composer was concentrating most intensively on music for the piano. The first three sonatinas were composed in 1950, and are rather like miniature versions of the sonatas he was writing at the time. The latter three were composed in immediate succession in 1954, and are easier both to appreciate and to play.

The Sonatina No. 1 comprises three tiny movements. It is largely simple in texture, although its language is acerbic, with relatively dissonant and often polytonal harmony, fragmentary gestures and sonorities, and attenuated tonality. Sonatina No. 2 is perhaps the most fully developed and cohesive of the group. It is a single movement, beginning with a slow, stately canon unafraid of dissonant harmonic friction, followed by a brilliant developmental scamper, with motifs of its own darting in and out of the transparent contrapuntal texture. Eventually, elements of both sections are combined, leading to an exuberant finish in C Major. Sonatina No. 3 comprises two movements—the first, gently rolling, with subtle modal shifts; and the second, rhythmically playful and affirmative in character.

The Sonatinas Nos. 4 through 6 are among the many pieces that Persichetti tailored to the abilities of beginning pianists. An essential aspect of Persichetti’s compositional personality was his connection to the inner world of the child. He devoted many of his compositional efforts to capturing this world, often in pieces that are relatively easy to play and hence, manageable by young musicians. These pieces are integral to and aesthetically consistent with the rest of his creative work, revealing musical and psychological sophistication despite their economy of means. The limitation imposed on technical difficulty was just one more constraint of the kind within which his creativity thrived. These pieces are neither dull exercises nor the sort of trivial “children’s music” produced for commercial purposes by the music education industry; they were created with the same attention to expressive and formal details that the composer devoted to larger, more complex works. Drawing upon polychords and polytonality, modality, dissonant counterpoint, irregular and unusual meters, and even absence of meter, he captured the whimsy, impishness, tenderness, innocence, and silliness of the young personality, as well as its access to a free, non-linear imagination, with an eloquent precision and delicate beauty that is the province only of an artist whose “inner child” has not been sacrificed to the jadedness of maturity. The fact that many of these pieces provided the thematic material for Persichetti’s sole opera The Sibyl—one of his two most ambitious works—suggests the importance he placed on them.

In 1960, Persichetti’s wife Dorothea, a brilliant pianist and the explicit source of inspiration for his entire output. wrote a doctoral dissertation on Persichetti’s music, discussing all his works composed up to that time. Regarding Persichetti’s “teaching pieces,” Dorothea noted that “the composer vehemently denies that he ever wrote such a thing, maintaining that he writes music, all of which can be taught, but some to students younger than others. The idiom of the large and the small pieces is often the same, and some of the little pieces which seem most simple technically have unexpected subtle and musically sophisticated spots, realized in quarter notes in a five-finger position…. [T]he little works are distillations of a musical expression that has undergone clarification to the point of great simplicity…. He does not write ‘down’ to attain simplicity. Some of his music is large, and some small; some difficult, and some easy…. If [the latter] are successful, it is so because they are music, not because they are pedagogy.

Over the course of his career Persichetti composed a series of what he entitled “serenades.” There are a total of fifteen serenades for a variety of instrumental media. Nos. 2 and 7 are for piano solo. The Serenade No. 2, composed when he was 14, was one of the pieces composed “behind the back” of his primary composition teacher Russell King Miller, and contributed to his eventual expulsion from Miller’s theory classes. Its three movements last barely two minutes, and are entitled “Tune,” “Strum,” and “Pluck.” Despite their brevity, relative ease of execution, and conceptual levity, these terse, mischievous pieces are quite sophisticated, with acerbic secundal dissonances, sparse gestures, rhythmic irregularities, and long stretches of atonality—all general characteristics of his work. Serenade No. 7 was composed in 1952. Its six tiny pieces are more accessible than those in Serenade No. 2, and are much easier to play.

Among the sizable number of Persichetti’s piano pieces suitable for upper-elementary and intermediate-level piano students, perhaps the best known is the Little Piano Book, Op. 60, composed in 1953. This group of fourteen easy pieces of uncommon charm and beauty has become a classic of its kind. The composer described it as “a collection of simple pieces written for, or about, friends and relatives and acquaintances. One is a self-portrait. This is my music reduced to its essence; nevertheless these pieces do contain elements found in my larger, more complex works.” Dorothea felt that “they may be some of the composer’s best music.” Other such works are the slightly more difficult Variations for an Album, and Parades, the easiest to play of all Persichetti’s piano pieces.

Notes by Walter Simmons
Author, Voices of Stone and Steel: The Music of Schuman, Persichetti, and Mennin 
(Rowman and Littlefield, 2011), from which these notes were adapted.

GALBRAITH Other Sun. Traverso Mistico. Island Echoes. Night Train

GALBRAITH  Other Sun. Traverso Mistico. Island Echoes. Night Train ● Stephen Schultz (electric Baroque fl); Barney Culver, Simon Cummings, Ben Muñoz, Nicole Myers, Tate Olsen (electric vcs); William Yanesh (pn, hpd); Brandon Schantz, Brandon Kelly, Zachary Larimer, Andrew Wright, Marcus Kim (perc); Carnegie Mellon Contemp Ens; Walter Morales, cond ● CENTAUR CRC-3106 (53:41)

Nancy Galbraith, now in her early 60s, is a prolific composer who has written for a wide range of musical media. Born in Pittsburgh, she studied in Ohio and West Virginia, and is currently Professor of Composition and Theory at Carnegie Mellon University. Only during the past few years have I become acquainted with her music. The dozen or so pieces I’ve heard have inhabited a pleasantly accessible postmodern tonal language, more or less mainstream for a composer of her generation. I don’t know whether what I’ve heard is representative of her large body of work, but what is found on this recent release is of a decidedly different nature, and I’ve been wrestling with just how to characterize it.

On the one hand I might identify it as falling somewhere toward the middle of a continuum with Rick Sowash at one end and Paul Moravec at the other—a continuum that might also include Joseph Schwantner somewhere around the middle. But some readers may not be familiar with those composers, and that characterization fails to take into account a certain “crossover” into the world of rock music. But the kind of rock music suggested is of a rather rarefied nature, along the lines of the Mannheim Steamroller (for those familiar with this ensemble). The featured performers, chiefly Stephen Schultz, who plays the “electric Baroque flute” and also teaches at Carnegie Mellon, and Cello Fury, an ensemble of electric cellos, have ventured into the world of refined rock before. There is also the flavor of “world music,” along with whiffs of such associated composers as Lou Harrison and Harry Partch. So the music is a sort of fusion of these various aesthetics, and tends to be modal, with a harmonic language of minimal dissonance, and textures that occasionally suggest minimalism, with lively rhythmic asymmetries and appealingly fresh instrumental sonorities. Its immediacy has a “new-age” flavor—much of its impact can be grasped from a single hearing, although I am not sure it will wear out its welcome as quickly as does much highly accessible music, because there is a good deal of activity of various types going on.

I will say unequivocally that while I could not term this “great” music, I enjoyed everything on the CD immensely, and it’s hard to imagine anyone not feeling similarly. Perhaps its avoidance of “weighty matters,” its failure to fall into a neat stylistic category, and its general avoidance of intellectual confrontation may not appeal to the “typical” Fanfare reader (as I imagine him/her to be), but I am confident that it will appeal to a much larger number of listeners than does most of the music covered in this magazine. In fact, I am tempted to say that, while this CD may not appeal to many Fanfare readers, it is very likely to appeal to their friends and relatives, and would no doubt make a wonderful gift for them.

As for some comments about the individual pieces, Traverso Mistico (2006) seems to be the work that inaugurated Galbraith’s collaboration with Stephen Schultz.  This piece is bit less consonant harmonically than the others, exhibiting a slightly Asian/Impressionistic flavor, so here is where the scent of Harrison is strongest. The second of its three movements evokes a beautiful sense of rapture, while the subtle treatment of instrumental timbres—especially the electric flute and harpsichord—is exquisite. The first movement of Other Sun, the title piece, is wonderfully lively and sonically fresh; the second is pretty and lyrical, while the third introduces a slightly jazzy element. Similar in many ways to Other SunNight Train is enormously appealing; of all the pieces it displays the richest, fullest treatment of the instrumental ensemble, although it is also the one with the strongest strain of rock style. It is perhaps my favorite piece on the program, with felicitous combinations of sonorities that can only be described as delicious. Island Echoes is scored for percussion only, and features the Indiana University of Pennsylvania Percussion Trio. It is an imaginative, inviting piece that features mallet instruments, so that melody and harmony are not overlooked, although, of course, rhythmic factors predominate.

All the music is performed impeccably, and the quality of the recording gives great immediacy to the irresistible timbral combinations.

HOVHANESS Symphony No. 10, “Vahaken.” Meditation on Zeami. Floating World. Ode to the Temple of Sound

HOVHANESS: Symphony No. 10, “Vahaken.” Meditation on Zeami. Floating World. Ode to the Temple of Sound • Chung Park, cond; Frost SO • CENTAUR CRC-2954 (58:00)

Here is a new release of music by Alan Hovhaness that will be largely unfamiliar to most listeners. The only one of these pieces that has been previously recorded is Floating World, written in 1964 for André Kostelanetz and the New York Philharmonic, who gave the premiere shortly thereafter, and then recorded it for Columbia Masterworks (MS-7162). However, Kostelanetz seemed to think that his devotion to Hovhaness’s music entitled him to modify it at will, in this case tightening it up a bit by shaving almost a minute off its duration. Therefore, the performance offered here is billed as the “First Complete Recording,” although given the “loose” nature of the composer’s approach to form, the impact of the cut is negligible; and Kostelanetz’s was otherwise a fine recorded performance.

The program assembled here highlights the years 1963-1966. Hovhaness had just spent time in India, Japan, and Korea, studying the indigenous music of those countries. What he discovered left a major impact on his own compositions during those years and shortly afterward, adding a number of new devices to his compositional palette. Interestingly, the timing of his incorporation of these new devices corresponded to some of the modernist trends then drawing the attention of critics and commentators. During those years Hovhaness turned away to some extent from the modal counterpoint, triadic harmony, and specifically Armenian sources of inspiration that had characterized so much of his music up to that point. Instead one heard much secondal (cluster) dissonance, stentorian unison melodies accompanied by clanging bells, dissonant canons at the unison, portamento (sliding tones) in the trombone and other instruments as well as the strings. There was also a greatly increased use of quasi-aleatoric senza misura passages (controlled chaos), in which each instrument repeats its own, somewhat different material without specific rhythm or tempo, the duration and dynamics of these passages suggested in the score, but controlled by the conductor. (Hovhaness had actually devised this technique during the mid 1940s, but it became one of his primary devices during the 1960s. Some works, such as the Symphony No. 19, “Vishnu” [1966], consist of virtually nothing but such passages.) Many of these techniques grew out of the composer’s fascination with the music of Japanese Gagaku and Noh drama, as well as from attempts to replicate the sounds of some Japanese instruments. The pieces from this period represent Hovhaness’s most “modern”-sounding music, as well as the music whose impact is most purely “sonic.”

Symphony No. 10, “Vahaken” (named for an ancient Armenian god) is an exception to the generalizations above. It was largely composed in 1944, although revised in 1963; hence its connection with the rest of the program. I must confess that it is not one of my favorite Hovhaness symphonies, although this is largely due to my subjective distaste for the Ionian mode (otherwise known as the major scale), which pervades the outer movements of the work. The symphony shares much in common with the composer’s other works from the 1940s; the 1963 revisions are not obvious. Its style reveals many usages associated with the explicitly Armenian pieces, although annotator Marco Shirodkar (Hovhaness authority and curator of the excellent Web site identifies the music of India as the dominant source of inspiration. Much of the first movement is pervaded by simple melodies accompanied by drum and polymodal counterpoint played pizzicato by the strings. The brief second movement is most uncharacteristic: a delicate minuet that almost recalls Ravel, highlighted by flute, accompanied by string pizzicati (very similar to the second movement of the Concerto No. 8 [1957] for orchestra—one of the composer’s masterpieces). The third movement is similar in concept and content to the first, whose material returns at the conclusion of the work.

Meditation on Zeami
 was composed in 1963 for Leopold Stokowski (another Hovhaness champion), who conducted the American Symphony Orchestra in the work’s premiere (which I attended some 45 years ago). (The notoriously provocative Stokowski was surprisingly timid about employing some of Hovhaness’s more unusual techniques, such as the portamenti, and tended to “downplay” them.) Zeami was one of the pioneers of Noh drama during the 14th-15th centuries, so in this 15-minute work the composer gave full rein to the Japanese-inspired techniques described above.

Floating World
 was composed the following year and, based on a Japanese epic and related concepts, its content and treatment are very similar to those found in both other works composed at this time. However, I find Floating World to be the most convincing and effective of all Hovhaness’s pieces from the period discussed here. This is partly because its primary melody (which the composer believed to have healing properties) is unusual and boldly striking, but also because it reveals a sense of powerful and concentrated dramatic focus, with something approaching a true “climax”—quite unusual for this composer, while capturing the sense of wild abandon for which he often strove less successfully.

Ode to the Temple of Sound
 was commissioned for the inauguration of Jones Hall in Houston in 1966. Sir John Barbirolli led the Houston Symphony in the premiere. Of all the pieces on this program, this is the one in which the element of instrumental color and sonority is most dominant—understandable in light of the circumstances of the commission. The treatment of the orchestra is lavish, with an emphasis on dynamic extremes that range from passages of ethereal delicacy to explosive outbursts. A central dance-like melody is a little heavy-handedly pentatonic, and is treated with primitivistic polymodal counterpoint.

These are generally very good performances. The Frost Symphony Orchestra is in residence at the University of Miami, while conductor Chung Park (presumably Korean), who also served as the producer of the recording, is based in Idaho, although the disc was recorded in Florida. Despite the frequent association of Hovhaness with the “New Age” sensibility, and with mystical evocations of spiritual serenity, there was also an angry, violent side to this composer, and he often complained that performances failed to capture this aspect of his expression; he was also frustrated that conductors—like Stokowski, as noted above—lessened the impact of some of his more original devices. Though adequate to the challenges of the music, the Frost Symphony does not meet the highest standards with regard to precision or refinement. But what is most valuable about all the performances on this recording is that they really go all out in emphasizing the music’s extremes—dynamic contrasts, both delicacy and power of sonority—as well as the other unusual devices. During the days of LPs, where much of Hovhaness’s music first appeared, these extremes had to be compressed to avoid distortion or to be audible above surface noise. But today, with the advances in digital recording technology, this music is freed to achieve optimal sonic impact.

PERSICHETTI String Quartets: 1-4

PERSICHETTI String Quartets: 1-4 • Lydian String Quartet • CENTAUR CRC 2833 (76:44)

The creative legacy of Vincent Persichetti (1915-1987) comprises a large and extremely varied body of work, much of it still barely known to even the musically sophisticated public. Among his less frequently heard works are his four string quartets, which span the period 1939-1972. Fairly evenly spaced through out his productive life, they represent most facets of his enormous compositional range. However, not represented by the string quartets is his most ingratiating vein: the lively, diatonic, largely consonant sub-style found in his most popular works, many of those composed during the 1950s for wind ensemble and for piano solo. The aspects of his style represented by these string quartets are found in their most austere manifestations. Therefore, though most are masterful works, not to be overlooked by anyone with a serious interest in this extremely important but currently under-rated composer, they are definitely not the music one would select as an enticement for the general listener. 

The String Quartet No. 1 dates from 1939, when Persichetti was still seeking a distinctive creative voice of his own. Many of his works from this period, such as the Piano Sonata No. 2, Sonata for Violin Solo, and the Sonata for Two Pianos, are quite dissonant harmonically and attenuated tonally-—especially as viewed within the context of American music at that time-but without a depth of expression commensurate with the severity of the language. For me this is not a winning combination, and I find these pieces, including the String Quartet No. 1, to be among the composer’s less successful efforts. Two of the quartet’s four relatively short movements—the two faster ones—display a mercurial energy that is somewhat engaging. But the other two movements—almost Schoenbergian in their willful angularity—offer little appeal.

The String Quartet No. 2 is probably the easiest to approach, as its materials are largely modal and diatonic, although it is not by any means a romp. Composed in 1944, it may be viewed in the context of such contemporaneous pieces as the Piano Sonata No. 3 and the Symphony No. 3. These compositions are overtly “American-sounding” in their materials, and strongly influenced by devices and principles found in the music of Roy Harris—self-directed (autogenetic) formal designs rather than classical models, and much use of parallelism (organum). In addition to its generally lighter tone, the quartet includes some curious reminiscences from Beethoven, most obviously the Grosse Fuga. (Quotations—from his own works as well as those of others—form one of many cryptic aspects of Persichetti’s creative personality.)

The 1950s were Persichetti’s most fertile decade, and the period when his own distinctive compositional voice emerged most clearly. The 40-odd pieces from this decade may be readily divided into two sub-categories: those that are highly accessible, often intended to appeal to younger musicians, and those that are quite challenging. String Quartet No. 3, composed in 1959, falls into this latter group, along with the Concerto for Piano, Four Hands, Symphony No. 5, Piano Sonata No. 10, and Piano Quintet. (This Third Quartet even makes some explicit reference to the Fifth Symphony.) All five are multi-sectional works, each integrated into one movement based on a single theme usually introduced at the outset. These works—though often largely atonal and dense with significant substance—achieve a masterful fluidity and lucidity of contrapuntal motivic development that can capture a listener’s interest on first hearing, and sustain it through deeper study and analysis. In fact, these five works are arguably Persichetti’s greatest compositions, although among them, the Quartet No. 3 is probably the most austere and difficult to penetrate, owing to its 12-tone theme, its often glassy sonorities, and the abstraction of the medium. But it is a brilliant work—one that rewards attentive and repeated listening; it is probably my own favorite among Persichetti’s string quartets. 

The Quartet No. 4 dates from 1972, when Persichetti was seeking to embrace a number of the newer compositional devices appearing in the works of younger composers, and integrate them into his vast musical language. These pieces elevate such elements as gesture and texture to the status of musical ideas, subject to their own intensive development, while avoiding discernible tonality except in the most isolated—although often quite structurally significant—moments. This was also a time when Persichetti was pre-occupied with his series of Parables, 25 pieces that he defined enigmatically as “non-programmatic musical essays about a single germinal idea. They convey a meaning indirectly by the use of comparison or analogies.” Most of the Parables are short studies written for monophonic instruments, but some are larger works for fuller forces. And some of these bear other designations, their inclusion among the Parables indicated by subtitle. For example, Persichetti’s sole opera, The Sibyl, is subtitled, “Parable XX.” Similarly, the String Quartet No. 4, completed the same year as the frequently-played Parable IX for band, is subtitled, “Parable X.” In a sense this work is a conceptual expansion of the previous quartet, relying less completely on linear contrapuntal development, while embracing texture and gesture as primary elements, as noted above, often exhibiting contrapuntal relationships of their own. Though its rarefied, ethereal sonorities, fragmentary textures, and lack of perceptible tonality may seem somewhat forbidding upon initial acquaintance, Persichetti usually maintains a discernible metrical pulse that functions as an internal anchor, while the ongoing developmental processes remain lucid and coherent.

To its credit, Centaur does not bill this new release as “First Recordings.” Presumably they are aware that 30 years ago Persichetti’s four string quartets were issued on a two-LP set that featured the New Art String Quartet, then in residence at Arizona State University. This was a beautifully performed and handsomely packaged and annotated set, produced by composer David Cohen (who had been a student of Persichetti) and was available only from Arizona State directly. Unfortunately that set probably found its way into only a handful of collections-I’ve never met anyone who even knew of it! I’ve often thought that those recordings ought to be reissued on CD, what with the broader means of dissemination available today via the Internet. Perhaps this new Centaur release pre-empts the need for such a reissue. There is no question but that the Lydian String Quartet plays with considerably more polish, precision, and confidence, and the quality of recording is significantly superior as well. However, in an ideal world, I’d still like to see the Arizona set reissued, simply as another-and quite respectable-take on the music. Perhaps of lesser importance to most listeners, Cohen’s program notes were more astute than those by the Lydian’s first-violinist Daniel Stepner; and there is an excellent photo of the composer gracing the Arizona jacket, while Centaur offers no photo of Persichetti.

SHOSTAKOVICH: Violin Sonata, Op. 134. 24; Preludes, Op. 34 (trans. D. Tziganov, L. Auerbach)

SHOSTAKOVICH Violin Sonata, Op. 134. 24 Preludes, Op. 34 (trans. D. Tziganov, L. Auerbach) • Grigory Kalinovsky (vn), Tatiana Goncharova (pn) • CENTAUR CRC-2636 (66:43)

Composed in 1968 in celebration of David Oistrakh’s 60th birthday, Shostakovich’s Violin Sonata is one of the masterpieces of the composer’s late years. Oistrakh had been a loyal friend and ally of Shostakovich, and had given the premieres of both his violin concertos, so this sonata was, as might be expected, a serious and deeply personal work. The first public performance, in which the violinist was joined by pianist Sviatoslav Richter, was a singular event—unforgettable for those who were present—and was captured on recording. Feverish in its highly-focused intensity, that performance, still available as part of a five-disc “David Oistrakh Edition” on Melodiya, will be the indispensable ne plus ultra for many listeners. The work clearly reverberated in every fiber of Oistrakh’s body. However, other recorded performances have appeared during the years, some of them very fine. One such is found on the recent Centaur release discussed here. 

More than half an hour in duration, Shostakovich’s Violin Sonata is a large-scale work of great gravity. Its somber cast permeates two lengthy movements, largely slow and reflective, which flank a brief, wildly barbaric scherzo. The concluding Largo is an elaborate passacaglia of visionary, if bleak, eloquence, and covers an expressive range of extraordinary breadth. Admirers of the composer agree that it is a great work, though less sympathetic listeners may find its protracted dreariness to pose a considerable challenge. Violinist Grigory Kalinovsky and pianist Tatiana Goncharova are young, Russian-born musicians, now residing in the United States. Neither had yet been born at the time of the sonata’s composition, so the duo may be regarded as “second-generation performers” of the work. While I do not pretend to have listened to all current recordings, I can state with confidence that this is one of the best—vigorous, searing with intensity, and meticulously accurate. 

Sharing the CD with the Violin Sonata are violin-and-piano transcriptions of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes, Op. 34, for piano solo, composed in 1933, shortly after the completion of Lady Macbeth of Mzensk. Most of the transcriptions were done just a few years later by Dmitri Tziganov, a violinist and close friend of the composer. Shostakovich is quoted as having said, “When I heard Tziganov’s arrangements of the Preludes I forgot they were originally written for piano, so naturally did they sound.” Tziganov actually transcribed only 19 of the Preludes; not until 1999 were the remaining five done, by the astoundingly gifted young composer and writer Lera Auerbach (who composed her own set of 24 Preludes for violin and piano that same year; see review in 27:6). This purports to be the first recording of the complete set of 24. The Preludes provide a natural contrast to the Sonata—as mercurial, varied, epigrammatic, and whimsical as the latter is monolithic, expansive, and profound. Clearly influenced by Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives, the Preludes highlight Shostakovich’s propensity for irony, mockery, parody, and black humor. (The exception, of course, is the Prelude No. 14, known also through an orchestration by Stokowski: a premonition of the gravity of the composer’s later years.) I would have to agree with Shostakovich’s reaction: There are no indications that one is hearing transcriptions of piano music. Again, the performances by Kalinovsky and Goncharova are crystal-clear and razor-sharp; listen, for example, to the hair-raising No. 5. 

This CD is highly recommended to those in the market for this particular repertoire.

Picks of the Year: 2004

Another year has gone by, the mainstream classical music world continues to degenerate into terminal fluff, the number of retail stores selling classical recordings continues to dwindle, yet exciting repertoire continues to appear in superb recorded performances in sufficient quantity to tax most listeners’ budgets, not to mention their capacities to assimilate new material. Here is my list of recent offerings, all of it easily accessible via Internet sources, if not in neighborhood stores, presented in the belief that each of these entries will delight most listeners who seek new discoveries that embrace traditional musical values.

At 42, Jennifer Higdon is the youngest composer to appear on this list. Her music, presented here under the auspices of her longtime advocate Robert Spano, displays an appealing, though contemporary, surface, not unlike the recent work of Michael Torke, but with a greater sense of spiritual and emotional depth. This release is highly recommended to those interested in keeping up with the most talented composers arriving on the scene (see Andrew Quint’s interview and review in Fanfare 27:5).

Until recently, the name of Robert Kurka, whose career ended with his premature death from leukemia at age 36, had largely disappeared from notice. But this recent Cedille release (reviewed by me, probably in this issue) presents cogent evidence that he was among the most distinctive creative voices of his generation, and might have developed into one of the most significant, alongside such contemporaries as Ned Rorem, Peter Mennin, and Benjamin Lees (see below), had he lived longer. 

At 80, Benjamin Lees is three years younger than Kurka would have been. He has been the beneficiary of a number of fine recent recordings that confirm his stature as one of our most potent compositional voices, although his stern, uncompromising music has never achieved anything approaching widespread popularity. With three of his symphonies and an additional work of substance, Albany’s two-CD set (reviewed in Fanfare 27:6) is perhaps the most valuable representation of his music on recording.

Just a few years younger than Lees, Robert Muczynski has lived to see much of his work enter the active repertoires of both chamber music and solo piano literature; indeed, most of his music can now be found on current recordings in fine performances. This latest Centaur release (reviewed in 27:4) is perhaps the most impressive of all, featuring riveting performances of some of the most engaging and compelling American chamber music of the latter part of the 20th century.

Julián Orbón is the only composer on this list who was not from the United States (although Lees was actually born in China). However, a student of Aaron Copland, this Hispanic figure wrote music that often sounds American. Regardless, his work is remarkably ingratiating, and this recent Naxos release brings together three of his most appealing pieces, in excellent performances. Listeners who sample this recording are not likely to be disappointed.

HIGDON Concerto for Orchestra. City Scape • Spano/Atlanta SO • TELARC CD-80620

KURKA Symphony No. 2. Serenade. Music. Julius Caesar • Kalmar/Grant Park O • CEDILLE CDR-90000 077

LEES Symphonies: Nos. 2, 3, 5. Etudes • Gunzenhauser/Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz; Dick/Spano/Texas Fest O • ALBANY TROY-564/65 (2CDs)

MUCZYNSKI Piano Trios. String Trio. Gallery • Davidovici/O’Neill/Enyeart/Wodnicki • CENTAUR CRC-2634

ORBÓN Three Symphonic Versions. Symphonic Dances. Concerto Grosso• Valdés/Asturias SO • NAXOS 8.557368

MUCZYNSKI Piano Trios: Nos. 1-3. String Trio. Gallery (Suite for Cello Solo)

MUCZYNSKI Piano Trios: Nos. 1-3. String Trio. Gallery (Suite for Cello Solo) · Robert Davidovici (vn); Richard O’Neill (va); Carter Enyeart (vc); Adam Wodnicki (pn) · CENTAUR CRC-2634 (73:48)

With his music for flute et al. on Naxos 8.559001 (Fanfare 22:4, pp. 295-97), the two-volume set of piano music on Laurel LR-862/863 (Fanfare 24:6, pp. 62-66, or my web site at, and now this new release featuring his trios, a large majority of Robert Muczynski’s compositional output is now readily accessible in excellent performances on just a few compact discs, not to mention an assortment of other pieces found on a variety of miscellaneous recital discs. All this music establishes Muczynski as one of America’s foremost living composers in the traditional vein: i.e., his music is largely abstract, elaborated via contrapuntal and rhythmic development of motifs, and propelled by the expectations—fulfilled or evaded—of tonality. Chicago-born and trained, but a longtime resident of Arizona, Muczynski—now 74—has pursued an unpretentious, understated mode of expression that occupies a midpoint between the poles of neo-classicism and neo-romanticism. His music is neo-classical in its preference for small chamber ensembles, in its total rejection of grandiosity, in its avoidance of programmatic or extrinsic elements, and in its extraordinarily concise phraseology, with nary a superfluous measure. However, it is neo-romantic in its consistent commitment to the evocation of mood and the expression of affect. The music is never there “just for its own sake,” without an expressive purpose. However, over and above its location on a stylistic grid, Muczynski’s work maintains a consistently high standard of workmanship and artistic quality. Not especially prolific, he has fewer than fifty works in his catalogue. However, having gained familiarity with most of his output, I can assert that there is virtually nothing that is less than engaging, or less than meticulously crafted. Consequently, in their modest, unobtrusive ways, piece after piece has gradually entered the active repertoire; indeed, some, like his Sonata for Flute and Piano, can be considered “classics.”

The piano trio is a genre that hasn’t captured the imagination of many recent composers, so Muczynski’s three efforts fill a real gap in the repertoire. Composed in 1967, 1975, and 1987 respectively, each is approximately 15 minutes in duration. Much of Muczynski’s music displays a typically American fondness for syncopated rhythms and irregular meters. In the delightful Trio No. 1 he really swings, “blue-notes” and all. Both the first and last movements are so infectious that they almost require immediate repetition. No one who hears this trio will ever feel that pure, absolute music for small ensemble needs to be dry and dull.

Trio No. 2 cuts more deeply than its predecessor. A beautifully grave opening soon gives way to another sizzling allegro. The somber second movement culminates in a powerful climax, while the third movement builds to a driving conclusion. Along with the brilliant Cello Sonata (also available on a Centaur CD—CRC 2300—featuring the same cellist and pianist heard here), this is one of the composer’s most deeply searching creations. 

Trio No. 3 is substantively cut from the same cloth as the other two, although it explores a markedly different formal design. Opening with a theme and variations, it ends with an exuberant finale that gradually becomes slower and slower, finally coming to a very somber conclusion. Muczynski’s slow movements often evoke reflective moods that are haunting in their dark beauty.

In its typically un-flashy way, the String Trio, composed in 1971-72, is no less appealing than the piano trios. The austerity and limited expressive range associated with the medium barely cross one’s mind while listening to this vigorous and feisty four-movement work.

As brilliant and gratifying as this music is, much of the credit for its stunning impact here must be attributed to the sensational, wholly committed performances. Although these players seem not to have a collective identity, they have apparently played together frequently, and share a hearty enthusiasm for Muczynski’s music. As mentioned earlier, cellist Carter Enyeart and pianist Adam Wodnicki have recorded an extraordinary rendition of the composer’s Cello Sonata. Here Wodnicki seems to set and maintain energetic tempos that invigorate the other members of the ensemble. On the other hand, there is no piano in the String Trio, and that performance is no less exciting.

Filling out the CD is a suite for cello solo entitled “Gallery,” because each of its nine short movements is a musical interpretation of a painting by Charles Burchfield. The music was originally written as background score for a documentary on the painter produced by the composer’s close friend, the film-maker Harry Atwood. The music is melodic, with strong harmonic implications, which makes it more tolerable than much solo string music. It is also evocative of the moods suggested by Burchfield’s paintings.

This is a definite Want List contender that might easily go unnoticed. No one who enjoys mid-20th-century American neo-classicism should let this release slip by.

BLOCH: Suite for Viola and Piano; Suite Hebraique; Meditation and Processional; Five Sketches in Sepia; In the Night; Suite for Viola and Orchestra. VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Flos Campi.

BLOCH: Suite for Viola and Piano; Suite Hebraique; Meditation and Processional; Five Sketches in Sepia; In the Night. Simon Rowland-Jones, viola; Niel Immelman, piano ETCETERA KTC-1112 [DDD]; 70:33. Produced by Jonathan Stracey

BLOCH: Suite for Viola and Orchestra. VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Flos Campi.Jerzy Kosmala, viola; Szymon Kawalla conducting the Cracow Radio Chorus and Symphony Orchestra. CENTAUR CRC-2094 [ADD); 57:05. Produced by Victor Sachse and Jerzy Ensinger

Bloch composed his Suite for Viola and Piano in 1919, shortly before the masterpieces of the early 1920s — the Violin Sonatas and the First Piano Quintet — and the vocabulary it uses shares much in common with them. However, it is somewhat discursive — less concentrated and tightly focused than the three later works, and requires an especially tight, penetrating performance to keep it from sounding like a diffuse jungle of sensuous, oriental exoticism. The work is equally well known in a version with orchestral accompaniment, which is more effective than the piano version. Unfortunately for the consumer, the options of performance and version provided by theme two recent releases are contradictory: that is, Rowland-Jones and Immelman provide a beautifully shaped and incisively executed performance of the piano version, while Kosmal and the Cracow Radio Orchestra offer an unfocused and thoroughly mediocre reading of the orchestral version on the Centaur recording.

Altogether, the Etcetera disc is an intelligently conceived, meticulously executed production, richly and spaciously recorded. The two shorter works with viola —Meditation and Processional (1951 and Suite Hebraique (1950) — are lighter in content and intent and more overtly melodic in their ethnic modality, and will appeal readily to the Bloch enthusiast (the Suite is also often performed by violin).

Creating a pleasing contrast are two works for piano solo. Five Sketches in Sepia(1923) comprise a group of brief mood pictures more fragmentary and wispy than Bloch’s norm. Late Scriabin occasionally comes to mind. These have been available on a number of prior recordings, but In the Night (1922) only recently made its first recorded appearance, on Istvan Kassai’s set of complete Bloch piano music (Marco Polo 8.223288: see Fanfare 14: 1, pp. 187ff). This is one of Bloch’s many lovely, mysterious nocturnes. Pianist Niel Immelman plays both these works with great care and sensitivity.

Flos Campi is one of Vaughan Williams’ most unusual works, the viola blending with the wordless chorus to create a beautiful effect, both sensuous and austere, against the orchestral backdrop. It was composed in 1925 (shortly after the Third Symphony) and is considered by many, myself included, to be one of Vaughan Williams’ greatest works. However, it is available elsewhere in far better performances.

In spite of astute and informative program notes by Peter Rabinowitz, and despite the attractiveness and appropriateness of the pairing, the Centaur release must be judged a loser. The recording, marked “ADD,” exhibits some of the unnatural-sounding aspects of pure digital recording, while the performances are consistently mediocre.

BLOCH: Suite for Viola and Orchestra. Piano Sonata. BARTOK: Concerto for Viola and Orchestra. REALE: Piano Sonata No. 3, “Brahmsiana.” Salon Music. RUGGLES: Evocations. LIPKIS: Scaramouche Variations.

BLOCH: Suite for Viola and Orchestra. BARTÓK: Concerto for Viola and Orchestra. Paul Freeman conducting the Slovenian Radio Symphony Orchestra; Marcus Thompson, viola. CENTAUR–CRC 2150 [DDD]; 51:48. Produced by Victor Sachse and Anton Dezmann

AMERICAN SOLO PIANO: AN ALTERNATIVE 20TH CENTURY. John Jensen, piano. MUSIC & ARTS–CD 757 [DDD]; 68:12. Produced by Peter Nothnagle.

BLOCH: Piano Sonata. REALE: Piano Sonata No. 3, “Brahmsiana.” Salon Music.RUGGLES: Evocations. LIPKIS: Scaramouche Variations.

Ernest Bloch’s creative maturity arrived relatively late: although he was 39 when he composed the Viola Suite, it still must be regarded as an early work — very loosely structured and improvisatory in formal style. Because its greatest appeal lies in the richly exotic, highly perfumed atmosphere of its subjective orientalism, the version with orchestral accompaniment is far preferable to that with piano. Marcus Thompson is familiar to discophiles as a dependable viola soloist and he provides an accomplished reading here, despite some uncertain intonation–far better than the only other available recording of the orchestral version, also on Centaur, featuring violist Szymon Kawalla with the Cracow Radio Symphony.

Bartók’s Viola Concerto is, of course, the work with which the composer was occupied when he died in 1945. Although he left only sketches, Bartók’s devoted student Tibor Serlv made a performing version of the work during the next couple of years Unlike the usual fate of such exercises, it was rapidly accepted into the repertoire, probably due to the sudden enthusiasm for Bartók’s music that his death seemed to precipitate. It is a gentle, largely contemplative work, with a folk-flavored finale and a fair share of virtuoso noodling. However, its lack of expressive urgency and dramatic focus has always prevented it from engaging my interest. Thompson offers a solid rendition of the work here, somewhat more precise than in the Bloch, but without the meticulous polish of Pinchas Zukerman (RCA 60749; see Fanfare 15:3). The Slovenian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Paul freeman provides adequate support, but cannot compare with Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony. This disc, then, is recommended to those who want the orchestral version of the Bloch Suite.

Bloch’s Piano Sonata is a later work, composed in 1935 shortly after the Sacred Service — a period when the composer was living in Switzerland and experiencing a temporary slowdown in productivity. Much of Bloch’s mature work may be seen as personal philosophical commentary on the troubling central issues of life, and the Piano Sonata — like the Piano Concerto — is a prime example. Yet despite its powerful, compelling character, the work has had few champions, and it remains infrequently heard. Unfortunately, pianist John Jensen does not make the most persuasive case for the work. Clearly, he is a thoughtful musician, attentive to subtleties of detail, and his reading of the second movement is especially sensitive. But his playing tends to be emotionally restricted, with a narrow range of dynamics and a lack of rhythmic propulsion. In a work of such blazing intensity, a rendition this subdued not only does not make the point–it can make one wonder what is the point. Far more convincing is the version by Istvan Kassai on Marco Polo 8.223289 (see Fanfare 14:1, pp. 187-89).

The Bloch Piano Sonata is the central work on this latest Music & Arts collaboration between between pianist John Jensen and composer/commentator Paul Reale, who provides program notes for these releases in the form of provocative essays on the fate of 20th-century music. The essay introducing this release is entitled “Whose 20th Century? or, Boulez Poisoned the Well,” and raises some good points about the destructive influence of self-styled prophets like Pierre Boulez and others who sought to legislate one style of composition as legitimate — a style that proved to have virtually no appeal to listeners — and to disqualify all others as invalid. However, even someone as pessimistic as I must question Reale’s assertion of the “demise of classical art music” as a fait accompli, when his series of recordings and his own music serve to illustrate the ongoing vitality of “classical art music.” As I stated in my comments on Reale’s previous essay (see Fanfare 16:6, pp. 127-8), the communication bridge between sincerely motivated composers and receptive listeners — though badly damaged — was not destroyed by the injunctions of those like Boulez who, recognizing their own creative bankruptcy, sought to rationalize it through an ideology based on the rejection of traditional musical values. Nor was it destroyed by their followers, the cowardly herd of academic bureaucrats who gambled that the university community would be a more gullible and more dependable source of income than the market and turned to the European ideology, with its pretense of revolutionary intellectualism, as a weapon against dissenters.  This is because all along there were dissenters, including authentically gifted composers with constituencies of their who knew all along that a fraud was being perpetrated and never bought into it. And, in truth, although 20-30 years ago it looked as though the university’s co-optation of new music posed the greatest threat to the ongoing vitality of serious art music, a far greater threat today is the classical music industry’s concentration on and insulting condescension to the casual listener at the expense of the committed devotee.

As the reader may infer, I am quite sympathetic to the spirit of Jensen and Reale’s enterprise. However, in addition to my reservations about Jensen’s playing, I don’t feel that the repertoire they have selected will generate much enthusiasm from listeners. Their releases have tended to feature a good deal of Reale’s own music, for which I do not blame them. A student of George Rochberg, he makes frequent explicit reference to pre-existing musical materials and styles, which he shapes in a sort of kaleidoscopic fashion. This sort of thing either works or it doesn’t. Most of what I have heard seems to defeat itself in an unfocused clutter. An exception is Reale’s 1975 Salon Music, which offers a more satisfying sense of overall coherence. The work’s title seems prompted by the composer’s reflection on the historical venue in which traditional Romantic pianism evolved, rather than being an indication of the musical style of the piece itself, which is quite challenging in its attenuated tonality and multi-layered, patchwork phraseology.

Less successful is the Sonata Brahmsiana (1985-6) which, in Reale’s words, “tries to capture the sweep and energy of the Brahmsian piano phrase, within the broad boundaries of an eclectic pitch language.” There is very little imitation of Brahms’ actual style. But I don’t think that the piece does “capture the sweep and energy of the Brahmsian piano phrase,” because, despite the flowing passagework, the constant shifts of momentum prevent the development of a long conceptual line, which is the quintessence of Brahms, although Jensen’s under-dynamized performance does not help.

Also disappointing are the Scaramouche Variations (1991) by 43-year-old Larry Lipkis, composer-in-residence at Moravian College in Pennsylvania. Lipkis, treating his material in what he calls “a kaleidoscopic, almost cinematic, fashion,” seems to share Reale’s aesthetic outlook. His piece is shaped with a convincingly musical sensibility, but displays the fragmentary gestures that have become clichés of 20th-century piano music, while lacking a strong personal profile to galvanize one’s attention.

And then we have the Evocations of Carl Ruggles, the uncompromising New England composer and painter who was a contemporary and colleague of Ives. These are four miniatures — linear, angular, and atonal. Reale quotes extensively from a ludicrously extravagant essay by 29-year-old Lou Harrison that compares these grimly austere pieces to everything from English virginal music and Frescobaldi to Schoenberg. Only the latter makes sense to me.

I wish I could find more to praise in this ambitious and well-intentioned effort.

AVALON Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 10. Concerto for Flute, Harp, and Strings, Op. 31

AVALON Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 10. Concerto for Flute, Harp, and Strings, Op. 31  Larry Rachleff, cond; Foundation for Modern Music Orchestra; Robert Avalon (pn); Megan Meisenbach (fl); Mary Golden (hp)  CENTAUR CRC-2484 (65:13)

Robert Avalon has been creating something of a stir since last year, when Centaur released the first recording devoted to his music. Fanfare’s John Story, reviewing that CD, which featured a violin sonata, a flute sonata, and a song cycle with chamber ensemble, wrote in 23:3, “Speaking as someone who loves the complexities of 12-tone and serial music, …I can honestly say that I absolutely love this well-recorded disc of intensely melodic, firmly tonal music by composer/pianist Robert Avalon. This is, for me, Want List material.” And Mark Lehman, reviewing the same disc in the American Record Guide (January/February, 2000), described the music as “old-fashioned, lovingly crafted, and direct in appeal, with richly tonal harmonies and soaring melodic lines that might have come from the pen of many a late-romantic composer of a century ago…. This is a full hour of consistently engaging music that bypasses questions of anachronism by virtue of its dramatic sweep and authentic emotional power.” While such comments seem to herald a new figure on the scene, this Texas-based composer — born in San Antonio in 1955, now living in Houston — has been gradually developing a grassroots following of remarkable proportions. Without an academic affiliation or any other institutional association that might have helped to spread his reputation, he seems to have been attracting enthusiastic partisans simply on the basis of his own engaging, energetic self-confidence, and the authentic appeal of his music itself. In the process he has been developing an ensemble of performers in Texas committed to his music, and more recently, a similar group in Europe; he has also formed a non-profit Foundation for Modern Music with its own orchestra, and a competition for young composers, not to mention assembling a host of benefactors who believe enough in the value of his work to provide support for his ventures. 

As can be gleaned from the comments quoted above, Avalon is a real traditionalist, one of the relatively few members of his generation —  the better-known Lowell Liebermann is another—to follow in the general aesthetic footsteps of Samuel Barber. While the previous compact disc introduced us to Avalon’s chamber and vocal music, this new release presents two works of considerably larger scale. The piano concerto, composed in 1986 on a commission from the University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures, is a work of Brahmsian breadth — four movements lasting 45 minutes — although its actual musical language is closer to that of Prokofiev and even Shostakovich. (I mention these composers as general points of reference; Avalon’s music doesn’t really resemble anyone else’s very much.) A work of such scope is not easy to sustain, but Avalon does fairly well for the most part. The 20-minute first movement is the strongest, built upon a distinctive motif introduced at the work’s stern, portentous opening. The movement is dramatic in character, with a sort of “doomed hero” quality. The consistent focus on the main motif provides coherence in a movement that might otherwise seem sprawling. The scherzo that follows is effective; echoes of Prokofiev are most noticeable here. The third and fourth movements, however, posed some problems for me. The third movement is evocative and moody, but a stronger melodic identity would serve to focus the listener’s attention more successfully. The fourth movement seems diffuse to me. Its material is not characterized strongly enough nor is it sufficiently distinguished from the previous movement.  Lacking strong thematic or expressive contours, neither movement holds the listener’s attention during initial hearings. Avalon is an accomplished pianist, and he serves as a strong advocate for the concerto; conductor Rachleff has collaborated frequently with Avalon and the two seem to work comfortably together. 

Avalon’s Concerto for Flute, Harp, and Strings is a much more recent work — composed in 1998 at the request of the two soloists heard here. Despite the genre indicated by its title, its structure is more suggestive of a “fantasia,” though that is not to suggest that the work is lacking in real musical substance. Yet again there is something elusive about its expressive content. As one would expect from the instrumentation, the concerto has many  quasi-Impressionistic features, though its textures are lush without being rich — paradoxical as that may seem. Without diverging from its overall Neo-Romantic aesthetic, it is nevertheless rarefied in its susceptibility to apprehension, with an attenuated sense of tonality. This work also would benefit from more strongly characterized thematic contours. The two soloists fulfill their roles admirably. 

Greater familiarity and deeper acquaintance with Avalon’s music are necessary, before the true depth and durability of its perceptions can be assessed. But his is clearly an authentic sensibility, with sound, solid musicianship. But a distinctive personal voice is not yet apparent. Avalon is currently at work on a major project: a full-length opera based on the fascinating story of Carlota, wife of Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico, during the mid-1800s. I am most eager to discover how he handles a work of this nature.