Oboe on the Road. ROSNER: Sonata. PISTON Suite. DEL AGUILA: Sommergesang. ANGEL: Noon Song. SIBBING: Ballad, Blues, and Rag. GOMPPER: Anon.

OBOE ON THE ROAD Mark Weiger (ob); Robert Conway (pn)  CENTAUR CRC-2451 (58:31)

ROSNER Sonata. PISTON Suite. DEL AGUILA Sommergesang. ANGEL Noon Song. SIBBING Ballad, Blues, and Rag. GOMPPER Anon.

This is one of those 20th-century collections — like Saxophone Masterpieces(RIAX RICA-1001), which appeared on my 1999 Want List—whose largely unfamiliar contents and non-mainstream instrumentation can easily relegate it to the dustbin of anonymous miscellany, but which actually offers an entertaining and artistically rewarding recital. This is simply a matter of two factors: performances that display first-rate artistry and repertoire chosen with the most discriminating taste. The duo of oboist Mark Weiger and pianist Robert Conway has indeed been “on the road” as cultural ambassadors who have traveled as far as Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, Jordan, and Israel as participants in a program administered by the United States Information Agency. Evidently the artistry, creative programming, and theatrical wit that have marked their concert tours have drawn considerable praise to their programs of largely 20th-century American music. The new release at hand, produced through the auspices of the University of Iowa, where Weiger is on the faculty, offers adequate evidence for these reports.

Arnold Rosner — now in his mid-50s with more than a hundred opus numbers to his credit — has enriched the contemporary chamber music repertoire with quite a few major contributions, several of which are already available on recording: a horn sonata and cello sonata that appear on Albany TROY-163, three string quartets on Albany TROY-210, and another on Opus One cd150. These recordings have all been enthusiastically received, in this magazine and elsewhere. (To see just how extravagant some of this praise has been, look up the reviews of Steve Schwartz on Classical Net.)

Now here we have Rosner’s 1972 Oboe Sonata (which also doubles as his second violin sonata). With a quaint stylistic heterogeneity characteristic of no one else but typical of Rosner, the three-movement work opens with a simple, warmly bucolic melody in a modally inflected C Major, accompanied by folk-like triadic arpeggios in a gently rocking figuration. Though its straightforward simplicity and uniform texture are most appealing on initial acquaintance, it is followed by a thematically related but emotionally contrasting passacaglia — a darkly somber elegy reminiscent of Vaughan Williams at his most austere, which reaches a more powerful climax than one would think possible in a work for oboe and piano. This movement — like the opening movement of his Horn Sonata and the third movement of the String Quartet No. 4 (all passacaglias) — represents the most distinctive and personal aspect of Rosner’s compositional personality. The concluding movement is a loose but highly developmental sonata rondo that opens with a coolly Hindemithian theme, which is immediately followed by a lightly syncopated motif with a decidedly “pop” flavor. This material is developed quite extensively, until a fugato raises the intensity to a tempestuous climax that culminates in, of all things, a bluesy, proto-minimalist cadenza, after which the sonata drives forward to an exuberant conclusion.

A very different, but equally satisfying work is the relatively early (1931) Suite for Oboe and Piano by Walter Piston. Conceived along the lines of a Baroque dance suite, it is a pleasingly gratifying example of the composer’s genial but always sober, meticulously crafted neoclassicism. The discipline and precision of the Weiger-Conway duo are especially impressive in this selection.

Quite different from both these works is the remarkable Sommergesang (why the German title I do not know) by Miguel del Aguila. Now in his mid-40s, the Uruguayan-born composer has been based in California since the late 1970s, and, like Rosner, has been garnering considerable praise from a variety of quarters. His Sommergesang dates from 1988 and is supposedly inspired by natural phenomena. The 13-minute psycho-fantasy begins in a folklike manner suggesting a blues as Astor Piazzola might have written it. After this opening, however, the music becomes more inward and severe, almost like the violent Czech approach of Lubos Fiser and others. This section is followed by music of more grotesquely scherzoso character, with prominent — indeed, driving — Latin-American rhythms. As with the Rosner sonata, the potpourri of styles is very appealing, rather than disconcerting.

The youngest composer represented is Michael T. Angel, a 30-something member of the faculty at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. His 8-minute Noon Song (1985) offers a rewarding introduction to his work:  beginning and ending with an unabashedly sunny romantic lyricism, the piece centers around a darkly atmospheric passage of chromatic angularity.

Unfortunately, the two remaining pieces are of lesser interest and stature, though in opposite ways. Robert Sibbing’s Ballad, Blues, and Rag is a jazzy little suite that I found just too mellow and simply-textured to hold my interest. On the other hand, David Karl Gompper’s Anon is a dry, colorless, quasi-atonal dialog representative of that vast wasteland of academic “new music.” But lasting a mere seven minutes, it offers the listener the consolation that it will be over Anon

PERSICHETTI: Mirror Etudes ROREM: Eight Etudes PERLE Six Etudes

PERSICHETTI Mirror Etudes ROREM Eight Etudes PERLE Six Etudes – Frances Renzi (pn) – CENTAUR CRC-2301 (53:57)

This is a really fine recent release, albeit one whose likely audience is rather small, i.e. those interested in atonal — though not (for the most part) serial — piano music.  The disc examines the étude — that favorite genre-piece of 19th-century pianist-composers — as practiced by three 20th-century Americans.  A rather predictable academic idea, perhaps.  But looking more closely, one notes that two of the three composers (Persichetti and Perle) were born the same year (1915), and the third is a mere eight years younger, and all have pursued their reasonably successful careers in the northeastern part of this country.  The program becomes more interesting when one considers that the three collections of études all date from the 1970s.  Furthermore, the composers are generally identified through remarkably different — if only superficially appropriate–sociomusical pedigrees:  Persichetti, the conservative teacher of composition, best known for his exuberant music for high school and college bands; Perle, explicator of the “Second Viennese School” and serial theorist/composer; and Rorem, urbane boulevardier, naughty diarist, and composer of sophisticated French-flavored art songs.  Of course, each is a much richer, broader character than these oversimplified rubrics indicate.  But what is most surprising and fascinating is that these three groups of pieces are amazingly similar in style, technique, and character.  In addition, despite the fact that these pieces are conceived along didactic lines — i.e. they are constructed as compositional challenges as well as technical exercises for the pianist — each of the 21 pieces is a finely and sensitively wrought musical miniature without a moment that is merely mechanical or pedantic.  And, on top of it all, the playing is absolutely superb.  I know little about Frances Renzi beyond the fact that she is a Texan who studied at Juilliard with Rosina Lhevinne and Beveridge Webster and is now on the piano faculty of the University of Toledo.  But I can tell you that she plays this intellectually and technically demanding music with crystal-clear articulation, impeccable rhythmic precision, unflagging energy, and a truly remarkable understanding of the formidable and rarefied aesthetic domain inhabited by these pieces.

I probably should end this review with the foregoing paragraph, but I would feel remiss if I didn’t add a few more words of explanation.  For example, while Vincent Persichetti may be best known for his band music, his piano music is probably the most important and most representative aspect of his entire output.  His works embrace an enormous stylistic range, and many extend beyond a discernible tonal center. Mirror Etudes illustrate a technique that preoccupied him during the late 1970s: strict contrary motion — that is, everything played by one hand is played in exact inversion by the other hand simultaneously — a technique not usuallylikely to produce listenable music.  Persichetti thrived under such restrictions, however, and even composed an entire piano sonata (No. 12) with this technique.  There is a wealth of musical inventiveness here for those who can do without the comfort of tonality. Indeed, No. 5 can honestly be called “pretty.”

Interestingly, the first of Ned Rorem’s Eight Etudes is also constructed in contrary motion, and the fifth can also be described as “pretty,” although for me, his are the most difficult to digest of the three groups.  They were commissioned in 1975 by Emanuel Ax, who gave the premiere the following year.  Although the body of Rorem’s work might be likened to Samuel Barber’s, but with a stronger French accent, he has by now amassed quite a sizable oeuvre, and much of his more recent output is quite angular in its materials and austere in character.  Listeners who identify him with his best-known songs will be surprised to hear these pieces.

And although George Perle’s reputation is unquestionably identified with his involvement in the history and practice of twelve-tone composition, his own music has been devoted to what he calls “twelve-tone tonality.”  While the alleged “tonality” of this music may be more theoretical than audible, there is no question but that these pieces are exceptionally lucid, graceful, and neat — indeed, probably the most accessible of the three groups.  In fact, the music of Perle and Persichetti converged so closely at this point in their careers that one wonders just how each regarded the other.