LIEBERMANN: Four Apparitions. Seven Nocturnes. Three Impromptus

LIEBERMANN Four Apparitions. Seven Nocturnes. Three Impromptus · David Korevaar (pn) · KOCH INTERNATIONAL 3-7548-2 HI (68:45)

Lowell Liebermann and his contemporaries Michael Torke and Aaron Jay Kernis are probably today’s leading American composers among the generation now in their early 40s. That Liebermann’s compositional style is the most traditional of the three is clearly apparent from this new Koch International release, entitled Lowell Liebermann: Piano Music, Volume I. The program offered here consists of four Apparitions, dating from 1985, seven Nocturnes composed individually during the period 1986-99, and three Impromptus, written in 2000. Previous works of Liebermann (see Fanfare 21:1 and 24:5) have struck me as more than competent in craftsmanship and pleasant in effect, but lacking a strongly individual character, displaying a range of expression that hovers a little too consistently over the middle-of-the-road.

Though the same reservations apply to the music offered here, for some reason I find them to be less of a liability in these works for solo piano. Written over the course of 15 years, these 14 character pieces share essentially the same language, a language clearly rooted in the familiar rhetoric of 19th- and early 20th-century piano music. The earlier Apparitions are a bit more harsh and gestural than the later pieces. The earlier of the Nocturnes are strongly rooted in the language of Chopin, as refracted through a later sensibility. The later ones display fewer reminiscences; No. 6 is especially beautiful. On the whole, the Nocturnes are improvisatory-some sound like actual improvisations, with passages that seem like empty “vamping,” among other, more inspired pages. The recent Impromptus are more fully satisfying. Liebermann’s treatment of these genres is highly fluent, revealing a deep familiarity with the music of Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, and Debussy. Drawing upon these stylistic precedents, he evokes a varied range of introspective moods and feelings with considerable sensitivity, but without ever venturing into any expressive realm that might be termed “extreme” or idiosyncratic. As such these piano pieces might be deemed comparable to some of the solo piano music of Samuel Barber-e.g., the Interludes, the Nocturne, and the late Ballade. Yet although the music is consistently appealing and absorbing, at no point does the listener have the sense of knowing just who Liebermann really is, i.e. his musical persona, beyond the most general characteristics. He may have one, but it hasn’t made itself known to me as yet. Reviewing this new release simultaneously with a new CD of music by Robert Muczynski led me to reflect on the latter’s pieces for solo piano. The two composers are not at all far apart stylistically, and cover roughly the same aesthetic turf. But despite a generally modest, understated temperament, Muczynski has a clearly defined identity, or persona, that provides a collective sense of expressive unity to his various pieces. It is this that I continue to miss in Liebermann’s work. True, one can enjoy music that lacks a unifying persona, but it is hard to view such a composer as an important figure.

Pianist David Korevaar, now on the faculty of the University of Colorado, Boulder, has been closely associated with Liebermann’s music since their student days at Juilliard. In addition to providing the program notes for the recording, he offers brilliant, sensitive, subtly nuanced performances of all the pieces at hand. I would expect that this music will appeal to the same listeners who enjoy the piano music of Samuel Barber.

CRESTON: Symphony No.2; Walt Whitman; Corinthians: XIII.

CRESTON: Symphony No.2; Walt Whitman; Corinthians: XIII. David Amos conducting the Krakow Philharmonic Orchestra. KOCH INTERNATIONAL CLASSICS 3-7036-2Hl [DDDJ; 54:15. Produced by Michael Fine and Karen Chester.

As conductors and record companies–and listeners–continue uncovering neglected masterpieces of American orchestral music composed between 1930 to 1980. it is most appropriate that attention be turned to the major works of Paul Creston. Creston. who died in 1985–one year shy of his 80th birthday–was a unique figure on the American musical scene. The bright. ambitious son of a poor Italian house-painter who had immigrated to New York City. Creston (who was born Giuseppe Guttoveggio) was forced to drop out of high school at the age of 15 in order to earn a living. Attempting to compensate for the premature termination of his formal education by subjecting himself to a rigorous regimen of independent study, he taught himself music theory and composition, in addition to a number of other academic and artistic subjects. Not until he was in his mid-20s did he decide to focus his efforts on composition. Yet he quickly succeeded in impressing enough influential musicians of his talent that in less than a decade his works were appearing regularly in America’s major concert halls. HPractically from the beginning, Creston’s music revealed a language that was thoroughly and unmistakably his own in syntax. structure, and meaning, although its overall sound shared much with the familiar vernacular music of the time. The most distinctive feature of this language is its treatment of rhythm: syncopated polymetric and polyrhythmic patterns and ostinatos are all organized within a continuous, unchanging metrical pulse, creating a lively, swinging vitality that virtually cries out for choreography. This individual treatment of rhythm is combined with an equally idiosyncratic approach to harmony: expanded triadic chordal structures based on the overtone series are used almost exclusively, without resolutions or progressions that might define a tonal center. The result is what Henry Cowell termed “smooth dissonance,” or what Creston himself called “pantonality,” with full, rich sonorities floating in tonal weightlessness.

From about 1940 until the mid-1950s Creston was one of America’s most widely performed composers. In fact, in 1956 a BMI survey reported that he and Aaron Copland shared the lead in frequency of orchestral performances among living American composers. Then the virtual boycott of most of America’s conservative symphonists set in, sending Creston and his music rapidly into eclipse. For the last 25 years of his life, Creston attempted to recover the stature he had lost virtually overnight, repeating the techniques that had brought him success in the past, while attempting to meet whatever demand remained for his work–primarily from college bands in the middle West. As his creative power gradually dwindled–partly the result of bitterness about his neglect and partly the result of his inability to expand or develop the language he had formed during the 1930s–he devoted increasing attention to writing essays and books that attempted to clarify and systematize his particular views on rhythm and rhythmic notation.

Today, most listeners under the age of 50 who are familiar with Creston’s music at all tend to associate him with hearty, exuberant pieces for band or with lively virtuoso showpieces for “odd” instruments, such as the trombone, saxophone, and marimba. Although he was, finally, guilty of mannerism and redundancy, the music that initially defined his individual style and built his reputation is truly unique in its way, though now largely forgotten. Thus this new release is something of a milestone, as it serves to introduce–or to re-.introduce–listeners to what Paul Creston was really all about. HThe Symphony No.2 (there are six) was composed in 1944 and introduced that same year by the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Artur Rodzinski. It is probably the best single introduction to Creston’s aesthetic realm. Attempting to illustrate the proposition that song and dance form the basis of all music, the two-movement work is designed to glorify both melody and rhythm respectively and, in the process, epitomizes Creston’s own approach to handling these elements. The result is a masterpiece of structural unity achieved through ingenious thematic transformations, of stylistic consistency, integrity, and origi.nality, and of robust, spontaneous joie de vivre. The symphony was a tremendous success with audiences right from the start and was soon performed allover the world. It was recorded in 1954–along with the Symphony No. 3–by the National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Howard Mitchell (Westminster XWN-18456), who championed many of Creston’s major works. This recording, which featured impressive, committed performances, marred somewhat by dull, opaque sonics, was reissued several times, finally disappearing during the late 1960s, by which time the works had been forgotten by the music world, displaced by the next generation of novelties. Yet to those who remember it, Creston’s Second looms as one of the most personable, fully realized American symphonies of the 1940s.

The two remaining works — Walt Whitman (1952) and Corinthians: XIII (1962) — both exemplify one of Creston’s favorite structural devices: A literary, artistic, or philosophical concept is divided into several component sub-concepts; each is then given musical expression, unified by a single theme that is transformed in various ways according to the different aspects of the extra-musical concept. The 16-minute Walt Whitman captures Creston’s personal reflections on one of his favorite writers (who provided the inspiration for more than half a dozen of his works). The sub-concepts are the poet’s celebration of the Individual, his love of Nature, his glorification of Challenge, and his serene attitude toward Death. Creston evokes these aspects of Whitman’s art with an eloquence that is both sumptuous and virile.

This work was recorded in 1960 by RCA Victor (LM-2426) in an unbelievably execrable performance by the Academy Symphony Orchestra of Rome conducted by Nicola Rescigno, captured in dismal sound quality. The disc was dropped from the catalog in about a year, making this new release almost a premiere recording.

Corinthians: XIII offers the composer’s musical meditations on the famous New Testament verse. Here the concept is love, and the work’s three sections deal with love between mother and child, between man and woman, and between man and mankind. The first section touchingly evokes a tender maternal ardor; the second becomes more lively, with some characteristic rhythmic felicities, and builds up to an appropriately heated climax that leads directly into the final section, a solemn, reverent hymn in which the work’s unifying theme is transformed into the Gregorian melody “Salve Regina,” cloaked in diaphanous, richly harmonized orchestral dress. As in much of Creston’s best work, both these pieces express the extra-musical concepts in logical, coherent, autonomous musical structures that nevertheless reflect the composer’s own personality with genuine warmth and spontaneity.

Corinthians: XIII was recorded during the mid 1960s in a decent performance by Robert Whitney and the Louisville Orchestra. That rendition has been reissued on an Albany CD (TROY021-Z).

Conductor David Amos is a persuasive exponent of Creston’s music (see article elsewhere in this issue) and does an impressive job of presenting his work in an advantageous light. But Creston’s music is American to the core, with technical idiosyncracies that a Polish orchestra — unfamiliar with the composer’s work — would understandably find challenging, at least initially. Realistically, how much can a visiting conductor from America be expected to extract from such an orchestra over the course of a few days of recording sessions? With this reservation in mind, one can be safely assured that these performances serve adequately to bring this long-neglected music to the attention of today’s generation of listeners, enhanced by the virtues of current audio technology.

To record companies interested in further enlarging the Creston discography I would recommend a disc devoted to his solo piano music, especially the Three Narrativesof 1962, a virtuosic work somewhat in the manner of Gaspard de la Nuit, and the Metamorrphoses of 1964, a brilliant set of variations on a 12-tone theme. These are two of Creston’s most ambitious and fully realized works. Such a disc might be sensibly filled out with the early (1936) Piano Sonata and the appealing Six Preludes from 1945.

Picks of the Year: 1994

This year’s Want List offers a feast for those in search of accessible treasures of twentieth-century music. Two releases highlight the achievements of master composers in media for which they enjoyed a special affinity, while the other three bring to light masterpieces that have been hitherto all but unknown. The Barber set (reviewed in [Fanfare]18:1) features the solo vocal output of America’s greatest song composer, including ten that have never been recorded before, in glorious performances that must be termed definitive. The Bloch disc (also reviewed in 18:1) offers the first modern recording of Evocations, possibly the composer’s finest and most representative purely orchestral work, as well as the first recording ever of his last completed composition. The Creston disc (reviewed in this issue) presents the premier recording of his Symphony No. 5, which definitely belongs in the pantheon of great American post-romantic symphonies–forty years after it was written. The Supraphon disc (also reviewed in this issue) contains a reissue of the sole recording ever of The Mystery of Time, by Miloslav Kabelác — one of the most strangely compelling orchestral works to come out of mid-20th-century Europe, which must be heard to be believed. The Persichetti disc (18:1 again) features fine, sympathetic performances of seven less familiar pieces by America’s (if not the world’s) greatest composer of music for winds.

BARBER: Songs (complete). Studer/Hampson/Browning. (DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 435 867-2i two discs)
BLOCH: Evocations; Two Last Poems; Three Jewish Poems. Sedares/New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. KOCH INTERNATIONAL 3-7232-2H1) 
CRESTON: Symphony No. 5; Toccata; Choreografic Suite. Schwarz/Seattle Symphony Orchestra/New York Chamber Symphony (DELOS DE-3127) 
KABELÁCThe Mystery of Time; Hamlet ImprovisationJANACEK: Glagolitic Mass. Ancerl/Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus. (SUPRAPHON 11 1930-2 911) PERSICHETTIMusic for Wind Ensemble. Amos/London Symphony Winds. (HARMONIA MUNDI HMU-907092

Picks of the Year: 1992

If I could only pick one recording for the Want List, the Barber disc (reviewed in 15:6) would be it: great performances of two of Barber’s greatest works. I selected the Mercury reissue (reviewed in 15:2 because the Concerti Grossi are two of Bloch’s most lovable pieces, the performances are superb, and the sound is stunning. The third installment of Gerard Schwarz’s Hanson survey (reviewed in 15:3) matches the standard set by its predecessors (each of which appeared on my Want Lists). The Fourth Symphony and the Merry Mount suite are among Hanson’s best music. The two cassettes of Persichetti piano music are worth writing away for (reviewed in 15:3; mailing address given): seventeen pieces not available elsewhere by America’s greatest keyboard composer. I selected the Schuman disc (reviewed in 16:1) because of the fine performance of Judith, perhaps the composer’s greatest work.

BARBER: The Lovers; Prayers of Kierkegaard. Schenck/Chicago Symphony Chorus and Orchestra.   KOCH INTERNATIONAL 3-7125-2H1) 

BLOCH: Concerti Grossi Nos. 1 and 2; Schelomo. Hanson/Eastman-Rochester Orchestra. (MERCURY LIVING PRESENCE 432 718-2)

HANSON: Symphony No. 4; Lament for Beowulf; Merry Mount Suite; Pastorale; Serenade. Schwarz/Seattle Symphony/NY Chamber Symphony. (DELOS DE-3105)

PERSICHETTI: Piano Music. Patterson. (EDUCO 3235/3236 [two cassettes))

SCHUMAN: Judith; Symphony No. 5; New England Triptych; Variations on “America”. Schwarz/Seattle Symphony.   DELOS DE-3115)

BLOCH: Quintets Nos. 1 and 2 for Piano and Strings; Suite No. 1 for Cello Solo.

BLOCH: Quintets Nos. 1 and 2 for Piano and Strings; Suite No. 1 for Cello Solo. Parry Karp, cello; Howard Karp, piano; Pro Arte String Quartet. LAUREL LR-848CD (ADD); 70:38. Produced by Herschel Burke Gilbert.

BLOCH: Quintets Nos. 1 and 2 for Piano and Strings. Paul Posnak, piano Portland String Quartet. ARABESQUE Z-6618 (DDD); 56:42. Produced by Jeral Benjamin and Ward Botsford.

BLOCH:  American Chamber Players, Miles Hoffman, artistic director. KOCH INTERNATIONAL 3-7041-2 H1 (DDD); 55:06. Produced by Jon Newsom.

It has been ten years since a recording of Bloch’s Piano Quintet No. 1 has appeared. The most recent one featured the New World String Quartet, with pianist Grant Johannesen (Golden Crest CRDG-4193); relative to the few previous recordings, I found it to be reasonably good (see Fanfare 4:5, p. 60) The Piano Quintet No. 2 did not see its first recording until 1984, when the performance offered here on Laurel appeared on LP (see Fanfare 8:4, p. 187)   I found that reading to be superb and expressed the hope that pianist Karp and the Pro Arte Quartet would soon record No. 1 as well. Now, seven years later, that hope has been fulfilled; but not only has the Pro Arte group issued both quintets, but two other ensembles have as well, at virtually the same time! And, adding to the embarrassment of riches, all three recordings are truly excellent.

Bloch’s First Piano Quintet belongs to the rather large group of major works he composed during the early 1920s, while director of the Cleveland Institute of Music. It is one of Bloch’s greatest works, in which he adapted the Franco-Belgian language of Franck and his disciples, with its cyclical motivic procedures, to embody a grim, angry, yet ultimately redemptive vision that addresses the most important spiritual and metaphysical issues of mankind. In so doing, he expanded the texturally and harmonically rich language that served as his point of departure to include a much more harsh level of dissonance, aggressively slashing rhythms, and plaintive motifs based on the exotic scale-forms generally associated with the composer’s immersion in his Jewish spiritual heritage. In fact, an almost wailing effect is achieved by the use of microtonal melodic inflections. The result is a work of tremendous power, intensity, grandeur, and mystery — a work that reaches extreme depths of despair, though it eventually attains a serene sense of resignation.

Not surprisingly — as with Bloch’s Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano, which it resembles in many ways — the First Piano Quintet, with its unequivocally serious intentions, unrestrained emotionalism, and undeniable eloquence, has elicited considerable critical enthusiasm, right from the beginning, sometimes expressed in superlative terms. Early on, Ernest Newman wrote, “No other piece of chamber music produced in any country during that period can be placed in the same class with [Bloch’s First Quintet], adding that it “combines the maximum of passionate expression with the maximum of logical construction,” (which, in my opinion, is one of the chief criteria of musical greatness). Olin Downes found it to be “the greatest work in its form since the piano quintets of Brahms and Cesar Franck.” And, much more recently, in his notes for the new Arabesque recording, Bloch scholar David Kushner describes both piano quintets as “seminal achievements in the master’s catalog and among the towering accomplishments in the chamber repertory of the twentieth century.” These are certainly impressive testimonials; however, even more interesting are some of the extravagant verbal exegeses of the work itself by writers like the English scholar Alex Cohen and others. Although their florid, picturesque rhetoric makes presumptive leaps, partaking of a literalness often frowned upon today, I find some of these writings to be accurate and perceptive enough to serve as helpful interpretive bridges for the less experienced listener.

As the Quintet No. 1 appeared during Bloch’s fertile Cleveland years, the Quintet No. 2 dates from his equally fertile Oregon years, the final decade of his life. Like the composer’s other late chamber works, the Second Quintet — a little more than half the length of its predecessor — reveals a condensation of his musical language: the rhetoric is less extravagant, form less rhapsodic, the rhythm more regular, and the gestures less expansive. There is also less dwelling on texture, on creating exotic atmospheres. However, the metaphysical content remains essentially unchanged, its intensity undiminished. The two works, composed 34 years apart, make a fascinating and rewarding pair, and, taken together, reveal a great deal about Bloch’s evolution and identity as an artist.

As noted earlier, each of the new releases features superb performances — technically secure, emotionally committed, and interpretively searching. They do differ somewhat with regard to emphasis of various details, but trying to make evaluative judgments is very difficult and even a little unfair. Basically, I think a modern recording of these two works belongs in the collection of every serious listener. Which of these three discs to select is less important. Forced to choose among them, I would give the edge to the Laurel release because the Pro Arte group has a tad more body, more visceral power, and more attention to contrapuntal detail. Plus, Laurel throws in the Suite No. 1 for cello solo as a bonus, in an impassioned performance by Parry Karp that underlines the fact that the work was composed by Bloch, not Bach.

On the other hand, the Portland readings are taut, lean, incisive–far more so than their versions of Bloch’s string quartets might lead one to expect. And Arabesque’s sound quality is velvety smooth and clear. 

The American Chamber Players, featured on the Koch release, are a group in residence at the Library of Congress. Their performances are a trifle less taut and intense than those on the other two discs, but just a trifle. And their readings reveal valuable nuances of their own. The CD is encoded at a very low level, however, requiring a considerable boost of the amplifier; and there are only two access points — one per quintet This is a bit of a nuisance.

Program notes for each release are written by recognized Bloch authorities and are thorough, intelligent, and informative.

MENOTTI: Apocalypse. DELLO JOIO: Meditations on Ecclesiastes. LO PRESTI: The Masks

MENOTTI: Apocalypse. DELLO JOIO: Meditations on Ecclesiastes. LO PRESTI: The Masks. James DePreist conducting the Oregon Symphony Orchestra. KOCH INTERNATIONAL 3-7156-2H1 [DDD]; 58:07. Produced by Michael Fine.

The 1950s was an especially fruitful decade for American orchestral music. Many leading traditionalist composers were producing some of their best. work at this time, and Italian-Americans in particular were widely represented among them. Of course, some of these composers made more distinguished contributions than others. This new release offers three works written by Italian-American composers during the 1950s, although the front of the CD announces only two: Gian Carlo Menotti’s largest-scale orchestral composition, Apocalypse, written the same year as Amahl and the Night Visitors; and Norman Dello Joio’s composition for string orchestra, Meditations on Ecclesiastes, in its third appearance on CD. Apparently not deemed important enough to be noted on the front cover is The Masks, a short orchestral composition by the late Ronald LoPresti, a member of the faculty at Arizona State University for a good number of years. The release is part of what promises to be a series of recordings-• featuring the Oregon Symphony Orchestra under James DePreist, one of America’s most intelligent and knowledgable conductors, who is finally getting some of the discographic attention he has long deserved — with the Oregon Symphony as well as a number of other orchestras.

No doubt enthusiasts of American orchestral music will be curious to discover what one o£ the 20th century’s most celebrated opera composers had to say in what was for him a relatively unaccustomed medium. Apocalypse, here in its first recording, is a sort of triptych, a little more than 20 minutes in duration, and somewhat more heroic than catastrophic xn tone. It is lavishly orchestrated, with brilliant sonorities that produce a stunning impact. The second section, “La Citte Celeste,” displays a wistful tenderness that bears Menotti’s recognizable stamp. However, the music as a whole is quite impersonal and lacking in feeling, rather like a Respighi tone painting — Trittico Botticelliano, for example. Other works that are called to mind are Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler Symphony (in some aspects of actual content) and Martinu’s Frescoes of Piero della Francesca (in conception), although it is far less interesting than either. All in all, Apocalypse is another indication of the limited creative gifts of this prominent and widely performed composer.

Norman Dello Joio is another composer of minimal artistic distinction. As noted earlier, Meditations on Ecclesiastes has already been available — on a Bay Cities reissue of an early monaural recording with Alfredo Antonini and the Oslo Philharmonic, and on a fine recent Harmonia Mundi release with David Amos conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra. I find the piece, a theme and variations, to be unremittingly pale, dull, and lukewarm, with a bland harmonic language that recalls the television background music of the 1950s (of which Dello Joio himself wrote a good deal). It is spiritually mundane, with hardly the reflective, elevated tone one might expect of a meditation on the Book of Ecclesiastes. This redundant recording of such a thoroughly distasteful work represents a distressing waste of fine performing talent and a rare recording opportunity. (In fairness, 1 should add that the piece was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, so it must have appealed to somebody.) Rudy Ennis’ program notes, incidentally, inflate Dello Joio’s importance to a preposterous degree, suggesting that he is “the most successful of his generation” with regard to both “critical acclaim and material rewards for the music (he) has put to paper.” Come now. I haven’t seen Dello Joio’s income tax returns, but consider for a moment Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber, and William Schuman — not to mention Menotti.

It may seem like sheer perversity to say this, but the music that nearly redeems this new release is LoPresti’s unheralded 8-minute piece, The Masks, an unassuming work in two parts that reveals more sincere musicality than either the Menotti or the Dello Joio. Suggesting the style and tone of Barber’s Essay No. 1, The Masks conjures a touching and warmly elegiac nostalgia, balanced by a gently syncopated allegro section. LoPresti composed this piece in 1955 while still an undergraduate at the Eastman School. It was recorded soon after by Howard Hanson and the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra. I have known this recording for more than 30 years and have always retained a great affection for the work. LoPresti continued to compose until his death in 1986 at the age of 53, but his music never seems to have entered the public arena. He is not even listed in theNew Grove. I would certainly love to learn how his work evolved over the years.

In general, the performances are excellent. DePreist tends to favor a rather cool, dry approach, but not to an extreme. The Oregon Symphony sounds very impressive, and I look forward to future, more thoughtfully programmed releases.

W. SCHUMAN: Symphony No. 6. HARRIS: Symphony No. 7

W. SCHUMAN Symphony No. 6. HARRIS Symphony No. 7 · Hugh Keelan (cond); New Zealand SO · KOCH INTERNATIONAL 3-7290-2 HI (49:05)

This is a most worthwhile new release, pairing representative examples from the heyday of the American symphony, composed by two of the genre’s most celebrated exponents. The two works bear sufficient relationship to each other that presenting them together provides interested listeners with an illuminating experience on several levels. Both William Schuman and Roy Harris had identical life-spans (82 years), although Schuman was twelve years younger. Schuman studied with Harris for several years during the late 1930s: not only did the older man influence the course of his student’s compositional development, but the latter retained an admiration for his mentor’s work for the rest of his life. Among the practices that left their mark on Schuman–his earlier work especially–were separate treatment of the instrumental choirs of the orchestra, plentiful use of parallelism in harmony (which Harris related to the medieval practice of organum), a fondness for polychords and polytonality, and one of Harris’s most influential conceptions: a non-Classical approach to symphonic structure, which he called “autogenesis,” often entailing the integration of several sections into a single movement. Thus it is no accident that both these symphonies are one-movement works (although the recording divides each into several tracks to facilitate listener comprehension). Both symphonies were composed within a decade of each other (although Schuman’s is the earlier of the two), and each has enjoyed one prior commercial recording, released during the 1950s, at the hands of Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Perhaps I should also add that while I hold Schuman to be one of the dozen or so greatest American composers, I feel that Harris’s chief contribution lies in the influence of his ideas regarding musical structure, most of his actual compositions having sunk into a well-deserved oblivion.

Schuman composed ten symphonies, of which the strongest and most significant are No. 3 (for its infectious exuberance and immediate appeal, although its ingenious structure and overall sound owe much to Harris), No. 6 (for its concentrated structure and uncompromising seriousness of attitude), and No. 9 (for its power, intensity, and emotional commitment). Schuman completed his Sixth Symphony in 1948, several years after he assumed directorship of the Juilliard School, and when he was at the height of his creative power. It is a difficult work to discuss, because the focus of its interest is so abstract–more true of this work than perhaps any of his others. While some commentators, most notably Antal Dorati, who conducted the Dallas premiere, have praised its “passion and intensity,” my impression is that such qualities are coincidental analogues, rather than expressive objectives. The reader would not be wrong to infer from this comment that the work is rather cold, dry, and impersonal–indeed, many listeners have rejected it on just those grounds. But those who feel an affinity for Schuman’s language and general mode of expression are likely to find its brilliant concentration of content and tautness of energy both convincing and compelling, despite a harmonic language that is largely atonal in effect, if not in theory.

Harris composed more than a dozen symphonies (reference books seem to disagree as to the exact number). The Seventh appeared in 1952, and was revised three years later, for performance by Ormandy and the Philadelphians. It is one of Harris’s stronger efforts in the genre, exhibiting most of the characteristic traits that so clearly identify him: especially, the long, declamatory melodies, harmonized by non-tonal block-triads in parallel motion, and a strangely directionless, non-progressive syntax that pursues any idea–regardless of how appealing it may be initially–to the point of monotony. Indeed, a side-by-side comparison of the two symphonies highlights a painfully clear distinction between the profound eloquence of one versus the crude ineptitude of the other.

The reader is likely to wonder, perhaps rather smugly, what a group like the New Zealand Symphony might have to offer that would favor it over the Philadelphia Orchestra, especially in view of the fact that both latter performances have been reissued on a single Albany CD (TROY-256), together with Walter Piston’s delightful Fourth Symphony. Actually, the fact that these New Zealand performances have been sitting “in the can” since 1994 may indicate Koch International’s embarrassment about what it construes as an inevitably invidious comparison. True, the Albany disc is probably preferable for the listener who is unfamiliar with either work. But I will add to this statement just a few qualifications: First, I hold the view–perhaps not a majority view, but one shared by quite a few commentators–that many–not all–Ormandy performances, though technically accurate, sorely lack the dynamic nuances, inner vitality, and sense of conviction that bring a musical work to life. This is especially true and especially damaging in the case of works–such as those under discussion–represented on recording only by Ormandy/Philadelphia, because, of course, any dissatisfaction is more readily attributed to weaknesses in the music, rather than in the performance. Second, when a work is known by only one performance, its impact gradually becomes stale and flat, analogous to a historical personage known from only one photograph. In time the photo becomes synonymous with the person, rather than representing a slice-in-time of a three-dimensional human being. Third, while perhaps not offering orchestral virtuosity comparable to the Philadelphia renditions, these New Zealand performances–though perhaps approaching faster sections with a sense of cautious deliberation–are nevertheless neatly played and clearly recorded. While some past New Zealand Symphony releases have suffered from a certain tubbiness of acoustic ambience, this is not the case here. And in a work of such textural complexity as the Schuman, the auditory insight revealed by such vivid clarity is most welcome, and makes this new release an alternative of real value. Those listeners who agree that Schuman’s Sixth stands alongside Mennin’s Seventh, Persichetti’s Fifth, and Piston’s Seventh as the greatest examples of the mid-20th-century mainstream American symphony will definitely appreciate this new release.

BARBER: Symphony No. 1; Concerto for Piano & Orch.; Souvenirs; Canzonetta for Oboe & Strings. BRITTEN: Les Illuminations; Young Apollo. STRAUSS: Conc. for Oboe & Small Orch. WOLF-FERRARI: Idillio-Concertino. VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Concerto for Oboe & Strings.

BARBER: Symphony No. 1; Concerto for Piano and Orchestra; Souvenirs. John Browning, Leonard Slatkin, pianists; Leonard Slatkin conducting the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. RCA VICTOR 60732-2-RC (DDD); 69:36. Produced by Jay David Saks.

BARBER: Souvenirs; Canzonetta for Oboe and Strings. BRITTEN: Les Illuminations; Young Apollo. Julia Girdwood, oboe; Carole Parley, soprano; Peter Evans, piano; Jose Serebrier conducting the London Symphony Orchestral and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. PHOENIX PHCD-111(ADD, DDD); 55:29. Produced by Jeffrey Kaufman.

BARBER: Canzonetta for Oboe and Strings. STRAUSS: Concerto for Oboe and Small Orchestra. WOLF-FERRARI: Idillio-Concertino. VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Concerto for Oboe and Strings. Humbert Lucarelli, oboe; Donald Spieth conducting the Lehigh Valley Chamber Orchestra. KOCH INTERNATIONAL 3-7023-2 Hl (DDD); 73:50.   Produced by Michael Fine and Karen Chester 

As the Samuel Barber discography continues its rapid growth, and his works become increasingly familiar to soloists, conductors, and ensembles, the general quality of performances rises accordingly. These three laudable new releases (along with some others reviewed in this issue) document that assertion. Barber’s Symphony No.1 — along with Hanson’s Third, the most fully consummated American symphony of the 1930s — appears virtually simultaneously on two major releases: one featuring Slatkin with the Saint Louis Symphony, reviewed here, and the other featuring Neeme Järvi with the Detroit Symphony (Chandos CHAN-8958), reviewed elsewhere in this issue. Barber’s symphony, as most readers probably know, is a compact, one-movement integration of a classical four-movement design. Its richly romantic attitude is effectively regulated by its economical structure. The symphony, written when the composer was 26, is essentially monothematic, the grandly heroic opening theme achieving its apotheosis as the subject of a concluding passacaglia. The work was performed by Bruno Walter and the New York Philharmonic and recorded by them soon thereafter, giving it rather broad exposure early on 

Although the First Symphony has never suffered from a paucity of recordings, only recently have performances begun to reflect an overall understanding of the deeper and subtler aspects of Barber’s compositional rhetoric. From this perspective, both Slatkin’s and Jarvi’s renditions are noteworthy. Leonard Slatkin has already demonstrated considerable affinity for and sensitivity to Barber’s music in a number of previous recordings. With Elmar Oliveira he recorded the Violin Concerto, probably the most perceptive interpretation of this work thus far committed to disc, while his recording of orchestral music (EMI/Angel CDC7-49463-2; see Fanfare 12:6) may be the best single all-Barber CD available. Slatkin’s reading of the Symphony No. 1. maintains this standard: a successful effort to articulate this fundamentally lyrico-dramatic work from the perspective of a thorough understanding of the composer’s expressive syntax. To the contrary, Järvi’s rendition reveals a fresh approach, as if a fine, experienced musician, taken with the score, has proceeded to delve into it and develop an interpretation without concerning himself with prior performance history. The result is unusual at times, but ultimately fairly convincing. Jarvi takes the opening section very broadly and almost gently, smoothing out much of its power and defiance. While this strikes me as almost alarmingly out of character, the following sections proceed with an impressive tightening of focus, building in vigor and intensity to a most definitive conclusion. On the whole, Järvi presents a satisfying view of the work as a major symphonic statement.

Both the Saint Louis Symphony and the Detroit Symphony play with outstanding refinement and precision. Both recordings offer splendid sound quality. In summary, therefore, I would recommend Slatkin’s interpretation to those just discovering this richly appealing work, and Järvi’s to those already familiar enough with it to enjoy an “alternative” approach.

Donal Henahan, chief music critic of the New York Times, regularly exposes his shameless ignorance in petulant editorials that appear in the Sunday edition. One recent column complained about the paucity of works in the standard repertoire composed since 1950. As I promptly informed him in a letter, not only does his complaint reveal misconceptions regarding the way music becomes accepted into the repertoire, but it is based on a fundamentally erroneous assumption. Among the two dozen or so works that I cited to disprove his initial contention was the 1962 Piano Concerto of Samuel Barber, now offered in what I believe is its fifth recording. The concerto was written for, premiered by, and soon thereafter recorded by John Browning. That recording (Columbia MS-6638) boasted the meticulous support of the Cleveland Orchestra, under the direction of George Szell. In the face of all subsequent recordings of this often moving, often stirring, but basically conventional-minded piece, none could match the blinding virtuosity, crisp precision, and impeccable orchestral refinement of the original Browning/Szell recording, whose only shortcoming was a shallow tinniness of sound quality typical of its vintage. Now we are presented with a new Browning performance, nearly 30 years later. How does this one compare with its predecessor (which has not, I believe, been reissued on CD)?

Not surprisingly, the new RCA Victor release provides a plush, deep sonic ambience that is clearly superior to the old Columbia sound. On the whole, this is a mellower, somewhat subtler performance, especially affecting in the lovingly phrased Canzone, which is probably the high point of the work for most listeners. However, there was an electricity and tensile strength to the earlier performance whose absence here weakens the first movement (which happens to be my favorite) and virtually destroys the third, which is little more than a Prokofievian toccata-rondo whose excitement and power depend on a manic, breakneck approach. 

Barber’s 1952 ballet suite Souvenirs, an evocation of the idle rich contentedly at play at a European hotel during the early 1900s, has always been my least favorite of the composer’s works. Hence, I never paid much attention to it, preferring to pretend it didn’t exist. However, in preparation for this review I decided to familiarize myself more deeply with it. Although usually described as a satire of Pre-World War I complacency, it is far more affectionate, nostalgic, and “campy” than satirical — after all, this was the milieu into which Barber was born and one that nurtured him quite nicely. Indeed, it is the tone of complacent self-satisfaction that I find repugnant. However, once one accepts this and goes on to the music itself, which embraces elements of both Ravel and Stravinsky, cannily integrated within the salon-like atmosphere, one cannot deny its flawless craftsmanship, its unerring sense of the style and ambience it attempts to evoke, and the presence of some irresistibly catchy tunes. I was forced to conclude my immersion in this music with a begrudging fondness for it.

The RCA release presents Souvenirs in its original piano four-hands version, played by Browning and Slatkin. This is a meticulous reading that astutely captures the elegance, grace, and charm of the music. Phoenix has reissued a performance of the orchestral version of Souvenirs that originally appeared about twenty years ago on a Desto LP, featuring Jose Serebrier conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. This is a well-executed but two-dimensional performance, missing much of the music’s flair and wit. Barber-specialist Andrew Schenck conducts another recent performance of the orchestral version (coupled with ballet music by Menotti), with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (Koch International CD-7005). This reading is a bit more probing, but less well played.  

The Canzonetta for oboe and strings is the last music Barber wrote. Left in short score in 1978, it was intended as the slow movement of a concerto he did not live to complete The virtually simultaneous Koch and Phoenix releases hold its very first recordings. As a “last song,” it is touchingly appropriate. The oboe was one of Barber’s favorite instruments and he scored many of his most beautiful melodies for it. Once it circulates a bit, the 7 1/2-minute piece is sure to win legions of admirers, its poignant suspensions and mournfulappogglaturas conjuring the same sort of elegiac dignity that permeates the Adagio for Strings. Yet in addition, there are touches of irony and bitterness absent from that early work-. Mahlerian touches that point to very real aspects of Barber’s mature character and make the piece all the more convincing as his valediction to life.

I have no doubt that everyone who has read this far into this review will want to own at least one recording of the Canzonetta. Both Humbert Lucarelli and Julia Girdwood are fine oboists and play the work beautifully. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra is somewhat more solid than the Lehigh Valley Chamber Orchestra, and the Phoenix recording sounds a little better. Purchasing decisions will probably be determined by the remainder of the programs.

Benjamin Britten and Samuel Barber share enough musical biographical features in common to provide some interesting points for comparison. While this is not the best opportunity for an extended discussion, several points might be noted. Both men were born at approximately the same time into culturally sophisticated social milieus in which their creative work was encouraged; both reflected a sensitivity to literary influences; both achieved considerable success while still quite young (their mid 20s)   Although both established their early musical identities apart from any of the current avant-garde compositional movements, Britten was certainly the more ambitious artist, seeking throughout his life to expand both his stylistic language and his aesthetic scope. Barber, by contrast, was more modest in his aims. Determining early on the type of musical expression that best suited his particular talent and temperament, he hewed to this throughout his life, in spite of considerable criticism during his later year. On the few occasions that he ventured into unfamiliar realms, he did so with serious misgivings. However, as a result, most of Barber’s music succeeds in achieving its intended aesthetic aims, whereas Britten — especially in his later years — often produced works of high aspiration that proved to be sterile and ungratifying.  In fact, it might be argued that Britten composed his best work during the years — the late 1930s through the early 1940s — when his aesthetic aims most closely paralleled those of Barber.

An excellent example is Les Illuminations, Britten’s 1939 setting of a text by Rimbaud and a work of enormous freshness, variety, and appeal. Even in such a relatively early composition, Britten’s authentic stylistic identity is clearly apparent. Its most salient feature is the transformation of a cool, Stravinskian pandiatonicism into an aerated lyricism free of tonal gravity, achieved with little harmonic dissonance. At the same time, the French language underlines the Gallic spirit that pervades the music itself. Soprano Carole Farley provides a vibrant, unusually dramatic, but richly shaped reading, with solid support from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, in a performance that I believe has been newly recorded for this Phoenix release.

Also on this disc is Young Apollo, a short piece for piano with antiphonal strings, completed about the same time as Les Illuminations. This is an attempt to render an abstract mythological image in musical terms and, despite some effective scoring and impressive moments, is rather ungainly in its unfolding. Britten evidently withdrew the work after its premiere, I would have to support that decision.

Koch International’s program of oboe music is a most pleasing new release.   In addition to the Barber Canzonetta, there is Richard Strauss’ genial and touching concerto, composed in 1945, when he was 81 and had just completed the profoundly introspective Metamorphosen.

Then there is the Idillio-Concertino by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, of opera buffa fame. This full-length, four-movement work, composed in 1932, is an unexpectedly sweet delight.As a stylistic frame of reference, I would point to the simple, rustic, lyrically poignant tunefulness of Grieg.   But this is not to diminish the work in any way; in fact, its Adagio third movement is quite lovely,

The disc concludes with the Oboe Concerto of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Composed between the radiantly serene Fifth and the harshly pessimistic Sixth Symphonies, this appealing work varies between a lilting folk-like lyricism and a darker, Sibelian brooding quality, with bucolic melismas that call to mind The Lark Ascending.

Humbert Lucarelli is a fine musician, and one of America’s best-known oboists. His contribution to the disc is consistently outstanding. The Lehigh Valley Chamber Orchestra is based in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and has received citations for its active involvement in contemporary works. A little weak at times, they provide adequate support. Individually, other recordings of the Strauss and Vaughan Williams concertos might be preferable. But, taken as a whole, this CD offers an attractive 74-minute program of warmly engaging music. An additional bonus is the generous and informative annotation by Benjamin Folkman and Charles Turner (the associate of Barber who completed the orchestration of the Canzonetta).

BARBER: Medea (Orchestral Suite). Essay No. 3. Fadograph of a Yestern Scene. Medea (Original Ballet). COPLAND: Appalachian Spring (Original Ballet).

BARBER: Medea (Orchestral Suite). Essay No. 3. Fadograph of a Yestern Scene. Andrew Schenck conducting the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. KOCH INTERNATIONAL CLASSICS 3-7010-2 [DDD]; 46:38. Produced by Michael Fine.

BARBER: Medea (Original Ballet). COPLAND: Appalachian Spring (Original Ballet). Andrew Schenck conducting the Atlantic Sinfonietta. KOCH INTERNATIONAL CLASSICS 3-7019-2 [DDD]; 61:48. Produced by Michael Fine.

The 1946 score for Martha Graham’s choreographic work Cave of the Heart was Samuel Barber’s first attempt at a modern evocation of ancient classical subject numer. (Later examples include Andromache’s Farewell and, of course, Antonv and Cleopatra.) This music is most familiar through the expanded thirteen-minute symphonic excerpt known as Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance (the title later abbreviated simply to Medea’s Dance of Vengeance). However Barber also fashioned a seven-movement suite for symphony orchestra called Medea, which contains a great deal of vital, expressive music, remarkable for a sinewy power and astringent bite quite uncharacteristic of the composer. This orchestral suite has been recorded twice, as far as I know: first around 1950, on a London LP under the direction of the composer himself; then. about a decade later in a stunning performance by Howard Hanson and the Eastman-Rochester Symphony Orchestra. (This recording, in one of its many reincarnations, may still be available on LP.) Then there is also the original ballet music, scored for a chamber ensemble of fourteen instruments. This version, which contains only a few minutes of music not included in the orchestral suite, has never been recorded before. Now KOCH International Classics, continuing its comprehensive survey of Barber’s choral and orchestral music (see Fanfare 14:2, pp. 54ff), has released performances of both the orchestral suite of music from Medea and the original ballet suite virtually simultaneously(!). Though such completeness is certainly welcomed by all Barber specialists, my guess is that most general listeners will probably try to select one of the two.

As conductor Andrew Schenck notes, in the article just cited, “Michael Fine, KOCH International’s producer) and I are still talking about how every time we hear the chamber version there is a terrifying intimacy you don’t get in the big version, and every time we hear the big version we say, Oh boy, this is such grand, tragic stuff, you get the feeling that Barber meant it this way even though he originally wrote it for small orchestra.” This statement pretty much captures my reaction as well. I might add that the influence of Stravinsky, which is strongly present throughout the score, is considerably more salient in the smaller orchestration, with its dry, acerbic sonorities. In addition, the Atlantic Sinfonietta, composed of a dozen-plus New York freelancers, appears to be quite a tight, well-honed ensemble. On the other hand, the New Zealand Symphony, while offering a solid, committed performance, lacks the desirable urgency and tautness. (Given the current level of interest in Barber and the significance of Medea in his output, the incisive Hanson/Eastman performance of the orchestral suite is an ideal candidate for CD reissue.)

The 1970s marked the nadir of Barber’s critical reputation and the works he composed after the Antony and Cleopatra debacle — eg., The LoversFadograph of a Yestern Scene, andEssay No. 3 — are generally considered to be inferior efforts, lacking the freshness and conviction of their predecessors. I must confess to having contributed my share to this critical consensus. However, continued study of Barber’s oeuvre has led me to reconsider these judgments. I have come to see these late works as outgrowths of a stylistic shift that began during the early 1950s, after the brief neoclassical period of the 1940s. This shift was reflected in looser forms, a more diffuse thematic focus, and a greater emphasis on mood and orchestral color, as compared with the clear structures and straightforward melodic/harmonic foundation of the more familiar early works. The later pieces call to mind filmscores from the Golden Age of Hollywood, evoking sumptuously romantic scenes and exotic, glamorous images. Indeed, at their initial appearances, these pieces were dismissed by many with the contemptuous epithet, “movie music.” However, today, when the high-flown romanticism of the great films of the late 1930s and 40s is viewed with affectionate appreciation rather than embarrassment, and the composers of their scores are admired for their skill and artistry, rather than derided as mercenary hacks, the term “movie music” does not carry the moral indictment it did twenty years ago. Moreover, in these late works, Barber evokes his moods so sensitively and eloquently, his structures are so modest and concise, and the orchestration so unerringly effective that this is indeed “cinematic music” at its most elegant, tasteful, and artistic.

Two such works for which I find a new appreciation are the 1971 Fadograph of a Yestern Scene, recorded here for the first time, and the Essay No. 3, composed seven years later, now in its third recording. The first of these takes its title from a line in Finnegan’s Wake, although I have no idea what the connection is. The piece is a seven-minute tone poem sensuous and atmospheric, with thematic references to both Antony and Cleopatra and theEssay No. 3.

I have discussed Essay No. 3 several times before in these pages. In Fanfare 12:6 (pp. 54ff), I noted that Leonard Slatkin’s performance with the St. Louis Symphony revealed a Straussian sweep and opulence that lent more character to the work than I had previously sensed. While lacking the polish and precision of that reading, Schenck’s New Zealand performance convincingly highlights the work’s virtues.

P.S. Accompanying the original version of the Medea ballet music is the late Aaron Copland’s perennially fresh Appalachian Spring in its initial scoring. Though there are several fine recordings of this version, Schenck’s reading with the Atlantic Sinfonietta ranks among them.

BARBER: The Lovers. Prayers of Kierkegaard.

BARBER: The Lovers. Prayers of Kierkegaard. Andrew Schenck conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus; with Dale Duesing, baritone; Sarah Reese, soprano. KOCH INTERNATIONAL CLASSICS 3-7125-2H1 [DDD]; 51:51. Produced by Michael Fine.

This is the most exciting new release to come my way in a long time, and a definite entry for this year’s Want List: the first recording ever of Samuel Barber’s last major work — the only large-scale composition to appear from his pen after Antony and Cleopatra –– and the best performance and recording ever of what may well be Barber’s greatest work. The recording was made from a series of live performances that took place in October 1991.

The Lovers, composed in 1970, is a thirty-two-minute cantata for baritone soloist, chorus, and orchestra based on romantic poems by Pablo Neruda, presented in English translation. The work comprises nine sections that document with painful acuity the evolution of a love relationship from its beginning in erotic attraction to its ending in sadness and disillusionment. At the time of its composition, Barber’s reputation was at its lowest ebb and, despite an auspicious premiere by the Philadelphia Orchestra, the work was generally disregarded or dismissed as the superfluous product of a reactionary composer who had outlived his relevance.

It is difficult to imagine such a reaction to The Lovers today, as listeners exhibit a growing enthusiasm for more and more of Barber’s work. The music represents the distinctive post-Romantic language of the composer’s maturity, which evolved during the late 1950s — a language considerably expanded from that which provided the basis for his best-known works from the 1930s. One of the remarkable characteristics of Barber’s music — both early and late — is the general absence of obvious stylistic antecedents — composer or school of composers — although his basic vocabulary, within a clearly tonal framework, is based on harmonic .and melodic elements that are certainly familiar enough. While not without its less compelling moments, The Lovers is a deeply moving work, delving into intimate, vulnerable emotional realms with delicacy and sensitivity, despite the large forces used. Barber was a master of choral writing, and the use of massed voices in this work is breathtaking (the baritone soloist is featured in only three of the nine sections). The work is unified by several lovely motifs, the most important of which does not reveal its full meaning until its apotheosis in the penultimate section. The orchestration is richly colored and evocative though understated, exploding with unrestrained opulence only at climactic moments. Baritone soloist Dale Duesing is superb, as are chorus and orchestra. I can only add that I have been virtually unable to stop listening to this work since the recording arrived.

The only reason my enthusiasm for Prayers of Kierkegaard may appear more muted is that I am much more familiar with this work and have written about it several times in the recent past. If anything, it is an even more fully consummated work than The Lovers. In reviewing the CD reissue of the Louisville performance (Fanfare 13:5, p. 110), I wrote, “This is a work of unsurpassed beauty in the composer’s canon, with passages of warm lyricism, hushed, awe-filled reverence, and some moments of drama and excitement. There is a lovely soprano solo, the choral writing is gorgeous, and the sequence of sections is masterfully shaped for maximum effect.” Indeed, I can think of no other work of Barber’s whose level of inspiration is so consistently high. To this I can only add that Barber-specialist Andrew Schenck, who died shortly after this recording was made, leads a stunning performance — far superior to the Louisville recording and to several live and taped renditions I have heard.

As the program notes observe, this pairing unites two facets of Barber’s character — the romantic and the spiritual. With each facet represented by music of such high quality, the composer’s creative personality emerges with extraordinary eloquence. In short, here are two little-known masterpieces, making for a new release that is indispensable to all admirers of the music of Samuel Barber, as well as to those listeners who enjoy true romanticism in a modern guise.