FLAGELLO: Sonata for Violin and Piano. Declamation for Violin and Piano. Harp Sonata. CORIGLIANO: Sonata for Violin and Piano. Music for harp by Tournier, Dussek, Faure, Salzedo, Prokofiev.

FLAGELLO: Sonata for Violin and Piano. Declamation for Violin and Piano. CORIGLIANO: Sonata for Violin and Piano. Eugene Fodor, violin; Arlene Portney, piano. LAUREL LR-137, produced by Herschel Burke Gilbert.

THE VIRTUOSO HARP. Erica Goodman, harp. BIS CD-319 (compact disc), produced by Rob­ert von Bahr. Music by FLAGELLO, TOURNIER, DUSSEK, FAURÉ. SALZEDO,PROKOFIEV

The music of Nicolas Flagello is one of our culture’s well-kept secrets. Very few of his major works have been recorded and most of the recordings that do exist present the music in rather mediocre performances. Yet Flagello is a composer ideally suited to the tastes and values of a large number of today’s listeners. Assuming the grand romantic stance without the embar­rassment or self-conscious distancing of the “New Romantics,” his music is serious in tone, emotionally gripping, and tightly structured, while clearly revealing its roots in the language of turn-of-the-century Europe. Despite developmental techniques that are thoroughly traditional, Flagello’s own voice is so powerful and his conviction so intense that one quickly overlooks the suggestion of anachronism prompted by a birth-date of 1928 and a birthplace of New York City and instead focuses on the distinctive creative personality that emerges.

As one might expect from the foregoing description, the core of Flagello’s output lies in large-scale works for large forces—operas, symphonies, oratorios, concertos, and the like, of which there are many. Of course, the economics of today’s music world successfully ensure that such works remain in oblivion. However, the three pieces offered now in their first recordings, though relatively small in scale, are substantial, mature, and ambitious—representative of his best efforts. And in the fine performances and superb recorded presentations found here, they serve as excellent introductions for those listeners not yet familiar with the music of this remarkable composer. 

The two sonatas date from the early 1960s, a period that saw the appearance of some of Flagello’s most significant works. Both are conventional in outer form: Each is 15 minutes in duration, and each consists of three movements. Both reveal to some degree the composer’s deep spiritual affinity with Ernest Bloch. The harp sonata, in particular, opens with a stern motif quite reminiscent of Bloch’s Concerto Grosso No. 1. As the movement develops, its mood grows turbulent, reflected in writing of considerable textural complexity—quite demanding for the harpist, in view of the instrument’s essential unwieldiness in handling freely chromatic counterpoint. The violin sonata’s first movement also reflects a sense of agitation and turbu­lence, though it opens with a sweet wistfulness. Both movements are highly concentrated, allowing no gratuitous redundancy, yet with plenty of room for their dramas to unfold and for their passionate lyricism to soar.

The slow movements of both sonatas are also conveniently comparable. Both follow a favorite style-format of Flagello’s: the gloomy, dark-hued barcarolle. The Lento of the Harp Sonata is the highpoint of the work—a poignantly simple but hauntingly atmospheric melody framing a climactic central section. The slow movement of the violin sonata is more vocal in character, a somber recitative followed by a plaintive aria. Both movements are directly affecting and thematically memorable in a manner rare in music of recent decades.

Flagello’s final movements lean at times toward a grotesque jocularity that may seem a bit forced and obligatory. (At such times conventional principles of balance seem in conflict with a natural proclivity for darker, weightier subject matter.) The finales of both sonatas might be said to exemplify this tendency, though they do fulfill their roles successfully. The third movement of the harp sonata, in particular, comes close to sustaining the emotional and intellectual depth of the preceding movements, concluding what is certainly one of the most musically sat­isfying solo works in the instrument’s repertoire.

The Declamation is an intensely power-packed work of about eight minutes. Compared to the two sonatas, it is somewhat more “dissonant” in its harmonic language, more angular in its contours and patterns, and more terse and concentrated in its phraseology. (Its somewhat greater astringency is not attributable to its slightly later date of composition [1967] as Flagello’s style has remained essentially unchanged since 1959, although his mature language dis­plays considerable breadth and flexibility.) The work’s title comes from the solemn and declamatory prelude and postlude that present (and recapitulate) the motivic material devel­oped in a central section marked by continual restless turmoil.

The early Violin Sonata of John Corigliano serves as a fascinating counterpart to the Flagello works. Though they occupy roughly the same stylistic “camp,” broadly speaking, among the various “schools” of American music, and are equivalently “modern” in their language, Corigliano’s is drastically different music: high-spirited, showy, and much more “American-sounding.” Its idiom is less individual—derived from Piston, Barber, Bernstein, and Proko­fiev—and its import is far less personal. It is a fun piece, full of energy, graced by pretty melo­dies, and offering an appropriate measure of virtuosic excitement.

For some time Corigliano’s Sonata has been represented by a brilliant and authoritative performance by the composer’s father, with pianist Ralph Votapek. Laurel’s new release features far more up-to-date recording qualities, and Fodor’s performance is somewhat more polished, although not without some technical snags in a few particularly difficult pas­sages. In the Flagello pieces, where there is no recorded competition, Fodor submits vigorous, assured readings that convey the impact of the music with authority. Pianist Arlene Portney offers solid support.

For the remainder of her harp recital, Erica Goodman provides a varied and enjoyable program. The 15-minute Sonatine by the well-known harpist Marcel Tournier inhabits a lush, richly textured impressionist vein. Listeners fond of this language will find it a rewarding piece that offers somewhat more depth than many pieces of the genre. And even Dussek, Bohemian contemporary of Muzio Clementi, is heard to advantage in an absolutely lovely sonata (in one of my least favorite styles). Harpist Carlos Salzedo is represented by a piece called Scintillation, which he wrote in 1936. This is a surprisingly abstract, austere treatment of several Latin ele­ments to form a challenging display piece. The other selections are better-known: Fauré’s richly imaginative Impromptu and Prokofiev’s charming Prelude in C. Goodman surveys this de­manding program with astonishing aplomb, appearing not to be fazed in the least by any of the technical challenges encountered—and the Flagello sonata provides more than its share. In fact, if there is fault to be found, it is in a certain stiffness and coldness of phrasing, where a bit of warmth and flexibility might have been stylistically appropriate. Nevertheless, her playing exhibits a degree of technical security and control rarely encountered on the harp. The sonic ambience provided by BIS is somewhat reverberant, but not at all unpleasant. 

ROSNER: Concerto Grosso No. 1, op. 60. The Chronicle of Nine, op. 81: Prelude to Act II. Five Meditations, op. 36. A Gentle Musicke, op. 44. Magnificat, op. 72.

ROSNER: Concerto Grosso No. 1, op. 60. The Chronicle of Nine, op. 81: Prelude to Act II. Five Meditations, op. 36. Gentle Musicke, op. 44. Magnificat, op. 72. David Amos conducting the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra; with the Choir of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul and the Clarion Brass of San Diego. LAUREL LR-849CD; 66:20. Produced by Herschel Burke Gilbert.

This is an important release, sure to appeal to the not insignificant number of listeners who have already discovered Rosner’s music through the Opus One recordings of his French horn sonata and cello sonata, released during the past few years (see Fanfare 8:1, p. 299 and 9:5, p. 226). Like many others of today’s composers for whom there seems to be an active and receptive audience, Arnold Rosner writes music that is extremely straightforward, accessible, and rooted in traditional sounds and formal structures. Echoes and reminiscences of other composers abound, from Josquin and Gesualdo to Vaughan Williams, Shostakovich, and Hovhaness. Yet the cumulative impact of his music—with regard both to external style and inner meaning—is unmistakably unique and unquestionably original. This conclusion could be drawn from the two sonatas mentioned earlier, but becomes even more apparent with this generous offering of works for larger forces.

Rosner has been a stubborn individualist from the beginning. Carving out his “sound” before receiving any formal training, he endured the rigidly coercive dogmas of 1960s musical academia without compromise—paying more than his share of dues, perhaps, but eventually earning the first Ph.D in music granted by the State University of New York.

In a way, Rosner is a “neo-” composer: The Magnificat is clearly a neo-Renaissance work, A Gentle Musicke and Five Meditations might be termed neo-Elizabethan, Concerto Grosso No. 1 is neo-Baroque, and the opera prelude is what is usually called neo-Romantic. Yet there is a stylistic and psychological unity among these works that relates them as separate facets of an integral aesthetic approach, as opposed to merely superficial exercises in saprophytic opportunism. On a purely musical level, the unifying thread is their attempt to derive maximum expressive power from pure or almost pure consonance, treated in a modal or chromatic—rather than conventionally tonal—fashion. In other words, the traditional feature most inimical to Rosner’s style is diatonic tonality—the mainstay of the Classical period and the fundamental principle of Austro-Germanic music theory. Thus, while the predominance of consonant harmony gives Rosner’s music a famil­iar, accessible sound, its avoidance of conventional tonal patterns and relationships distinguishes it from the rhetoric of most western music of the past three centuries.

Of the pieces presented here, the most stunning is the six-minute Prelude to Act II of the opera, The Chronicle of Nine, completed in 1984 and based on the story of Lady Jane Grey, the teenage girl who—caught in a political web woven by others—became Queen of England for nine days before being dethroned and executed. The story is ideal for Rosner, providing the opportunity for an intense emotional experience within the historical context of sixteenth-century England—a natural setting for Rosner’s musical language, with its many deliberately archaic usages. This unusual stylistic interpretation is apparent in the Prelude—also included in The Tragedy of Queen Jane, the four-movement orchestral suite drawn from the opera—a solemn dirge of tremendous power, eloquence, and majesty, prompting great interest in The Chronicle of Nine as a whole.

The Concerto Grosso No. 1 was composed in 1974 (another followed several years later). Scored for chamber orchestra, this is a strikingly energetic work that calls to mind such Northern European neoclassicists as Vagn Holmboe and Harald Saeverud. Opening with a stark French Overture, the body of the first movement is a bracing, contrapuntal allegro. The second movement is a rather plaintive hymn, while the third movement, based on an infectious rhythmic pattern in 5/8, concludes the work with exuberant vigor.

While the Concerto Grosso is clearly a work of this century, despite its nod to the spirit of the Baroque, Rosner’s 1979 setting of the Magnificat could probably fool many a casual listener into identifying it as an actual work of the Renaissance, so tentatively does it deviate from archaic norms, although its frequent juxtapositions of major and minor thirds are more blatant and overt than Purcell would ever have allowed. However, listeners familiar with Rosner’s other neo-Renaissance works will hear plenty of his own idiosyncratic harmonic and rhythmic traits. Those who require that twentieth-century music exhibit at least a post-nineteenth-century level of aggres­sion and dissonance may find this (and other Rosner pieces) too tame for their tastes; others will appreciate its reverent spirituality on its own terms, while perhaps finding its unabashed anachro­nism startling and refreshing.

Also in the category of unabashed anachronisms—though charming nonetheless—are the Five Meditations for English horn, harp, and strings, originally composed in 1967 but revised in 1980, and A Gentle Musicke for flute and strings, dating from 1969. These are the sort of pieces that delight programmers of commercial classical FM stations: novel and unfamiliar, yet totally accessible—and with short movements, along the lines of Warlock’s Capriol Suite. Lively pseudo-Elizabethan dances alternate with slow, serene neo-Renaissance canzonas somewhat reminiscent of Hovhaness (whose entry in the New Grove was written by Rosner). I prefer the greater conciseness and exuberance of A Gentle Musicke, but both are delightful.

David Amos, who is developing quite a reputation as a champion of unjustly neglected twentieth-century music, provides some of his most persuasive performances on this disc. The Concerto Grosso is given a reading of great incisiveness, bristling with energy, while the opera prelude projects the necessary weight and grandeur. The Jerusalem Symphony generally plays well, making a convincing case for the music, as does the chorus in the Magnificat. Sound quality is extremely good; in fact, the only real objection I have is to the design of the front cover, which is extremely cluttered with data of marginal importance, better relegated to the back cover (where it appears again anyway).

Picks of the Year: 2007

Once again I’ve been unable to come up with five recent CDs that meet my criteria of great, little-known 20th-/21st-century music, definitively performed and expertly recorded. However, I hasten to emphasize that I do not attribute this to any diminution in quality or quantity of new releases, but, rather, to my own involvement in a variety of musical activities that have limited my ability to stay abreast of all the recent recordings—of which, I know, there are many—within my area of repertoire interest. 

Bloch’s String Quartet No. 1 and his Piano Quintet No. 2 derive from approximately opposite ends of his career, more than 40 years apart. The Quartet No. 1 is an expansive, passionate post-romantic work nearly an hour in duration. This Laurel release captures what is without question the work’s best modern performance to be recorded. Originally released on LP in 1982, this is its long-awaited first appearance on CD (reviewed in 30:5). It is coupled with an equally fine performance of the Piano Quintet No. 2, Bloch’s last major work—a terse, energetic statement no less passionate and intense than the early quartet. This reissue replaces Laurel’s previous CD release of that work, which is now out of print.

And then we have the first-ever complete commercial recording of Howard Hanson’s masterpiece, the opera Merry Mount (reviewed in this issue). (Naxos did release a documentary recording of the opera’s 1934 world premiere by the Metropolitan Opera, with Lawrence Tibbett and Göta Ljunberg [not Gladys Swarthout, as I incorrectly stated in my review] in the leading roles. But that recording is not allowed to be sold in the United States, for copyright reasons, and the sound quality is barely listenable.) Those listeners who love the familiar orchestral suite from the opera, along with Hanson’s other popular favorites, are sure to find the complete work to be a treat. And this Seattle performance, which took place in 1996, in honor of Hanson’s centennial, represents the work handsomely, and is the natural capstone of Gerard Schwarz’s valuable, comprehensive survey of the composer’s orchestral music.

And then there is one more recent release to mention, but this is one in which my own involvement as producer prevents me from presuming any real objectivity: Artek AR-0036, which comprises the first-ever performance/recording of Nicolas Flagello’s 1956 Violin Concerto, played brilliantly by soloist Elmar Oliveira. I believe that this work warrants consideration alongside the likes of the Barber Concerto, the Bernstein Serenade, and, perhaps, the Korngold Concerto. It is accompanied by seething, brooding orchestral interludes from two of Flagello’s operas, and orchestrated versions of six passionate songs, sung beautifully by Susan Gonzalez. The National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine is under the direction of John McLaughlin Williams, an excellent conductor with a sympathetic understanding of American neo-romanticism. In their reviews (in the previous issue) two of my colleagues expressed some reservations that are not unjustified, but I believe that those listeners who have enjoyed previous Flagello recordings will be comparably pleased with this one.

BLOCH String Quartet No. 1. Piano Quintet No. 2 • Pro Arte Quartet/Karp • LAUREL 820

HANSON Merry Mount • Soloists/Schwarz/Seattle SO/Ch • NAXOS 8.669012-13 (2 CDs)

BLOCH: Piano Quintets: No. 1. String Quartets: No. 5

BLOCH Piano Quintets: No. 1. String Quartets: No. 5 • Pro Arte Quartet; Howard Karp (pn)• LAUREL LR-853 (ADD; 67:01)

In 1991 Laurel released a CD comprising Ernest Bloch’s two piano quintets, performed by pianist Howard Karp and the Pro Arte Quartet (LR-848CD). These were—and continue to be—the finest recorded representations of what are among this composer’s masterpieces. Evidently that initial run sold out. John Gilbert, son of the late founder of Laurel, Herschel Burke Gilbert, has decided to reissue those performances on two separate discs, each quintet coupled with a Bloch work not previously released by them on CD. Several issues back I reviewed LR-820, which paired the Piano Quintet No. 2 with the String Quartet No. 1. The latter—a stupendous performance and recording (see Want List)—had been released on LP in 1982 but had never been reissued on CD. Now Laurel is issuing the Piano Quintet No. 1 with the String Quartet No. 5, which had been recorded in 1989—at the same time as the quintets—but was never released at all. (Herschel Gilbert was notoriously painstaking, and produced these recordings single-handedly, preparing them for release with a deliberateness that many found infuriating. As it happened, he did not live to preside over the release of the Fifth Quartet.) Those cynical consumers ready to cry “rip-off” at the notion of having to duplicate their recordings of the quintets in order to acquire the newly released quartets should be appeased by learning that the Quartets Nos. 1 and 5 are too long to fit on one compact disc.

The Quartet No. 5 was one of Bloch’s last works, composed in 1955-56. Although it was premiered by the Griller Quartet, the English ensemble that worked closely with the composer, it was written after the group’s seminal readings of the first four were recorded (currently available on Decca 475 6071). This new Laurel release is only its third recording, as far as I know. The first featured the Fine Arts Quartet in an excellent performance recorded shortly after the work was composed. That one was released initially on a Concert-Disc LP, then reissued by Everest, also on LP. The second was the Portland Quartet’s sadly inadequate traversal of all five quartets, released by Arabesque originally on LP in 1983, and reissued on CD soon after. With this release, Laurel now offers all five quartets in splendid performances by the Pro Arte Quartet.

Bloch’s late works reveal the same grim, intense persona found in his earlier works. But they also exhibit a concentration and distillation of rhetoric, with angular motifs and complex formal designs that offer little to gratify or engage the listener on initial acquaintance, although they do reward close, attentive listening. Like the Fourth Quartet, the Fifth is consistently severe in tone, with the slight exception of the scherzo, whose discrete sections and contrasting material make it somewhat easier to follow. A little more than half an hour in duration, the work comprises four movements, of which the first two and the last two are connected, further complicating the task of grasping it aurally. There is a strong overall sense of tonal dynamic tendencies, although much of the thematic material is in itself atonal. The first movement, which introduces some seven different motifs, is subdivided into three sections—two Grave sections flanking a central Allegro. However, the Allegro itself comprises three sections, of which the central one is slow and similar to the large outer sections of the movement. The overall character of the movement is austere, somber, and introspective. The vigorous Allegro material is somewhat neo-Baroque in phraseology, along the lines of the Concerto Grosso No. 2. The subdued ending of the first movement elides with the slow second movement. Nocturnal in character, and also quite severe, with gnarled, chromatic motifs, it makes a rather drab, colorless impression, with little expressive contour. The energetic scherzo that follows offers the quartet’s strongest point of contrast. The trio section introduces an ironic note with what sounds like a Yiddish dance fragment. The final movement opens with a grandiloquent sequence of triads—an unusual effect for Bloch. Though it is marked Allegro deciso, the vigor of the opening soon abates, as motifs heard earlier in the work are reviewed, leading to a peaceful, quiescent ending. Bloch’s daughter Suzanne, to whom the quartet was dedicated, commented that not until she watched her father die three years later did she realize that the ending of the Fifth Quartet was a musical anticipation of that moment.

The Piano Quintet No. 1 dates from 1923, during the fertile period when Bloch served as founding director of the Cleveland Institute of Music, and also composed some of his greatest works. To me this Quintet, the Violin Sonata No. 1, and the String Quartet No. 2 are his greatest masterpieces. I’ve commented so often and at such length about the Quintet No. 1 that I’ll simply say, in summary, that the work picks up stylistically and structurally where such predecessors as Franck’s F minor Quintet and Chausson’s Piano Quartet leave off, imbuing that basic prototype with Bloch’s distinctive, extravagantly tortured vision of life. (I refer those who wish further elaboration to my Web site at www.Walter-Simmons.com.) As with all the composer’s chamber music masterpieces, this work must be played with tremendous physical power and emotional commitment, without which it just sounds whiny. Karp and the Pro Arte Quartet bring these qualities to bear, along with razor-sharp precision, more fully than any other performance I know, although the Aura Quartet of Switzerland, with pianist Hans Joerg Fink (Musiques Suisses MGB CD 6203), who offer both quintets on a single disc, provide a worthy alternative.

BLOCH: String Quartets: No. 1. Piano Quintets: No. 2

BLOCH String Quartets: No. 1. Piano Quintets: No. 2 • Pro Arte Quartet; Howard Karp (pn) • LAUREL LR-820 (76:48)

This is a reissue that will be of considerable import to those who are interested in the major chamber works of Ernest Bloch. As I have commented extensively on both these works and these performances in the past, I will try to be brief here, and refer those who wish more detailed comments to earlier issues of Fanfare, to my Web site at www.Walter-Simmons.com, or to my book (see Web site for details), which has an entire chapter devoted to Bloch’s life and works. 

Bloch’s String Quartet No. 1 was begun in Geneva, and completed in New York, bridging the period of the composer’s immigration to this country in 1916. It was composed immediately after Schelomo. The First Quartet is a powerful, visionary work, conceived on a grand scale, and is nearly an hour in duration. It represents an expansive treatment of classical form, as later developed by Cesar Franck, and still later by Eugène Ysaye, further shaped by Bloch’s own ferocious, passionate musical personality. There have been few recordings of this work over the years, and fewer still that are able to meet its emotional and technical requirements. In 1982 Laurel released a stupendous performance of the work on LP, played by the Pro Arte Quartet, the first of several extraordinary recordings featuring this ensemble in Bloch’s chamber music. Most of these recordings have made their way onto compact disc, but only now is this recording of the First Quartet thus available. However, last year Decca issued on CD the historic 1954 readings of the first four quartets (the Fifth hadn’t yet been written) by the Griller Quartet, the highly esteemed English ensemble that worked closely with Bloch, and gave the premieres of Quartets Nos. 3, 4, and 5. Their recordings were made under his direct supervision. These are brilliant, intensely committed performances and Decca’s reissue offers the opportunity to acquire those four works at quite a reasonable price. Then why would one be interested in Laurel’s reissue now? The chief reason would be that the latter offers full, rich ADD sound quality. Bloch’s Quartet No. 1 is post-romantic in style and symphonic in scale, and benefits greatly from the sonic breadth thus afforded. Decca’s re-mastering is fine, but the original mid 1950s sound is tightly cramped and a little strident.

The Piano Quintet No. 2 makes for a fascinating companion piece, as it is the composer’s last major work, composed in 1957, more than 40 years after the First Quartet. Bloch’s Weltanschauung—with its savagery, passion, and sober introspection—remains largely unchanged, but the means of realizing it are now much tighter and less rhetorical. When the reading at hand first appeared on LP in 1984, it was the work’s first recording, and set an astoundingly high standard. It was then reissued on CD in 1991 with an equally powerful performance of the Quintet No. 1. Heard today these performances have not lost their primacy, although a few other fine recordings of the Piano Quintets have appeared in the interim.

I should add that within the year Laurel is planning to reissue the aforementioned reading of the Piano Quintet No. 1, coupled with the Pro Arte Quartet’s rendition of the String Quartet No. 5—a recording that has not been previously issued. That is a release I eagerly await, as no recording of Bloch’s final quartet has yet done justice to the work.

Picks of the Year: 2001

This year’s choices offer some very economical and efficient means of updating and refining one’s collection of the finest 20th-century music in traditional styles. Leonard Slatkin has proven to be one of the most perceptive and sympathetic conductors of Samuel Barber’s magnificent orchestral music. EMI now offers a 2-CD set for the price of one (to be reviewed in the next issue), comprising definitive performances of most of his shorter orchestral works, along with superb readings of his solo and chamber music by some of today’s most distinguished players, all adding up to about one-quarter of Barber’s entire output.

Naxos’s American Classics series provides an ideal opportunity for the most hesitant, price-conscious listener to sample some treasures from this less familiar repertoire. Howard Hanson composed some of America’s most luxuriantly appealing, readily accessible orchestral music, and this CD (reviewed in 24:4) brings together several selections that represent him at his best, for less than the price of a single movie-ticket.

John Kinsella is a born-again neo-romantic who appears to be one of Ireland’s most impressive living composers. His symphonies, brought to my attention this past year by a colleague on another magazine, are intensely powerful statements in a highly individual idiom. These two (reviewed in 22:1) are excellent examples.

Robert Muczynski is one of America’s most distinguished living traditionalist composers. He has concentrated on small chamber works and music for piano solo. These two recent CD reissues (see feature article in 24:6) bring together nearly one-third of his entire output, in excellent performances chiefly by the composer himself.

And finally, once again I feel compelled to bring to the attention of our readers a new release in whose production I had some involvement. While admitting shamelessly to the appearance of conflict-of-interest, I deny any self-serving motives when I assert without hesitation that Peter Vinograde is a thinking-person’s virtuoso of the highest order, and his performance of Copland’s Piano Fantasy is second to none—and there is some competition on this one. The Creston pieces will surprise those who think they already know the limits of this composer’s range, while Zuckerman has come up with a fresh approach to neo-classicism that resembles no other music I know.

BARBER Orchestral and Chamber Works · Oliveira, Margalit, Stepansky et al./Slatkin/St. Louis SO · EMI 7243 5 74287 2 9 (2 CDs)

HANSON Symphony No. 1, “Nordic”. Merry Mount Suite. Pan and the Priest et al. · Schermerhorn/Nashville SO · NAXOS 8.559072

KINSELLA Symphonies Nos. 3, 4· Ó Duinn/Ireland NSO · MARCO POLO 8.223766

MUCZYNSKI Piano Music et al., Vols. 1,2 · Muczynski (pn) et al. · LAUREL LR-862/3 (2 CDs)

COPLAND Piano Fantasy et al. CRESTON Metamorphoses et al. ZUCKERMAN On the Edges · Vinograde · PHOENIX PHCD 149

Picks of the Year: 1991

I was absolutely captivated by Dawn Upshaw’s recital of 20th-century vocal music reviewed in 14:4, p. 445), and I can’t imagine anyone reacting otherwise. Ernest Bloch’s two piano quintets are among his masterpieces, but have never been paired on recording before. Now, three different versions appear at the same time (reviewed in this issue).   All are excellent, but I’d pick Laurel’s if I had to pick one. Gerald Finzi’s setting of William Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality is probably his most impressive large-scale work reviewed in 14:3, p. 196), and is sure to touch the hearts of all those responsive to early 20th-century English choral music. Nicolas Flagello is my candidate for America’s greatest post-romantic composer, here represented by a generous program of works for piano solo and piano with percussion ensemble (reviewed in the previous issue.)   The Howard Hanson revival continues with the second installment of Gerard Schwarz’s survey of the symphonies (reviewed in 14:3, p. 211); all three works are strong, representative examples of the composer’s output.

BARBER: Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and other vocal music by Harbison, Menotti, and Stravinsky. Upshaw/Zinman/Orchestra of St. Luke’s (Elektra/Nonesuch–9 79187-2).

BLOCH: Piano Quintets Nos. 1 and 2; Cello Suite No. 1.  H. Karp/P. Karp/Pro Arte Quartet. LAUREL LR-848CD.

FINZI: Intimations of Immortality; Grand Fantasia and Toccata.Langridge/Fowke/Hickox/Royal Liverpool Chorus and Orchestra. EMI–CDC7 49913-2.

FLAGELLO: Piano Sonata; Electra; other works. Pierce/Paul Price Percussion Ensemble. PREMIER PRCD-1014.

HANSON: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 6; Fantasy Variations on a Theme of Youth. Rosenberger/Schwarz/Seattle Symphony Orchestra/New York Chamber Symphony. DELOS DE-3092. 

BLOCH: Concerto Symphonique; Scherzo Fantasque; Concerto Grosso No. 2.

BLOCH: Concerto Symphonique; Scherzo Fantasque; Concerto Grosso No. 2.  Micah Yui, piano; David Amos conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. LAUREL LR-851CD [ADD]; 68:33 Produced by Herschel Burke Gilbert.

This latest entry in Laurel’s continuing exploration of the music of Ernest Bloch features three works that, for one reason or another have generally been overlooked, though each is a substantial, fully consummated effort, requiring no apology.  Concerto Symphonique for piano and orchestra (1948) is, at 40 minutes, the most expansive work — in form, not only duration — of Bloch’s later, Oregon years. Unlike most of his compositions from this period, which are notable for their concision, the concerto is a sprawling, highly moody, and dramatic work in the mainstream of the composer’s mature, secular, hyper-romantic vein, with all the strengths (and weaknesses) this implies: Its emotional tone is by turns portentous, defiant, and grotesquely sardonic, suggesting a commentary on life’s most troubling concerns — concerns that seemed to haunt the composer throughout his life. Bloch evoked such moods and feelings with extraordinary eloquence, through his own synthesis of most of the major currents of early twentieth-century syntax — especially with regard to the subtle control of tonality and dissonance — into a personal and highly versatile expressionism. On the other hand, the concerto’s formal structure is loose and rhapsodic, with perhaps excessive recourse to sequences in rising minor thirds as a facile means of increasing tension. The piano functions more as a commentator than as a protagonist, in the conventional romantic sense. This means that, though the work has its heroic aspects, the piano does not play that particular role, which may account for its notable infrequency of performance.

The only previous recording of the Concerto Symphonique was a Vanguard release from 1963 that featured pianist Marjorie Mitchell and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra under Vladimir Golschmann. That recording, reissued a couple of years ago on CD (Vanguard VCD-72031), served adequately to introduce the work to interested listeners. However, the orchestra was weak and the recording quality was sub-standard for its time — dull and tinny, with the piano lacking sufficient presence (perhaps the result of a misguided or overdone attempt to address the work’s Svmphonique aspect, by treating the solo instrument as a component of the orchestra, rather than as the center of attention). Laurel’s new release, featuring Japanese pianist Micah Yui (who was 19 years old when she made the recording) is far superior on all these counts: The orchestra is bright and vivid, and the piano solo, capably rendered, is more effectively balanced, resulting in a brilliant and far more persuasive reading.

Curiously enough, shortly after Bloch completed the Concerto Svmphonique, he turned his attention immediately to another work for piano and orchestra, theScherzo Fantasque. The only reason I can propose for the neglect of this exciting, power-packed little piece is the general difficulty of finding a place on concert programs for short, one-movement solo-with-orchestra works. (This is most unfortunate, because composers have had no compunction about producing such works, many of them quite superb.) Scherzo Fantasque is a nine-minute work in conventional ternary structure, the outer sections of which are propelled by a driving triplet pattern, while the central section is characteristically mysterious, exotic, and rhapsodic. Unlike the Concerto Symphonique, it is tersely articulated and tightly structured, with no superfluous meanderings.

Here again there is but one prior recording, a 1965 issue from RCA Victor (LSC-2801) featuring 21-year old Lorin Hollander with the Royal Philharmonic under Andre Previn’s direction. That was a splendid reading, though it has long been unavailable. The new Yui/LSO performance is also excellent.

Bloch composed his Concerto Grosso No. 2 in 1952, some 27 years after its familiar predecessor. Indeed, the extraordinary popularity of the earlier work is probably the chief explanation for the relative neglect of the later one, as the latter offers all the virtues — the neo-Baroque vigor, tempered by a romantic warmth and tenderness — provided by the former. In fact, the chief distinction between the two works is structural, rather than stylistic: While the concertante element of the first is a piano obbligato, in the second it is the juxtaposition of a solo quartet against the larger ensemble.

If I am not mistaken, the Concerto Grosso No. 2 has been recorded twice before: an MGM recording from the mid-1950s, conducted by Izler Solomon (which I don’t remember ever hearing) and a Mercury issue from the early 1960s, featuring fine penetrating readings of both concerti grossi, led by Howard Hanson, with the strings of the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra (I wouldn’t be surprised to see this recording re-appear on CD). On the new Laurel release, the strings of the London Symphony are captured in a full, rich sonic context, under the generally sympathetic leadership of David Amos. My only serious reservation involves the inexplicably slow tempo of the first movement’s fugal allegro — a general tendency I have noted in Amos’ handling of contrapuntal textures — which constrains the music’s inner pulse and drains it of vitality.

This is an important new release, indispensable for all admirers of Bloch’s music, especially for those who are unfamiliar with the works included.

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.

BLOCH: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. SARASATE: Introduction and Tarantella. PROKOFIEF: Sonata for Violin Solo.

BLOCH:   Concerto for Violin and Orchestra.   SARASATE:   Introduction and Tarantella.   PROKOFIEF:   Sonata for Violin Solo.   Mischa Lefkowitz, violin; London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Paul Freeman. LAUREL LR-134 (digital), produced by rierschel 3urke Gilbert, $9.98. (Available from Laurel, 2451 Nichols Canyon, Los Angeles, CA 90046)

Laurel, the remarkable record company run by the indefatigable Herschel Burke Gilbert, continues its landmark traversal of the major works of Ernest Bloch with a brilliant new performance of the composer’s 1938 Violin Concerto. The disc also marks the recording debut of young Latvian violinist Mischa Lefkowitz, winner of the 1983 International American Music Competition, among other awards and prizes.

Although it has always had its share of admirers, Bloch’s Violin Concerto has never been a favorite of mine. Its recurrent motto theme, ostensibly derived from American Indian sources but unmistakably Blochian nonetheless, proclaims itself in a way that sounds stubbornly dogmatic, the result of hewing too tightly to the tonic. The expansively rhapsodic first movement seems strained and rhetorical, drawing one’s attention to mannerisms used more effectively elsewhere in the composer’s output. The gently nocturnal second movement is the most successful portion of the work, projecting an ethereal aura strongly tinged with middle-eastern exoticism. The third movement introduces sunnier thematic material, similar to the Alpine pastoralism found in Bloch’s Concerto Grosso No. 1 and other works. This more optimistic disposition eventually triumphs, through a reconciliation with the turbulent material of the first movement. 

The concerto was introduced the year of its completion by Joseph Szigeti, who recorded it shortly thereafter. That performance, with Charles Munch leading the orchestra of the Paris Conservatoire, is still available on Turnabout THS-65007. Others who have recorded it include Roman Totenberg, with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, under the direction of Vladimir Golschmann (Vanguard VRS-1083) and Yehudi Menuhin, a staunch advocate of Bloch’s music, who recorded the work in 1963 with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Paul Kletzki (Angel 36192).   All three of these performances have much to recommend them — accuracy, sensitivity, sympathy with the music — although none of them is notable for tonal beauty, tending instead toward a rather thin, wiry quality.  In the face of this competition, Lefkowitz acquits himself quite well, with the most incisive and tightly focused interpretation of all, as well as the most tonally refined. However, the strongest feature of this recording, in comparison with its predecessors, is the quality of the recording itself, which has a richness and vividness that distinguish it as a recording of the 1980s, giving it a distinct advantage. The London Philharmonic under Paul Freeman’s direction provides adequate support.

Also included on the disc is what is billed as the first recording of the orchestral version of Sarasate’s Introduction and Tarantella. The lack of musical content in this sort of showpiece enables the violinist to relax and “show his stuff” to those in the audience who regard music like this as the test of a performer. Such listeners will find no fault with Lefkowitz’s execution.

Presenting another side of his artistry, Lefkowitz tackles Prokofiev’s 1947   Sonatafor unaccompanied violin. Prokofiev was too essentially a melodic-homophonic type of composer to be really successful at this sort of piece which requires either a contrapuntal or a concentratedly motivic conception in order to be of substantial interest. Instead, the result gives the impression of an accompanied piece in the composer’s cheerfully neoclassical vein, minus the accompaniment.While providing a challenge to the performer, it fails to satisfy the listener’s appetite for what Prokofiev does best. Nevertheless, here as well Lefkowitz presents a vigorous and acutely accurate performance. I look forward to hearing him in further explorations of adventurous repertoire — and to further entries in Laurel’s Bloch cycle. Most urgently needed are two inexplicable overlooked pieces: the symphonic suite Evocations and Two Last Poems for flute and orchestra.