PERSICHETTI: Piano Sonatas (12)

PERSICHETTI: Piano Sonatas (12) • Geoffrey Burleson (pn) • NEW WORLD 80677-2 (2 CDs: 149:56)

This is a momentous release.

Although Vincent Persichetti is largely known today for his enduringly popular and much beloved works for wind band, as well as for several of his symphonies, the chief focus of his creative activity was music for keyboard instruments—organ, harpsichord, and—most importantly—the piano. Few if any American composers of the 20th century created such a richly diverse body of work for the instrument, from pieces suitable for virtual beginners to works requiring the utmost in virtuosity. Persichetti was a virtuoso pianist himself; many of those who knew him during his earlier years felt that he might have developed a career as a composer-pianist along the lines of Rachmaninoff. But he did not choose that path. The central core of Persichetti’s works for piano solo are his twelve sonatas; in fact, some might argue that they represent the central core of his output altogether. Spanning most of his career—from 1939 though 1980—they document his enormous stylistic range, from diatonic simplicity through quasi-serial complexity, while revealing an exhaustive understanding of the instrument’s capabilities. And yet, only now—more than twenty years since his death—is there a complete recording of these sonatas. In fact, only six of the sonatas have ever been recorded before: the other six are premier recordings! (There is some disagreement about which six sonatas have been recorded before: New World seems to consider No. 4 to have been previously recorded, but that was a minimally-circulated private issue that could not ever have been reasonably be called “available;” on the other hand, they seem unaware that No. 5 was released on CD in 1989 in a performance by Jacqueline Herbein [ASLK-CGER 87 042], reviewed in Fanfare 13:1, p. 413.)

Those who know Persichetti chiefly through his music for band are likely to be surprised by the broader range embraced by the piano sonatas, which reach into realms of contrapuntal, harmonic, and rhythmic complexity barely approached by most of the music for winds. Persichetti was not an innovator—nor, strictly speaking, an eclectic. Rather, he was a synthesizer—perhaps the greatest synthesizer of his time—who forged a language rooted largely in the music of Stravinsky, Hindemith, Copland, and, to some extent, Bartók, Harris, and Schuman. But his mastery of this language often exceeded in subtlety, nuance, breadth, and range the craftsmanship of those innovators who influenced him. And, instead of being mere pastiche, Persichetti’s work was unified by his own distinctive personality—mercurial, with a childlike innocence, a dry wit, and a deliberately cagey ambiguity.

Viewed collectively the twelve sonatas do not follow a simple trajectory. No. 1 is large, craggy, and dissonant—almost Schoenbergian; No. 2 is neo-classical and reminiscent of Hindemith; No. 3 suggests 1940s American nationalism; No. 4 is somewhat like No. 1—serious, highly chromatic, and demanding; Nos. 5, 6, 7, and 8 are lighter in texture and more purely neo-classical; No. 9 is catchy and closest to the style of the band works; No. 10 is perhaps the most substantial and, in some ways, the crowning achievement of the cycle; No. 11 is as close to the academic serialism of the 1960s as the composer ventured; and No. 12 is entirely in “mirror-writing,” i.e., everything that happens in the right hand is literally mirrored (in inversion) in the left hand—and that means every single note!

Geoffrey Burleson displays a thorough grasp of this variegated cycle, highlighting its dynamic rhythms, as well as the pretty wisps of melody that often emerge from dense, dissonant contrapuntal textures. His technical security is such that he is undaunted by any of the challenges offered by the music. Burleson’s performances provide convincing evidence that Persichetti’s are perhaps the most wide-ranging, masterfully executed, and comprehensively eloquent cycle of piano sonatas of the 20th century. In his own program notes, Burleson further reveals an intimate understanding of the inner dynamics that propel this music.

For further discussion of Burleson’s performances, I refer the reader to the comments of my colleague. I recuse myself from more specifics, because of my own simultaneous involvement in what will be another recording of the Persichetti sonatas, to be released in individual installments by Naxos over the coming months. But I can assure all interested readers that no one will be disappointed by Burleson’s performances. 

VINCENT PERSICHETTI: Symphony No. 5 (for Strings); Piano Concerto . (Liner Notes)

New World Records 80370
VINCENT PERSICHETTI
Symphony No. 5 (for Strings)
Piano Concerto

Philadelphia Orchestra
Conducted by Riccardo Muti, Charles Dutoit
ROBERT TAUB, piano

During the last four decades of his life, the name of Vincent Persichetti came to signify musicianship of a comprehensiveness virtually unmatched among American composers. Today his influence continues, reaching young pianists nurtured on his Sonatinas and Little Piano Book, school musicians who first experience serious contemporary music through his works for band, church choirs who turn to his Hymns and Responses for the Church Year as an inexhaustible resource, young composers who find his classic textbook Twentieth Century Harmony an indispensable tool, and soloists and conductors for whom his sonatas, concertos, and symphonies stand among the masterworks of American music. Throughout his life Persichetti encouraged healthy, creative participation in music at all levels of sophistication, while shunning dogmas that advocate one compositional approach at the expense of others.

Persichetti was born in Philadelphia in 1915, and remained a lifelong resident of that city. At the age of five, he learned to play the piano, organ, and double bass at the Combs Conservatory. He also studied theory and composition under Russell King Miller, who became his most influential teacher. Immersing himself in music while in his teens, Persichetti memorized the scores to be performed weekly by the Philadelphia Orchestra and then attended the concerts to compare his mental realizations with the actual sounds. Composition was an integral part of his study from the start, as was exposure to other arts. Persichetti attended art school during his adolescence, and sculpture continued to be an important creative outlet for him until his death in 1987.

Upon graduating from the Combs Conservatory with a Bachelor of Music degree in 1936, Persichetti became head of its theory and composition department. From 1932 to 1948 he served as organist and choirmaster at Philadelphia’s Arch Street Presbyterian Church. In 1941 he earned a Master of Music degree from the Philadelphia Conservatory, which then appointed him to head its theory and composition department. His doctorate followed four years later and then, in 1947, William Schuman invited him to join the Juilliard faculty as well. Persichetti was appointed chairman of the Juilliard composition department in 1963, and of the Literature and Materials department in 1970, and commuted regularly between Philadelphia and New York.

During his active teaching career Persichetti continued to compose prodigiously, producing more than 160 works. Through his compositions—and through his writings and lectures—Persichetti eloquently advocated the creation of a fluent working vocabulary, or “common practice,” capable of a rich spectrum of expression, based on the wealth of materials and techniques that appeared during the twentieth century. His own music extends over a broad stylistic range—rooted in the languages of Stravinsky, Hindemith, Bartók, and Copland—from extreme diatonic simplicity to complex, contrapuntal atonality. However, Persichetti’s stylistic evolution does not follow a conventional chronological sequence, from simplicity to complexity. Rather, the composer identified two temperamental elements present in his work from the beginning: a “gracious,” amiable spirit and a “gritty,” abrasive one. These two elements underlie his entire output, to one degree or another, in various manifestations.

Persichetti’s stylistic breadth has prevented some casual listeners from recognizing a personal profile or unifying character in his music, leading them to construe it as a mere display of virtuoso craftsmanship. With greater familiarity, however, a distinctive personality emerges, characterized by an almost childlike sense of mischief and a pervasive geniality of spirit in full control of whatever dynamic conflicts may be at work within the music. His works reveal a propensity for pandiatonic, quartal, and polytonal harmony, lucid contrapuntal textures, and lively, syncopated rhythms in duple meter. Although he often worked with large structures, Persichetti was inclined toward sparse gestures and epigrammatic forms—indeed, many of his large works are elaborate integrations of diminutive elements.

Both the Symphony No. 5 (Symphony for Strings), Op. 61, and the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 90, are major works from the most fertile, representative period of Persichetti’s compositional career. Each emphasizes the “gritty” aspect of the composer’s creative personality, displaying considerable structural complexity, an attenuated sense of tonality, and an astringent harmonic vocabulary.

The Symphony for Strings, the fifth of Persichetti’s nine symphonies, was composed in 1953 on commission from the Louisville Orchestra, which introduced it the following year under the direction of Robert Whitney. Similar in structure to others of the composer’s most significant works from the 1950s, e.g., the Concerto for Piano, Four Hands, Op. 56, the Quintet for Piano and Strings, Op. 66, and the Piano Sonata No. 10, Op. 67, the symphony is in one continuous, highly concentrated multi-sectional movement based entirely on the elaborate theme introduced at the outset by the violas. This fifteen-measure theme, which contains all twelve chromatic notes within the first five bars, sets a severe tone and then builds to a level of emotional duress uncharacteristic of the composer. As the work unfolds, the enormous potential of this theme is explored through a series of linked episodes contrasting in tempo and character, but all intricately related to the opening theme. Despite its abstract design and harsh harmonic language, the symphony reveals moments of tenderness and warmth, and seems to exude a sense of exultation in the joy of pure creativity.

The Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 90, was completed in 1962 and first performed two years later in Hanover, New Hampshire, by pianist Anthony di Bonaventura with an orchestra from Dartmouth College conducted by Mario di Bonaventura. Persichetti himself was a virtuoso pianist, and his twelve sonatas, six sonatinas, two concertos, a concertino, and numerous other works reveal a thorough mastery of twentieth-century keyboard technique. The concerto’s musical language is similar to that found in the fifth symphony, though the two works are entirely different in structure, gesture, and attitude. In contrast to the intense concentration of the symphony, the concerto is an expansive, three-movement work that wholeheartedly embraces the traditional romantic virtuoso genre, with the soloist asserting a heroic stance in opposition to the orchestra, dazzling with pyrotechnics and cajoling with warm lyricism. However, the hearty bravura manner disguises a formal structure no less logical and unified than the outwardly more economical symphony.

The work is almost entirely derived from the intervallic implications of the stentorian five-note motto proclaimed at the opening by the horns. The sprawling first movement develops the thematic material in a loose, dramatic, fantasy-like manner that allows for leisurely excursions through a variety of moods. The second movement provides a wistful lyrical interlude. The vigorous final movement is probably the most immediately accessible movement of the concerto, and a fine example of Persichetti’s distinctive use of duple meter. A tour-de-force of rhythmic agility, the movement accumulates tremendous energy, recalling material from the preceding movements before coming to a brilliant conclusion. 
—Walter Simmons

Walter Simmons writes regularly for Fanfare magazine, is a contributor to The New Grove Dictionaries of Music and is a recipient of the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for music criticism.

SELECTED DISCOGRAPHY

BagatellesO Cool is the ValleyParable IX; Serenade No. 1; So Pure the Star; Turn Not Thy Face. University of Kansas Symphonic Band, Robert Foster conducting. Golden Crest ATH-5055. 
Harmonium; Piano Quintet. Darleen Kliewer, soprano; New Art String Quartet; Lois McLeod, Vincent Persichetti, pianists. Arizona State University JMP-102679. 
Love; MassWinter Cantata. Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, Tamara Brooks conducting. New World 80316. 
Serenade No. 7; Piano Sonatas Nos. 10 and 11. Ellen Burmeister, pianist. Owl 29.

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

Patterson, Donald L. and Janet L. Vincent Persichetti: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, Conn. Greenwood Press, 1988. 
Shackelford, Rudy. “Conversation with Vincent Persichetti.” Perspectives of New Music, 1981-2, pp. 104-34. 
Simmons, Walter. “Vincent Persichetti.” In The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, H. Wiley Hitchcock and Stanley Sadie, eds. London and New York: Macmillan, 1986.

Vincent Persichetti • Choral Works (Winter Cantata, Mass, Love) Liner Notes

Vincent Persichetti • Choral Works (Winter Cantata, Mass, Love) New World 80316-2

For the past three decades the name of Vincent Persichetti has come to signify musicianship of a comprehensiveness virtually unmatched among American composers. His influence reaches young pianists nurtured on his Sonatinas and Little Piano Book, school musicians who first experience serious contemporary music through his works for band (among them Pageant, New World Records 80211-2), church choirs who turn to his Hymns and Responses for the Church Year as an inexhaustible resource, young composers who have attended his spell-binding lecture-recitals or who find his classic textbook Twentieth Century Harmony indispensable, and soloists and conductors for whom his sonatas, concertos, and symphonies stand among the masterworks of American music. Persichetti represents an attitude that encourages healthy creative participation at all levels of sophistication and shuns dogmas that revere one school of composition at the expense of others.

Persichetti was born on June 6, 1915, in Philadelphia. At the age of five he was enrolled in the Combs Conservatory, where he learned to play the piano, organ, and double bass. He also studied theory and composition under Russell King Miller, who became his most influential teacher. In his teens Persichetti memorized the scores to be performed at weekly concerts of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and then attended the concerts to compare his inner perceptions against the actual sounds. Before graduating from high school he had performed a good deal on radio, in churches, and in recitals. Composition was an integral part of his musical activity from the start, as was exposure to other arts. Persichetti attended art school during his adolescence, and sculpture continues to be an important creative outlet for him.

On graduating from the Combs Conservatory with a Bachelor of Music degree in 1936, Persichetti became head of its theory and composition departments. He also continued studying—piano with Olga Samaroff, composition with Paul Nordoff at the Philadelphia Conservatory (Master of Music 1941; Doctor of Music 1945), and conducting with Fritz Reiner at the Curtis Institute. From 1932 to 1948 he served as organist and choirmaster at Philadelphia’s Arch Street Presbyterian Church, where he performed organ versions of excerpts from the dozens of complex modern scores he was studying. In 1941 the Philadelphia Conservatory appointed Persichetti to head the theory and composition departments, and in 1947 William Schuman invited him to join the Juilliard faculty as well. He became chairman of the Juilliard composition department in 1963 and of the Literature and Materials department in 1970.

Throughout his active teaching career Persichetti has continued to compose prodigiously, producing a body of works now numbering more than 150, including nine symphonies, four string quartets, twelve piano sonatas, and assorted pieces for almost every instrument and ensemble. Through his vast output—and through his writings and lectures as well—Persichetti has argued eloquently on behalf of an amalgamation of virtually all musical materials and techniques, past and present, into a fluent working vocabulary, or “common practice,” capable of a full spectrum of expression. In Persichetti’s music this has entailed a broad stylistic palette, extending from extreme diatonic simplicity to complex, densely contrapuntal atonality. This range has not evolved according to a chronological sequence, which has bewildered many who have tried to infer a conventional pattern of development from casual exposure to his music. Rather, Persichetti has defined two temperamental elements that have been present in his work from the beginning: a “gracious” or amiable spirit and a “gritty” or abrasive one. These two elements underlie his entire output, to one degree or another, in a variety of stylistic guises, depending on the requirements of the piece itself. The essential Persichetti dictum, stated at both the beginning and the end of his Twentieth Century Harmony, “Any tone can succeed any other tone… depending upon the skill and the soul of the composer,” might be paraphrased to describe his own output: “Any work can succeed any other work….”

Persichetti’s wide range of expression has made it difficult for some listeners to discern a personal profile or unifying character in his music. With greater familiarity, however, a clearly recognizable personality emerges, characterized by a pervasive geniality of spirit in full control of whatever dynamic conflicts may be at work within the music. Following the lineage of Mozart and Mendelssohn, Persichetti seems to exult in the childlike joy of pure musical creativity. He is fond of pandiatonic, quartal, and polytonal harmony, lucid textures, and playful, vital rhythms. Absent are bombast, sentimentality, or Romantic self-involvement, even in works marked by agitation and conflict. Although Persichetti has often worked with large structures, he is inclined toward sparse gestures and epigrammatic forms—indeed, many of his large works are built upon diminutive concepts.

Persichetti’s choral music plays an important role in his output. Hymns and Responses for the Church Year, Op. 68, provide thematic source material on which Persichetti has drawn for many subsequent works. The use of self-quotation—musical inventories, cross-references, and indexes—as a compositional device suggests an archival intellectual bent consistent with the eclecticism so deeply rooted in his nature. This same attitude is reflected in the selection of texts for the Hymns and Responses, from the Bible through Shakespeare and Milton to Louis Untermeyer and Conrad Aiken. Persichetti’s comprehensive world view is probably epitomized in The Creation, Op. 111, for soloists, chorus, and orchestra, which the composer regards as his chef-d’oeuvre. It is more than an hour in duration, and its text has more than fifty sources— mythological, scientific, poetic, and Biblical—ranging from Altai to Zuñi.

Persichetti describes himself as a Judaic-Vedic-Christian, for whom all religious sources are suitable for musical interpretation. Yet when he is composing a work with particular sectarian associations, he totally assumes that spiritual outlook. His Mass, Op. 84, composed in 1960 for the Collegiate Chorale, may be viewed in this light. In many ways it is an orthodox a cappella Mass, its Renaissance heritage reflected in its use of a Gregorian chant as the unifying theme, and in its reliance on imitative counterpoint as its chief developmental technique. The Phrygian implications of the Gregorian theme give the work a generally dark color and the extensive use of quartal harmony produces a coolness of mood. A general tone of detached introspection is maintained until the final Agnus Dei, an ardent plea for peace.

The terse economy of means characteristic of haiku is compatible with Persichetti’s aesthetic. He was moved to compose his Winter Cantata, Op. 97, in 1964 after his daughter gave him a collection of haiku, A Net of Fireflies. (This collection also provided the words for his song cycle A Net of Fireflies, Op. 115.) Winter Cantata is scored for women’s chorus, flute, and marimba, and consists of twelve short movements. Without any overt musical references, the work is Japanese in spirit, largely as a result of its own delicate, highly concentrated gestures. The coolness of the flute and the brittleness of the marimba evoke the winter moods and images of the poems. The main unifying musical motifs are a chord based on the first five steps of the Phrygian mode, which appears at the outset of the work, and a minor-seventh arpeggiation, which increases in importance as the work proceeds. There are also subtle motivic links that connect each movement to the next. Within the overall unity of mood and subject matter there is great contrast and variety in gesture and articulation. The Epilogue, a compositional tour de force characteristic of Persichetti, consists of word groups and associated musical motifs drawn in sequence from all the preceding movements and woven into a coherent poetic and musical entity, an appropriate “index” to the entire work.

Persichetti composed Love, a setting for women’s voices of a portion of the Book of Corinthians, as a surprise for his wife Dorothea in celebration of their thirtieth wedding anniversary on June 3, 1971. On that day he presented her with the score and with a recording that had been prepared for the occasion under the direction of Tamara Brooks, who shares the work’s dedication. An interesting musical feature of this short piece is the use of the tritone—traditionally associated with discord and discontent—as a basic concord or tonic structure.

WALTER SIMMONS is a musicologist and critic who specializes in contemporary music. He is a contributor to The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and many other publications, director of music projects for Educational Audio Visual, Inc., and a faculty member of the Thomas J.Watson Research Center (IBM)

This recording was originally released on LP as NW 316.

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

By Persichetti

Essay on his Hymns and Responses for the Church Year in R. S Hines, ed.: The Composer’s Point of View: Essays on Twentieth-Century Choral Music by Those Who Wrote It. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963, P. 41.
Essay on his orchestral works in R S Hines ed The Orchestral Composer’s Point of View: Essays on Twentieth-Century Music by Those Who Wrote It. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970, P. 166
Twentieth Century Harmony.New York: Norton, 1961.
With F R. Sebreiber.William Schuman.New York: Schirmer 1954.

About Persichetti

Evett, Robert. “The Music of Vincent Persichetti,“Juilliard Review, Spring 1955, P. 15
Rubin, D. M. “Vincent Persichetti,” ASCAP in Action, Spring 1980, P. 8.
Schuman, William. “The Complete Musician,” Musical Quarterly, July 1961, P. 379.
Shackelford, R.: “Conversation with Vincent Persichetti,” Perspectives of New Music, January 1983.
Simmons,Walter.“A Persichetti Perspective,” American Record Guide, May 1977 P. 6.
___. Review of Persichetti’s Harmonium and Piano Quintet, Fanfare, Nov.-Dec 1981, P. 217.
___. Review of Russian recording of Persichetti piano music, Fanfare, Jan.-Feb. 1983, P. 226.
___. Review of two Persichetti concertos, Fanfare, Sept.-Oct. 1980, P. 178.
Weisgall, Hugo. Review of Persichetti’s Stabat Mater, Musical Quarterly, July 1964, P. 379.
See also Persichetti brochure (containing complete list of works) published by Theodore Presser Company, Bryn Mawr, PA. 19010.

SELECTED DISCOGRAPHY

Bagatelles, Op 87 Masquerade, Op 102 Psalm, Op. 53. Serenade No 11, Op. 85. So Pure the Star, Op. 91. Symphony No 6, Op 69. Ohio State University Concert Band, Persichetti conducting Coronet S-1247.
Bagatelles, Op 87. O Cool Is the Valley, Op 118 Parable IX, Op 121 Serenade No 1, Op 1 So Pure the Star, Op 91 Turn Not Thy Face, Op. 105 University of Kansas Symphonic Band, Foster conducting Golden Crest ATH-5055.
Concerto for Piano, Four Hands, Op. 56.Vincent and Dorothea Persichetti, piano CBS ML-4989.
Concerto for Piano, Four Hands, Op. 56. Piano Sonata No. 9, Op 58. Sonata for Two Pianos, Op 13. Alexander Bakhchiev and Elena Sorokina, pianos Melodiya C10-16133-4.
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 90. Robert Taub, piano; The Philadelphia Orchestra, Chades Dutoit conducting. Symphony No. 5, Op 61 (for strings), The Philadelphia Orchestra, Riccardo Muti conducting New World 80370-2.
Four Cummings Choruses, Op 98 Parable IX, Op 121. Symphony No 6, Op 69. (excerpts) Te Deum, Op. 93. Chorus, band, and orchestra of Tennessee Tech University; Chancellor, Persichetti, Pegram,Wattenbarger conducting. USC Sound Enterprises KM-1558.
Harmonium, Op. 50. Darleen Kltewer, soprano; Lois McLeod, piano. Piano Quintet, Op 66.New Art String Quartet; Persichetti, piano Arizona State University JMP-102679.
Night Dances. Op 114.The Juilliard Orchestra, James DePreist conducting New World 80396-2.
Pageant, Op 59.The Northwestern University Symphonic Wind Ensemble, Paynter conducting New World 80211-2.
Quartets Nos. 1-4, Op. 7, 24, 81, 122 New Art String Quartet. Arizona State University 1976-ARA.
Serenade No 10, Op. 79. Louise DiTullio, flute; Susan McDonald, harp Klavier KS-560.
Sonata for Cello Solo, Op. 54. David Moore, cello. Opus One 6. 
Symphony No 5, Op. 61 (for strings). Louisville Orchestra, Robert Whitney conducting Louisville LOU-5457.
Symphony No 6, Op. 69 (for band). Eastman Symphonic Wind Ensemble, Frederick Fennell conducting Mercury SRI-75094.
Symphony No 8, Op. 106. Louisville Orchestra, Jorge Mester conducting. Louisville LS-706.
Symphony No 9, Janiculum, Op. 113. The Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy conducting. RCA LSC-3212.

Winter Cantata (Cantata No.2)

(Text Material from NET OF FIREFLIES, translated by Harold Stewart, reprinted by special permission from the Charles E. Tuttle Co, Inc. of Rutland, Vermont, and Tokyo, Japan.)

1 A Copper Pheasant

A copper pheasant wakes with shrill-edged cry:
The silver crescent cuts the chilly sky.
Kikaku

2 Winter’s First Drizzle

Winter’s first drizzle falls,
The air is raw,
That shivering monkey needs a cape of straw.
Bashô

3 Winter Seclusion

Winter seclusion:
on the window pane,
The silver fern of frost has grown again
Hô-ô

4 The Woodcutter

Within the wintry grove,
my axe-head fell
And bit the bark how
startling was its smell!
Buson

5 Gentlest Fall of Snow

Ah! the first,
the gentlest fall of snow:
Enough to make the jonquil leaves bend low.
Bashô

6 One Umbrella

One umbrella,
as snowy dusk draws on,
Has come;
one umbrella has come,
and passes by;
and now is gone
Yaha

7 Of Crimson Ice

The rime has frozen overnight
to gems of crimson ice along the buckwheat sterns.
Rankô

8 The Branch is Black

The branch is black and bare again;
a crow shook down its coverlet of powdered snow.
Hô-ô

9 Fallen Leaves

The winter’s fitful gusts, as they expire,
Bring enough fallen leaves to build a fire.
Ryôkon

10 So Deep

So deep, the heavy snow since yesterday,
Its drifts remain
Sweep, sweep as you may.
Lzembô

11 The Wind’s Whetstone

Through jagged cedars rips the winter blast,
honed cragged ledges as it passed.
Bashô

12 Epilogue

A copper pheasant…
winter’s drizzle falls…
seclusion…
within the wintry grove…
Ah! the first, the gentlest fall of snow…
one umbrella…
the rime has frozen…
a crow shook down its coverlet to build a fire …
so deep…
through jagged cedars…
as it passed.
Misc.

Mass

13 Kyrie

Kyrie eleison
Christe eleison.
Kyrie eleison

14 Gloria

Gloria in excelsis Deo,
Et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.
Laudamus te.
Benedicimus te.
Adoramus te. Glorificamus te.
Gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam
Domine Deus.
Rex coelestis,
Deus Pater omnipotens.
Domine Fili unigenite
Jesu Christe.
Domine Deus,Agnus Dei, Filius Patris.
Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Qui touts peccata mundi, suscipe deprecationem nostram.
Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, miserere nobis.
Quoniam tu solos sanctus
Tuo solus Dominus
Tu solus Altissimus, Jesu Christe.
Cum Sancto Spiritu in gloria Dei Patris. Amen.

15 Credo

Credo in unum Deum,
Patrem omnipotentem, factorem coeli et terrae,
visibilium omnium et invisibilium.
Et in unum Dominum jesum Christum Filium Dei
unigenitum et ex.
Patre natum ante omnia saecula, Deum de Deo
lumen de lumine, Deum verum de Deo vero.
Genitum, non factum,
consubsuntialem Patri: per quem omnia facta sunt.
Qui propter nos homines,
et propter nostram salutem descendit de coelis.
Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto ex Maria Virgine:
Et homo factus est.
Crucifixus etiam pro nobis:
sub Pontio Pilato passus, et sepultus est.
Et resurrexit tertia die secundum Scripturas et ascendit, in coelum:
sedet ad dexteram Patris,
Et iterum
venturus est cum gloria judicare vivos et mortuos:
cujus regni non erit finis.
Et in Spiritum Sanctum, Dominum, et vivificantem:
qui ex Patre Filioque procedit
Qui cum Patre et Filis simul adoratur,
et conglorificatur:
qui locutus est per Prophetas.
Et unam, sanctam, catholicam, et apostolicam Ecclesiam.
Confiteor unum baptisma in remissionem peccatorum.
Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum.
Et vitam venturi saeculi.
Amen.

16 Sanctus

Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus,
Dominus Deus Sabaoth
Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua.
Hosanna, in excelsis
Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.
Hosanna in excelsis

17 Agnus Dei

Agnus Dei,
qui tollis peccata mundi,
miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei,
qui tollis peccata mundi,
miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei,
qui tollis peccata mundi,
dona nobis pacem

18 LOVE

Love,
love is patient,
love is kind,
love is not boastful;
love is not arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way.
Love is not irritable, resentful;
it does not rejoice at wrong,
but love rejoices in the right.
Love bears all things,
love believes,
love hopes,
love endures all things.
Love never ends.
(from I Corinthians:18,4-8)

PETER MENNIN: Folk Overture. Symphony No. 8. Symphony No. 9

PETER MENNIN:

  • Folk Overture
  • Symphony No. 8
  • Symphony No. 9

The 1930s and 40s, when Peter Mennin was coming of age as a composer, was a time of proud national identity for American music. During this period the federal government, through the Works Progress Administration, fostered the performance of an enormous quantity of American music, bringing the works of dozens of composers before the musical public. Many American composers, inspired by the ideal of democratizing the arts, began to forge a recognizably native musical language, accessible to the general listener. But this populist spirit was short-lived; by the late 1940s the federal government had curtailed its artistic involvement, and the notion of a broadly comprehensible musical language soon fell out of fashion.

During the following decades, the serial approach to composition was adopted by an avant-garde elite and was granted considerable status among influential academic circles. Many of the composers who had been associated with the populist approach now joined this internationalist movement, shaping what became the postwar American compositional mainstream. Others, still committed to a musical language based on indigenous materials, continued in the then unfashionable “Americana” vein 

For a third group, the populist approach had lost its appeal, but serialism appeared equally unattractive. These composers sought to develop distinctive personal styles by drawing upon aspects of traditional musical practice, resisting the pressure to conform to current trends. Some enjoyed high reputations, having attained them during the previous era. But their music was accorded little serious consideration, often receiving glib, peremptory dismissal from the critics. This body of music has remained one of the least known and least understood segments of the American repertoire.

Mennin is among the youngest and most notable members of this group of composers; his music brought him to national prominence during the mid-1940s, while he was still in his early twenties. Born in 1923 in Erie, Pennsylvania, Mennin (who shortened his name from Mennini, to distinguish himself from his older brother Louis, also a composer) began composing before he was seven years old. Independent-minded from the start, he preferred working on his own and later claimed to have been largely self-taught in composition. Entering the Oberlin College Conservatory in 1939, he worked under Normand Lockwood, whose aesthetics he found antithetical to his own. After a year or so he left to join the Army Air Force. In 1942, having completed a forty-five-minute Symphony No.1 (now withdrawn), he entered the Eastman School of Music because of its policy of playing through students’ orchestral works. There he studied with Bernard Rogers and Howard Hanson, earning a Ph.D. at the age of twenty-four, despite his self- described role as a renegade. By this time, he had completed two more symphonies, one of which had already been performed by the New York Philharmonic. Upon graduating, he was appointed to the composition faculty of the Juilliard School, where he remained until 1958, when he was named director of the Peabody Conservatory. In 1962 he became president of the Juilliard School, a position he held until his death in 1983.

Mennin’s career as an administrator, compounded by his cool, businesslike manner and his well- tailored appearance, disguised a profound dedication to his own creative work. As a composer, Mennin worked almost exclusively in large, abstract forms, completing barely thirty works, of which nine are symphonies. His music is never light, frivolous, or sentimental, but it is not dispassionately intellectual, either. Rather, it is an attempt to convey the inner drama of his own soul, by means of the finest craftsmanship of which he was capable.
Although he acknowledged no conscious musical influences other than the polyphonic techniques of the Renaissance, his earlier work (pre-1960) calls to mind both the lofty grandeur of the Vaughan Williams symphonies and the contrapuntal energy of Hindemith. Yet there is no mistaking Mennin’s individual stamp, which is apparent from his earliest works to his last, despite the considerable evolution that his style underwent.

Mennin’s pieces from the 1940s, characterized by a brash assertiveness, strongly rooted in diatonic modality, and propelled by lively, syncopated rhythms, are linked to the American mainstream of their time. The most salient characteristic of Mennin’s mature style is already evident in the early Folk Overture, composed in 1945 while he was still an Eastman student. It presents a continuous unfolding through imitative counterpoint—as was practiced by the composers of the Renaissance—rather than through the more conventional dialectic between contrasting materials. This bustling undercurrent of rapid contrapuntal activity, vastly different in effect from the calm spirituality of the sixteenth-century masters, proceeds with unswerving determination, creating a constant sense of nervous energy, balanced somewhat by a full-breathed modal lyricism. 

By the early 1950s, with the appearance of the String Quartet No. 2, the Concertato for Orchestra (“Moby Dick”), and the Symphony No.6, Mennin’s music began to take on a new grimness and sobriety, with contrapuntal activity that became almost compulsive in its unremitting agitation and frenzy. These and subsequent works reveal a bold vision of abstract forces in ceaseless, violent conflict, escalating in intensity toward cataclysmic explosions of almost manic brutality. The slow movements provide oases for solemn contemplation, featuring long-spun melodies that unfold polyphonically with Bach-like dignity. The harmonic language is harsher in these works and there is greater chromatic freedom, although strong tonal centers are asserted at major structural junctures. 
Through the 1960s, Mennin’s works remained remarkably consistent in style, tone, and scope, despite a gradual increase in concentration and complexity—harmonic, contrapuntal, and rhythmic—that produced an overall intensification of effect. The output of works became like an inexorable linear succession, each entry grimmer, harsher, and more severe than the last. The high points of the 1960s are the Symphony No.7 (New World Records NW 258) and a starkly unsentimental cantata based on The Pied Piper of Hamelin.

From 1970 until his death in 1983 at age 60, Mennin completed only five works, but these reveal some significant evolutionary developments, substantive modifications of a musical language that hitherto had been remarkable for its consistency. The philosophical and emotional content remained unchanged, but the syntax became far more terse and uncompromising.
These new developments are apparent in the Symphony No.8, completed in 1973. Unlike those in most of Mennin’s other symphonies, each of its four movements bears an inscription, taken from the Bible, implying an expressive intent. The first movement, marked In principio, evokes a sense of stasis, perhaps suggestive of the beginning of time. In this movement, the gradual compression of polyphony, first hinted at in the 1960s, has finally led to the “verticalization” of linear ideas into seething, cluster-like chordal structures, orchestrated with uncharacteristic attention to sonority and texture. In the second movement, Dies irae, typical Mennin motivic fragments swirl wildly in frantic instrumental byplay enhanced by plentiful use of percussion, leading to explosive eruptions. The third movement, De profundis clamavi, is characteristic of the composer in its focus on somber linear polyphony, though not in its markedly reduced feeling of tonal center. The fourth movement, Laudate Dominum, conveys a tremendous sense of agitation, which finally culminates in a decisive tonal affirmation.

The Symphony No.9, commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra, was Mennin’s penultimate work, completed in 1981. The outer two of the work’s three movements are in much the same vein as the outer movements of the preceding symphony. The first, Lento non troppo, opens mysteriously, with tremulous textures, before building in power and rhythmic energy to massive climaxes which then subside, allowing the movement to end quietly. The third, Presto tumultuoso, is a representative Mennin finale, unleashing itself in a paroxysm of fury before consolidating its energy for a resolute conclusion. The most remarkable movement of the symphony, however, is the second, marked Adagio arioso. With a pure, elegiac melody, in uncharacteristically homophonic relief, it imparts a more ardently Romantic quality than the composer ordinarily allowed to emerge, even in earlier works. Although composed before the onset of the fatal illness that was soon to end his life, it is the sort of movement, appearing in a final symphony and suggesting a sense of profound grief borne with dignified restraint, that annotators seize upon as having valedictory significance. Perhaps not inappropriately, this was the music performed at his memorial service.

BARBER: Antony and Cleopatra

BARBER: Antony and Cleopatra. Jeffrey Wells, bass-baritone (Antony); Esther Hinds, soprano (Cleopatra); Robert Grayson, tenor (Caesar); Eric Halfvarson, bass-baritone (Enobarbus); Jane Bunnell, mezzo-soprano (tras); Kathryn Cowdrick, alto (Charmian); Westminster Choir (Joseph Flummervelt, director); Spoleto Festival Orchestra conducted by Christian Badea. NEW WORLD RECORDS NW 322/323/324 (three discs), produced by Elizabeth Ostrow, $29.94.

The notorious premiere of Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra was an event whose significance was at least as much sociological as artistic. Without belaboring what may already be familiar to many readers: Samuel Barber had been selected to provide a new work for the opening in 1966 of the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, cultural showpiece of the “Great Society” era. Barber, a dependably “safe” composer in the eyes of the cultural plutocracy, was a sensible choice. Not only had he demonstrated a gift for vocal music, with two operas and many songs to his credit, but he was a WASP aristocrat himself who had enjoyed a long line of successes under the most prestigious auspices. Rewarded for writing the kind of well-bred, conservative music that was most natural to him by hearing it performed by the world’s greatest musicians, Barber had little reason to jeopardize his fortunate position.

Art, of course, is subject to different criteria from those applicable to social or political (or even moral) questions; thus inferences or extrapolations cannot be made from one realm to the other. However, most people are more comfortable with questions of the latter kind than with those prompted by a work of art — modern art, in particular — and frequently simplify the issue by reacting to artists on the basis of their social “image” or affiliation — especially in times of social polarization. By the mid 1960s a growing anti-establishment feeling had begun to reach the most sclerotic cultural institutions, if only in the form of that fatuous vanity known as “radical chic.” Samuel Barber, comfortably enshrined in middle age, had become an easy target for people who couldn’t distinguish his music from Aaron Copland’s, but who saw him as the well-fed beneficiary of artistic complacency and social privilege — two unpardonable sins according to the standards of “radical chic.”

This was the climate in which Antony and Cleopatra was introduced, with libretto and staging by Franco Zeffirelli, and with Leontyne Price in the role of Cleopatra. The artistic significance of the event was dwarfed by the surrounding circumstances, and the reactions of many observers were preconditioned before the first note was played. Overly elaborate staging, evidently motivated by lack of confidence in the music, proved disastrous, supplying a convenient point of entry for sneering critics. Amid comprehensive condemnation, little of substance was ever said about the music, aside from the usual guilt-by-association drivel that is the middlebrow critic’s stock-in-trade.

Barber was reportedly devastated by this unmitigated failure; indeed, a number of his friends attributed his subsequent withdrawal from composition, save for a handful of minor, mediocre pieces, to the demoralizing effect of this public abuse. Moreover, many who knew and understood Barber’s music insisted that the work deserved a rehearing, that it had simply been overwhelmed by the production and the event itself. While conceding that Barber’s particular gifts were not ideally suited to the spectacular grandeur of Shakespeare’s play, they argued that the work contained much fine music that could be successfully reshaped into a somewhat different sort of opera. This contention gained support as a result of Leontyne Price’s magnificent recording of two impressive excerpts from the opera (available on RCA AGLI-5221). Finally, with the help of Gian-Carlo Menotti, who had written the librettos for Barber’s two previous operas and understood his artistic personality deeply, the composer undertook a major revision, essentially retailoring the work to more intimate proportions.

The revised version was presented by the Juilliard American Opera Center in 1975, at which time it met with a much more favorable response. It was presented again at the Spoleto Festival in 1983, the production from which this recording was taken, providing the general public with an opportunity to become acquainted with the work and evaluate it for themselves. 

Looking back over the comments — mostly inane, some reasonable — that have been made about Antony and Cleopatra in its several productions and versions, one criticism recurs: that the work does not capture the scope, depth of characterization, or grandeur of vision found in Shakespeare’s play. This is definitely true. But it is also true of virtually all operas based on Shakespeare’s serious plays — including the most popular and generally admired that may occur to the reader. As was belatedly recognized, Barber’s gifts favor intense emotions within an intimate human context — not grand spectacles. But, opera being such an unwieldy, intransigent, and circumscribed art form, with few necessary or sufficient conditions for its success, it seems to me foolish to complain about what dramatic qualities may be lacking. What ultimately matters is what an opera does — not doesn’t — do. After all, there is hardly a successful opera (Mozart’s, perhaps, being the exceptions) that doesn’t fail to meet the highest standards of drama. Obviously, these standards are not really relevant to opera, and only with new operas are they strenuously applied. More relevant questions are: Does the music support the basic emotional tone of the drama? Does the music carry the dramatic progression without weighing it down? Is the music interesting and ingratiating in its own right? Is the vocal writing practical and effective? 

Applying these questions to Antony and Cleopatra, I would answer in the affirmative. With much of the problematic spectacle music, several characters, and some extravagant orchestral effects eliminated, and the dramatic and musical structure somewhat simplified, one is left with a torrid melodrama of sexual obsession set against an exotic, ancient Mediterranean back-drop. Most closely resembling the gorgeous Andromache’s Farewell of 1963, the music is consistently affecting and engrossing, propelled by a readily graspable dramatic and musical logic, a consistent style and emotional tone, and plenty of musical lines that remain in the memory. The musical language shifts on a fulcrum between a stern “Roman” tone built on fourths and fifths in the manner of Rozsa and a chromatic, languorous “Egyptian” opulence reminiscent of Scriabin’s ecstatic vein. Sumptuously orchestrated, quite a few of its 15 scenes boast music of stunning lyricism and majestic nobility in Barber’s mature romantic style, with broader harmonic and rhythmic scope than his best-known music from the 1930s and more integrity than the imitative neoclassical pieces of the 1940s. Furthermore, despite the cloud that has hung over the work for nearly 20 years, the music has left its mark on much of the operatic and vocal output of younger American composers who have followed the Barber tradition, e.g., Hoiby, Pasatieri, Sbordoni  — even Sondheim, in Sweeney Todd.

The performance captured here is extremely convincing, the dramatic tension carefully regulated by Christian Badea. As Antony and Cleopatra, bass-baritone Jeffrey Wells and soprano Esther Hinds (who created the role in the 1975 premiere of the revised version) are both fine. Only bass-baritone Eric Halfvarson, a rather woolly Enobarbus, is disappointing. The chorus could be a little stronger, but the orchestra is excellent. Aside from a slight lack of presence noticeable when the percussion should be more prominent, the recorded sound is more than adequate, enabling the generous supply of musico-dramatic highpoints to achieve shattering impact.

I would not at all be surprised if this recording launches a new life for Antony and Cleopatra. It is hard to believe that anyone looking for the conventional operatic virtues will he disappointed by it.  

BARBER: Essay No. 3, Op. 47. CORIGLIANO: Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra

BARBER: Essay No. 3, Op. 47. CORIGLIANO: Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra.Stanley Drucker, clarinet; New York Philharmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta. NEW WORLD RECORDS NW-309, produced by Andrew Kazdin, $8.98 (available from: New World Records, 3 East 54th Street, New York, NY 10022).

Samuel Barber completed his Essay No. 3 in 1978, and it proved to be his last major work, as the composer died in January of this year, after a long illness. The current availability of recordings of most of Barber’s music, from Op. 1 through Op. 47, enables us to consider fully the fruits of the long career of one of America’s most distinguished composers.

The most characteristic trait of Barber’s music is an elegiac lyricism often inspired explicitly by literary sources, and usually built around long, beautifully expressive lines notable for their purity and independence from traditional melodic wellsprings (e.g., folk melos, Italian opera, German Lied, etc.). The meticulous spinning of such melodies, of which a representative example is the slow movement of the Violin Concerto, remained Barber’s greatest gift. During the 1930s. the composer’s most fertile period, he enlarged this melodic affinity to embrace a more extroverted, even melodramatic emotionalism, and this remained an important aspect of much of his best music, from Music for a Scene from Shelley through Vanessa and Antony and Cleopatra.

However, Barber was at times led to drift outside his areas of greatest strength, and the results were often disappointing. If he was at his best in capturing and depicting moods and emotional states, the characteristic brevity of most of his music was but one indication of a difficulty in sustaining musical structures-particularly larger forms. When he explored a bracing, angular language, applying it in abstract contexts, e.g., the Cello Concerto,Capricorn Concerto, Piano Sonata, to name a few, the results often rang false, lacking both conviction and cohesion. This problem seemed to grow worse as he grew older, although some later works were exceptionally fine, such as the opera Antony and Cleopatra in its final, revised form.

Barber’s sensitive temperament was particularly vulnerable to the scorn which developed over the years in reaction to his just, if easily won, early success — especially as musical fashions became increasingly hostile toward his brand of lush romanticism. The overwhelmingly negative response to the 1966 premiere of Antony and Cleopatra which opened the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, was particularly devastating although much of the criticism was directed toward extramusical factors. Many of Barber’s works — the Adagio for Strings, Violin Concerto, Knoxville: Summer o f 1915, among others — retained an uninterrupted popularity, but the negative criticism seemed to exert a disproportionate influence on his creative equilibrium. Perhaps due also to the onset of serious illness, his last works seem somehow to echo half-heartedly the gestures of his earlier days.

Such is the case with the Essay No. 3, a work that looks back past the neoclassically influenced works of his last 30 years to the rhapsodic grandiloquence of the two earlyEssays. But lacking the cumulative, episodic drama of those great pieces, it simply parades a couple of attractive themes through a lavish orchestral wardrobe, eventually arriving at an opulent but obligatory climax whose paralyzed harmonic motion is ultimately frustrating. There is something sad, if not pathetic, in all this — something, as Mann perceived so profoundly in Deatb in Venice, that haunts every Romantic who lives past the age of 33.

Yet I have no doubt about the extraordinary value of Barber’s achievement, considered in toto. Fully half of his entire output. including works in all the media in which he worked — the Symphony No. 1, Essays Nos. 1 and 2, the operas Vanessa and Antony and Cleopatrachoral works like the Prayers of Kierkegaard and the a capella Reincarnations, the balletMedea, chamber works like the Cello Sonata and the String Quartet, at least a dozen of the songs, and various other pieces — stand among the most universally communicative, deeply moving music our century has produced.

The pairing of music by Barber and John Corigliano is particularly appropriate, as the latter occupies in many ways a parallel place in the music world of today to that occupied by Barber in the past generation. Thus it is interesting to compare the evolution of the younger man’s career in, light of one of his acknowledged mentors. Corighano, too, has achieved enormous public success, which seems to grow with every year, becoming a favored figure among major musical institutions, from which he has received some highly prestigious commissions. Of course, the primary difference between the two lies in the actual substance of their music. although both are communicative composers whose music is clearly directed toward reaching an audience. But in place of Barber’s intimate personal confessions, Corigliano has developed an intentionally impersonal approach, involving pastiches drawn from an enormous array of sound sources, including serialism, chance, tonality, folk music, quotations, or anything else. (“If I have my own style, I’m not aware of it.”) His is a theatrical eclecticism that suggests, more than anyone else, another of his mentors. Leonard Bernstein. minus the jazz, Judaism, and obvious tunes. 

Indeed, Bernstein conducted the premiere of Corigliano’s 1977 Clarinet Concerto, although Mehta directs this recording. The Concerto actually sounds quite similar to Corigliano’s score for the film Altered States, with its chaotic, brilliantly colored frenzy. Containing everything from Gabrieli fragments and antiphonal effects achieved by special seating to 12-tone rows blazing in giant fireballs of sound, the Concerto whips up a tremendous amount of activity, which, in a stunning performance like this, is enormously effective. Despite a subdued, somber, slow movement, the work is so concentrated with “events” that the listener’s attention never flags, although one may question whether the piece ultimately amounts to any more than a sort of psychedelic light-show for the ears.

This release, offering two recent works new to records, is another valuable addition to the New World “Recorded Anthology of American Music.” As in previous releases, program notes are copious and highly informative. However, annotator Phillip Ramey, who brings sympathy and knowledge to his role as explicator of the “established traditionalists”– Copland, Barber, Schuman, Bernstein, Corighano — presenting these often poorly understood composers in an intelligent, revealing light, ought to resist the temptation to indulge his own vanity by littering his otherwise valuable interviews with irrelevant personal trivia.

Long may this series of recordings flourish; for the surface of American music has thus far only been scratched. In fact, without in any way belittling the efforts of New World Records, I must note that many of the greatest achievements in American symphonic music — especially those not part of any well-publicized faction of the modern music scene — are still largely untouched by all the record companies specializing in American music.

LEACH: O Magna Vasti Creta. Call of the Dance. Ariadne’s Lament. Windjammer. Tricky Pan. Song of Sorrows

LEACH O Magna Vasti Creta. Call of the Dance. Ariadne’s Lament. Windjammer. Tricky Pan. Song of Sorrows – NY Treble Singers et al., Virginia Davidson, cond; Libby Van Cleve (ob), Patrick Burton (cl), Klyph Johnson (bn); David Lee Echelard (t, ct); Rooke Chapel Ch, William Payn, cond. – NEW WORLD 80525-2 (55:43)

Mary Jane Leach is a 50-year-old composer, originally from Vermont, who has been living and working in New York City since the 1970s. The pieces on this recent release — all composed between the years 1993-97– represent the only music of hers with which I am familiar, so I cannot place them within the context of her work as a whole. On the basis of this disc, one might describe Leach’s music as an outgrowth or elaboration of the style and techniques of the “mannerist” composers of the medieval Ars Nova, a kind of early polyphonic music that flourished in France during the 13th and 14th centuries. This places her music within the contemplative, tonally static realm associated with composers like Arvo Pärt and John Tavener. Except for one — Windjammer — the compositions offered here concentrate on the human voice, and occupy the high end of the vocal range exclusively. The melodic lines are decidedly modal and diatonic, their tonal stasis supported by much use of sustained drones. In fact, the interaction of the melodic lines with the drones comprises the chief focus of attention, and leads at times — especially in O Magna Vasti Creta, the most active, or “dramatic” of the pieces, and the one in which an actual “climax” can be perceived–to considerable dissonance. But, for the most part, the music is pervaded by what Anthony K. Brandt calls “a luxurious stasis” in his intelligent and highly sympathetic program notes. The connection with antiquity is further reinforced by the use of texts in ancient languages, as well as by the absence of dynamic and expressive markings in the scores. Four of the works reveal an ongoing fascination with the myth of Ariadne, and one even draws upon Monteverdi’s Lasciatemi morire.

Mary Jane Leach’s music displays a serious talent and a sincere commitment to authentic musical values. Yet for many listeners — myself included — the consistently introspective mood and severely restricted harmonic motion characteristic of music of this kind is taxing to one’s patience and concentration. On the other hand, the striking success of composers like Pärt and Tavener suggests that a growing body of listeners is drawn to these qualities. Such listeners may find Leach’s music to be of comparable appeal.

PERSICHETTI: Concerto for English Horn and Strings. ROREM: Concerto for English Horn and Orchestra. HODKINSON: The Edge of the Olde One

PERSICHETTI: Concerto for English Horn and Strings. ROREM: Concerto for English Horn and Orchestra. HODKINSON: The Edge of the Olde One. Thomas Stacy, English Horn; Vincent Persichetti conducting String Orchestra of New York; Michael Palmer conducting the Rochester Philharmonic; Paul Phillips conducting the Eastman Musica Nova. NEW WORLD 80489-2 [ADD\1,3/?; DDD\2/?]; 71:22. Produced by Richard Gilbert, Elizabeth Ostrow, Sydney Hodkinson.

PERSICHETTI: Symphony No. 6. GREGSON: Celebration. MAW: American Games. SCHOENBERG: Theme and Variations. GERSHWIN: Rhapsody in Blue. Eugene Corporon conducting Cincinnati Conservatory Wind Symphony; William Black, piano. KLAVIER KCD-11047 [DDD]; 74:16. Produced by Jack Stamp.

Fanciers of the English horn — are there many? — will certainly be interested in the New World disc, which features three substantial and stylistically diverse contributions to the instrument’s rather meager repertoire. Each was tailored specifically for Thomas Stacy, probably the instrument’s most celebrated virtuoso, and he performs each work splendidly. Only the Rorem work is newly recorded; the other two appeared on a Grenadilla LP issued in 1979, which I reviewed in Fanfare4:1 (pp. 178-30). The Persichetti concerto is a relatively late work, composed in 1977. The following year it won the prestigious Kennedy Center/Friedheim Award. As many late works are conventionally characterized, the concerto has a distinctly autumnal quality — not especially dissonant or abrasive, but cool, dry, and ruminative, resulting in a very low expressive profile, not unlike the relatively familiar Hollow Men for trumpet and strings. Persichetti was fond of re-working thematic material already explored in previous works. This was not a matter of self-aggrandizement, as it is with many composers, or of lazy mannerism, as it is with even more, but rather a key aspect of Persichetti’s remarkable compositional methodology, in which  cross-references among works create a whole sub-text of inter-relationships — a complex subject worthy of an entire doctoral dissertation. (In fact, most of the 25 Parables are commentaries on his previous compositions.) The English horn concerto re-works material that appeared earlier in two of Persichetti’s most important compositions, the Symphony No. 5 for strings (a masterpiece that may be heard on New World 80370-2) and The Creation (a large oratorio as-yet-unrecorded). However, as much as I love Persichetti’s music — and I do believe he is one of America’s greatest — I continue to find this a disappointingly pale and anemic work. Indeed — blasphemy though it may be — it is the least interesting piece on the disc.

The Rorem concerto was only just completed a couple of years ago and is temperamentally a far cry from the Persichetti. While the latter is austere, inward, and reflective, Rorem’s five-movement work has lots of surface appeal. The languorous sensuality of the opening movement immediately calls Samuel Barber to mind, as his later works — Essay No. 3, Fadograph of a Yestern Scene, for example — evoke a very similar sensibility — one that reappears throughout Rorem’s concerto. This deliciously rich, sultry quality is offset by more lithe, active sections, orchestrated with bright splashes of color. On the whole, it is a pleasantly entertaining work, but suggests little beneath the surface, and is not as tightly focused structurally and expressively as Barber’s music always is. This diffuseness may tend to cause one’s attention to wander. 

The Edge of the Olde One, by Canadian composer Sydney Hodkinson, was written the same year as the Persichetti, and exemplifies the sort of music considered fashionably avant-garde during the late 1970s — consistently atonal, with “expanded” instrumental techniques (such as multiphonics) , electronic manipulations, and so forth. Regular readers know that I am no of this sort of stuff, but I must say — as I said back in 1979 — “Hodkinson has created an intensely captivating and fascinating odyssey in sound — a true psychedelic experience, in the best sense of the word… [and] a coherent large-scale structure, exciting and satisfying as an integrated piece of art…” The work was inspired by the ramblings of the English Romantic poet John Clare, who had been declared insane at the time. According to Hodkinson, it is “an elaborate journey of the mind, a trip: often meandering, thorny and dense, that threads itself vaguely across the subconscious:… It is not unlike the eyes (of the lunatic?), constantly darting from image to cloudy image, from insanity to a super-saneness.” This is the sort of music that brought a fleeting prominence to such figures as Jacob Druckman. However, from today’s standpoint, the music that Druckman composed at that time seems important chiefly as a rejection of sterile, artistically irrelevant academic abstractedness, rather than a satisfying alternative. By contrast, the vividness, intensity, and structural coherence of Hodkinson work continues to compel attention.

The Klavier disc offers another installment in the valuable series of recordings featuring the Cincinnati College-Conservatory Wind Symphony under the direction of its ambitious conductor Eugene Corporon. With Persichetti Symphony No 6, we are addressing what is the sine qua non, the ne plus ultra of mid-century American band symphonies — and that was a period that saw a veritable flood of such works. As I have said many times before, Persichetti’s Sixth is neoclassicism’s answer to Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony — and in a mere 16 minutes! What more need be said? Just that it has been recorded twice by Frederick Fennell, who, of course, was the conductor ne plus ultra of mid-century American art music for band — once in 1959 (three years after it was written) with the Eastman Wind Ensemble (available on Mercury 432 754-2), then again in 1989 with the Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra (Kosei KOCD-3101). Both performances are brilliant — similarly so — in conception, stupendous in execution, and breathtakingly recorded. This Cincinnati/Corporon performance is also excellent — very polished and meticulous, as are all the performances on this disc — but rather lacking excitement. The first movement Allegro is too relaxed and passive (sounds like the way today’s orchestras play the standard repertoire — embalmed); the poignant second movement lacks warmth and sensitivity; the third movement is too rushed; the fourth movement is fine. The sonic ambience has a dry deadness that I have noticed on other recordings in this series.

Both Edward Gregson and Nicholas Maw are English, but their pieces, written in 1990 and 1991, respectively, have a decidedly American flavor, at least to my American-oriented ears (the Maw is, of course, overtly American in concept), although neither uses vernacular materials. Actually, what they sound like is the sort of band music composed by the ream by American neoclassicists during the 1960s — a bracing and breezy Stravinsky-Hindemith-Bartok conflation with nifty syncopations, but without Persichetti’s distinctive personal characteristics. The Gregson is a short concert-opener, while the Maw is a full 22 minutes, but neither leaves a strong impression.

Arnold Schoenberg’s Theme and Variations is an international band classic. Listeners who are not familiar with it may be surprised that this clearly tonal composition from 1943 displays neither the torrid hyper-romanticism of the composer’s early work nor the congested, unrelieved angst of the later twelve-tone pieces. Rather, it conjures something of a wry, impish solemnity that suggests Kurt Weill tempered by Hindemith, and illuminates an important, but less familiar, facet of Schoenberg’s compositional personality.

Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is offered in Ferde Grofe’s original jazz-band orchestration. William Black is a fine pianist, but both he and the ensemble approach this chestnut with a gentility that I find too relaxed and polished (though they are far from unique in this misconception). Recordings made under Gershwin’s direct supervision exhibit a rough-hewn feistiness that seems to have disappeared from the performance tradition of this pops favorite.