MUCZYNSKI Piano Sonatas

MUCZYNSKI Piano Sonatas: Nos. 1-3 ● Zachary Lopes (pn) ● ALBANY TROY1771 (42:44)

This is a most welcome recording of Robert Muczynski’s three compelling piano sonatas—the first to appear since Laurel released its two-CD set of the composer’s own performances of his complete solo piano music. I should mention that though the latter recordings were originally issued on LP during the early 1980s, they were re-issued on CD (along with several chamber works) in 2000. Those Laurel CDs are still very much available, and admirers of Muczynski’s music will definitely want them too. Since Laurel CDs are not marketed through many of the usual channels, the most reliable way to access them is directly through the label’s website (LaurelRecord.com).

My colleague Myron Silberstein has done a typically astute job of describing Muczynski’s music, so I will discuss it in more general terms. I have often characterized Muczynski’s style, which remained largely consistent throughout his compositional career, as a kind of romantic neo-classicism. That is, it is modest, understated, devoid of extramusical encumbrance, its substance abstract and developed with great concision. Most of his attention was focused on music for solo piano and for small chamber combinations. There are remarkably few orchestral, choral, or vocal works in his catalog. On the other hand, his music is very appealing, with lively, vigorous rhythmic drive, propelled by syncopation and irregular meters, with an underlying lyricism and a subtle attention to mood. Muczynski’s craftsmanship is meticulous, and his taste is always impeccable. To describe his piano music as comparable in many ways to the piano music of Samuel Barber will give readers a sense of what to expect.

Muczynski was a professional-caliber pianist and his three sonatas (from 1957, 1966, and 1974 respectively) are imposing, highly demanding works that reveal a masterly command of the full range of virtuoso piano technique. The Sonata No. 1 comprises two movements, the first darkly dramatic, followed by driving, rhythmically propulsive material, and the second light-hearted and more extroverted. The Sonata No. 2 is a fine work, but—it must be admitted—is uncomfortably reminiscent of the Barber Sonata in many ways. I will argue that this doesn’t detract from its own individual merit, but knowledgeable listeners are bound to notice, so there’s no point in avoiding it. The Sonata No. 2, the most ambitious of the three, stands alongside the sonatas of Vittorio Giannini, Nicolas Flagello, and Peter Mennin—all composed during the 1960s—among America’s most distinguished works in that medium. The Sonata No. 3 is more lyrical than its predecessors, but all three works are clearly the fruits of a unified, integrated sensibility.

Zachary Lopes is an American-trained pianist, currently based in Kentucky. He has toured widely, featuring the works of Muczynski on many of his programs. He has this music well in hand and conveys its virtues with impressive conviction. Compared with Muczynski’s own recordings, Lopes’s renditions show somewhat greater confidence and polish, while Albany’s rich, spacious sonic ambience exceeds what was possible on an analog recording made during the early 1980s. That said, it would be unfair to assert that this new release supplants Muczynski’s own performances, in view of the composer’s mastery of his own music and the additional repertoire offered on the Laurel discs.

It is worth noting that many commentators have regarded the period 1955 through 1980 as the artistically barren nadir of American musical composition, a time when serialism and other experimental approaches attracted the majority of attention to new music, much of which has proven to be stillborn. But a remarkable quantity of music of the highest quality appeared during that period, by composers who refused to relinquish their belief in music as a means of communication from one soul to others who resonate with its spirit. Much of this music is only now gradually being discovered and recognized. There were more such composers than is generally realized, but four in particular—Dominick Argento, Lee Hoiby, Nicolas Flagello, and Robert Muczynski—faced the difficult challenge of attempting to launch careers as composers during the period when such humanistic values faced the most flagrant disregard. These four virtual contemporaries fought in their own individual ways against an obscurity that continues to veil their contributions to a large extent. They produced much of their most distinguished music during that quarter-century identified above. Interestingly, Argento—a Pulitzer Prize-winner—is probably the one who has enjoyed the highest acclaim and visibility. On the other hand, it is probably Muczynski, pursuing his career off the grid in Arizona, who has drawn the least attention among musicologists and critics of the compositional scene. Yet it is also Muczynski whose music has probably been performed more widely and more frequently than that of the other three. His low profile can be attributed partly to the complete absence of “blockbusters” within his output. Pieces for flute and piano or saxophone and piano don’t often make the headlines, but ask a flutist or saxophonist about Muczynski and you are likely to elicit an enthusiastic reaction. (Especially perplexing is the fact that commentators and performers continue to decry the paucity of works for piano trio, while Muczynski’s three brilliant works for this medium remain largely in the dark. [I must draw the attention of curious listeners to Centaur CRC-2634, which features stupendous performances of his piano trios, along with his string trio.])

Today stylistic strictures have largely disappeared, and composers are free to pursue a wide variety of approaches. Listeners will derive much pleasure from pursuing the works of these composers who never abandoned their commitments to traditional musical values. This fine recording of Muczynski’s piano sonatas provides such an opportunity.

VINCENT PERSICHETTI: Grazioso, Grit, and Gold

VINCENT PERSICHETTI: Grazioso, Grit, and Gold. by Andrea Olmstead. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018. 493 pp. Cloth. $110

The third quarter of the 20th century was an enormously fruitful period in American classical music, which saw the appearance of an extraordinary number of masterworks—indeed, some among the finest works produced in this country. Yet many are still largely unknown to the general public—not to mention the members of the music profession in general. Among the most significant composers who contributed to this veritable bounty was Vincent Persichetti (1915-1987). Therefore the appearance of this book–the first comprehensive biography of the composer–is an auspicious occasion. (Disclosure: I met the author once in 2007, while researching my own book on the music of William Schuman, Persichetti, and Peter Mennin [Voices of Stone and Steel, also published by Rowman and Littlefield]. I have never corresponded with her, and never discussed this book with her, beyond her recent invitation for me to review it. In fact, its publication took me totally by surprise. I should add that her book cites my own writing on Persichetti quite generously.)

Andrea Olmstead’s chief accomplishments until now have probably been her four books on Roger Sessions. But perhaps her most notable and controversial achievement was her history of the Juilliard School, where she studied, which made no effort to conceal many of the less flattering aspects of the institution and the people who shaped its development. Not surprisingly, that book ruffled a lot of feathers. She has now turned her attention to Vincent Persichetti, who—like Sessions—was a member of the Juilliard faculty for many years. This latest effort reflects an extensive amount of research, providing a good deal of general background information within which to understand and appreciate the context from which Persichetti emerged: his family history, the musical life of Philadelphia, and the many musicians who played significant roles within his life. Some of this background seems to reach beyond the realm of relevance (e.g., the fact that Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell were among the musicians who emerged from south Philadelphia, as did Persichetti). But much of it is relevant as well as interesting. For example, I was quite surprised to learn that Persichetti’s parents were convicted of embezzling many thousands of dollars, for which his mother spent significant time in prison.

Another notable revelation—a suspicion I have held for some time, which is supported by Olmstead’s research—is that despite Persichetti’s reputation for extreme humility and generosity toward others, he was not above re-arranging certain historical facts in what appears to be an attempt at self-mythologizing—something that William Schuman did more flagrantly and shamelessly. Even more remarkable is another long-held contention, confirmed here by a number of observations, that while Persichetti apparently displayed truly prodigious musical gifts at an extremely early age—comparable to the gifts of history’s greatest composers—which led to pieces of remarkable sophistication before he reached the age of 20, he was somewhat late (mid 30s) in developing what was a truly personal, individual compositional identity. It seems almost as if his astounding facility interfered with the development of his own compositional voice. 

Olmstead quotes a number of people close to Persichetti who insisted that his extraordinary artistry as a pianist might readily have led to a major career as a composer-pianist, along the lines of a Rachmaninoff. But his dedication to teaching—which was assiduous, as illustrated by a number of anecdotes—was more a commitment to the future of the art form than a means of augmenting his income. A number of his colleagues seemed to feel that this commitment came at the expense of his potential fame and fortune.

The book’s subtitle comes from Persichetti’s oft-quoted comment that the two primary elements in his music are “grace” and “grit”—sometimes one and not the other, and sometimes degrees of both. The “gold” comes from a remark made to Olmstead by Roger Sessions late in his life: “Mr. Persichetti is pure gold.”

In addition to voluminous biographical information, Olmstead discusses all of Persichetti’s works, delving into structural details likely to be of interest largely to potential performers. Included also are short essays by others, including her husband, the composer and Persichetti-student Larry Bell, which focus on particular works in detail. Hopefully, Olmstead’s book will be a significant contribution to a growing interest in this composer, who is arguably one of the greatest America has produced, but who has received a paucity of serious attention. (The Juilliard School, where he taught for 40 years, many as chairman of the composition department, evidently thought that including his 7-minute Serenade for Tuba Solo on a program with music by other composers was an adequate acknowledgment of his centennial in 2015.)

I have just a few quibbles. One is that the book is rather sloppily edited: Minor errors of dates, spelling, and chronology, along with redundancies, abound. The other is an aspect of Persichetti’s personality that is touched upon but minimally explored: the role in his life played by anthropomorphized animals (culminating in his sole opera, The Sibyl), and imaginary characters in general. Persichetti, who had a strangely dry sense of humor that often left people confused as to what to take seriously and what to dismiss as playfulness, made frequent reference to characters that were figments of his imagination. Some of these were known primarily to immediate family members, but others found their way into his compositional data. For example, there was the imaginary character “Michael Needle,” identified as the commissioner of a number of his works. Other characters lived in his bathroom, in his car, and he could be heard speaking to them when others weren’t around. I am not about to claim that Persichetti was psychotic, but I do believe that if he had lived in the world of, say, retail business instead of the arts, he would have been regarded as “strange,” to say the least. Yet though Olmstead mentions all these matters in passing, she never really addresses the significance of these quirks which, I believe, are connected to important aspects of his compositional personality.

“SURPRISED BY BEAUTY: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery Of Modern Music” By Robert R. Reilly

SURPRISED BY BEAUTY: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music (Revised and Expanded Edition). By Robert R. Reilly, with Jens F. Laurson. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2016. 510 pp. Softcover. $34.95

As noted in the accompanying interview, the original edition of Robert R. Reilly’s Surprised by Beauty was published in 2002 by Morley Books. Its thesis was, essentially, that the dissolution of tonality in music that was promulgated around the turn of the 20th century, and the concomitant abandonment of traditional aesthetic values, corresponded to a breakdown of the centrality of spiritual order as understood and shared by most of Western civilization, and that this correspondence was no accident. The book consisted of a couple of essays that developed this idea, while affirming a belief in the sacred properties shared by the finest examples of serious art music, along with some 35 short essays on individual or related groups of composers who resisted this abandonment of traditional values despite facing derision and neglect as a result. Six interviews with significant composers and musicians followed.

This newly revised edition is nearly twice the length of the original. Its structure is essentially the same as the first edition, but with much new and updated material. It begins with a Foreword by critic Ted Libbey, taken from the first edition. This is followed by Reilly’s own Preface to the Second Edition: While re-emphasizing the neglect faced by those composers who remained loyal to traditional musical values, he points out how much the times have changed since the earlier edition. Those traditional values are no longer subject to such widespread scorn, and many younger composers have achieved success while embracing them. There are now 64 short essays on composers who illustrate Reilly’s thesis. (Many of the new entries are contributed by Jens Laurson.) These chapters range from the unfamiliar (Walter Braunfels, Günter Raphael, Geirr Tveitt) to the very familiar (Shostakovich, Vaughan Williams, Sibelius), and include figures who have entered the scene as recently as Kenneth Fuchs, Jennifer Higdon, and Jonathan Leshnoff. Reilly even includes a remarkably even-handed and fair-minded chapter on John Cage. Each of these short essays concludes with several recommended recordings. The chapters on composers are sandwiched between two abstract essays: One is called “Is Music Sacred?” and the other, “Recovering the Sacred in Music.” In these Reilly takes the opportunity to develop and buttress the essential framework of his thesis, which I will discuss shortly. The six interviews from the first edition follow: the subjects are Robert Craft, David Diamond, Gian Carlo Menotti, Einojuhani Rautavaara, George Rochberg, and Carl Rütti. There is no index, the absence of which is a notable deficiency in a book of this kind.

The book (aside from the missing index) is quite “user-friendly.” Its tone is casual and informal (plenty of comments in the first-person-singular), making it pleasantly engaging, despite what some might find the severe absolutism of its fundamental message. There is no musical notation, no esoteric technicalities or expectations of advanced erudition. The book conveys the sense of one enthusiast who has made a number of exciting musical discoveries sharing that excitement with readers who may have been searching for just the sort of thing that Reilly has found. And at this he is excellent. His commentaries on Elgar, Finzi, Roussel, Shostakovich, Robert Simpson, Edmund Rubbra, Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Bernard Herrmann, and Vagn Holmboe are just a few that display a vivid eloquence and penetrating insight that are truly enviable. He is able to capture their very essences in surprisingly few words.

In his essay, “Is Music Sacred?” Reilly presents and develops the essential foundation of his argument, which I will do my best to capture: Not surprisingly, he starts with the Greeks, discussing Pythagoras’s derivation of musical intervals and his belief that music was the organizing principle of the universe—the “music of the spheres”—already positing the notion that a stable cosmos was connected to a sense of musical stability and harmony. With the advent of Christianity, this notion of cosmic harmony was applied to morality and ethics: The harmony that governed the universe also governed both human life and music, and embracing this harmony elevated the human spirit. Since this eternal harmony preceded the arrival of human life, it could be seen as a first cause, a universal “purpose.” As such this harmony became linked to the belief in a single unifying figure, God, who governed through Christ. As music theory developed, the force that governed the harmonious property of music was codified into the principle of tonality—a dynamic force that provided the energy for musical expression while also permitting a central, unifying stability. Music thus became the pathway for experiencing the transcendent. Hence when doubt began to weaken religious faith in the late 19th century, culminating in Nietzsche’s notorious proclamation that “God is dead,” this also spelled the death of morality, the end of a governing order both to the universe and to the notion of a music of the spheres, and a concomitant weakening of the conviction that musical coherence requires a tonal center. Without such a fundamental spiritual core, music became mere technique, leading ultimately to serialism—a triumph of technique over content. Tonality was then viewed as merely one way of organizing music; other ways were possible and equally valid. Not surprisingly, the chief villain in all this was Arnold Schoenberg, although—to his credit—Reilly acknowledges that composer’s immense talent, as demonstrated in such works as Pelleas und Melisande and Gurrelieder. Other composers (e.g. Varèse) questioned the need for any sort of organizing principle at all; why not simply follow one’s impulses? John Cage’s idea of composing music by throwing dice was the logical next step, eliminating even the composer’s impulses. This sterile state of affairs was supported by a belief that the “exhaustion” of tonality was a historical inevitability. To resist this development was to deny the inevitable, and those who did so were backward, virtually by definition. This view persisted throughout much of the 20th century, until the late 1960s and early 70s, when composers like George Rochberg and others who had been taught that serialism was the only legitimate path had the courage to challenge this dogma, protesting that what they had been taught produced results that were devoid of the values that drew them to music in the first place.

Let me say at this point that I am in essential agreement with most aspects of Reilly’s thesis. The chief element that I question—which I mention because I suspect that many of today’s music lovers may have a similar reservation—is whether it is necessary to embrace a teleological theological foundation in order to share Reilly’s musical views. For example, not only do I agree that the dynamics of tonality are indispensable in creating music that has expressive meaning to listeners, but I greatly appreciate and enjoy music that strives to convey an emotional experience that might be termed “spiritual” or “transcendent”—because it aims to evoke an awareness of forces that reach beyond the experience of the mundane material world—without my necessarily adhering to any particular religious belief system. In short, can’t one experience that sense of transcendence without embracing a theology that “explains” it? Reilly himself seems to acknowledge this point when he writes, “… though not himself a believer, Vaughan Williams nevertheless imbued his works with a deep spirituality.” Another question—perhaps less fundamental—is whether a “loss of faith” is the best or only explanation for the breakdown of tonality; another explanation is that the group—originally, relatively small—who believed that tonality had run its course was motivated by a misguided sense of historical inevitability that supported a notion of “progress” (a notion largely alien to the arts). Then later came the view that music “should reflect its times.” But much is happening in the world at any one time; who’s to say which aspect of “its times” music should be reflecting?

In keeping with my cavil that one need not embrace every element of Reilly’s thesis in order to share his musical views, one also need not agree with every point he makes to appreciate his commentaries on specific composers. He does not “beat one over the head” with theology in each of these chapters. In fact, in some there is no reference to such matters at all. And in others, his introduction of a religious perspective raises some interesting points that are rarely encountered in discussions of these composers. But when—as in the chapters on Elgar, Franz Schmidt, Frank Martin, and others—the music is explicitly religious, Reilly certainly embraces that aspect head-on.

The later essay, “Recovering the Sacred in Music,” deals largely with Gorecki, Pärt, and Tavener, who found a way back in to both tonality and spirituality, while refuting Schoenberg’s claim that there was nothing “natural” about tonality. And I found the six interviews that follow especially interesting insofar as Reilly manages to elicit some meaningful commentary on the importance of religion from people like Craft, Diamond, and Rochberg—figures who were not often questioned about such matters, I suspect.

Surprised by Beauty—in this new edition—is a thought-provoking volume that offers an unusual perspective on the music of the past hundred years, exploring its underlying aesthetic and spiritual principles, while drawing attention to some truly great composers, most of whom remain largely unknown to most serious listeners, not to mention musicians, radio programmers, and concert promoters.

Interview with Robert. R. Reilly

Robert R. Reilly has pursued a most unusual career. He was the music critic for Crisis magazine for 16 years, and continues to review concerts and operas for Ionarts, an arts blog that covers the Washington DC area and elsewhere. He has also written for such publications as High FidelityMusical America, and the American Record Guide. But, like most of us who write about classical music and are not on university faculties, he has earned his living in other fields. Reilly’s “day jobs” have included 25 years in American government. He served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and in the White House under President Ronald Reagan, as well as in the U.S. Information Agency. He was the director of Voice of America, and has published widely on foreign policy and “war of ideas” issues. He is the author of The Closing of the Muslim Mind and other books.

As a critic Reilly’s chief interest is the music of the 20th and 21st centuries, and that is the subject of his 2002 book Surprised by Beauty. Readers may not associate the word “beauty” with 20th- and 21st-century music, and that offers a clue to the unusual perspective presented in this book. Now Ignatius Press has just issued a much-expanded and updated edition of Surprised by Beauty, with additional material provided by Jens Laurson, a close associate of Reilly’s and a former contributor to Fanfare. Having been acquainted with Reilly’s thoughtful and perceptive writing for a number of years, I am pleased to have the opportunity to interview him. (In the interest of “full disclosure,” I should add that he has commented favorably in print on my work, although we have never met.)

I guess that my first question stems from my curiosity about your dual careers. I would think that working in government doesn’t put one in contact with many people who are as focused on the arts—and on classical music in particular—as you are. Are the people with whom you have worked aware of the musical side of your life? Have you found others who share your passion? (I once ran into Newt Gingrich in the men’s room during the intermission of a Washington production of Barber’s Vanessa, so I guess you’re not totally isolated.)

(That’s very amusing, as I recently ran into Newt Gingrich and his wife at the Washington National Opera production of Götterdämmerung.)

Government and classical music are, as you indicate, often unrelated, if not antithetical to each other. I remember that, at Fort Lewis, it created some puzzlement in my armored cavalry unit when I went to hear Joan Sutherland sing Turandot at the Seattle Opera. Eyebrows were raised. However, sometimes music and government can be good partners. Early in the Reagan administration, from my US Information Agency office, concert pianist John Robilette began the Artistic Ambassadors Program. The program was John’s inspiration, and he conducted it brilliantly for seven years. My principal contribution was to urge that a new piece of American music be composed for each artistic ambassador who went on tour for USIA. John and I spent hours in my home listening to records of American composers to select the commissions. The government wasn’t used to doing this kind of thing, or at least hadn’t been doing it for some years. So it was with some amusement that we sent composers like George Rochberg, Morton Gould or Lee Hoiby government purchase orders for “1 each, piano music, 10 minutes” or for other kinds of compositions. In any case, the program was very successful overseas and represented our country very well as one with a vibrant musical culture. There is now a significant collection of the manuscripts of all the works commissioned for this program at the Library of Congress. The program died along with the heedless destruction of USIA in 1999.

When I was the VOA director, I had the privilege of working with Robilette again. (By the way, Fanfareinterviewed him around this time in its September/October 2001 issue.) I asked John to arrange a series of live recitals at the Voice of America’s beautiful auditorium in honor of the VOA 60th anniversary. These we recorded and broadcast all over the world. John attracted such notable artists as Byron Janis, the Jacques Thibaud String Trio, and tenor Robert White. They were given only token honoraria, as we had no real funding to do this. I should also mention that composer Steve Gerber, who became a dear personal friend, wrote the Fanfare for Voice of America that was premiered in the same auditorium. He later incorporated it into his Second Symphony. Steve was very excited that there was to be a separate chapter on his music in this edition of Surprised by Beauty. I was very grieved that he was taken by a virulent form of cancer last year and did not live to see it in print.

In any case, if the government has a functioning brain, it should harness classical music to help represent this country at its very best. Unfortunately, it has suffered from a bipartisan lobotomy. As I began my short tenure as VOA director, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which exercises executive power over VOA, decided to eliminate our Arabic service, which was aimed at adults, and substitute for it a new all–pop youth music station with J Lo, Eminem and Britney Spears. That was a very interesting thing to do in the middle of a war. And what a way to help win the war against the terrorists! Just keep those Arabs dancing. The condescension implicit in this approach was felt in the Middle East, as I know from my personal experiences there. Also, I might add, as I departed VOA for the Defense Department, the Board eliminated the concert series I had begun with Robilette, canceling the scheduled appearance of the Tokyo String Quartet. In another mindless act, though one taken earlier and not directly by the Board, Rich Kleinfeldt’s excellent classical music program on VOA was eliminated. (It is lucky for us in the Washington DC area that Rich continues to broadcast at WETA-FM classical station.)

One other anecdote – this one in a more lighthearted vein: I was meeting with conductor José Serebrier and his wife Carole as they were having lunch with the lady who was, at that time, the manager of the Washington National Opera. When she learned that I was at the Defense Department, she said that she knew Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was an opera aficionado, and asked exactly what I did at DOD. I answered, “I am his musical advisor.” I didn’t even personally know Rumsfeld, but at least it got a good laugh.

I know that one question that often arises in the minds of classical music aficionados with regard to critics with dual careers is: Does this person have any formal training in music? Care to comment?

Outside of some piano lessons in grade school and some choir boy singing, I have not had formal training. My graduate studies were in political philosophy. Like George Bernard Shaw (with whom I would not compare myself in any other way), I have largely learned on the job, with the help of musician and composer friends, as well as a great deal of personal study. I hasten to add that that study went on for 15 years before I began to write about music. (I should add that I have been an avid Fanfarereader since vol. 1, no. 2.) I have been driven to put into words what I love or admire in what I hear . French poet René Char wrote that the “grace of the stars resides in
their compelling us to speak.” This music compelled me to speak. I want to understand it and for others to listen and love it, as well. That’s how I see myself, as a music missionary, more than as a critic.

As you know from having read the book, there is not a lot of technical language in it. Most of it should be accessible to the educated layman. In my many conversations with composers over the years, by the way, I found that they seldom speak in technical language. If anything, they are more likely to use metaphysical or philosophical language to get at what they are trying to express. The way they compose really is directed by their conceptions of reality. You can clearly see this in the composer interviews in the last part of the book.

Anyway, I don’t write for experts because I’m not one. I’m simply a lover who is trying to sing in words what really can only be sung in music. You yourself know how difficult this is, as you have done it so well in your books and reviews.

Thanks very much. Can you describe for us just how you became so interested in classical music—and of the past hundred years, in particular?

I think I was about 19 years old when, quite by accident, I heard Leonard Bernstein’s recording of the Sibelius Fifth Symphony with the New York Philharmonic. I was seized by it. It changed my life. Sibelius famously said, “God opens His door for a moment and His orchestra plays the Fifth Symphony.” That is what I heard. It lifted me so far outside of myself, I was never the same afterward. I had not known human beings were capable of such things. Classical music immediately became my avocation. I bought a portable record player and would make friends sit down and listen to Sibelius. Had I only heard the Fifth Symphony earlier in my life, music would’ve become my vocation in some form. In any case, that started my rampage through the world of classical music.

Mozart was really my window onto every form of classical music. I hadn’t initially been attracted by opera until I listened to Mozart’s operas. (One of the thrills of my life was playing
Pasha Selim in a Metropolitan Opera Studio production of The Abduction from the
Seraglio.) The same is true of chamber music. I then began to listen to music of every genre and period. I found myself eventually gravitating to late 18th/early 19th century music, and to 20th century music.

I was fascinated by 20th-century music not only because I found much of it immediately attractive, but also because it underwent such profound transformations and, in fact, at least partially, a derailment. Why would someone want their music to sound like a catastrophe in a boiler factory? I wanted to understand what was behind these transformations. I also wanted to know how some composers held up under the pressures of the avant-garde to continue their vocation of beauty. As you know, there were many of them – far too many to include in my book. I avidly followed what composers said about their music, read their books, and then sought some of them out to hear firsthand what they thought they were doing. Some composers contacted me after reading my reviews. It enriched my life incomparably that some of them became my friends.

Your book presents a rather unusual point of view, hinted at in your title, and it is one that I share to a large extent. I think that we both agree that music of the past hundred years is not uniformly ugly, atonal, or anti-musical; that there have been many composers who have pursued the traditional musical values of emotional and spiritual expression, seek to communicate those values to listeners, and have done so by drawing upon the formal processes that have served as the foundation of Western classical music for some 500 years.  But the additional notion that you add, quite explicitly, is that the dissolution of tonality proclaimed by some composers coincided chronologically with the breakdown of religious faith, and that that correspondence is no accident. Would you agree with that summary of your central thesis?

Yes, I would generally agree with that, except it is not simply my thesis but what many composers have told me, including those who do not consider themselves particularly religious. And I wouldn’t necessarily tie it to loss of a specific religious faith as I would to a loss of the transcendent, coupled with a metaphysical breakdown of the teleological order in nature. John Adams sensed this when he related that he had “learned in college that tonality died somewhere around the time that Nietzsche’s God died, and I believed it.”

Here is another way to put it. If there is a natural order to creation, you will be impelled to write a kind of music that reflects it. You will search for the “harmony of the spheres.” If there is no such order, there will be a different kind of music, if one can call it music at all when it reaches a certain point of disintegration. If there is no “harmony of the spheres” to approximate, you will most likely end up with some kind of organized or unorganized noise – in either case it will be arbitrary. I am alluding here, of course, to the centrifugal forces unleashed by Arnold Schoenberg, who held that tonality does not exist in nature and, therefore, we can be habituated to hear dissonance as consonance. However, as Aristotle observed, no matter how many times you throw a stone in the air, you cannot habituate it to fly upwards. It will always drop down. Likewise, Schoenberg’s system neither achieved the supremacy of German music for another century, as he claimed it would, nor succeeded in habituating us to dissonance. The reason is because there actually is a natural order to things, and tonality exists as a kind of natural law in the world of sound.

Some music critics have gotten quite upset because of what I have said about Schoenberg’s serial system. They insist that it’s just another technique, like any other technique. That’s certainly not how Schoenberg thought of it. My criticism of Schoenberg is more against his faulty metaphysics than it is of his music. Of course, the one reflects the other – that is my point.

Throughout the 20th century and today, there has been and is a broad range of composers attesting to the connection between the spiritual and the musical. Sibelius – not what you would call a traditional believer – said that, “The essence of man’s being is his striving after God.” Therefore, composition, according to him, “is brought to life by means of the Logos, the divine in art. That is the only thing that really has significance.”

I know some composers who have left the faith to which they once belonged or even to which they at one time converted, but who nonetheless retain a very deep sense of the spiritual and the transcendent. Scottish composer James MacMillan recently said, “in spite of the retreat of faith in Western society, composers over the last century or so have never given up on their search for the sacred.” So my thesis is not sectarian in a religious sense, though as a Catholic I am very much aware of the musical treasures that Christianity has inspired, including, say, McMillan’s Seven Last Words.

Now let’s talk for a moment about the word “beauty,” because of its importance in your title, and because it can mean different things to different people. For example, I think that for many people “beauty” is used to describe the sort of warm, slightly poignant serenity exemplified by, say, the second movement of Barber’s Violin Concerto. Others think in terms of Keats’s line, “Truth is beauty, beauty truth,” which opens the word to a wider interpretation. I’m inclined to reserve the word for the Barber sort of expression, but I consider other qualities in music equally valid, in the Keats sense; I just don’t use the word “beauty” for them. I think of the highest musical values as authenticity and depth of emotional and often spiritual expression, as articulated through meticulous craftsmanship. I think of this as a broader concept than “beauty,” which may, of course, be one manifestation of such expression. Can you speak more about what the term “beauty” means to you?

I understand the distinction you’re making, but I would take the word beauty farther in the Keats sense. I’ve always liked Dostoyevsky’s statement that “beauty will save the world.” In other words, beauty is in some way salvific. In this sense, beauty means more than the second movement of the Barber Concerto. Beauty can pierce; it can slay; it can upset the soul and engender wild longings. It provokes wonder. It can also, in a way, redeem. The great German theologian Josef Pieper spoke of the “recollecting power of the fine arts, for the emotional shock brought about by eros and caritas – in short, through the attitude rooted in the mysterious experience that Plato called theia mania.” Plato knew that all beauty is reflected beauty and that beauty is a sign of, and a path to, ultimate goodness.

I think that’s what George Rochberg was after when he told me “I have re-embraced the art of beauty but with a madness.” He said, “but what do I mean by what is beautiful? I mean that which is genuinely expressive, even if it hurts… I know that what is really beautiful hurts.” Then he exclaimed, “Music remains what it has always been: a sign that man is capable of transcending the limits and constraints of his material existence.”

I think music was derailed in the 20th century when it lost this sense of beauty as its mission. The loss of vocation is powerfully reflected in Schoenberg’s statement that he was “cured of the delusion that the artist’s aim is to create beauty.” One can imagine how Dostoyevsky or Plato would’ve reacted to that remark.

It’s clear that a religious or spiritual core is very important in your understanding of a composer’s work, and when it’s relevant in the case of a particular composer it becomes your central focus. Yet there are some composers whom you have highlighted whose music—from my standpoint—has no particular connection to spiritual concerns at all. The most striking example to me–without making a qualitative judgment of my own—is Morton Gould. Can you comment on that?   

The highest vocation of any art is to make the transcendent perceptible, and I think music is uniquely suited to this hieratic goal. As the great Swiss mystic Max Picard said, “In sound itself, there is a readiness to be ordered by the spirit, and this is seen at its most sublime in music.”

But not all music has to be sublime. Not everyone has to be at the top of Mount Parnassus – there are ascending slopes or steps. Mozart reached the heights, but he also wrote wonderful divertimenti for entertainment on social occasions. Dvorak composed most of his music in the kitchen, and its great warmth and domesticity reflect this. In music, the good is not the enemy of the great. If all we listened to was Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, Bruckner’s Eighth, Mahler’s Second and Nielsen’s Fourth, etc., we would probably suffer from acute altitude sickness.

Morton Gould was certainly a very good composer who mastered a number of colloquial musical styles. He had great fun with them, which is why it is such fun to listen to him. In terms of my general theme, I think Gould clearly demonstrated that tonality was not exhausted. He worked within the traditional tonal frames of reference, and produced works that still sound fresh. In some of his compositions, I think he also caught that sense of yearning in the American soul. He clearly had an appetite for beauty. I think it’s a big mistake to condescend to composers writing his kind of music. That’s why he and others of his ilk are in the book.

I suppose it is inevitable that I would find some of the composers you highlight less worthy of attention than others who would seem to illustrate your thesis through music of the highest caliber, yet are not included by you. I am thinking, for example, of Daniel Catan, Joly Braga Santos, Nicolas Flagello, Andrzej Panufnik, Arnold Rosner, Lee Hoiby, Samuel Jones, and Alan Hovhaness, who seem conspicuous by their absence. I’m especially surprised by the omission of Peter Mennin, as his approach to musical composition shared so much in common with that of Edmund Rubbra and Vagn Holmboe, both of whom you treat with great respect and understanding.

You have touched a sore spot. My publisher was panicking at the size of the book, which is slightly more than 500 pages as it is, and unfortunately I had to cut 28 composers out of it, including a number of those you mention. Taking them out was heartbreaking. If all the Fanfare subscribers will buy the book, perhaps then I can persuade the publisher to bring out a new edition that would include everyone you mention, plus the others who ended up on the cutting room floor – like Havergal Brian, William Alwyn, Boris Tchaikovsky, Paul Juon, Harold Shapero, Joseph Jongen, etc. As for Mennin, I am not sure I would have the nerve to write anything after the brilliant job you did concerning his music in your book, Voices of Stone and Steel.

Thank you for such kind words. I hope to be worthy of them.

Walter Simmons 
© Fanfare 2017

KABELAC: Symphonies Nos. 1-8

KABELÁČ  Symphonies Nos. 1-8 —  Marko Ivanović, cond; Prague RSO  —  SUPRAPHON SU 4202-2 (4 CDs: 3:58:23)

Miloslav Kabeláč (1908-1979) is generally recognized within the Czech Republic as their most important composer from the generation following Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959). However, his reputation seems barely to have extended beyond his homeland. There are a number of reasons for this, rooted in the political shifts that occurred during the years of his maturity. Kabeláč’s main composition teacher was Karel Boleslav Jirák, with whom he studied at the Prague Conservatory, graduating in 1931. In addition to composing, Kabeláč served as music director of the Prague Radio, and as the chief conductor of their orchestra. His mature compositions began to appear during the late 1930s, shortly before the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938. The following year they had established control of the country, and instituted their anti-Semitic policies. Kabeláč had married a Jewish woman, whom the Nazis demanded that he divorce. He refused, whereupon he was relieved of his position with the Prague Radio, while facing a complete boycott of performances of his music. Upon the War’s end in 1945 Kabeláč enjoyed a brief period of freedom, but in 1948 Czechoslovakia was seized again, this time by the Soviet Union, which attempted to impose its own notions of artistic expression. Kabeláč was not about to accept the imposition of ideologically derived aesthetic principles, but he managed to continue composing as he wished, though his works did not win the favor of the prevailing government, which regarded him with suspicion. But his music did attract the attention of the Czech musical community—especially the portion that was concerned with new music. During the period from the late 1950s until 1968 there was some relaxation of Soviet artistic dogmas; Kabeláč enjoyed a modicum of freedom, teaching at the Prague Conservatory, while continuing to compose. It was during this time that his music won a wider degree of recognition, with more frequent performances and recordings of some of his major works by such eminent figures as the conductor Karel Ančerl, who became a vigorous champion. But in 1968 the Soviets invaded Prague and replaced the relatively liberal policies of Alexander Dubček with a more repressive regime. From this time until his death in 1979, Kabeláč once again faced the complete suppression of his identity as a composer. His recordings were taken out of circulation, as were the scores to his works, and performances disappeared almost completely. Perhaps the highpoint of his international career occurred in 1971: Two French musicians—conductor Pierre Stoll and musicologist Paul Nardin—had become extremely interested in the music of Kabeláč; they arranged for a concert in Strasbourg that would be devoted entirely to his works, of which the centerpiece would be the premiere of the newly-commissioned Symphony No. 8, “Antiphons.” The concert took place on June 15, 1971, but the Czech government refused to grant Kabeláč permission to attend.

In view of the foregoing, this new release, featuring recordings of all eight Kabeláč symphonies, in brilliant, sensitive performances by the Prague Radio Orchestra under the direction of Marko Ivanović, is most welcome. For most listeners it will be an initial exposure to a representative sample of the works of one of 20th-century Europe’s most significant composers.

Kabeláč’s music is no walk in the park. It is all serious stuff—grim, bleak, and brooding, often breaking out into a relentless physical brutality. There is no levity. While listening to this music, it is hard not to be constantly reminded of the overwhelming adversities, both personal and political, that he endured throughout his career, although regarding his work as nothing but a statement of political resistance or protest is simplistic, to say the least. His eight symphonies (1941-1970) serve as a representative longitudinal survey of his work, illustrating the considerable evolution of his compositional voice over the course of that period, as well as the expressive elements that remained consistent throughout his career. One remarkable feature of his symphonic canon is the fact that each work is scored for a different array of performing forces. Perhaps the most prominent and consistent musical elements of his style are his frequent use of small melodic intervals, and emphatic, unwavering rhythmic patterns that evoke a sense of militant determination. There is also a constant emphasis on tonic minor triads or chords built upon minor triads (this became less obvious in the later works). At times this emphasis on the tonic is hammered to the point of an almost masochistic numbness. Initially, these minor triads appeared in a clearly tonal context, although as he matured they were treated with greater chromatic freedom. Unrelated minor triads often pivot via common tones. Much of the music is slow in tempo, although contrasting fast movements typically utilize triplet subdivisions.

A good deal of grim orchestral music emanated from Eastern Europe during the middle years of the 20th century. Much of it is gray and faceless. In contrast, Kabeláč had something very strong and powerful to say; his works are statements of great metaphysical and existential import. I believe that he stands among the greatest composers of his time and place.

Kabeláč’s Symphony No. 1 was composed during World War II, in 1941. In one sense it is a work very much of its time. It is scored for an orchestra of only strings and percussion—a scoring that calls to mind the Double Concerto (1938) for two string orchestras, piano, and timpani of Bohuslav Martinů. But more than this work, the symphony resembles other, roughly contemporaneous music by composers like Frank Martin and Arthur Honegger—a sort of freely chromatic neo-classicism to which many European composers of the time were drawn, with a more complex and dissonant harmonic language than is found in many of Kabeláč’s later works. Yet despite its affinity with general musical currents of the time, many of the elements noted above as consistent stylistic features of the composer can be found in embryonic form in this work. It is a large, serious statement—stern yet consistently compelling, with an unremitting sense of suppressed intensity that builds to tremendous epiphanies of anguish, although it finally achieves an affirmative conclusion. The work must be regarded among the great European symphonies of the World War II period.

The Symphony No. 2 was also begun during the War, but it was largely completed after the War’s end, in 1946. This is probably the symphony of Kabeláč that is most accessible to a general audience—a long (nearly 40-minute) post-romantic statement not likely to alienate anyone comfortable with, say, Shostakovich’s contemporaneous Eighth Symphony. In fact, if there is one composer who might be cited as a somewhat kindred figure, it is probably Shostakovich, though the latter was far more prolific and broader in his range of expression, while Kabeláč’s music is more concentrated in form and structure. (Kabeláč—like the American Peter Mennin—was one of those composers whose entire output is dedicated to a particular expressive attitude that remains constant throughout, although their means of articulating that attitude may have evolved significantly.) Actual audible similarities to the music of Shostakovich are few, but it is in this work that they are likely to be noticed. Yet despite such moments, those listeners who have gained some familiarity with the music of Kabeláč will find his characteristic features far more salient than occasional reminiscences of others.

Like much of Kabeláč’s music, the work begins with a bold assertion of force that rarely subsides. The second movement features the alto saxophone in a prominent role, suggesting the voice of vulnerable humanity attempting to be heard amid the clamor of a ruthlessly inhumane machine. The third movement is perhaps the most impressive of all—utterly uncompromising in its expressive intensity. No. 2 is a work of overwhelming power, and again warrants recognition among the most extraordinarily eloquent symphonic statements to emerge from Europe during the 1940s.

I have often observed that many—perhaps most—composers have a “sweet spot”—a period when their musical language has achieved its greatest clarity, and when they produced their most representative and fully realized compositions. For Kabeláč this period was the 1950s, when he produced most of his greatest works, one after another. One of these is a symphonic passacaglia with the intriguing title, The Mystery of Time. Possibly because of its title, possibly because of its striking musical quality, this has become the composer’s most celebrated work, although there has not been a recording since Ančerl’s monaural account from around 1960. (More about this later.)

The Symphony No. 3 dates from this period, occupying Kabeláč from 1948 until 1957. The symphony is scored for brass, organ, and timpani, and represents a stark distillation of Kabeláč’s compositional style. During this time most of the musical elements and devices that linked him with contemporaneous compositional currents have been shed, leaving only the most idiosyncratic elements of his creative personality. This work, shorter in duration than its two predecessors despite comprising four movements instead of their respective three, is largely funereal in tone, from its intensely ominous opening until a stark, concluding brass chorale that suggests a sense of unyielding oppression. The language is quite a bit simpler than that found in the two earlier symphonies: There is relatively little harmonic dissonance and less textural complexity, while the obsessive focus on the tonic comes to the fore. During the period when Kabeláč was composing this symphony he also wrote two Fantasias for organ—among his finest works—and some of their material found its way into this symphony. It is one of his most characteristic works; while some listeners may find its militant obstinacy unyielding, relentless, and somewhat crude, others will be impressed by its indomitable power and sense of violent rage, suppressed under great duress. During the late 1980s Supraphon released a recording of this work (SU 0035-2 031), featuring members of the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Libor Pešek. That was a superb recorded performance that is no less stunning than the one heard here.

The Symphony No. 4 is subtitled, “Camerata,” and is scored for chamber orchestra. It is apparently the composer’s most frequently performed symphony, most likely because of the smaller forces required. Completed in 1958, it is lighter in texture and spirit than any of the preceding symphonies, and follows the format of a sonata da chiesa. Still tenaciously tonal, it serves as the “neo-classical” entry in Kabeláč’s symphonic canon, with even some hints of Martinů-like exuberance. But these words are all relative, as is immediately apparent from the funereal opening movement. The second movement, however, is possibly one of the composer’s most cheerful creations, although the martial spirit never disappears completely. It is one of Kabeláč’s fast movements with triplet subdivisions. The slow movement is eerie and ominous, while the finale resembles the second movement somewhat, maintaining a more “objective” tone than the composer’s norm. In 1960 Supraphon released a recording (SU 3020-2 911) that featured the conductorless Prague Chamber Orchestra. That performance served its purpose, although it is far outclassed by this new recording from the perspectives of both playing and recording quality.

In 1960 appeared the Symphony No. 5, “Drammatica,” a 40-minute work that features a soprano vocalise with full symphony orchestra. Evidently this was Kabeláč’s own favorite among his symphonies, elaborating the notion of the human being crying out in defiance of oppression by an inhuman force. (This is similar to the use of the saxophone in the second movement of the Second Symphony.) The piece begs comparison with the popular Symphony of Sorrowful Songs by Henryk Górecki. My own preference is for the Kabeláč, as a more deeply penetrating work, but others may feel differently. One might say that Górecki sheds tears, while Kabeláč grits his teeth. In this work the musical language has become harsher and more dissonant, although the strongly tonal emphasis continues to prevail, despite more frequent modulations. Comprising four movements, the work opens with the composer’s characteristically intense seriousness. The second movement is like a scherzo, displaying Kabeláč’s propensity for rapid triplet subdivisions. The third movement displays a somber, melancholy beauty, while the finale reflects the suppressed rage that the composer evoked so effectively. Although there are long stretches when the vocalise is silent, there is a varied range of expression in the writing for soprano, without any sort of coloratura that might draw attention to the singer as a virtuoso, though her role is certainly difficult enough. Much of the credit for this belongs to the soprano herself, Pavla Vykopalová, who is able to call upon a subtle range of emotion and tone color. This will be especially notable to those who have heard the recording of the premiere, which took place in April, 1961, featuring soprano Libuše Domanínská—highly regarded in her time—with the Czech Philharmonic under the direction of Karel Ančerl. On this recording, released in 1993 on Praga PR 255 000, the soprano reveals a much less versatile instrument, which becomes strident at times, to a point approaching unlistenability. This new recording makes a much more convincing case for the work.

The Symphony No. 6, “Concertante,” followed in 1962. This work is scored for clarinet solo and orchestra, including two pianos. What is most remarkable is how the essential metaphysical content of Kabeláč’s music remains consistent and immediately recognizable, despite the considerably increased complexity of his treatment of harmony, texture, and tonality, not to mention the largely obliterated metrical pulse. One interesting feature is the use of a pre-recorded tape of sustained minor-seconds played by a muted string ensemble, which runs throughout the entire second movement. This device seems to underline the minor-second as a primary thematic element of the work. At times the symphony suggests a clarinet concerto, but there are long passages during which the instrument is silent. The solo instrument’s contribution is often melismatic, utilizing exotic modal scales, which were a longstanding source of fascination for the composer. But, as with the soprano in the preceding symphony, the instrument’s role always elaborates the essential expressive content, rather than drawing attention to the player’s virtuosity. On the whole, the work is relatively light in texture, without the heavy-handed bludgeoning that some might find hard to take in others of the composer’s works. There is also less driving forward motion; the second movement is especially static in effect.

It is especially difficult to write about the Symphony No. 7, as it centers around spoken passages, which are not even included in the accompanying program notes in Czech, not to mention in English translation. However the notes indicate that the text is drawn from the Gospel according to John and the Book of Revelation. According to program notes to a recent performance, written by Klára Mühlová and Vladimir Maňas, the text “does not feature a single verb, remaining a stream of bare meanings. The composer emphasizes the symbolic nature of words, leaving the making of connections between the propositions to the combining of music with words, and the explanation to the listener.” The work falls into three sections, entitled: 1) Eternity; 2) Humanity; 3) Eternity. In this work Kabeláč’s language has become totally dissonant and largely atonal. There is little sense of metrical pulse, and much cluster harmony, yet there is still a strong tonal sense. But most important, even without a printed text, the music conveys a sense of intense emotionality. The work was commissioned for the 1968 Prague Spring Festival, where it received its premiere. Kabeláč said, “The Seventh Symphony is my musical and philosophical credo.”

Kabeláč’s final symphony, subtitled “Antiphons” was commissioned as the centerpiece of the 1971 Strasbourg concert devoted entirely to his music. He scored the work for soprano solo, double mixed chorus, organ, and percussion ensemble, and selected the venue for the concert—St. Paul’s cathedral—specifically for the antiphonal effects that this Gothic cathedral made possible. As Kabeláč subsequently wrote to Karel Ančerl, “The symphony was written for a church, not perhaps as sacred music, but for its spatial possibilities …” By now Kabeláč’s language had become largely atonal and extremely dissonant, with some use of indeterminacy. But the emotional impact of the work follows so closely along the lines that his previous works had been pursuing that it is not hard to understand its expressive intentions.

The work is based on a famous episode from the Book of Daniel (Chapter V, verses 24-28). A message appears on the wall of Belshazzar’s Palace: mene tekel ufarsin. This is said to mean, roughly, “your days are numbered, you have been judged and found wanting, and your kingdom will be taken away.” These ominous words are counterbalanced in the text by three more uplifting words: amen,hosanna, and alleluia; all are repeated obsessively for their phonemic, as well as symbolic, value. As Pierre-E. Barbier and Paul Nardin wrote: “The last word sung, shouted, alleluia, is seen by some as an invocation to the Lord, a redeeming supplication, a heroic conquest of joy. Others, referring to the biographical particulars of the composer’s life, see the ultimate and long tenuto of the soprano as a final leap to avoid the void, hell … oblivion.” What occurred to me immediately was that this final statement in praise of God might have been, in 1971, Kabeláč’s ultimate act of defiance against the political regime.

The Symphony No. 8 falls into nine sections: five main sections, each separated by an organ interlude. The soprano soloist—Lucie Silkenová on this recording, who does an extraordinary job with a terribly taxing role—is required to sing absolute pitches, while the chorus sings relative pitches as well as microtonal passages. Percussion is used very actively, while the organ’s role is totally dissonant and atonal, yet conveys strongly emotional messages. Following an arch-form design, the fifth section is the climax of the symphony, and reaches a point, led by the solo soprano, verging on total hysteria. Essentially, the work is a stark drama of musical gestures, abandoning any semblance of classical moderation of any kind. It is the kind of piece—like many of those by Allan Pettersson, for example—that may be totally sincere, effective, and convincing in depicting an emotional attitude or state of mind, yet it may not find its way through one’s audio system very often.

In 1993 Praga Productions released a CD comprising the entire 1971 Strasbourg concert (PR 255 004—reviewed in 17:3). In addition to the symphony, included are two riveting Fantasias for organ, four Preludes for organ, and Eight Inventions for percussion. While the premiere performance of the symphony cannot compete with the refinement of this new performance or with its sonic impact, the earlier CD (very hard to locate now) documents an event of great significance to those for whom this composer holds appeal.

This new Supraphon release is an imperative acquisition for all those interested in European symphonic music of the twentieth century. The performances are all splendid, as is the sound quality. But I do have a few quibbles: One is that as delighted as I am to have this comprehensive release of Kabeláč’s symphonies, I fear that the prospect of a four-CD set is likely to overwhelm the non-Czech music lover who has never heard a note by the composer. Most people, I would think, would be more comfortable sampling one or two symphonies on a single CD, to see whether the music holds appeal for them. I would think that releasing the discs separately would have made more marketing sense. And speaking of marketing sense, how can Supraphon include two works with texts, without providing the texts, even in Czech? And third, as mentioned earlier, the work that has really begun to make an international reputation for Kabeláč is the orchestral passacaglia entitled, The Mystery of Time. Whether releasing one disc at a time, or the whole set of symphonies together, Supraphon might have considered adding a couple of “fillers,” including that one work, which is really more stunning than any of the symphonies, as fine as they are. In fact, I consider it one of the symphonic masterpieces of mid- 20th century European music, along with Panufnik’s Sinfonia Sacra and some of the symphonies of Shostakovich, Holmboe, and Pettersson.


Some readers may be interested in the following personal recollections: I first encountered the music of Kabeláč in 1972. The all-Kabeláč concert in Strasbourg that the composer had been prevented from attending had taken place the preceding year. This concert was probably the most auspicious presentation of Kabeláč’s music during his lifetime, and perhaps ever since. What made it so auspicious was the fact that the concert was recorded and subsequently broadcast all over the world. In 1972 it was broadcast on New York City’s WRVR (whose music director at the time was the late Paul Snook). I happened to catch most of the concert simply by accident, having tuned in at a fortuitous moment. I was instantly struck by the music; the sense of an extraordinary compositional personality was apparent to me immediately. The next time I had the occasion to see Paul, I told him of my having discovered Kabeláč through that broadcast. Though he himself was not as taken with the music as I was, he loaned me his recording of the composer’s most notable work, The Mystery of Time. This piece clinched it for me: I felt that I had discovered an important compositional voice, and set about trying to acquire as many of his works on recordings and live-performance tapes as I could, and the more I heard, the more impressed I was.

In 1976 I was about to take my first trip to Europe, and decided that one item on the agenda would be a visit to Prague to meet Kabeláč. I wrote to the Czech Music Information Center, and expressed my interest in meeting the composer. Young and naïve about Eastern European musical politics, I was surprised when I received a gracious response from the Information Center, stating that they would be happy to receive me, and to direct me to other composers they thought would be more appropriate. I didn’t know just how to respond, but it was Kabeláč I was interested in meeting—not composers of their choosing with whose music I was totally unfamiliar. So I just pursued my plan, figuring I’d show up at this Information Center, and see what I could work out. When I appeared, I was curtly told that no one could facilitate my meeting Kabeláč, and if I wasn’t interested in the composers whom they had selected, they couldn’t help me. I did not expect this sort of reception, nor the general lack of cooperation everywhere I turned. I started to feel very intimidated, and was almost ready to just leave the country, when I passed a phone booth, and decided to simply look up Kabeláč in the phone directory, and call him on my own, without giving thought to matters of language. (I think I just figured anyone would be able to speak some English.) So I called him, and he answered the phone, and I introduced myself as an American musicologist and critic. In fact he spoke hardly any English, but somehow I managed to convey to him that I wanted to meet him, and he agreed to meet me that afternoon in the café at Smetana Hall.

We both showed up at the appointed time. At this point he was 68 years old, and displayed a very severe demeanor. It was clear that his English was so limited that communicating was going to be very difficult. But fortunately, his daughter soon arrived; she was more proficient in English and was able to act as interpreter. I began by expressing my enthusiasm for his music, and was surprised that he seemed to take this for granted, apparently assuming that his music was well known in the States. I told him how I had discovered his music by hearing that broadcast of the Strasbourg concert. This was very surprising to him; he had no idea that that concert had been broadcast so widely, and he grumbled about the fact that he had never received a cent from it. Then I began to ask him questions about his thoughts regarding trends in contemporary music internationally, other Czech composers, etc. But to each of these questions, he answered in heavily accented English, “Aha! You are a critic; you try to trick me. No, I will not answer these questions.” No matter how much I tried to reassure him of my innocent interest, it was clear that he was not going to open up to me in any way. Finally after about an hour or so, I thanked him and his daughter for meeting with me, and we said good-bye. I was extremely disappointed by the fruitlessness of the encounter, got into my rented car, and drove out of Czechoslovakia as fast as I could.  Later I learned that he had died three years later.

After I returned home I described my meeting with Kabeláč to my friends, as well as to people I encountered—over the following several years—who were either Czech themselves or of Czech background. I also pursued further research on my own. I gleaned from all this Kabeláč’s unfortunate personal history and the overwhelming challenges he had faced throughout his career. I realized that he had shown considerable bravery in agreeing to meet with me at all, without the authorization of government officials; and I learned that his paranoia was totally understandable under the circumstances. All this made his bitterness and suspiciousness far more understandable, while also shedding light on the violent intensity of most of his music.

GIANNINI: The Medead and songs by other composers

GIANNINI: The Medead ● Irene Jordan (sop); Henry Sopkin, cond; Atlanta SO (World  Premiere: 10/60); Paul Paray, cond; Detroit SO (1/4/62); songs by other composers ● JORDAN YSL T-343 (mono, analog); 2 CDs: 118:01 (Available from www.norpete.com)

I am grateful to Joel Flegler for permitting me, as critic-emeritus, to emerge from my retirement lair in order to submit this review of a release of singular importance. The Medead, by Vittorio Giannini, is one of the greatest works of the 20th-century never (until now) documented on a recording available to the public. It is remarkable that the piece has had to wait more than half a century for this to happen, and even now, it is a first release of live recordings dating from the 1960s, rather than a freshly recorded performance by one of today’s leading sopranos and with up-to-date sonic felicities. But now that the work is available in this incarnation, perhaps other performers will be inspired to provide fresh new renditions. The Medead is a four-movement monodrama for soprano and orchestra that tells the story of the ruthless Medea from her own perspective, through a text written by the composer; in a sense it is a hybrid of a symphony and a dramatic monologue. I might describe the style as derived from the language of Wagner and Strauss (in his Salome and Elektra vein), but with an Italianate passion and emotional immediacy, disciplined by a 20th-century concentration of focus and formal economy. Its emotional intensity is maintained almost without interruption for some 35 minutes. But as great a work as I consider The Medead to be, it is not for everybody. If the notion of a hyper-intense, post-Wagnerian composition for soprano and orchestra makes you want to head for the hills, that is probably a good idea. On the other hand, if my description makes you wonder whether you have been missing out on a real masterpiece, and you are able to enjoy a work such as, say, Samuel Barber’s Andromache’s Farewell, I would suggest that you waste no time in getting hold of this recording.

Vittorio Giannini (1903-1966) was born in Philadelphia into a highly musical family: His father and two of his sisters were professional singers of considerable repute. He himself enjoyed a modest reputation during the 1930s and 40s as a composer of highly romantic operas—many in a buffa vein—as well as concert songs (his “Tell Me, O Blue, Blue Sky” was performed by Eileen Farrell, Mario Lanza, Leonard Warren, and many others, and still appears frequently on recital programs today). He also wrote a number of utilitarian instrumental works, many of them lending a warmly romantic touch to Baroque forms. Such compositions, among them his Concerto Grosso, Prelude and Fugue for Strings, and Variations on a Cantus Firmus for piano solo, contributed to his reputation as a staunchly conservative traditionalist who created a body of benignly academic works of no great import. His most successful opera was a delightful adaptation of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. Giannini’s craftsmanship was reputed to be meticulous, and he taught dozens of budding composers while serving on the faculties of the Juilliard School, the Manhattan School of Music, the Curtis Institute, and, ultimately, as founding director of the North Carolina School of the Arts. During the late 1950s and early 60s he shrewdly fed the voracious appetite for original works for wind band, promoted by William D. Revelli in Michigan and Frederick Fennell in Rochester. With the intense irony endemic to the classical music world, these band works are the chief source of Giannini’s reputation today, and one of these, his Symphony No. 3, is among the cornerstones of the symphonic wind band repertoire. But what has remained much less well known is that during the early 1960s the composer, diagnosed with terminal heart disease and devastated by the failure of his second marriage, began to explore more serious—often Classical—subjects, treating them with a darker, harsher harmonic language and an astringent, less comforting lyricism than he had employed before, as well as tighter, more complex formal structures. Among these late works are most of the composer’s masterpieces, including his Symphony No. 5, Psalm 130 for double bass and orchestra, the dramatic monologues The Medead and Antigone, the opera Edipus, and the late piece for band Variations and Fugue. Some of these works have yet to be played even once; others are performed only occasionally. But among those who are conversant with Giannini’s body of work, The Medead is usually mentioned as his greatest accomplishment.

The Medead was one of the fruits of a commissioning project launched in 1958 by the Ford Foundation, under the aegis of W. McNeil Lowry. What was unusual about this project was that, in order to avoid adding to the dustpile of anonymous, justly maligned “foundation style” works, distinguished performing artists were invited to select composers of their own choice to write works for them, which they would then perform with a number of major American orchestras that had agreed to participate. Among the other works that resulted from this project were the Violin Concerto No. 2 by Paul Creston (chosen by Michael Rabin), Song of Orpheus by William Schuman (chosen by Leonard Rose), the Piano Concerto of Elliot Carter (chosen by Jacob Lateiner) and the Piano Sonata of Peter Mennin (chosen by Claudette Sorel). Soprano Irene Jordan, then about forty and at the height of her rather unusual career, chose Giannini.

What qualities lead me to value The Medead so highly? One is its consistent and unerring accuracy of emotional tone, relative to the text; another is the concentration of focus I noted above, with no musically or dramatically irrelevant digressions; especially significant is its formal structure, based on the initial presentation of two or three motifs whose development weaves a texture that is as musically lucid as it is dramatically coherent; equally important is the fact that while there are inevitable passages of non-melodic declamation, the dramatic highpoints draw the various musical elements into soaring, searing melodic apotheoses that direct and satisfy the listener’s attention; and, finally, the work embodies a whole tradition of bel canto operatic representation, exemplified most saliently by a “pastorale” section in the third movement, and the solemn ground bass that undergirds the shattering finale.

While the initial appearance of The Medead—in two different performances—is for me the main point of interest in this recording, the primary concern of the purveyors of the disc—which contains virtually no documentation other than the dates of performance—is soprano Irene Jordan. There is, quite strangely, very little information available about her in convenient sources. As far as I’ve been able to determine, she is still alive at this time, though in her late 90s. It is worth quoting from two reviews that appeared in Fanfare 23:3, commenting on what seems to be the precursor of this release. James Miller wrote, “What becomes of singers who seem to possess the goods but whose careers never seem to ‘take-off’? The name Irene Jordan is probably one unfamiliar even to most vocal buffs. She sang in the American premiere of Peter Grimes,… had a brief career as a Met comprimario, then, discovering that her mezzo-soprano voice was evolving into that of a dramatic soprano, she left the Met for further study and life as a dramatic coloratura. Although she ended up having a varied, interesting career, she got back to the Met for only one single performance, as the Queen of the Night. In his comprehensive history, The Metropolitan Opera, Irving Kolodin mentions ‘the breadth and weight of [her] dramatic sound,’… but says she was ‘erratic in pitch and insecure in skips.’…. Listening to this CD of live performances spanning 17 years, beginning in 1953, one listens in vain for that erratic pitch and insecurity, and hears, instead, a mezzo-soprano-colored voice knocking off high notes and ornamentation with confidence…. In addition to her technical finesse, she shapes the music sensitively. I was around during the 50s and 60s and, while it really was a comparatively rich period for voices, I remember nothing resembling hers until Joan Sutherland showed up.… Why someone who could sing like this pretty much escaped the limelight, I can’t say.” John W. Lambert added, “Jordan’s approaches to standard-repertoire items demonstrate that she was, in her day, far superior to a lot of people who now masquerade as vocalists. Today, a voice like this would make news even in papers that rarely cover the arts. One can only wonder.”

What is most striking about the soprano we hear in The Medead is her power and intensity, unblemished by ugly moments of loss of control or of imprecise pitch—and these are live recordings! One realizes that Giannini and Jordan fully understood the expectations each held of the other. This became abundantly clear to me after I had heard the attempts of several other sopranos to present this piece. The Atlanta premiere is of interest largely in demonstrating Jordan’s comprehensive mastery of the work from the start, while the orchestra—a far less imposing ensemble than it is today—scrambled to keep up under Sopkin’s tentative direction. But the 1962 performance, with the Detroit Symphony—also a far less supple and dexterous ensemble than it is today—enjoyed the leadership of Paul Paray, one of several French conductors whose distinguished artistry and musicality were slow to be recognized. Paray grasps precisely the tempo, the pacing, and powerful dramatic arc of The Medead, while Jordan is as acute in negotiating the work’s demands as she was in Atlanta, if not more so. But under Paray’s direction Giannini’s monodrama emerges as an indisputable masterpiece.

The second CD offers a series of songs recorded during several recitals much later on. Their main attraction lies in displaying the remarkable durability of Jordan’s voice, not to mention her musicianship. Of the eight items, the last four were taken from a 2004 recital, when she was 85! While they do require certain allowances from the listener, and in some of the eight—the Schubert in particular—her concern seemed directed more toward accuracy than toward expression of the text, these are not easy ditties. The Ravel, for example, is fairly demanding. Jordan’s renditions, even at this late age, are more remarkable for the virtues they offer than for those they lack.

In short, this is a release of interest to both vocal specialists and to those interested in uncovering the great American masterpieces of the 1950s and 60s that were buried during the stylistic skirmishes of that fractious period.

PISTON Symphonies: No. 5; No. 7; No. 8.

PISTON Symphonies: No. 5; No. 7; No. 8. • Robert Whitney, Jorge Mester, conductor; Louisville Orchestra. • ALBANY AR011 [AAD]; 65:50. Produced by Howard Scott and Andrew Kazdin.

For those who missed them during their days as Louisville LPs, this CD provides the opportunity to become acquainted with three of the later symphonies of Walter Piston. Piston, who belonged to the generation that also included Virgil Thomson, Roy Harris, Howard Hanson, and Aaron Copland, was the foremost symphonist of the group—at least according to the highest standards of the genre as articulated convincingly by such specialists as the brilliant musicologist-composer Robert Simpson and his followers. Indeed, in “The Symphony in America,” included in The Symphony from Elgar to the Present Day (Penguin Books, 1967), a most valuable compendium of essays edited by Simpson, Peter Jona Korn writes, “Piston is without question America’s most mature composer. … He is a composer of moderation, in the most positive sense of the word— moderation that is the result of discipline and control, not of limitation. . . . There is . . . nothing extraordinary about him—except, perhaps, the strong possibility that his symphonies may well turn out to be the most durable written in America today.”

While I am not ready to embrace this assertion to the letter, this CD has given me the opportunity to refresh my thinking about a composer whose works have often left me rather lukewarm. Piston’s earlier symphonies, such as Nos. 2 and 3, which launched the composer’s stylistic profile to the listening public, are characterized by an exuberant optimism propelled by vigorous syncopated rhythms, set off by slow movements displaying a tender lyrical warmth. A hearty extroversion pervades, epitomizing both the strengths and weaknesses of the American symphonic “sound“ of the 1940s: solid, well crafted, engaging, but essentially glib, facile music of limited psychological or spiritual depth. 

However, with the Symphonies Nos. 5 (1954) and 6 (1955), Piston began to probe more deeply. The ingratiating lyrical flow and congenial bounce at times gave way to more serious moments of introspection. Of the two symphonies, I prefer No. 6, a work commissioned, premiered, and recorded (brilliantly) by the Boston Symphony under Charles Munch. The Fifth Symphony, a fine work nevertheless, seems somewhat less fully consummated. Perhaps this impression is weighted by the fact that the Louisville Orchestra during the mid-1960s (their weakest period, when this recording was originally made) was a far cry from the BSO. Yet their performance, while lacking panache and flair, does represent the work adequately. 

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Symphony No. 7 of 1960 represents a significant step forward from the two-dimensional provinciality of the earlier works to a universal utterance of the highest stature. Here is displayed not only the consummate mastery of compositional technique for which Piston was renowned, but revealed also are noble vistas of sober grandeur, articulated through the graceful and spontaneous yet logically controlled unfolding of abstract musical ideas. This is the work of a symphonist of the highest order, the kind of music that justifies the assertions of Peter Jona Korn quoted earlier. However, lacking overt drama or sentimentality, a work like this can easily appear impersonal and emotionally detached to the general listener. It is inevitable, perhaps, that such music must remain limited to a relatively small audience, although there is nothing in it that is the least experimental, “avant-garde,“ or antagonistic to the listener. In fact, the third movement, though treated with considerable sophistication, recalls the characteristically American exuberance of the finales of the composer’s earlier symphonies. Those patient enough to become familiar with this work are likely to agree that it is one of the great American symphonies of the mid-twentieth century. 

The Symphony No. 8 was composed five years after its predecessor and shares with it many stylistic features. As strong as it is, it does not, I find, match the earlier work’s elevation of content or concentration of design, falling at times into a drab monotony. There is, however, much to admire in it for those who are willing to devote the necessary concentration. 

By the mid-1970s, when this recording was originally made, the Louisville Orchestra had become a more polished group. Hence, the performances of Piston’s last two symphonies, under the direction of Jorge Mester, show a greater confidence and expressive flexibility than the Whitney-led reading. 
Albany Records, under the leadership of the delightfully feisty and indefatigably ambitious Peter Kermani, is to be recommended and encouraged for reviving some of the landmark recordings from the Louisville series, which was responsible for the first and only recordings of many of the finest American orchestral works. Future reissues are eagerly awaited. 

Picks of the Year: 2013

During the past year there were three recordings that met my criteria for Want List inclusion: a) little-known music of the past hundred years, b) in impeccable performances, and c) represented via the finest audio technology. The last criterion is not hard to achieve these days, but the first two are as elusive as they have always been.

The three composers are American, and range in age from 40 (Leshnoff) to 56 (Moravec), and all might be considered neo-tonal postmodernists. Leshnoff is based in the Baltimore area. His music, largely traditional in style, has only recently begun to surface on CD. The pieces I have heard—especially the pieces on this CD (reviewed in this issue)—display a soulfulness and sincerity that make a strong impression. The work that left me with the deepest impact of all his works that I’ve heard is the Double Concerto (violin and viola with orchestra). All the performances on this CD are excellent. I recommend it highly.

Paul Moravec is a considerably more established figure. I have included recordings of his music on previous Want Lists. He has developed an exuberant, mercurial compositional personality resembling that of no other American composer I know, although some may notice a peculiar and probably irrelevant similarity to the voice of Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu. What is especially appealing about this recent release (reviewed in 36:5) is that it features largely magnificent performances of four substantial orchestral pieces, including the Cello Concerto, one of the composer’s most impressive and deeply moving works.

A totally new discovery for me was the music of John Fitz Rogers, a versatile composer based at the University of South Carolina. Although he has a background in both jazz and rock, those genres are largely absent from the works on this CD (reviewed in 36:4), which chiefly follow the same sort of neo-tonal traditionalism as the two others discussed above. Also like theirs, Rogers’s music is expertly crafted, expressively meaningful, and meticulously performed. While strongly recommending this release, I look forward to hearing more of Rogers’s work, as well as acquainting myself further with the music on this disc. Leshnoff, Moravec, and Rogers are all composers whose music is rewarding on first hearing, and more deeply satisfying with greater acquaintance.

Although it was discussed at considerable length in 37:1 by me and four of my colleagues, and my own involvement in the production precludes my adding it to my Want List, I would just like to mention Naxos 8.573060, which features two symphonies for wind ensemble—one by Nicolas Flagello and the other by Arnold Rosner—that are essential listening for all enthusiasts of the wind band medium and its repertoire. Three additional pieces by Flagello are included as well, all in fine performances by the University of Houston Wind Ensemble, conducted by David Bertman.

LESHNOFF Double Concerto.  Symphony No. 1. Rush ● Wetherbee/Díaz/Stern, cond/IRIS O ● NAXOS 8.559670

MORAVEC Northern Lights Electric. Clarinet Concerto. Sempre Diritto! Montserrat—Cello Concerto ● Krakauer/Haimovitz/Rose, cond; Boston Modern O Project ● BMOP 1024

J. F. ROGERS Memoria DomiSonata LunarisBlue River VariationsOnce Removed ● Various chamber ensembles ● INNOVA 707 (65:54)

LESHNOFF Double Concerto. Symphony No. 1, “Forgotten Chants and Refrains.” Rush

LESHNOFF Double Concerto.  Symphony No. 1, “Forgotten Chants and Refrains.” Rush ● Michael Stern, cond; IRIS Orchestra; Charles Wetherbee (vn); Roberto Díaz (va) ● NAXOS 8.559670 (56:33)

Turning 40 this year, Jonathan Leshnoff is proving to be one of the most gifted traditionalist composers of his generation. Born and raised in New Jersey, he is a graduate of the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, and cites as his most important teachers Moshe Cotel and Thomas Benjamin. He seems to have settled in Baltimore, and is currently composer-in-residence of the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, and on the faculty of Towson University.

This is Naxos’s second release devoted to the music of Leshnoff. I reviewed its predecessor favorably in Fanfare 34:3; that one featured a violin concerto and a string quartet. Looking back at that review, I see that I wrote about his Violin Concerto, “Flagrantly and unabashedly tonal and melodic, its conventional and accessible style calls to mind the music of Lowell Liebermann, though it reveals a greater sense of expressive urgency.” Funny, I was thinking exactly the same thing as I listened to this CD, except that I find this more recent release even more appealing by quite a margin. Like the earlier CD, each piece falls into a slightly different stylistic category, yet each remains satisfying in its own way.

Almost immediately after composing his Violin Concerto, Leshnoff was asked to write a Double Concerto featuring violin and viola. He completed the work later the same year, in 2007. This ambitious four-movement concerto grabbed me immediately. Its style is thoroughly traditional and clearly tonal in the late-romantic sense. That is, the listener will hear nothing that couldn’t have been written by a neo-romantic composer 50 years ago. This is, of course, a bold and courageous posture for a composer to take, because not only does he place himself in direct comparison with many celebrated figures of the recent past, but his chosen language makes it virtually impossible for him to avoid the “sounds like” references that so many critics use to diminish the stature of traditionalist composers and their works. I must emphasize that “sounds like” references in this review are provided solely to give the reader a frame of reference that might facilitate his forming a mental impression of what the music sounds like, not a criticism or accusation of “derivativeness.”

Lasting nearly half an hour, the Double Concerto is a serious, passionate work in four movements. Its opening movement is fraught with a grim, heartfelt pathos strongly reminiscent of Ernest Bloch. The second movement is a lively, exciting scherzo with no shortage of lyrical moments. The third movement is a mysterious nocturne that returns to the somber cast of the opening. The finale is a perpetual-motion affair that calls Shostakovich to mind; despite its continuous vigor, it ends the work on a subdued note. The solo performances, featuring violinist Charles Wetherbee (who excelled in the aforementioned Violin Concerto) and violist Roberto Díaz are truly masterly, while the orchestra, under the direction of its founder Michael Stern, provides the solid, confident support one might expect of a far more seasoned ensemble. The IRIS Orchestra, formed in 2000 as the resident orchestra of the Germantown Performing Arts Center in Tennessee, is extraordinarily fine, and Stern appears to be a committed advocate of Leshnoff’s music.

Leshnoff’s Symphony No. 1 was commissioned by Stern, and is subtitled, “Forgotten Chants and Refrains.” It was completed in 2004—earlier than the Double Concerto—but is more obviously a work of the turn of the 21st century, in its emphasis on sonority and gesture reminiscent of the music of Joseph Schwantner, as well as in its passages of rhythmic stasis. The work comprises five movements, played without pause, and is supposedly a “Brotherhood of Man” sort of statement. Lately I find myself on a campaign against references to extramusical content and meaning that is not borne out by the music itself. I have no particular criticisms of Leshnoff’s symphony, which I enjoyed greatly—I just think that its pretense of “[speaking] to all humanity in an uplifting way” is irrelevant. The symphony opens with a slow introduction that produces a great sense of anticipation that is released in the energetic movement that follows. The third movement—the centerpiece—is the longest, and after an eerie opening, becomes more hymnlike, with quotations from earlier religious music, including Gregorian Chant (presumably for purposes of spiritual uplift), before returning to its initial mysterious character. The fourth movement also includes quotations and, like the second, provides rapid activity through swirling gestures. The finale, “Resolution,” is solemn and chant-like, bringing the work—like the Double Concerto—to a subdued conclusion. Despite my carping about extramusical meaning, this is a satisfying work with potentially broad appeal, demonstrating that there is still plenty meaningful to say within the symphonic genre.

Rush is a relatively short, very animated work dating from 2008 that partakes of the post-minimalist manner of John Adams and Michael Torke. It is quite successful in generating the kind of excited exuberance for which such pieces seem to strive, although Rush offers quieter moments as well.

As indicated earlier, the performances presented here are superb, and the music provides just less than an hour of fully enjoyable listening.

LEE PUI MING She Comes to Shore

LEE PUI MING: SHE COMES TO SHORE ● Lee Pui Ming (pn); Jed Gaylin, cond; Bay-Atlantic Symphony ● INNOVA 796 (64:20)
to …. coils. turning. open. dive. she comes to shore.… she. shimmers

Lee Pui Ming was born in Hong Kong in 1956, immigrating to the United States to pursue her musical studies in 1976. For the past 30 years or so, she has been based in Toronto, where she has developed an enthusiastic following for her piano improvisations. She is also a Biodynamic Craniosacral therapist. None of the foregoing information is available anywhere on the CD package. (From what I was able to glean from the Internet, Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy is a mystical/New Age-flavored variant of massage therapy. But that is not what concerns us here.) Not only is the package devoid of informative notes, but what verbiage appears is barely legible, thanks to gray type on a blue background. Admittedly, this presentation did not exactly create a sense of positive anticipation for the music contained therein.

However, Lee’s music is quite pleasant, revealing a fertile creative imagination. Though I am not deeply immersed in the world of piano improvisation, her pieces call to mind the highly esteemed piano improvisations of Keith Jarrett, and I would think that those who are fond of that aspect of Jarrett’s work would respond favorably to Lee’s. Like Jarrett’s classic improvisations, Lee’s are not based on the familiar harmonic language of jazz and its elaboration of popular songs; instead, her work draws upon the styles of Impressionist and post-Impressionist classical music, some remote suggestions of Asian influence, and what is generally thought of as “New Age.” But these influences are well homogenized and integrated into a meditative, tasteful, yet highly virtuosic musical flow.

The “big piece” here is the 23-minute Concerto for Improvised Piano and Orchestra, dating from 2009. The work is divided into three movements, which elide smoothly one into another. Obviously, the fact that the piano part is improvised, at least to some extent, suggests that the orchestral contribution must be generic enough to accommodate whatever fancies Lee decides to pursue. The first movement is therefore rather simple, but not simplistic or insubstantial, contributing to the sense of motion as well as some harmonic support, creating a foundation for the piano’s attractive filigree. In the second movement the orchestra introduces some two-part counterpoint that probably displays the clearest suggestion of Asian influence, while cluster ostinati in the brass effectively inspire the piano to increased intensity. The third movement blossoms into a luscious melody featuring both piano and strings.

The solo selections offer some variety within the generally consistent style: some are more mellow, others are surprisingly feisty, with cluster dissonances, others utilize unconventional sound sources, such as percussion effects created by striking the body of the piano, and harmonics achieved by striking the keys of strings dampened by the hand—an effect pioneered by Henry Cowell. Altogether, the CD is authentically musical and attractive, and, as noted, is likely to appeal to listeners who will self-identify by reading this review. For this listener, while the talent of the composer-pianist is unmistakable, a little goes a long way.