by Walter Simmons
PERSICHETTI: Sonatas for Harpsichord Nos. 2, 3, 4, 5. SCARLATTI: Sonatas for Harpsichord L. 138, 157, 160, 178, 268, 457, 474. Elaine Camparone, harpsichord. LAUREL LR-838CD [ADD]; 71:54. Produced by Herschel Burke Gilbert.
PERSICHETTI: Symphony No. 6. GRAINGER: Lincolnshire Posy; Hill Song No. 2. ROGERS: Three Japanese Dances. HARTLEY: Concerto for 23 Winds.KHACHATURIAN: Armenian Dances. Frederick Fennell conducting the Eastman Wind Ensemble. MERCURY 432 754-2 LADD]; 71:28. Produced by Wilma Cozart Fine
Running into Vincent Persichetti at a concert some time in 1981, I asked him what he had been working on lately. He responded excitedly, “I’ve discovered a whole new universe of sound: It’s called the harpsichord.” Those who had the good fortune to enjoy personal acquaintance with this great composer know how characteristic of him was such epigrammatic verbal whimsy. And, indeed, the harpsichord did occupy a good deal of his attention for the rest of his life. Between 1981 and his death in 1987, Persichetti completed 21 works, of which 11 are for harpsichord, including eight of nine sonatas for that instrument. And now Elaine Comparone presents first recordings of four of those sonatas — two of them written for her — on this new Laurel release
Composed within a two-year period, the four sonatas share considerable similarity in conception. Each is between 9 and 11 minutes long, and is divided into several short movements. Each is a fanciful exploration of a largely dissonant, atonal idiom, with spare textures — straight homophony or two-part counterpoint, the most part, clear, energetic rhythmic patterns, linear melodies, and a wide range of harmonic densities, all unfolding organically with a tight structural logic. There is an overall simplicity of means that disguises a subtle complexity of conception, exemplifying Persichetti’s oft-stated goal, “to express more with less.” The results add up to one more aspect o£ the unique, self-contained syntax and rhetoric that comprise the expressive world of Vincent Persichetti. Their angular tonal surface may make an austere initial impression, but the richness of imagination that informs them becomes apparent with greater exposure. A good way to become acquainted with these sonatas is to concentrate on one of them for a while, until it has become familiar. The easiest to penetrate is probably No. 3 — a quirky little masterpiece–so it may be the best place to start. Once this one has been grasped, the overall expressive language should be much clearer to the listener.
Elaine Comparane plays each sonata with great technical finesse and a deep understanding of the music; knowledgeable program notes by Bruce Adolphe provide further illumination. The Persichetti sonatas are complemented by vivid performances of a lovely and varied group o£ seven sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, making this a highly desirable new release Compared to Persichetti’s harpsichord sonatas, his Symphony 6, composed in 1956, displays a more straightforward, diatonic tonal clarity, making it far more accessible to the listener. When recently reviewing a new recording of this work, played by the Tokyo Kosei Wind Ensemble conducted by Frederick Fennell (Fanfare 14:5, pp. 246-7), 1 wondered whether Mercury’s classic 1959 recording, featuring the same conductor with the Eastman Wind Ensemble, would be reissued on CD. Well, here it is, and boasting sound quality that rivals the stunning new Japanese recording.
Fennell formed the Eastman Wind Ensemble in 1952, in an effort to create a wind band of unprecedented flexibility and transparency of sound, capable of playing works of high artistic caliber with the virtuoso precision and musicianship of a fine professional orchestra. Within a few years, the Eastman Wind Ensemble was making recordings that illustrated the success of his endeavor, while stimulating the creation of a fine body of repertoire and bringing it to the attention of the general listener. Of the many major American works for band that appeared during the 1950s, the most fully consummated artistically — as well as the most enduringly successful — is probably Persichetti’s Symphony No. 6, one of 14 works that he composed for this medium his fondness for warm chorales, transparent polytonal textures, crisp, dry sonorities, and lively, syncopated rhythms, Persichetti displayed a tremendous natural affinity for ensembles of winds and percussion. In fact, his works for band are probably more representative of his distinctive musical personality than are his works for orchestra. His symphony for band, in four concise movements, captures the essence of the American neoclassical style and spirit, with an effortless mastery of form and development and an exhilarating spontaneity of invention that are truly Haydnesque. It is not only because of his attention to the band medium that so many music lovers began to appreciate Persichetti when they were young. The warmth, exuberance, and playfulness of pieces like the Symphony No. 6 epitomize youth itself, at its most endearing.
Fulfilling a similar role in the English band repertoire as that occupied by the Persichetti symphony in the American literature is Percy Grainger’s classicLincolnshire Posy. The work comprises a group of English folksongs collected by Grainger in about 1905 and scored in 1937. The tunes are given creative, often ambiguous harmonizations and strange counterpoints, with natural rhythmic irregularities left intact, all arranged with attention to a varied array of imaginative sonorities. The entire suite exudes tremendous brilliance and vitality, and the 1958 performance captured here is positively revelatory.
Grainger’s Hill Song No. 2 ,was composed during the early 1900s and, rather than folksong settings, is more of a short pastoral rhapsody based on folk material. Grainger’s music is always delightful and fascinating, and this is no exception. Bernard Rogers (1893-1968) was closely associated with Howard Hanson during his long tenure on the composition faculty of the Eastman School, although those works of his that I have heard are less richly romantic than Hanson’s. The Three Japanese Dances were originally written for orchestra in 1933, and were re-scored for band twenty years later. They are stark, brilliantly-colored oriental evocations, inspired by Japanese woodblock art. The second features a mezzo-soprano singing an unidentified text.
Walter Hartley was born in 1927 and studied at Eastman with Hanson and Rogers. His 1957 Concerto for 23 Winds is — I’m sorry to say — at the opposite pole from Persichetti’s symphony: a dull, dry, unimaginative example of American neoclassicism owing much to Stravinsky. It leaves no traces in the memory. Khachaturian’s Armenian Dances of 1943 are exactly what one would expect from a work of this title from this composer Armenian melodies in chromatic harmonizations and simple textures, transparently scored. It is the least ambitious work on the disc.
This reissue of recordings made more than thirty years ago is as crystalline and luminescent as we have come to expect from Mercury CD series. One does not need to exaggerate to describe them as virtually state-of-the-art today. The performances are among the best of those made by the Eastman Wind Ensemble, displaying an awe-inspiring precision of execution, sureness of intonation, and breadth of dynamic range, exceeding level achieved at the same time by the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra. Listeners interested in this repertoire and/or this medium are sure not to be disappointed.