by Walter Simmons
MENNIN: Symphony No. 5. SCHUMAN: New England Triptych. IVES: Symphony No. 3; Three Places in New England. Howard Hanson conducting the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra. MERCURY 432 755-2 [ADD]; 77:09. Produced by Wilma Cozart Fine.
MENNIN: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra. PISTON: Sympnony No. 1. KURKA: The Good Soldier Schweik — Suite. Janos Starker, cello; Jorqe Mester and Robert Whitney conducting the Louisville Orchestra. ALBANY TROY044 [AAD]; 72:29. Produced by Andrew Kazdin and Howard Scott
These CD reissues return to the catalog two of Peter Mennin’s major works from the 1950s, his most fertile decade. Mennin’s music emphasizes counterpoint above all other elements with much use of imitation, canon, ground bass, stretto, cantus firmus and the like. As admirers of the composer’s music are well aware, over the course of his creative career, Mennin’s style underwent a continuous chronological development along a powerful–if rather narrow–continuum. His early music, dating from the 1940s, was characterized by a sense of vigorous kinetic energy and confident determination, with a propensity for the dark and rarely used Locrian mode and for syncopated, strongly accented rhythms. Over the years, the linear aspect of his music became increasingly chromatic, the harmony increasingly dissonant, and the rhythm increasingly irregular, resulting in an overall concentration and intensification of expressive effect. This course of development was so even and continuous that it is fairly easy to date one of Mennin’s compositions by listening to it for just a few minutes. Although he composed only some thirty works during his busy and relatively short life (he died in 1983 at age 60, after having served as president of both the Peabody Conservatory and the Juilliard School), virtually all his music reflects the highest artistic intentions; there are no peripheral, frivolous, or non-representative efforts. Virtually every work conveys a consistently eloquent, coherent, and characteristic metaphysical vision suggesting the sober contemplation of ferocious conflict among wild and massive forces — all portrayed through sound, uncompromising musical logic.
Peter Mennin completed nine symphonies and, knowing all but the first (suppressed by the composer) quite well, I would place him alongside Walter Piston as America’s greatest symphonist. The Symphony No. 5 dates from 1950, when the composer was 27(!) and falls at about the 40th percentile on his developmental continuum. That is, the polyphonic lines are relatively diatonic, the Locrian rnode is, quite, evident , the sense of determination — clear, as always, from the first note — has become grim and defiant but does not yet reflect the manic rage and cataclysmic violence that begin to appear only a year or two later. Like its two symphonic predecessors, the Fifth comprises three movements, the continuous energetic motion of the outer ones relieved by a slow movement of lofty, Bach-like reflectiveness. Howard Hanson leads an incisive, sharply chiseled reading of the work, captured with transparency and brilliance on this recording, originally made in 1962.
Mennin’s Cello Concerto was composed in 1956 and represents considerable development along his stylistic continuum — to about the 60th percentile — as described above. Polyphonic lines are more chromatic, harmony is more dissonant with an overall increase in severity of tone, kinetic energy, and expressive intensity. The outer movements fly by with a manic frenzy that Janos Starker, brilliant virtuoso that he is, can barely sustain. In truth, the cello, with its low range and limited projection, is no match for an orchestra whipped up to such a fever pitch. Hence the most powerful moments of the outer movements are the tuttis, during which the orchestra is unleashed with full force. However, the deeply moving slow movement provides wonderful opportunities for the cello to sing in beautifully cantabile manner. The performance, dating from 1969, is truly heroic.
The presence of these two Mennin works makes both these reissues of great value to those listeners interested in understanding and appreciating one of the most important figures of mid-20th century American music. The remaining works on both discs are mixed in appeal and interest. On the Mercury release, the two Ives performances were originally recorded in 1957. I must confess to belonging among those listeners who view Ives as a unique visionary of limited musical talent and ability. Three Places in New England is one of his more successful works, effectively projecting his original brand of turn-of-the-century Yankee impressionism, achieved through collage-like processes. The Symphony No. 3, however, is rhythmically uninteresting and unfocused thematically and tonally, despite its pretty surface. The extreme clarity of the recording is revealing of detail during the denser moments of both works, but also exposes rawness and ungainliness of the performances. Both readings have since been far surpassed by later recordings.
After the clumsiness of Ives, the sheer competence of the late William Schuman’s brilliant and popular New England Triptych is refreshing and exhilarating. The strong influence of Ives on Schuman’s stylistic development may be heard in the latter’s useof free (non-tonal) triadic harmony, as well as in his frequent use of multiple textural planes, although Schuman was quite critical of Ives’ actual works. New England Triptych receives a stunning performance in this 1963 recording.
The Louisville release is a mixed bag as well. Although Walter Piston, like Mennin, was a master symphonist, his efforts in the genre began at a much later age. The first of his eight symphonies did not appear until 1937, when he was 43 (by which age Mennin had already completed seven of his nine). Piston’s First Symphony is a serious, ambitious, and competent work. However, its severity and uncompromising abstraction seem rather forced, with little sense of ease or spontaneity. A smoother, more polished performance might help, but only somewhat, I suspect. A world of fluency and facility separates this symphony from its successor, composed six years later.
Robert Kurka — along with the late Andrzej Panufnik — was a composer whose music was championed vigorously by conductor Robert Whitney through his recordings with the Louisville Orchestra, before either composer had acquired any sort of reputation. Kurka was a gifted American who died in 1957 at the age of 36. Unlike Panufnik, Kurka has never achieved much recognition and much of his reputation rests on the anti-war opera The Good Soldier Schweik and the orchestral suite from which it was developed. The suite was composed in 1952 and is scored for winds and percussion only, with a satirical quality strongly reminiscent of the music of Kurt Weill, including much ironic use of jazz-like and circus music-like elements. Although I am fairly familiar with Kurka’s music — more than the three pieces recorded by Whitney — and am quite fond of much of it, I find the Schweik Suite, with its deliberate banality and overused mannerisms, to be rather irritating. The performance, moreover is awfully scrappy. Listeners interested in pursuing Kurka’s music are urged to locate the exuberant and truly distinctive Symphony No. 2, composed one year after the Schweik Suite and once available on Louisville LOU-616.