PERSICHETTI: Symphony No.6. MILHAUD: Suite Francaise. KHACHATURIAN/HUNSBERGER: Spartacus (excerpts). ROSSINI/INAGAKI: William Tell Overture. GOSSEC/DONDEYNE: Offrande a la Liberte. Frederick Fennell conducting the Toyko Kosei Wind Ensemble. KOSEI — KOCD 3101 [DDDJ; 61:03. Produced by J. Timperly. (Distributed by Elf Enterprises, 557 East 140th, Cleveland, OH 44110-1999)
PERSICHETTI: Serenade No. 10. BADINGS: Ballade; Cavatina. LAUBER: Four Medieval Dances. RENIE: Legende. Louise DiTullio, flute; Susann McDonald, harp. KLAVIER — KCD 11019 [ADDJ; 63:33. Produced by Harold L. Powell. (Distributed by Allegro Imports, 3434 S.E. Milwaukie, Portland, OR 97202)
The 1950s was a period of phenomenal fertility for Vincent Persichetti. He produced forty-five pieces during this decade, including four symphonies, five piano sonatas, and eight song cycles, along with dozens of other assorted works. What is especially remarkable, however, is that this extraordinary quantity is matched by a consistently high standard of quality. In fact, one might argue that most of the composer’s greatest works — those in which he displays his full communicative power, within a wide-ranging, yet psychologically and aesthetically consistent, individually recognizable musical language — appeared during this decade. This pair of recent CD releases shares the musical distinction of offering two of Persichetti’s masterpieces — composed in 1956 and 1957 respectively — in performances that are superb on all counts, captured on recordings of breathtaking spaciousness and clarity.
The 1950s witnessed another area of explosive musical activity in America: the proliferation of symphonic bands and wind ensembles in high schools and colleges, along with the rapid growth of a viable repertoire for these media. Much of this music was relatively pedestrian, utilitarian fodder, but, in addition, substantial works — including full-length symphonies — appeared from the pens of many of America’s leading serious composers at the time. Vincent Persichetti was one of the most significant contributors to this new repertoire, ultimately adding to it 14 works. Indeed, of the many symphonic works for band that appeared during the 1950s, the most fully consummated artistically — as well as most enduringly successful — is probably Persichetti’s Symphony No.6.
With his fondness for warm chorales, transparent poly tonal 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. The symphony for band, in four concise movements, illustrates the quintessence of the American neoclassical spirit — as well as style — with an effortless mastery of form and development and an exhilarating spontaneity of inventiveness that are truly Haydnesque, in the most favorable sense.
Another leading figure in the American band explosion of the 1950s (and early 60s) was a young conductor named Frederick Fennell, whose Mercury recordings with the Eastman Symphonic Wind Ensemble provided a showcase for the finest examples of this exciting new repertoire, while setting a standard of disciplined precision and uncompromising musiciansnthat served as a model for high school and college bands throughout the country. Indeed, it may be fairly stated that Persichetti and Fennell helped to put each other on the musical map — certainly, the 30-year old Fennell/Eastman recording of the Symphony No. 6 stands as a milestone of its genre.
Now in his 70s, Frederick Fennell currently serves as music director of the Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra, a group established and funded by a Japanese Buddhist organization called Rissho Kosei-kai. (For general information about the Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra and its series of recordings, see Ron McDonald’s article, “East Meets West: The Winds of Change,” in Fanfare 13:1, pp. 91ff.) Part of the purpose of this series of recordings appears to be providing Fennell with the opportunity to document his definitive interpretations of the works with which he has long been associated, using state-of-the-art recording techniques and an ensemble of musicians trained to his specifications.
The rendition of the Persichetti symphony presented here is virtually identical conceptually to the 30-year old Eastman performance; proficiency of execution is comparable, if not a trifle superior. Of course, Mercury releases from the late 1950s and early 60s are generally acknowledged to be among the finest recordings of their time, finding new generations of listeners .through subsequent reissues — and are now beginning to appear on compact disc. Whether the Eastman recording of Persichetti’s Sixth will be among those reissued I have no idea. Nevertheless, these new Kosei recordings are about as sonically splendid as one can imagine. Their major shortcoming, however, is the fact that An inexplicably shortsighted packaging decision.
Incidentally, the prospective purchaser is advised that Fennell’s is the second recording of Persichetti’s Sixth to be released by Tokyo Kosei. The first (KOCD 3076) was conducted by Kazuyoshi Akiyama, but was not available to me for comparison.
Many of Persichetti’s works reflect a propensity for miniaturism, exemplified in a series of 15 serenades — pieces comprising a number of tiny, epigrammatic movements of contrasting character — scored for various combinations of instruments. Each movement is like a haiku, concise yet rich with meaning and implication. Perhaps the most captivating of the serenades is the 12-minute No. 10 for flute and harp, consisting of eight movements, each of which suggests — subtly and concisely — such qualities as tenderness, delicacy, warmth, and mercurial lightness. Despite its modest dimensions, this is a work — performed ravishingly here — not to miss.
The remainder of the Tokyo Kosei disc is less compelling from a musical standpoint, although band aficionados may find it — along with the rest of the series — to warrant interest. Milhaud’s Suite Francaise is another piece that Fennell recorded during his tenure with the Eastman Wind Ensemble. I find the music to be irritatingly trivial for the most part, although the performance here is stunning enough. A quarter-hour of excerpts from Khachaturian’s Spartacus can be expected to make a lot of noise, and there certainly is no disappointment on that count. However, the shallow brutality and exotic Armenian clichés of the music offer little of substance. Gossec’s Offrande à la Liberté is a patriotic rouser that even includes the Marseillaise. Orchestral chestnuts transcribed for band provide valuable learning opportunities for young musicians, but have little value for the serious listener. Nevertheless, the TKWO’s brilliant rendition of Rossini’s William Tell Overture is sure to tickle the fancy of the present or former bandsman. Though the storm and its aftermath are played quite stiffly and metronomically, the final portion is truly sensational, with some impressive clarinet ensemble-work.
The remainder of the flute and harp disc offers somewhat more musical interest. Henk Badings (1907-1987) was a prolific and well-known Dutch composer whose musical involvements were wide and varied. Indeed, he was a pioneer in the early development of electronic music and his efforts in this area were outstanding. TheBallade for flute and harp (1950) is relatively conventional in style and rhapsodic in form. Although its approach is virtuosic, it is a substantial 14-minute work in an ornate and developmentally rich post-impressionistic idiom. The lovely Cavatina for alto flute and harp, composed two years after the Ballade, displays a sensuous, exotic lyricism. Both these pieces are worth knowing and they are impeccably performed here. Swiss composer Joseph Lauber (1864-1952) is represented by Four Medieval Dances, an attractive group of impressionistic evocations of archaic dance forms. French composer Henriette Renie’s Legende is an opulent, moodily atmospheric example of French late-romantic neo-chivalry for solo harp. The list of contents and annotation indicate the presence of another work by Mlle. Renie, but such is not to be found on the disc. Sound quality of this reissue from the late 19708 is extremely fine.