ARGENTO: I Hate and I Love. A Toccata of Galuppi’s. Walden Pond. In Praise of Music. Casa Guidi.Capriccio for Clarinet and Orchestra, “Rossini in Paris”

ARGENTO I Hate and I Love. A Toccata of Galuppi’s. Walden Pond • Dale Warland, cond; Dale Warland Singers; misc. instrumentalists • GOTHIC G-49217 (59:28 )

ARGENTO In Praise of Music. Casa Guidi. Capriccio for Clarinet and Orchestra, “Rossini in Paris”• Eiji Oue, cond; Minnesota O; Frederica von Stade (mez); Burt Hara (cl)• REFERENCE RR-100CD (78:25)

ARGENTO Capriccio for Clarinet and Orchestra, “Rossini in Paris.”ROCHBERG Clarinet Concerto • Anthony Gigliotti (cl); Felix Chiu-Sen Chen, cond; Taipei SO • BRAVO 20125 (48:20)

These three recent releases herald some important additions to the discography of Dominick Argento, now in his late 70s and one of America’s most highly regarded living traditionalist composers. As I have noted in previous reviews, Argento’s music differs from that of most of the Italian-American traditionalists in its emotional reserve and its literary and intellectual sophistication, in contrast to the visceral immediacy, emotional spontaneity, and natural compositional technique that generally characterize the work of that important group of composers. That is, his music is directed more toward the listener’s refined sensibilities than toward his biological vital signs. Much of Argento’s work is designed around some clever—or even ingenious—conceit, which at times proves to be more intriguing than the resulting composition, which may be more likely to engender respectful admiration and amusement than the powerful affection that grows from a strong sense of personal identification. Perhaps the composer whose style and sensibility are most closely allied to his is Benjamin Britten. And while Samuel Barber’s art may often be described as “literary,” his works are considerably more personal and revealing than Argento’s, which keep their composer’s persona far in the background. At times he uses processes associated with serialism, yet his harmonic language is usually relatively consonant, and his music is generally tonal, at least in the local sense. He often seems to be “using” a style for a particular purpose, rather than “speaking through” it as a personal means of expression. In truth, I have found only a small proportion of Argento’s work to be fully satisfying as autonomous music. The six works represented here—spanning the period 1977-1996—continue to confirm these general observations. As far as I know, they are first recordings.

An excellent example is In Praise of Music, subtitled “Seven Songs for Orchestra,” and lasting a little more than half an hour. Not unlike the conception behind Holst’s Planets, each movement might be described as a meditation on a particular mythical or iconic figure associated with music, represented by both a poetic and a musical fragment related in some way to the subject. For example, the first “song” centers around “the healer, David,” who is represented by a passage from the Book of Samuel and a fragment of Hebrew chant, which is incorporated into the music. The subsequent sections focus on “the god, Apollo,” “the satyr, Pan,” “the sorrower, Orpheus,” “the angel, Israfel,” “the saint, Cecilia,” and “the child, Mozart.” Only the last does not incorporate a pre-existing musical fragment. The program notes highlight numerous associations, implications, and other details, impressive in their breadth of reference, subtly included within each movement. Not only is this a fascinating concept, but some of the music is quite beautiful: the gradual build-up of the opening section to a fervent hymn, the eerie color of the Pan movement, haunting passages in the Orpheus movement. But these deeply affecting moments are brief, and few in number. The musical language itself is often quite primitive in its modality, though richly orchestrated, with many exotic touches of non-Western usage. Yet the overall impact is quite austere, and I’m sure that that’s precisely what the composer intended. Indeed, there may be many listeners who prefer Argento’s relative austerity to a more personally revelatory approach.

Much of Argento’s music involves the setting of texts. In addition to some 14 operas, there are numerous other literary settings. “I take a certain amount of pride in the texts I have chosen to set to music,” he writes. “The hunt for an interesting or unusual text … is, for me, a highly important part of the creative process and not infrequently the search takes more time than the actual composing of the music.” Interestingly, Argento prefers setting prose to poetry, so as to avoid the imposition of a pre-existing metrical pattern. The first of several works composed for the celebrated Dale Warland Singers, I Hate and I Love (1981) comprises settings of poems by the ancient Roman poet Catullus (in unrhymed English translation), for mixed chorus and percussion. The texts capture the emotional extremes of the poet’s intense, yet contradictory, feelings for the object of his affections. The music avoids any overt archaisms, projecting a general universality of time-orientation. Though I found the opening and closing sections a little grating after several auditions, there are many lovely moments to be found within.

One of the most striking and rewarding of the six works presented here is Casa Guidi. Composed in 1983, it is the first of several works Argento wrote specifically for mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade. The text is drawn from letters written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning to her sister, and deal largely with aspects—both mundane and profound—of daily life with her husband, Robert Browning; the work’s title refers to the home they shared. The settings display a slightly Mahlerian lyricism, embedded within a rich orchestral fabric. Conceptually reminiscent of the Pulitzer Prize-winning From the Diary of Virginia Woolf (1974), this is the sort of thing that seems to inspire the best from Argento: intensely probing explorations of the inner emotional life of a creative artist, drawn from the latter’s less formal, more intimate, writings. Both this and the Woolf work display the composer’s subtlety, emotional depth, and exquisite taste, and are among his finest compositions. In von Stade’s eloquent rendition Casa Guidi is simply glorious.

Capriccio for Clarinet and Orchestra (1985) is Argento’s only full-length concerted work. With three movements totaling almost half an hour in duration, it is really a full-fledged concerto, although the composer supposedly eschewed that appellation to avoid comparison with Mozart. Once again Argento sought to distance himself and suppress his own persona even more than the focus on a soloist usually allows, so he subtitled the work, “Rossini in Paris,” intending to capture something of the spirit of Rossini’s long period of retirement in Paris, where he pursued the hedonistic pleasures of a bon vivant. Isn’t that just so Argento? Fortunately, the composer thought better than to base his work around actual Rossini melodies: The resulting piece achieves its intended spirit without them, and is a sheer delight, displaying Argento’s customary wit, intelligence, and technical sophistication. Its musical vocabulary might be described as suggesting Menotti suffused with the lyricism of late Strauss. The slow movement in particular is especially moving. The Capriccio represents quite a challenge for the soloist, right from its opening statement, a clearly tonal theme that, however, jumps back and forth between the extremes of the clarinet’s register. The difficulty of this opening passage is indicated by the less-than-perfect intonation displayed by both virtuoso soloists in their respective recordings.

Both performances of the Capriccio are extremely good, making a clear preference difficult. For whatever it’s worth, the distinction of “premiere recording” belongs to the late Anthony Gigliotti, longtime solo clarinet with the Philadelphia Orchestra. His recording highlights the soloist a bit more prominently, while the Reference CD integrates clarinetist Burt Hara a bit farther back within the orchestra.

Argento applies an especially intriguing concept to his setting of Robert Browning’s A Toccata of Galuppi’s (1989). Browning was evidently something of a music lover, and he chose to build his haunting reflection on mortality and the passage of time around the notion of a harpsichord piece by the Venetian composer of the late Baroque, Baldassare Galuppi. Argento scored his largely atonal setting for chamber choir and string quartet, with a harpsichord offstage playing passages from an actual Galuppi toccata, in order to represent Browning’s own musing as he created his poem. “The impression I wished to create in the listeners’ minds,” writes Argento, “was that of the poet, seated at the keyboard, envisioning an 18th-century Venetian world called into being as he actually plays the Galuppi toccata.” What a wonderful idea! Except for the fact that the juxtapositions are disappointingly unaffecting. This is the most blatant example of a conception that is more intriguing than the musical result. As beautifully performed as it is, Argento’s music simply lacks intrinsic autonomous interest.

On the other hand, the most recent work presented here, settings of five portions of Thoreau’s Walden, is one of Argento’s most satisfying, and his own favorite among his larger choral works. Composed in 1996, it calls for a highly imaginative accompaniment of three cellos and harp. The music projects a profound serenity, tinged occasionally by a slightly Mahlerian poignancy. It is a setting of great technical mastery and psychological sophistication.

As noted along the way, all three of these CDs feature extraordinarily fine performances. The Dale Warland Singers offer meticulous readings, while the Minnesota Orchestra honors its “Composer Laureate” with excellent, committed renditions. The focus of the Bravo CD is, of course, Anthony Gigliotti, and his mastery at age 79 of two challenging, modern concertos, recorded barely six months before his death in 2001, is an impressive memorial. Gigliotti gave the premiere of George Rochberg’s Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1996, shortly after the work was completed. It is an effective showpiece in one multisectional movement with many extreme shifts of mood and style, as one expects from the composer. However, after several hearings I failed to discern any real sense of purpose to the effort, beyond the creation of a virtuoso vehicle.