KURKA: Symphony No. 2. V. THOMSON: Filling Station. HELPS: Piano Concerto No. 2. LOPATNIKOFF: Festival Overture

KURKA: Symphony No. 2. V. THOMSON: Filling Station. HELPS: Piano Concerto No. 2. LOPATNIKOFF: Festival Overture • David Alan Miller, cond; Albany SO; Alan Feinberg (pn)• ALBANY TROY591 (64:33)

This is one of those 20th-century miscellanies that harkens back to the heyday of the Louisville Orchestra recordings (early 1950s through the early 1960s). In fact, three of the four composers whose music appears on this recent Albany CD were represented there as well, and one of the pieces itself-the Kurka-was introduced through that venerable series. 

It is indeed the Kurka symphony that warrants primary attention here. Robert Kurka was a composer from the Mid-West, whose promising career was cut short by leukemia at age 36. He is remembered today chiefly for his final composition: an opera, The Good Soldier Schweik (of which a complete recording is currently available on the Cedille label). That is an intriguing and provocative work, but I have always found the Symphony No. 2, composed in 1953, to hold greater appeal. The symphony represented my initial exposure to Kurka more than 40 years ago (and barely a handful of years after his untimely demise), when Louisville released their recording, under the sympathetic direction of Robert Whitney. In fact, Whitney was a consistent advocate of Kurka’s music, recording two other works soon thereafter. Kurka’s Second Symphony is an interesting case in point: Composed during the period when the American symphonic school was at its height, it falls right into the mainstream style of the genre: conventionally classical in form, brash and assertive in attitude, propelled by energetic rhythmic syncopations, which are offset by more subdued, nostalgic passages. Fresh and exuberant, it reveals a certain naivete, both compositionally and emotionally, and the influence of Prokofiev weighs heavily. (Annotator Geoffrey Lapin describes it perceptively as “Americanized Prokofiev.”) And yet, from the moment I first heard it, I was struck by both the authenticity of its expression and the strength of its unmistakable personality, marked by an almost mischievous fondness for major-minor vacillations. Once one becomes familiar with it, one can never fail to recognize Kurka’s music again. (It’s a funny thing, this “personality” business: some composers go to great lengths to devise their own “style” with little success, while another can jump right into the language of a better-known predecessor, yet create a unique identity in spite of himself.) Thoroughly unpretentious, the symphony nevertheless maintains a consistent and quite mature sense of clarity as to its aesthetic intentions. Kurka’s music has been off the map for quite a while now, and I for one am delighted to see him back in the spotlight, if only for a moment, and through one of his most satisfying works, in a performance that generally presents it to good advantage. I do have to say that Miller’s reading is a tad overly driven, with a pugnacity that verges on excess, not to mention a timpani player who sounds as if he’s on steroids (although this may be the result of a miking or mixing problem). Nevertheless, enthusiasts of the American symphonic school not yet familiar with Kurka’s music will surely want to make its acquaintance, while older collectors whose experience of it has been limited to the original Louisville issues will be delighted to hear this new rendition, presented with the benefit of today’s recording technology. And there is more Kurka worth reviving: for example, there is a String Quartet No. 5—never recorded-that is as appealing and strikingly individual as the Second Symphony.

I’m afraid that the rest of the CD, though not without interest, pales by comparison. Virgil Thomson’s 1937 ballet, Filling Station, is historically important, as an evocation of Americana that preceded Copland’s efforts in this vein. But it is easy to understand why Copland receives all the credit: Works like Billy the Kid,Prairie Journal, and Outdoor Overture, all of which followed on the heels of Filling Station, exhibit far more freshness and vitality than Thomson’s excursion into intentional banality and “mock grandiosity” (as Ray Bono characterizes it).

Robert Helps (1928-2001) earned considerable admiration for his authoritative performances of the profusion of complex and difficult twelve-tone piano music that appeared during the 1960s and early 70s. A composition student of Roger Sessions, he also wrote quite a bit of music of his own in that vein. His short, one-movement Piano Concerto No. 2 was composed in 1973, and was introduced several years later by Richard Goode, with the Oakland Symphony Orchestra. It is a shapely work, composed with evident sensitivity to real musical values, while its brevity helps to compensate for the general drabness of its material. Pianist Alan Feinberg represents the solo component with a sympathetic understanding that honors the composer’s memory. 

Nikolai Lopatnikoff (1903-1976) was an Estonian-born Neo-Classicist of routine interest, who came to the United States around 1940, and spent the largest part of his career on the faculty of the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh. His 1960 Festival Overture uses a highly chromatic and dissonant language strongly reminiscent of Hindemith to convey a vigorous, assertive spirit.