SCHWANTNER: Sparrows. Two Poems of Agueda Pizarro. Music of Amber. Distant Runes and Incantations. Soaring

SCHWANTNER. Sparrows. Two Poems of Agueda Pizarro. Music of Amber. Distant Runes and Incantations. Soaring  KIaus Simon, cond; Holst-Sinfonietta; Britta Stallmeister (sop); Klaus Simon (pn); Florian Hölscher (pn); Anne Parisot (fl) • NAXOS 8.559206 (65:02)

Now in his early 60s, Chicago-born Joseph Schwantner seems to have receded somewhat from the forefront of contemporary American composers, a position he enjoyed from 1978, when he won the Pulitzer Prize for his orchestral work Aftertones of Infinity, through the mid 1980s. During that period new compositions appeared at a rapid rate, and were accorded the prestige of auspicious performances and recordings, partly spurred by the advocacy of soprano Lucy Shelton and conductor Leonard Slatkin. By now the intense interest seems to have abated, although several works—a haunting composition for band, And the Mountains Rising Nowhere (1977), a deeply moving tribute to Martin Luther King for narrator and orchestra, called New Morning for the World (1982), and a breathtaking Percussion Concerto (1994)—seem to have achieved an indisputable foothold in the repertoire.

This new release in Naxos’s “American Classics” series features five compositions dating from the years 1979-1987, which corresponds roughly to Schwantner’s period at center-stage. The recording appears to be the result of a project carried out by a group of enthusiasts located in the city of Freiburg, Germany, under the leadership of Klaus Simon. The selected repertoire includes two substantial works for chamber ensemble, two significant vocal works with chamber ensemble, and a tiny piece for flute and piano (billed as a recording premiere, but not really so (see Flute Moments, released by Laurel [LR-857] in 1998).

The program notes describe Schwantner’s music as reflecting the influences of Debussy, Messiaen, and George Crumb. This lineage has been cited elsewhere as well, and, although it is not without a vein of truth, it is quite misleading, as the impact made by Schwantner’s music bears little in common with that made by theirs. This is because, unlike the music of those composers, Schwantner’s exhibits a directness of appeal that at times suggests more commercial genres. In fact, I would cite a stronger affinity to the “folk-pop” arrangements from the 1970s associated with such talented figures as Joshua Rifkin and Peter Schickele. Add to this the mysterious quasi-literary titles Schwantner favors, and the simple, “New-Age-y” texts he sets or uses as inspiration. What you have might be characterized as “other-worldly mood music.” 

Furthermore, Schwantner is one of those composers whose musical voice is so distinctive that a piece can be identified as his after just a few seconds, although determining just which piece it is—if the scoring or text don’t give it away—is a good deal more difficult. So just what are the elements that make up the Schwantner “sound”? These are, chiefly, a strong footing in tonality, although melodic lines might be quite disjunct, with wide leaps; considerable attention to timbre, especially of a hushed, ethereal nature, with much emphasis on delicate percussion sonorities, often enhanced by soft vocalizing from the players; there are certain familiar gestures, e.g., what the program notes call a “fanning out” of arpeggiated chords based on open fifths, which serve to evoke bewitching, highly imaginative moods that glow with radiant luminosity—all presented in a context that is easy to assimilate and enjoy, making it somewhat more suitable to musical hedonists than to snobs. Schwantner achieves his results with considerable skill, although a little goes a long way, especially as its tendency toward a sameness of effect is probably its greatest weakness.

Having described the overall impact of Schwantner’s music, I am left with characterizing specific attributes of the individual works. The earliest piece here, from 1979, is Sparrows, settings of 15 18th-century haiku, for soprano and chamber ensemble. Two Poems of Aguedo Pizarro appeared the following year, and are settings of these surrealistic verses in English translations done by Barbara Stoller Miller. Both these compositions were written for soprano Lucy Shelton, who displays an uncanny affinity for Schwantner’s vocal music. Britta Stallmeister, who sings them here, is excellent, if a little shrill in comparison to Shelton’s more relaxed delivery. 

Music of Amber (1981), scored for mixed sextet, and Distant Runes and Incantations, written for piano and orchestra in 1984, and re-scored alternately for chamber ensemble in 1987, are two of Schwantner’s strongest works. It feels safe to say that how one reacts to either of them will indicate how one will feel about Schwantner’s music in general. Music for Amber won the Kennedy Center Friedheim Award in 1981, and comprises two sections, each associated with an imagery-filled poem by the composer. Another literary work by Schwantner serves as “poetic support” for the single-movement quasi-concerto, Distant Runes and Incantations. According to the program notes, presumably authorized by the composer, “the poem provided a source of extra-musical imagery …, fitting with and forming the composer’s musical ideas.” Quoting the poem’s introductory lines will convey the sense of Pre-Raphaelite fantasy: “Give heed…/Lord of the Dark Winds,/Give heed…/solitary sentinel of the black moors,/Give heed…/fearsome knight/your daunting presence proclaimed,/ …slayer of foes/Forever vigilant…/cloaked guardian of the ancient citadel,/Forever endure…/you who for so long remained watchful, ever steadfast,…” The premiere of the work in its original version was given in Los Angeles by pianist Ursula Oppens, with Gerard Schwarz conducting. It was recorded in 1987 by Oppens with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin’s direction on an Elektra/Nonesuch LP (9 79143-1—see Fanfare 11:2) which seems not to have been reissued on CD. I must confess to a preference for the work in its full orchestral version, although the chamber instrumentation offered here is thoroughly effective. 

Suitable as an encore piece, the 1½ -minute Soaring is a virtuosic showpiece bearing the composer’s unmistakable fingerprints.

As is true for so many releases in Naxos’s “American Classics” series, this recording allows the curious listener to acquaint himself with a representative sample of music, superbly performed, by a notable composer who might otherwise be just a vaguely familiar name. And this for less than the typical price of a movie ticket in a neighborhood theater!