BEASER Chorale Variations. Piano Concerto. The Seven Deadly Sins

BEASER Chorale Variations. Piano Concerto. The Seven Deadly Sins • Dennis Russell Davies, cond; American Composers O; Pamela Mia Paul (pn); Jan Opalach (bbar)2 • PHOENIX PHCD162 (76:47)

Robert Beaser is one of many composers, now roughly middle-aged, whom commentator Terry Teachout has dubbed “The New Tonalists.” Others within this group who have achieved some success include Paul Moravec, Richard Danielpour, Daniel Catán, Lowell Liebermann, Daniel Asia, Arnold Rosner, and Thomas Pasatieri, to name a few. Although their compositional approaches naturally differ, what they share is a linkage to the formal principles, aesthetic values, and general rhetoric of the western musical tradition, i.e., what Schoenberg, Webern, and—even more so—their disciples in Europe and the United States attempted to obliterate. Now in his early 50s, Beaser was born in Boston, and studied at Yale, with Jacob Druckman and Toru Takemitsu, among others. He has enjoyed a most distinguished career, and is currently the Chairman of the Composition Department at the Juilliard School and the Artistic Director of the American Composers Orchestra. He has been the recipient of numerous auspicious awards and commissions, and his works have been performed widely.

This new Phoenix release returns to the catalog a recording originally issued in 1994 on London/Argo. It is a most appealing introduction to Beaser’s work. On the basis of the pieces represented here, one gains the impression of a musical language shaped somewhat by the sounds of Stravinsky and Britten, but more exuberant, luxuriant, and emotionally open than either of them, with something of the flamboyance of Leonard Bernstein, but without the latter’s vulgarity. In short, although his actual musical materials suggest the neo-classicists, his own temperament seems to reflect more romantic expressive values. Beaser utilizes this language with considerable fluency and richness of orchestral color.

Most immediately appealing of these works are the Chorale Variations, composed in 1992 on commission from the American Composers Orchestra. Despite its title, the work has virtually nothing of the strophic “feel” of a set of variations; moreover, the chorale theme is not clearly stated until the end. The effect, then, is much more that of an extended post-romantic “tone poem.” In fact, Beaser has indicated that the work depicts a program of some kind, although he chooses to keep its details to himself. The music is varied, colorful, and richly textured, making a most pleasing impression, while conveying the sense that there is enough going on beneath the surface to motivate one to return to it and delve more deeply. 

Of comparable interest is Beaser’s 1988 Piano Concerto, an exceedingly difficult work played astonishingly well by Pamela Mia Paul, who commissioned it and gave the first performance, with Leonard Slatkin conducting the St. Louis Symphony. More than half an hour in duration, it is a grandly neo-romantic concerto, with the expansive rhetoric and broad gestures one associates with that tradition. Its weight and overall character place it along similar stylistic lines as the 1962 Piano Concerto of Samuel Barber, although Beaser’s treatment of tonality is ambiguous for longer stretches, and his harmonic language is somewhat more dissonant. The first movement is extremely compelling, with themes that lodge themselves in one’s memory. The second movement is often quite pretty, although it does ramble a bit, while the finale is extremely splashy and exciting, with terrific rhythmic drive. One is barely aware of the fistfuls of cluster-based chords in the third movement, for example, because of the comfortable sense of familiarity conveyed by the work’s overall thrust. On the whole, I would venture to say that listeners who enjoy Barber’s 1962 concerto will find Beaser’s to be comparably rewarding. 

The concerto raises one complicating issue, however. In addition to its general embracing of the traditional romantic piano genre, the listener is likely to notice some references to other well-known works—particularly those of Gershwin and Bernstein. In his notes, the usually reliable Steven Ledbetter points to a “subversive” dimension of the work, involving such quotes and “abundant winks” at the rhetoric of the romantic piano concerto. But, he hastens to assure us, these elements are not intended to play a “distanced, ironic role.” While listening, I found my awareness of this “subversive” dimension to have precisely the distancing effect that the notes attempt to disavow, as I struggled to locate the quotes, wondering whether I had missed any. Honestly, I found them to be so thoroughly embedded within the dense musical fabric as to be no more intrusive or obvious than the casual reminiscences one typically encounters in any other major work that embraces a thoroughly traditional style. So I contacted Beaser to inquire about this. He expressed some regret for having commented on what he now views as essentially his own private compositional process, and strongly dissociated himself from any of the ironic postmodern “distancing” used by so many of his colleagues to protect themselves against accusations of naivete, derivativeness, or general lack of sophistication. He stated most emphatically that he prefers his work to be taken on its own terms, as a straightforward, traditional concerto. I was glad to hear this, and encourage listeners who may wish to pursue Beaser’s music to disregard such distracting notions.

Somewhat less impressive are The Seven Deadly Sins. Originally composed for voice and piano in 1979, these settings of wry poetic treatments of the traditional sins by Anthony Hecht were orchestrated in 1984 in anticipation of performance by the New York Philharmonic. The soloist in that performance was Jan Opalach, who performs them here. Once again the music is notable for its imaginative expressive variety and ingratiating richness of color, as each sin is invoked. But overall, the music is far more appealing than the verses, while the vocal lines themselves are not all that interesting, However, I found the cute nastiness of the verses something of a turn-off and limiting to the impact of the music. The fact that Opalach’s voice lacks both vibrancy and flexibility does not help matters.

I look forward to further exposure to Beaser’s music. I found most of the music here worthy of attention, and I recommend it to those listeners who are interested in following the evolution of musical traditionalism at the turn of the 21st century.