MENNIN: Symphony No.7. Concerto for Piano and Orchestra

MENNIN: Symphony No.7. Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jean Martinon (in Symphony); John Ogden, piano; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Igor Buketoff (in Concerto). CRI RECORDS SD 399, $7.95.

The reissue of these two great works, in performances of electrifying intensity, demonstrates unequivocally the towering position of Peter Mennin among contemporary composers. Paul Snook’s eloquent and perspicacious remarks upon selecting Mennin’s Symphony No.6 for the Classical Hall of Fame (Fanfare 1:6) articulated vivid impressions of music that is rarely viewed apart from its composer’s public image. As an astute correspondent observed two issues later, Mennin’s “establishment” position as president of the Juilliard School, and his reputation as a businesslike administrator, have produced a detrimental image of him as a composer of well-crafted but dull, conventional music. Even our own John W. Charles described his works as “tasteful, three-piece-suit commissions.” But such a characterization could not be further from the truth.

Mennin’s is an ambitious, wholly abstract approach to music in which dynamic motivic development serves not to build structures of balance, clarity, and Apollonian beauty in the manner of the 18th-century symphonists, but to propel and embody a relentless, often furibund flood of rhythmic, contrapuntal, and textural motion with grim determination to climaxes of frenzied proportions. This is music of overwhelming seriousness, thoroughly devoid of frivolity, coloristic effects, or romantic sentiment. The result is lofty but involved, quite pessimistic metaphysical commentary, rather than the more personal expression we think of as “emotion.” (“Music reflects the soul of the composer,” he has stated, “and there is such a thing as soul.”)

Some have suggested an affinity with Hindemith, but while there are similarities in the neo-Baroque textural patterns and the emphasis on counterpoint, the inner spirit is very different. Yet several other 20th-century composers, particularly those who have been drawn to the symphony for their major utterances, have written music characterized by a tone similar to Mennin’s: Edmund Rubbra and Vagn Holmboe, among others (not to mention Vaughan Williams in his Fourth Symphony); but Mennin is the chief American exponent, and carries this unflinching stance close to the point of madness. (“In my work there has always been some element of violence.”)

To those who inquire why one might be drawn to music of such uncompromising severity, let me point out that Mennin’s symphonic gesture, which defies the conventional polarities of classicism and romanticism, represents an attitude that stretches back to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Music like this elicits a cathartic exaltation from the simultaneous brilliance and fluency of its invention and the inevitability of its brutal course. And in addition, Mennin’s slow movements reveal a Bach-like dignity, sincerity, and eloquence. Indeed, if a criticism may be leveled at Mennin’s music, it is the charge of monotony. The unswerving absorption in an inexhaustible musical avalanche, interrupted only by solemn, doleful adagios, may be viewed as a rather narrow expressive range, and, indeed, one can hardly imagine living on a steady diet of Mennin. Yet if one compares the rollicking self-assertiveness of the 23-year-old’s Third Symphony (on CRI S278E) with the almost unbearably concentrated spasms of febrile delirium of the Eighth Symphony of 1973, 27 years later, and then traces the steps in between, then one cannot help but concede the fascinating process of compression and refinement of expression that have taken place through the decades. (“A symphony is not something that can be tossed off over a weekend. It is cultivated by those who believe in it.”)

Both of the performances on this record originally appeaared on separate RCA discs in different pairings. The Seventh Symphony was released in 1968 and the Piano Conceno in 1971. Interestingly, both works were premiered under the leadership of George Szell. The Piano Conceno was written in 1957, between the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies. It is conventional in its three-movement format, but the merciless tide of rapid notes in the outer movements is unmistakably Mennin and makes tremendous demands on the soloist. John Ogden, unrivaled as a virtuoso proponent of unjustly neglected piano music, tears through the work with appropriately headlong abandon.
Mennin composed his Seventh Symphony in 1963, and it is his first to diverge from the standard three-movement form. A one-movement “Variation-Symphony,” this work achieves a maximum of integration and continuity, underscoring the essential fluidity of Mennin’s manner of symphonic articulation. Jean Martinon, a great conductor who died before his ability was fully recognized, leads a performance of incredible power, precision, dynamic contrast, and tensile strength. RCA did little to publicize these records when they were first issued; consequently they attracted little notice. Perhaps this new incarnation will draw the wide-ranging attention it deserves, as it is one of the most impressive representations of an American composer on records today.

The full rich, transparent, and vivid sound of the original RCA releases has been successfully retained in this reissue. Surfaces are excellent.