by Walter Simmons
MENNIN: Symphony No. 9. SEREBRIER: Poema elegiaco. LEE: Veri. Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and L’Orchestre Symphonique de la RTBF conducted by José Serebrier. FINNADAR 7 90937-1, produced by Roger Parker and Kevin Roper.
Veteran contemporary-music collectors will know what is meant by the statement that this new release is like a throwback to the Louisville recordings of the Robert Whitney years, with their unpredictable assortments of obscure works in mediocre performances. Among those works there proved to be as many unforgettable masterpieces as there were dreadful bores. It is thus interesting to note that two of the three composers represented here—Mennin and Serebrier—were also members of the Louisville roster during the early 196Os.
Peter Mennin’s Symphony No.6 was one of the Louisville Orchestra’s claims to greatness, inasmuch as their commissioning of this work from the 30-year-old composer, and their subsequent recording of it, introduced listeners to one of the masterpieces of American symphonic music (see Paul Snook’s perceptive commentary in Fanfare 1:6, pp. 125-27). Now, some 35 years later, Mennin is represented by the Symphony No.9, his penultimate work, composed two years before his early death at age 60. During the intervening years Mennin had gone on to refine his unique symphonic/metaphysical voice, which gave expression to a grim, uncompromising vision of abstract forces in ceaseless turbulence and violent conflict, escalating in nervous intensity toward cataclysmic explosions of almost manic brutality. These broad canvases, formally articulated through a frenetic—almost compulsive—contrapuntal syntax that suggests Hindemith in a blind rage, are relieved only by grave, somber periods of lofty contemplation. Despite their narrow range of expression, Mennin’s works reveal a consistent seriousness of purpose, an eloquence and dignity of tone, and a gripping emotional urgency that proclaim the composer as one of the greatest America has produced.
During the years Mennin held steadfast to his vision, producing a total of some 30 works, nearly all of them large in scale and uncompromising in substance, modifying his language only in the direction of greater concentration of means and intensification of effect. The resulting output is like an inexorable linear succession, each entry grimmer, harsher, and more severe than the last, culminating in the Symphony No.8 (as yet unrecorded), a work of absolutely overwhelming emotional and kinetic force, and unprecedented in his output with regard to harmonic dissonance, melodic disjunction. and tonal attenuation. In fact, the essence of Mennin’s compositional development may be gleaned by a comparative consideration of the Symphonies Nos. 6, 7, and 8 (1953, ’63, and ’73).
The Symphony No.9, quite surprisingly, represents something of a retreat from the severity of the Eighth—a bit shorter in duration, with a slow movement whose direct, arioso melody, unsupported by ordinarily ubiquitous polyphonic lines, conveys a more ardently romantic quality than Mennin ever allowed himself, even in his earlier works. Though it is probably the most “personal” or “intimate”-sounding music he ever wrote, its tone of profound grief borne with dignity is consistent with his aesthetic voice. The outer movements, however, remain unflinching in their harshness and severity, with a finale that is a virtual epiphany of frenzied violence. The performance by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra conveys the requisite power and intensity, but this is far from a first-class orchestra and its raggedness is hard to overlook.
José Serebrier owes his recorded debut to the Louisville series of recordings, which introduced his name to listeners during the early 196Os through a piece called Partita. Written when the young Uruguayan composer-conductor was 20, this was a very impressive work—energetic, colorful, and exciting, with moments of real power and expressive warmth. Indeed, aside from the best of Villa-Lobos, it has been my favorite work in a Latin-American vein ever since I first heard it when the recording was issued. Poema Elegiaco, it turns out, was originally part of that work, but was eliminated before the Louisville recording. The movement was revised a few years later, and has since pursued a life of its own. In its current form, Poema Elegiaco is more austere and abstract than the Partita, with virtually no national flavor. It is an intensely dramatic dirge, more a reflection of harsh anger under tight control than an outpouring of grief. The Belgian orchestra, under the composer’s direction, displays a coarse bluntness that I have begun to associate with Serebrier’s conducting.
William F. Lee is a composer on the faculty of the University of Miami. His Veri is a five-movement suite that attempts to suggest humanity’s “quest for truth” through musical impressions of the sun, moon, land, elements, and man. This work too recalls the Louisville series, but as a reminder of the sort of crude, instantly dismissable abomination that would appear from time to time. Veri is awkward, pretentious, and cinematic in the worst sense—congested with ostentatiously coloristic orchestration at the expense of musical substance.
Technically as well, this new release is a throwback to the 1960s: sound quality is par for that time: surfaces are somewhat blemished. As an LP-only release in this age of CDs, who will buy it? Collectors and listeners who know that every new addition to the Peter Mennin discography is a major musical event–that’s who.