PERSICHETTI Symphonies: No. 3; No. 4; No. 7, “Liturgical” • David Alan Miller, cond; Albany SO • ALBANY TROY771/72 (2 CDs: 80:14—priced as one)
PERSICHETTI Symphony No. 6; Parable IX; Serenade No. 11; Psalm; Pageant; Masquerade; Divertimento • Eugene Migliaro Corporon, cond; North Texas Wind Symphony; Cincinnati Wind Symphony • GIA CD-627 (79:35)
PERSICHETTI Symphonies: No. 5; No. 8; Serenade No. 5 • Robert Whitney, Jorge Mester, conds; Louisville O • FIRST EDITION FECD-0034 (57:42)
The music of American composer Vincent Persichetti hasn’t received much attention from the record companies since his death in 1987. Though his works for wind ensemble are established pretty solidly in that repertoire, very few listeners have a thorough familiarity with the full spectrum of his compositional output—and an enormously broad and rich expressive spectrum it is! These three recent releases offer excellent opportunities to deepen one’s familiarity and understanding of the music of this most important composer. Like his two colleagues, William Schuman and Peter Mennin, Persichetti withdrew the first two of his nine symphonies (yes, I know Schuman wrote ten), without changing the numbering. Thus, a quick glance at the headnote above indicates that the discs at hand represent all the extant symphonies save No. 9 (subtitled, “Sinfonia Janiculum”). To cut to the chase, all three releases are essential entries in the Persichetti discography.
Unlike the symphonies of Schuman and Mennin—and of many other composers as well—those of Persichetti are not necessarily his best works, nor do they comprise either the backbone of his output or the essential distillation of his creative impetus; indeed, the orchestra itself was not his primary medium. Yes, his symphonies are relatively large works and are certainly representative of his compositional concerns, but much of Persichetti’s aesthetic core is found in shorter pieces, including many for smaller forces. And I would cite both the wind ensemble and keyboard instruments—piano, organ, and harpsichord—as his primary media.
Nevertheless, because they span his entire career and because most of them are represented here, I will begin by discussing the symphonies. For aficionados of American symphonic music the appearance of Persichetti’s Symphony No. 3 on recording is a long-awaited event. Although No. 7 is also heard here in its first recording, unauthorized recordings of the work have been widely available for years through the international “tape underground.” Not so No. 3. The only readily accessible information about it until now is found in the composer’s catalog, including a blurb from a rave review—enough to prompt curiosity among those familiar with his other major works. Then there is also the peculiarity about American Third Symphonies: Harris’s No. 3 is his best-known work, Schuman’s is his most popular symphony, likewise Copland’s. So what about Persichetti’s Third? Since its 1947 premiere by the Philadelphia Orchestra, I know of no other performance of the work until the Albany Symphony presented it in November, 2003—the day before this recording was made. (As the conductor knew of no intervening performances, I sent an inquiry to the publisher, Theodore Presser, but received no response. If they don’t know the answer, I don’t know who would.) So this performance was awaited with considerable eagerness and excitement, which were palpable among those in attendance.
Hearing the work for the first time, I was quite surprised. The symphony confirmed a thought I have been entertaining for some time: that despite a fluency of compositional craftsmanship second to none, Persichetti did not really arrive at his own personal creative voice until the 1950s, when he was in his mid 30s. Before that time he composed prolifically, but most of his music either lacked a clear sense of identity, or suggested the identities of other composers. And after the 1950s, he explored ways of broadening the range of his style, gradually embracing and incorporating techniques and concepts that had been developing on the “new music” front. Apparently comfortable with his role as an “amalgamator,” he never pretended to be otherwise, and, in fact, advocated the coalescence of a 20th-century “common practice” that would integrate the full range of contemporary techniques into a broadly fluent musical language. Indeed, his own compositional output may be seen as an effort to embody that ideal. However, it was roughly during the 1950s that a unique Persichetti “voice” clearly emerged, through a body of nearly fifty works comprising a vast range of techniques, levels of difficulty, and approaches to formal organization and tonality.
The Symphony No. 3, completed in 1946, was said to be a “war symphony,” although there is little in the way of explicit reference along those lines. The four-movement work, half an hour in duration, opens with a stern, angular melody rather like the opening of the composer’s Fifth Symphony. It soon grows to a large-boned, assertive grandiloquence quite uncharacteristic of the composer’s mature mode of expression, but quite characteristic of what many of his colleagues were writing at the time. In fact, the roughly contemporaneous works of Roy Harris, William Schuman, and Morton Gould (and perhaps Barber’s Symphony No. 2 as well) are immediately called to mind, although Persichetti’s craftsmanship in handling his material is often more agile and proficient than theirs. The highpoint of the movement is a lovely trumpet solo that leaps out at the listener, almost demanding to be heard again. The second movement is a scherzo—dance-like in a folksy sort of way, but with a lyrical warmth. The third movement is sadly wistful, with a poignant English horn solo, although a dense web of dissonant counterpoint counters any tendency toward the maudlin. The finale is vigorous and rousing, moving gradually toward a triumphant peroration. Throughout, the distinctive trademarks of Harris (with whom Persichetti studied briefly in 1943) and Schuman (who himself was a Harris student and adopted much of his teacher’s language) are ever-present, while Persichetti’s familiar fingerprints are nowhere to be found. Indeed, there are moments that are virtual paraphrases from Schuman’s Third Symphony of 1941. In short, Persichetti’s Third is much more a reflection of its time and place than it is a harbinger of the direction the composer was to follow in the years to come. Taken on its own terms, how successful a work is it? I would have to conclude that it is certainly more skillfully wrought than anything Harris ever wrote, but perhaps not as fresh and vital as Schuman’s Third. I cannot call it a masterpiece, though I am delighted finally to be acquainted with it.
Persichetti’s Symphony No. 4 appeared just five years later, in 1951, but the two works are worlds apart. By now the composer’s identity had clearly emerged—an identity rooted in neo-classical notions of form, and a pandiatonic harmonic language spiked with polytonality. But Persichetti’s neo-classicism was far more than merely an adoption of a few devices from Stravinsky. It was a profound adoption of the aesthetic underlying the spirits of Haydn and Mozart at their best, giving rise to a language that was on occasion capable of reflecting a purely triadic innocence, while at others venturing to the remote limits of tonality. The personality that emerges suggests a gentle warmth, as well as an almost childlike playfulness and exuberance. There is also a sterner, more serious side to Persichetti, but this is best understood from the vantage point of familiarity with the lighter side.
The Symphony No. 4 represents Persichetti’s neo-classicism at its quintessence, through a work brimming with effervescence and the joyful exhilaration of unfettered musical creativity. Virtually devoid of what we think of as “drama,” the symphony is lightly and transparently scored throughout, rarely rising above a mezzo-forte. In the manner of Haydn, Persichetti’s Fourth opens with a slow, solemn introduction that proves to be the weightiest music of the entire work. This is followed by a lively allegro, which bounces along with a playful glee. The second movement is a gently wistful and deceptively simple burlesque, the third a gracious and whimsical intermezzo, while the finale is a brilliant whirlwind in perpetual motion, masterfully recalling most of the work’s thematic material with a great joie de vivre, while providing a delightful showcase for a virtuoso orchestra. The work was introduced by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1954, and was recorded by them shortly thereafter. This was its only recorded representation for many years (and it is still available on a CD reissue, Albany TROY-276), until 2003, when James DePreist, who has long championed the work, recorded it for Delos, with the Oregon Symphony. Unfortunately, that performance was rather disappointing, missing the symphony’s essential spirit. While the Albany Symphony is not about to challenge the virtuosity of the Philadelphia Orchestra, David Alan Miller manages to capture the work’s essence quite effectively, while the modern recording offers the advantage of far greater transparency of detail and clarity of texture.
Persichetti’s Symphony No. 5, composed in 1953, is scored for strings only, and differs significantly from its two predecessors. It exemplifies a formal approach developed by the composer during the 1950s—an approach that gave rise to many of his greatest works, of which this is definitely one: These works comprise a single, multi-sectional movement, based totally on one thematic idea presented at the outset. (Other works of this kind—all dating from the same decade—are the Concerto for Piano, Four Hands, Piano Sonata No. 10, Piano Quintet, and String Quartet No. 3.) By this time Persichetti had achieved an extraordinary level of mastery. If his Third Symphony was something of an echo of Schuman’s Third, his Fifth Symphony leaves Schuman’s Fifth (also a symphony for strings, from 1943) far behind. It is not simply a matter of accomplishing both unity and diversity: Rather, it is the tightly focused, concentrated development of purely musical ideas, articulated with concision, that achieves a vast richness and integration of expression, leaving the listener both fully gratified yet eager for an ever-fuller absorption and comprehension of its totality. The theme with which the work opens is severe in tone, including all twelve chromatic notes within its first five measures. Its presentation builds to a state of considerable emotional duress, and a generally stern character prevails throughout the work, although there are passages of both tenderness and exuberance as well. The symphony is one of the greatest works to emerge from the Louisville Orchestra’s commissioning series. It was premiered by the Louisville Orchestra in 1954, under the direction of Robert Whitney, and recorded soon thereafter. That admittedly scrappy performance, released the same year, remained the work’s sole recorded representation until 1990, when New World Records issued a reading featuring the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Riccardo Muti. A comparison of these two performances is illuminating: Hearing the precise ensemble playing and rich, full body of the Philadelphia Orchestra strings demonstrates just how important a factor the conductor’s conception is: because Muti displays such minimal understanding of this work that not even the polish of one of the world’s great string sections can bring it to life. What is also revealed is—as I have written previously—just what a brilliant musical interpreter Robert Whitney was. Certainly, bringing to life a work with no performance history, no precedent on which to build, is one of the great challenges for an interpreter—a challenge easy to overlook since it is rarely faced by the most prominent figures in our musical culture. And when it is (as at a premiere), the audience isn’t in the position to know any better anyway. But hearing the first performance of a work, after the work has become relatively familiar to the listener, offers a special vantage point. Scrappy though the Louisville Orchestra strings may have been in such a demanding work, Whitney’s conception conveys its expressive impetus to an extent that exceeds Muti’s grasp. What is at issue is simply a matter of tempo and energy flow, but these considerations are of paramount importance. And now, with the Louisville performance reissued on compact disc, both renditions are readily available, so that anyone who wishes may hear for himself.
Persichetti’s Symphony No. 6 for band followed in 1956. Although it may not be terribly familiar to the mainstream classical music listener, it is certainly Persichetti’s most widely and frequently performed symphony, if not his best known work. And within the symphonic band/wind ensemble repertoire, it is an undisputed classic; some—including myself—consider it the greatest symphony in that repertoire. It is also a masterpiece of the neo-classical aesthetic, very much along the same lines as the Fourth. But—and here I return to my earlier comment that the orchestra was not Persichetti’s primary or ideal medium—I feel that the Sixth is a somewhat more successful work, in part because the hard-edged crispness, freshness, and clarity of winds and percussion is better suited to the composer’s aesthetic message than is the richly blended sonority that arises when strings are added. This, of course, invites the question, Then why does the Fifth Symphony work so well? Here I would answer that the string section alone produces a different effect from that of the full orchestra. In the Fifth, the strings function as a more abstract medium, as does the traditional string quartet, and the music itself is more abstract in its focus, rather than serving as a showcase for effects of sonority. This is why the ragged Louisville string playing doesn’t really mar the effect of that work.
To digress for a moment, this point is also illustrated by the Serenade No. 5, included on the Louisville disc as well. Persichetti wrote 15 such serenades, for a variety of different media—mostly solos and duos. They tend to be light, ingratiating works comprising several tiny movements. Some of them are deceptively simple, displaying remarkable—if epigrammatic—eloquence. The Serenade No. 10 (1957) for flute and harp, for example, is one of the composer’s masterpieces. The Serenade No. 5 (1950), on the other hand, though similar to the others in conception, is somewhat less effective, the weight of the orchestra somehow overbearing to the delicate precision of the conception. Perhaps it would work better in a more meticulous, refined performance—I have heard no other but this one.
Persichetti’s Sixth has been available on many different recordings, in performances of widely variable proficiency, and on releases of widely variable accessibility. One of the best is the first and best-known, a brilliant reading recorded in 1959, featuring the Eastman Symphonic Wind Ensemble, conducted by Frederick Fennell. I recommend it partly for its quality as a performance, partly for its historical significance, and partly because it is probably the easiest (and least expensive) to acquire (on a Mercury Living Presence reissue). The recording at hand, featuring the Cincinnati Wind Symphony, goes back a few years. (No recording dates are given, but I remember reviewing it at least ten years ago.) It is technically precise, but lacking in warmth and flexibility—especially damaging to the gracious, intermezzo-like third movement. But more on this later.
One of the many idiosyncracies of Persichetti’s personality was the way he cross-referenced his entire output. This was not simply a matter of similar thematic ideas, or the accidental re-appearance of a recognizable phrase. What I am referring to involved the conscious re-use of ideas from one work, for the purpose of developing them in a different way in another. The composer often indicated such re-use in a kind of code, or shorthand, on the score itself. In fact, most of the Parables, a series of 25 pieces for various media, involve re-developments of materials originally used in other works. In 1955, Persichetti wrote Hymns and Responses for the Church Year, a hymnal intended for practical usage, comprising choral settings of a wide range of poetry—much of it modern. Persichetti drew upon this hymnal as a source of thematic material throughout the rest of his life. In fact, the lovely slow movement of his Sixth Symphony is taken from one of these hymns. But in composing his Symphony No. 7 in 1958, he decided to draw virtually all his thematic material from the Hymns and Responses, subtitling the result, “Liturgical.” What is notable, however, is that despite its provenance, the character of this single-movement work, subdivided into five sections of alternating tempos, displays no real sense of spirituality, ecstatic or otherwise. Much of it is solemn and severe in tone, and the work is largely abstract and formal in its concerns, presenting a sense of effortless compositional mastery with a cool detachment; indeed, the lively sections are downright secular in their vivacious exuberance. Some commentators have found Persichetti’s compositional persona to be “cold;” there are portions of this work where such a characterization might be justified.
This recent entry from Albany is a most important and valuable release. Though not a virtuoso ensemble, the Albany Symphony, under the inspiring leadership of David Alan Miller, offers technically competent, solidly convincing, idiomatic performances of these works. Recorded in the renowned Troy Music Hall, the sound quality is extremely bright and transparent, if a little lacking in depth and richness, rendering the contrapuntal intricacies with breathtaking clarity. The two-CD package is generously priced as one. Ray Bono’s gracefully written, highly informative program notes capture elements of Persichetti’s personality I have rarely encountered in print before.
The Symphony No. 8 was composed in 1967, and recorded by the Louisville Orchestra in 1970, by which time it had come under the stewardship of Jorge Mester. Like the Fourth and Sixth Symphonies, the Eighth is an example of pure neo-classicism, and its expressive content is quite similar to theirs. The most obviously noticeable difference between this and the earlier works is its remarkably attenuated tonal feeling. This creates an impression also found in some of the composer’s music from the 1940s: a disconcerting severity that seems disproportionate to the music’s actual meaning. For example, I don’t believe the Eighth is any more atonal and dissonant than the Fifth. But in the symphony for strings the musical content and its treatment feel thoroughly integrated and congruent, whereas the austerity of the harmonic language in the later work seems to interfere with the intended expressive effect. Although I have known the Eighth since this recording was first released, I have never been able to warm up to it, despite its meticulous workmanship. As is rarely the case in Whitney-led performances, the interpretation and execution under Mester’s direction seems a little tentative; I suspect that a bolder, more secure rendition might give the work greater appeal.
My only complaint about the Louisville/First Edition reissue is that program notes are extremely skimpy. Yes, I know that these were taken from the original LP releases; but couldn’t they have had a new essay written for the reissue?
Eugene Corporon’s new release of Persichetti’s music for winds (available from www.giamusic.com) brings together performances many of which have appeared previously on multi-composer programs. This disc is, of course, more desirable from the standpoint of the listener whose main focus is on the composer. Recording dates are not given, but if I am not mistaken, the older (1990s?) performances are those with the Cincinnati Wind Symphony, while the more recent ones feature the North Texas Wind Symphony. The release may be seen as either a complement or a rival to David Amos’s recording of Persichetti band music, released on Harmonia Mundi in 1993, featuring the London Symphony Winds. That disc has been unavailable for several years, but Naxos plans to reissue it on its American Classics series at about the time this review appears. As noted earlier, the symphonic band was a primary musical medium for Persichetti, and he enriched the genre with 14 works. Both Corporon and Amos have included seven on their respective recordings: five of their choices overlap. Amos includes O Cool is the Valley and Chorale Prelude: O God Unseen, but does not include the Symphony No. 6 or the Serenade No. 11. (At this point I will confess to being the annotator of the Amos recording; I prefer to see the two CDs as complementary.)
Persichetti’s first few compositions for this medium represent some of the most warmly ingratiating and readily appealing music he ever wrote; one is never aware of a technical compromise, nor is there a condescending, unconvincing, or insincere moment to be found. Indeed, what is to be found is Persichetti’s essential creative persona in some of its purest manifestations, which makes it the ideal starting point from which to discover his body of work. (Equally essential for the same reason is the Little Piano Book, a volume of short, early-intermediate level piano pieces.) Grasping and appreciating these pieces makes the more challenging, complex works less daunting, and helps to reveal the common elements that underlie a body of work so large and varied that it can easily seem overwhelming.
Persichetti’s first work for band is the Divertimento, completed in 1950, although probably begun several years earlier. Like the Symphony No. 6 it has achieved the status of a classic, and is performed and loved by wind ensembles all over the country. Composed at the same time as the Serenade No. 5 discussed earlier, it is conceptually equivalent to that work—i.e. six tiny character pieces—although more successful artistically, and, I believe, for the reasons mentioned in connection with the composer’s use of the orchestra. Among the 15 Serenades and assorted other works, Persichetti composed dozens of these tiny sketches, in the process generating a virtually endless number of characterizations—more than my verbal vocabulary can hope to describe. The best I can do is to say that they run the full gamut of human expression—and not only human! There is at times an almost cartoon-like quality, not only in the music’s ability to capture a wealth of meaning in very few notes, but also in the way it sometimes seems to be depicting the behavior of imaginary creatures.
Psalm (1952) and Pageant (1953) are Persichetti’s most readily accessible works for band: warm chorales followed by lively, jubilant allegros. These pieces exude a fresh, sincere wholesomeness that makes them irresistibly appealing to enthusiastic young musicians, who discover harmonic and contrapuntal dissonance, polytonality, and other modernist usages within a natural, genial expressive context.
Poignant feelings of nostalgia evocative of childhood represent a strong theme in Persichetti’s music from the 1950s—not unlike the moods associated with Aaron Copland’s more populist scores, but without the obvious specificity conjured by material redolent of Americana. One of my favorite examples of this vein is the lovely “Soliloquy” from the Divertimento. Another is the Serenade No. 11, from 1961. Most of its five tiny movements evoke such feelings with great delicacy and sensitivity.
Apart from his accomplishments as a composer, Persichetti was also a widely respected music theorist and beloved teacher of composition. His textbook, Twentieth-Century Harmony, published in 1961, is a work of stunning theoretical virtuosity, and is still considered of great value to young composers. To illustrate the book’s theoretical points, he composed numerous musical examples. Just as the Hymns and Responses for the Church Year served as a source of thematic material to be used later on—believe it or not—the examples he wrote for his textbook did too! One of the results was Masquerade (1965). As he put it, “The work is a masquerade of my book.” It is a brilliant series of 10 variations on these thematic ideas, each of which is identified by number in the score. The musical language is more complex: the counterpoint is quite dense at times, melodic lines are more angular, and the tonality less straightforward. Thus, inevitably, the work is less obviously appealing. But its concept is carried out masterfully, and—like most of Persichetti’s more challenging works—it invites and gratifies continued listening.
The preceding statement is also true for the work called Parable IX, the composer’s most ambitious and challenging work for symphonic band. As mentioned earlier, Persichetti composed 25 enigmatic pieces he called “Parables,” which he defined as “non-programmatic musical essays about a single germinal idea. They convey a meaning indirectly by the use of comparison or analogies.” Most are short studies written for monophonic instruments; but some are larger works for larger forces. In fact, Persichetti’s sole opera, The Sibyl, is subtitled, “Parable XX.” Parable IX is a single-movement work, a bit longer in duration than the entire Sixth Symphony. Composed in 1972, it is the latest work discussed here, and its approach is quite different from the neo-classicism represented by the other pieces. Although he never embraced serialism, Persichetti did adopt much of its sound-world in many of his later works. Tonality became, rather than the foundation of the musical language, a device used for a specific purpose. Similarly, metrical rhythm and contrapuntal development, though never abandoned entirely, became part of a repertoire of techniques, along with a new language of textures and gestures that many of his compositional colleagues were exploring at the time. In Parable IX all these elements and techniques are manipulated to achieve varying levels of energy and activity, and varying density and transparency of texture, producing a dynamic but highly abstract narrative structure. It is a challenging piece to play, and challenging to absorb as well, but unlike so much complex music from the 1960s and 70s, its conceptual lucidity and convincing sense of musicality motivate the serious listener to persevere.
The performances of these works for wind ensemble, conducted by Eugene Corporon, have much to recommend them: They are technically impeccable, with flawless solo playing, razor-sharp ensemble playing, precisely coordinated articulation, breathtakingly pure intonation, and meticulous tonal balance. But weakening their impact is an inflexibility in phrasing, and an obliviousness to the music’s larger sense of direction. There is a lack of grace, of joy, of excitement in these performances of music that overflows with these qualities. In fact, in some of the faster sections tempos seem held back almost as if to squelch any sense of spontaneity from bursting through. By comparison, in David Amos’s readings with the London Symphony ensemble, which sounds like a somewhat smaller group than either the Cincinnati or the North Texas bands, attacks and cutoffs are not perfect, and chords are not always optimally balanced. But there is a greater sense of excitement and enthusiasm, and the phrasing is more flexible and spontaneous. The sound quality of the London recordings, though perfectly acceptable, is not quite as lucid and clear as on this GIA recording. So, as I said earlier, the two recordings complement each other.
Taken together, these three recent releases offer a broadly representative view of the music of Vincent Persichetti, while serving to draw attention to a body of work that meets the highest standards of musical creativity. But much of his work remains to be presented to the listening public. Most in need of exposure are his many fine works for piano, centering around twelve brilliant sonatas. Let’s hope that the recordings discussed here are harbingers of further explorations of his work.