HOIBY Dark Rosaleen. WILLIS Variants. BOLCOM Piano Quartet

HOIBY Dark Rosaleen. WILLIS Variants. BOLCOM Piano Quartet Ames Piano Quartet – ALBANY TROY-730 (58:57)

Having just turned 80 this year, Lee Hoiby is one of our oldest living traditionalist composers—and one of our finest, still composing quite actively, in his unrepentantly tonal idiom. Dark Rosaleen, commissioned especially for this ensemble by the Ames [Iowa] Town & Gown Chamber Music Association, is the most recent of those offered here; it is also the most fully satisfying. Completed in 2000, the 20-minute work bears the provocative subtitle, “Rhapsody on an Air by James Joyce.” It seems that many years ago Hoiby had been given this tune by his college roommate’s father, who had been a close friend of the writer James Joyce. The composer had been waiting for the right opportunity to use the wailing, baleful melody as a theme for some sort of elaboration, and evidently felt that this was the moment. The program notes characterize the piece as one “in which a tightly knit thought process is balanced by a lyrical, expansive and free sound-scape;” indeed, it is one of the most thoroughly “wrought” works I have heard from this composer, as the theme’s basic motif finds its way into virtually every nook and cranny, so to speak. In one movement, it is a grandly impassioned outpouring, utterly sincere, yet with a grammar and vocabulary that would have been fully comprehensible to, say, Gabriel Fauré. Hoiby is one of the few remaining composers who would choose to use a language like this, and one of the fewer still who can use it well enough to compel attention. Recent works for piano quartet are few in number; Dark Rosaleen is definitely one of the most gratifying, and the Ames ensemble does a beautiful job with it.

Richard Willis (1929-1997) was born in Mobile, Alabama and did his graduate work at the Eastman School, spending most of his career on the faculty of Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Although he was a near contemporary of Hoiby, his musical language—though relatively conservative by the standards of the times—was a good deal more astringent, judging from the piece at hand, which represents my first encounter with his work. Willis’s 1990 Variants is an example of what I call “traditional modernism,” representing a clear break with tonal harmony and the expressive expectations associated with it, while continuing to follow the formal and developmental practices and paradigms that evolved during the course of the western musical tradition. While not particularly striking or individual in any way, this 14-minute set of variations is bracing, tightly constructed, and vigorous, holding the listener’s attention throughout most of its duration. Again the Ames Piano Quartet offers a superb performance.

I must admit to not being terribly enthralled by William Bolcom’s brand of eclecticism, which I find a self-indulgent attempt to camouflage the inherent vacuity of his music by setting up pretentious conceptual rationales. His 1976 Piano Quartet, a Bicentennial commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation, is an excellent case in point. Bolcom decided to concern his work with “a tragic flaw in the American psyche that seems to lead inexorably toward violence.” Reflecting on the state of our culture 30 years later, one readily notes that the American psyche has plenty of “tragic flaws,” and a propensity for violence is certainly one of them. However, attempting to use a piece of abstract instrumental music to embody this notion is misguided from the start. How does he propose to achieve this goal? Well, he can combine a European barcarolle with an evocation of the Balinese Monkey Chant to juxtapose contrasting cultures, followed by a bleak, eerie sound-scape, which then leads to a tune reminiscent of the “Tennessee Waltz,” finally ending with a brutal sort of march. But did Bolcom actually believe that listening to this piece, in the absence of a verbal exegesis, would lead the listener to share his despair about America’s violent character? Perhaps he didn’t intend for the listener to experience his piece without the aid of such an explanation. Well, there’s that old notion that a piece of music should succeed as an autonomous entity, regardless of what extramusical associations the composer might have in mind. I’m not sure that Bolcom embraces this adage, but I do, and as far as I’m concerned, as an autonomous entity this piece is meaningless and boring.