PERSICHETTI: Parable IX; Serenade No. 1; Bagatelles; “So Pure the Star”; “Turn Not Thy Face”; O Cool is the Valley

PERSICHETTI: Parable IX; Serenade No. 1; Bagatelles; “So Pure the Star”; “Turn Not Thy Face”; O Cool is the Valley. University of Kansas Symphonic Band conducted by Robert Foster. GOLDEN CREST ATH-5055

Golden Crest’s recent series of recordings, each devoted to the music of one living composer, has really surfaced with a winner in this collection of band music by Vincent Persichetti, probably the world’s foremost practitioner of the genre. Except for the Serenade No. 1, composed in 1929, all the works on this disc are products of the years 1961­1972. Two of these pieces, the Bagatelles and “So Pure the Star,” appeared about ten years ago on a record of Prrsichetti’s band music (still available on Coronet 5?1247), performed by the Ohio Stare University Concert Band; the remainder of the pieces are recorded for the first time. While the earlier collection is worthwhile for musical reasons, this one outclasses it technically by a wide margin.

Although Persichetti has composed prolifically in a wide variety of media, covering all major forms except opera (nine symphonies, four string quartets, 11 piano sonatas, and many large-scale choral works and concertos), his 12 works for band, epitomized by the irresistible and immensely popular Symphony No. 6, constitute his best-known music.

This is hardly accidental; not only is much of this music accessible in style but the wind ensemble’s particular timbral and temperamental biases—brittle sonorities, a dry spunkiness, often contrasted by pure, boy-soprano-like innocence—are naturally suited to the most salient qualities of Persichetti’s musical personality. In fact, Persichetti’s natural and idiomatic way of approaching this instrumental medium, once a vehicle for tasteless exploitation and compromise, has become the model for a whole younger generation of band musicians and composers.

The most important and substantial work on this disc is the 16-minute Parable !X, composed in 1972. Similar in style to the Symphony No. 9, “Janiculum,” Parable IX is a one-movement design of dramatic character, but without extrinsic stimulus. The idea of a non-programmatic narrative work is not new; many other modern composers have utilized this means of articulating a cohesive and dynamic abstract shape without relying on classical forms. But Persichetti’s particular treatment, with an expanded vocabulary of musical gestures, such as the use of textural phenomena as basic elements, is challenging and striking. And for a composer who has been accused over the years of being a follower rather than an innovator, the approach represented by this and other recent works impresses me as quite original. What is most compelling is the way that dramatic conflict is represented grippingly within the music, yet without the suggestion that this conflict is a reflection of anything personal; rather, it is an autonomous consequence of the inherent properties of the musical material itself. Yet, and here is the real achievement, what may read like a conceptual abstraction flows naturally with both vigor and grace; this is music first and foremost, not an idea translated stillborn into sound, like the grating pretenses of Elliott Carter, for example. In short, Parable IX is a monumental work, a worthy successor to the Symphony No. 6, and deserving of a similar place in the vanguard of serious band literature.

The five other works on this disc are much less demanding. The Serenade, Op. 1, for ten winds, while not terribly important in its own right, is fascinating as a demonstration of the degree to which Persichetti had already found a mature compositional voice by the age of 14. True, the expected influence of Stravinsky can be heard. But also evident in this work are the more than frequent use of polytonality, the use of repeated dissonant chords as mocking punctuations, the tendency toward building a work from tiny epigrammatic movements, and the disposition toward wind instruments–all these are still central aspects of the composer in his sixties.

Of the four remaining short works, the Bagatelles are characteristic trifles in the vein of the Serenade No. 11 for band; the two chorale preludes, “So Pure the Star” and “Turn Not Thy Face,” are lovely pieces from the 1960’s, based on melodies from Hymns and Responses for the Church Year, a hymnal that Persichetti completed in 1955. Not only was this eminently practical work a major contribution to contemporary liturgical music but it also provided Persichetti with thematic material that has proven highly fruitful in other contexts as well (most notably the Symphony No. 7, which is built entirely on themes from the hymnal.

O Cool Is the Valley is a short mood piece dating from 1971 that demonstrates how in no way has Persichetti abandoned his gift for evoking a sense of poignant nostalgia through the simplest means.

The performances by the University of Kansas Symphonic Band are good, if not up to the breathtaking standard set by the bands from Sam Houston State University featured on the record of music by Fisher Tull, released earlier in this series. Weaknesses are most evident in solo passages, which are often shaky and tentative. But the overall interpretations are flexible and sensitive, the general ensemble is adequate, and the recorded sound is so fine that I can recommend this record unhesitatingly to anyone interested in wind music, or in serious contemporary American music. Along with the outstanding two-record set of Persichetti’s string quartets, issued last year by Arizona State University, this disc is an important documentation of the achievement of one of today’s leading musical figures.