PERSICHETTI: Harmonium. Quintet for Plano and Strings.

Darleen Kliewer, soprano; Lois McLeod, piano (in Harmonium). New Art Quartet; Vincent
Persichetti, piano (in Quintet). ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY JMP-102679 (two discs), produced by David Cohen and Jack Miller.

Several years ago Arizona State University issued an impressive two-record set containing fine performances by the New Art Quartet of Vincent Persichetti’s four String Quartets (ASU-1976-ARA). Evidently, David Cohen, the Arizona State faculty member primarily responsible for that set, has managed to arrange a most welcome sequel, offering first recordings of two more of Persichetti’s major works.

Both Harmonium and the Piano Quintet date from the 1950s, a period of incredible fertility for this generally prolific composer. During that decade alone, Persichetti completed 45 works, including four symphonies, five piano sonatas, eight song cycles, six serenades, and a string quartet. Interestingly, these 45 works, fully representative of the composer’s output in general, include many of his finest works: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6, Concerto for Piano, Four Hands, Piano Sonata No: 9, the Emily Dickinson Songs, Serenade No. 10, as well as the two works presented here.

Listeners familiar with his music are aware that Persichetti’s imposing body of work is notable for its extraordinarily broad stylistic range. Pieces whose aesthetic and technical simplicity are appropriate for the beginning student stand alongside works that challenge the comprehension of the most sophisticated performers and listeners. What is most significant is that all points in between these two extremes are also represented, and, moreover, all are approached with equal sincerity and earnestness. However, in this case, both Harmonium and the Piano Quintet occupy approximately the same point on Persichetti’s stylistic spectrum: While not inaccessible, each is a relatively austere work, demanding serious concentration; neither is likely to appeal to the casual listener seeking easy, instant gratification.

Harmonium, Op. 50, an hour-long cycle of twenty songs set to poems by Wallace Stevens, has often been hailed as the most important song cycle written by an American composer. It is quite natural for the composer to have selected Stevens as the source for such an ambitious work, as the poet’s economy of means, his ability to express the most serious thought with a light touch, and the elusiveness he achieves through oblique and paradoxical references are traits that apply with equal accuracy to Persichetti’s creative work. This is even suggested by the illuminating liner notes, taken from the composer’s spoken remarks. In a crude way, their elliptical manner almost parallels Stevens’ verse. As a result of this affinity, words and music are wedded with virtually no distortion or accommodation. The songs abound, as do the poems, with subtle interrelationships; some songs offer relief, while others serve important structural functions as points of summation. True, most of the songs exhibit the wide leaps, attenuated tonal anchorage, and dissonant accompaniments that alienate so many listeners. But those willing to invest a handful of hearings (and Persichetti’s music is notable for its susceptibility to repeated listening) will discover a coherent artistic conception within which all the details have a place. In addition, the sparse textures begin to suggest more mellifluous implications, which the imagination supplies intuitively.

Soprano Darleen Kliewer and pianist Lois McLeod, both faculty members at Arizona State University, provide an impressive performance of this extremely demanding music. Kliewer’s voice is full and heavy-textured, but flexible and responsive to the varied challenges posed by the work. Pianist McLeod fails to maintain the crisp, dry clarity that is the essence of Persichetti’s piano writing, but her contribution is generally adequate.

Persichetti’s Quintet for Piano and Strings, Op. 66, is comparable to his String Quartet No. 3, Op. 81, Symphony No. 5, Op. 61, and Concerto for Piano, Four Hands, Op. 56—works in which an abundance of active commentary on a minimum of motivic material is compressed into a single movement. This structural approach is highly congenial to Persichetti’s creative disposition, and each of these works is particularly successful. The Piano Quintet is a composition of the highest order, in which spontaneity and impulsiveness are merged with reason and order in a natural, fluent, and meaningful expression without recourse to any extrinsic references—literary, pictorial, emotional, or otherwise. It is in works like this that Persichetti earns his place among the finest composers of “absolute” music.

The New Art Quartet, while lacking in cosmetic polish, provides the same accurate, sympathetic, and dynamic level of performance encountered in the earlier string quartet set. And composer Persichetti renders the difficult piano part with great proficiency.

Although the disc surfaces of this set were somewhat noisy, the sound quality is quite outstanding—far superior to the usual college recording. Complete texts for the Stevens poems are included, along with informative program notes—all packaged quite attractively. Arizona State University has every reason to be proud of this laudable release, which I recommend, along with the string quartet set, to all listeners with a serious interest in contemporary American music.