PERSICHETTI: Concerto for English Horn and Strings. ROREM: Concerto for English Horn and Orchestra. HODKINSON: The Edge of the Olde One

by Walter Simmons



PERSICHETTI: Concerto for English Horn and Strings. ROREM: Concerto for English Horn and Orchestra. HODKINSON: The Edge of the Olde One. Thomas Stacy, English Horn; Vincent Persichetti conducting String Orchestra of New York; Michael Palmer conducting the Rochester Philharmonic; Paul Phillips conducting the Eastman Musica Nova. NEW WORLD 80489-2 [ADD\1,3/?; DDD\2/?]; 71:22. Produced by Richard Gilbert, Elizabeth Ostrow, Sydney Hodkinson.

PERSICHETTI: Symphony No. 6. GREGSON: Celebration. MAW: American Games. SCHOENBERG: Theme and Variations. GERSHWIN: Rhapsody in Blue. Eugene Corporon conducting Cincinnati Conservatory Wind Symphony; William Black, piano. KLAVIER KCD-11047 [DDD]; 74:16. Produced by Jack Stamp.

Fanciers of the English horn — are there many? — will certainly be interested in the New World disc, which features three substantial and stylistically diverse contributions to the instrument’s rather meager repertoire. Each was tailored specifically for Thomas Stacy, probably the instrument’s most celebrated virtuoso, and he performs each work splendidly. Only the Rorem work is newly recorded; the other two appeared on a Grenadilla LP issued in 1979, which I reviewed in Fanfare4:1 (pp. 178-30). The Persichetti concerto is a relatively late work, composed in 1977. The following year it won the prestigious Kennedy Center/Friedheim Award. As many late works are conventionally characterized, the concerto has a distinctly autumnal quality — not especially dissonant or abrasive, but cool, dry, and ruminative, resulting in a very low expressive profile, not unlike the relatively familiar Hollow Men for trumpet and strings. Persichetti was fond of re-working thematic material already explored in previous works. This was not a matter of self-aggrandizement, as it is with many composers, or of lazy mannerism, as it is with even more, but rather a key aspect of Persichetti’s remarkable compositional methodology, in which  cross-references among works create a whole sub-text of inter-relationships — a complex subject worthy of an entire doctoral dissertation. (In fact, most of the 25 Parables are commentaries on his previous compositions.) The English horn concerto re-works material that appeared earlier in two of Persichetti’s most important compositions, the Symphony No. 5 for strings (a masterpiece that may be heard on New World 80370-2) and The Creation (a large oratorio as-yet-unrecorded). However, as much as I love Persichetti’s music — and I do believe he is one of America’s greatest — I continue to find this a disappointingly pale and anemic work. Indeed — blasphemy though it may be — it is the least interesting piece on the disc.

The Rorem concerto was only just completed a couple of years ago and is temperamentally a far cry from the Persichetti. While the latter is austere, inward, and reflective, Rorem’s five-movement work has lots of surface appeal. The languorous sensuality of the opening movement immediately calls Samuel Barber to mind, as his later works — Essay No. 3, Fadograph of a Yestern Scene, for example — evoke a very similar sensibility — one that reappears throughout Rorem’s concerto. This deliciously rich, sultry quality is offset by more lithe, active sections, orchestrated with bright splashes of color. On the whole, it is a pleasantly entertaining work, but suggests little beneath the surface, and is not as tightly focused structurally and expressively as Barber’s music always is. This diffuseness may tend to cause one’s attention to wander. 

The Edge of the Olde One, by Canadian composer Sydney Hodkinson, was written the same year as the Persichetti, and exemplifies the sort of music considered fashionably avant-garde during the late 1970s — consistently atonal, with “expanded” instrumental techniques (such as multiphonics) , electronic manipulations, and so forth. Regular readers know that I am no of this sort of stuff, but I must say — as I said back in 1979 — “Hodkinson has created an intensely captivating and fascinating odyssey in sound — a true psychedelic experience, in the best sense of the word… [and] a coherent large-scale structure, exciting and satisfying as an integrated piece of art…” The work was inspired by the ramblings of the English Romantic poet John Clare, who had been declared insane at the time. According to Hodkinson, it is “an elaborate journey of the mind, a trip: often meandering, thorny and dense, that threads itself vaguely across the subconscious:… It is not unlike the eyes (of the lunatic?), constantly darting from image to cloudy image, from insanity to a super-saneness.” This is the sort of music that brought a fleeting prominence to such figures as Jacob Druckman. However, from today’s standpoint, the music that Druckman composed at that time seems important chiefly as a rejection of sterile, artistically irrelevant academic abstractedness, rather than a satisfying alternative. By contrast, the vividness, intensity, and structural coherence of Hodkinson work continues to compel attention.

The Klavier disc offers another installment in the valuable series of recordings featuring the Cincinnati College-Conservatory Wind Symphony under the direction of its ambitious conductor Eugene Corporon. With Persichetti Symphony No 6, we are addressing what is the sine qua non, the ne plus ultra of mid-century American band symphonies — and that was a period that saw a veritable flood of such works. As I have said many times before, Persichetti’s Sixth is neoclassicism’s answer to Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony — and in a mere 16 minutes! What more need be said? Just that it has been recorded twice by Frederick Fennell, who, of course, was the conductor ne plus ultra of mid-century American art music for band — once in 1959 (three years after it was written) with the Eastman Wind Ensemble (available on Mercury 432 754-2), then again in 1989 with the Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra (Kosei KOCD-3101). Both performances are brilliant — similarly so — in conception, stupendous in execution, and breathtakingly recorded. This Cincinnati/Corporon performance is also excellent — very polished and meticulous, as are all the performances on this disc — but rather lacking excitement. The first movement Allegro is too relaxed and passive (sounds like the way today’s orchestras play the standard repertoire — embalmed); the poignant second movement lacks warmth and sensitivity; the third movement is too rushed; the fourth movement is fine. The sonic ambience has a dry deadness that I have noticed on other recordings in this series.

Both Edward Gregson and Nicholas Maw are English, but their pieces, written in 1990 and 1991, respectively, have a decidedly American flavor, at least to my American-oriented ears (the Maw is, of course, overtly American in concept), although neither uses vernacular materials. Actually, what they sound like is the sort of band music composed by the ream by American neoclassicists during the 1960s — a bracing and breezy Stravinsky-Hindemith-Bartok conflation with nifty syncopations, but without Persichetti’s distinctive personal characteristics. The Gregson is a short concert-opener, while the Maw is a full 22 minutes, but neither leaves a strong impression.

Arnold Schoenberg’s Theme and Variations is an international band classic. Listeners who are not familiar with it may be surprised that this clearly tonal composition from 1943 displays neither the torrid hyper-romanticism of the composer’s early work nor the congested, unrelieved angst of the later twelve-tone pieces. Rather, it conjures something of a wry, impish solemnity that suggests Kurt Weill tempered by Hindemith, and illuminates an important, but less familiar, facet of Schoenberg’s compositional personality.

Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is offered in Ferde Grofe’s original jazz-band orchestration. William Black is a fine pianist, but both he and the ensemble approach this chestnut with a gentility that I find too relaxed and polished (though they are far from unique in this misconception). Recordings made under Gershwin’s direct supervision exhibit a rough-hewn feistiness that seems to have disappeared from the performance tradition of this pops favorite.