SCHWANTNER: A Sudden Rainbow. Beyond Autumn. Angelfire. September Canticle

SCHWANTNER: A Sudden Rainbow. Beyond Autumn. Angelfire. September Canticle • Andrew Litton, cond; Dallas SO; Gregory Hustis (hn); Anne Akiko Meyers (vn); James Diaz (org) • HYPERION CDA67493 (65:46)

The short version of this review: If you like the music of Joseph Schwantner, you will want this CD (which made my 2006 Want List). It offers four works, excellently performed and recorded, that represent the composer at his best. 

Now in his early 60s, Schwantner was born in Chicago, studied at the Chicago Conservatory and Northwestern University, served on the composition faculties of the Eastman School (as chairman), and at Yale. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for his orchestral work Aftertones of Infinity. Today he is recognized as one of the foremost American composers of his generation, and currently lives in southern New Hampshire, mainly pursuing his own creative activities.

Schwantner’s music has a distinctive style, easy to recognize, and his standard of quality is remarkably consistent. His music concentrates chiefly on mood and sonic imagery, usually guided by verbal images taken from poetry-sometimes his own. Often serving as the titles of his works, these images seem to inspire his creativity, while similarly offering listeners an aid in guiding their own apprehension of his work. But these verbal images are certainly not essential to an appreciation of the music, nor are they even really relevant, in any specific, concrete sense. (That is, the titles could be switched around among the pieces without producing any significant confusion.) A Schwantner work tends to be an unfolding sequence of picturesque tone-paintings, gradually flowing from one into the other, but without any sense of teleological direction. A remarkably creative and imaginative purveyor of such aural tableaux, Schwantner has built upon a legacy traceable from Debussy on up to Jacob Druckman and George Crumb. But what distinguishes Schwantner’s music clearly from that of the latter two composers is his embracing of relatively consonant, as well as dissonant, harmony, with the concomitant presence of tonal centers, although in his music tonality functions as a relatively static element, rather than as a dynamic force. Hence Schwantner’s style falls into the category of “postmodernism,” indicating an embracing of tonality, but without a corresponding adoption of dynamic tonal organization or of the traditional principles of thematic development, which typically provide music’s “narrative” capability. His sonic language highlights prominent use of percussion, often including electric piano, and tends to favor shimmering, tinkly effects, as well as richly-textured washes of sound, into which are imposed chorale-like phrases. He often has the instrumentalists sing, whistle, hum, or play simple supplementary percussion instruments as well. The result is a rather delicious sonic hedonism, embraced with a shamelessness that is distinctly American. There are moments that suggest the aesthetics-and even intersect with the sound world-of a composer as seemingly far afield as Howard Hanson. Schwantner himself attributes his sense of sonority to his study of the guitar when he was a teenager. He also cites as influences 1960s jazz, as well as his academic training in serialism, and his study of the music of Witold Lutoslawski. The results, interestingly enough, are quite accessible, and even bear a strong resemblance to some of the mainstream film music of the last quarter of the 20th century, which suggests that Schwantner has tried to reach out to a younger, somewhat less sophisticated audience, without alienating the usual classical music cognoscenti. 

One of the chief weaknesses of Schwantner’s music is the chief weakness of most film music: the absence of progressive formal articulation, although listeners differ as to the degree of importance they place on this factor. Also, taken together his pieces tend to make generally the same aesthetic points in the same ways, and he has favorite gestures and sonorities that reappear in so many pieces that one can identify the composer in seconds. However, this too is a trait that concerns some listeners more than others. 

The foregoing description generally applies to all four works on this CD, so further elaboration will simply highlight aspects specific to each work. One of my favorites among Schwantner’s oeuvre is A Sudden Rainbow, dating from 1986, when he was composer-in-residence with the Saint Louis Symphony, which premiered and recorded the piece under the direction of Leonard Slatkin, whose advocacy of Schwantner’s music contributed significantly to building its reputation. (Slatkin’s fine performance of Rainbow has, however, never been reissued on CD, as far as I know.) I am especially fond of this work because it is more “eventful,” so to speak-a veritable concerto-for-orchestra, less than 15 minutes long-and more goal-directed than many of his compositions. As such it serves as an excellent introduction to Schwantner’s aesthetic world.

The three other works included here are much more recent (dating from 1999-2002), and each features a soloist-in the case of this recording, the very soloist for whom each work was intended-—and each is a little more than 15 minutes in duration. The first of the three is Beyond Autumn, a richly and vividly evocative “poem for French horn and orchestra.” Here the inspiration comes from a poetic fragment of Schwantner’s own devising. To give you an idea: “Beyond Autumn …/the willow’s mist/bathes the shadowed land,/in a distant past/long forgotten.” The horn section of the orchestra is situated on the stage according to specific instructions, while the soloist starts offstage, then enters during the piece, and similarly exits as well. On this recording Gregory Hustis manages the solo part with meticulous sensitivity.

Angelfire was commissioned by the Howard Hanson Memorial Institute of the Eastman School; the work, completed in 2001, is described as a “fantasy for amplified violin and orchestra.” Here the musical images reveal an especially mysterious, haunting quality. The work was written for violinist Anne Akiko Myers, who plays it beautifully on this recording.

The most recent composition on the CD is September Canticle, which Schwantner identifies as his personal tribute to the victims of the attack that took place on September 11, 2001. Scored for organ and orchestra and completed in 2002, the work was commissioned by the Dallas Symphony on behalf of James Diaz, winner of Dallas’s triennial organ competition. Running through the piece is a theme suggestive of a chorale prelude, which lends it an especially Hansonian flavor. And, as in several of his works, such as the deeply moving New Morning for the World, Schwantner seems to have conjured an aural representation of turn-of-the-21st-century, post-Copland America. Yet the work is typical in leaving me in the sort of quandary often produced by this composer’s music: Passages are ravishingly beautiful, the scoring is extraordinarily imaginative, and the overall impact is quite moving; yet it remains a succession of “moments,” rather than a truly coherent whole comprising more than the sum of its parts. However, as this is a reaction I have to much music that might be designated as “post-modern,” I may be betraying a bias of my own generation (although I am a bit younger than Schwantner).