PERSICHETTI Symphony No. 6. Parable IX. Masquerade. Divertimento. Psalm. Pageant

PERSICHETTI Symphony No. 6. Parable IX. Masquerade. Divertimento. Psalm. Pageant ● Stephen K. Steele, cond; Illinois State University Wind Symphony ● ALBANY TROY1253 (70:09)

Aside from his international reputation as a teacher of composition, Vincent Persichetti is best known today as a composer of music for wind band, although his pieces for this medium comprise a relatively small proportion (about 8%) of his entire output. But the music offered on this new release—less than half his output for band—constitutes the pieces most often performed, and have become true classics of the repertoire. Not only was Persichetti arguably the first composer to write for the medium in a way that acknowledges and capitalizes on its own particular qualities, but the pieces themselves display a virtually limitless range of moods and expressive attitudes, ranging from the consonant, triadic chorales and diatonically modal melodic lines of Psalm to the atonal, dissonant, and often unmetrical Parable IX. Yet throughout there is a sense of playful exuberance and warm sincerity. Most of this music has been recorded many times, and can be found on numerous band anthologies. As far as I know there are two other recordings devoted exclusively to Persichetti’s band music currently available. One is David Amos’s program with the London Symphony Winds (Naxos 8.570123) and the other is Eugene Corporon’s program with the North Texas Wind Symphony and the Cincinnati Wind Symphony (GIA CD-627). Both feature excellent performances, and there are slight differences among the program contents of all three, so the devotee may want to own more than one. (I refer the interested reader to more detailed commentary in Fanfare 29:4, pp. 184-89, or to my recent book on the music of Schuman, Persichetti, and Mennin.)

The earliest of the pieces, Divertimento, represents a real turning point in Persichetti’s output as a whole. Although he began composing at a young age, and prolifically, most of his approximately 40 works up until that point, though crafted with great skill, lack a strong personal profile or sense of individuality. But the Divertimento, composed in 1950, when he was 35, ushered in a new voice—one of ease, of effortless spontaneity, and of utter naturalness—that allowed his own idiosyncratic musical persona to come to the surface, in all its multifaceted richness. Divertimento’s six tiny movements represent the sort of miniature character-pieces at which Persichetti excelled.

Psalm and Pageant followed just a few years later. These are especially accessible pieces whose innocent sincerity and lively exuberance have endeared them to generations of youngsters, who comprise the majority of band musicians.

In 1956 Persichetti expanded his approach into a full four-movement symphonic structure. The result is a concise, tightly constructed neo-classical symphony—a masterly 20th-century adaptation of practices traceable directly from Haydn. It is justly regarded as the greatest American symphony for wind band of its generation, and has maintained this stature for more than half a century.

Masquerade, composed in 1965, represents something of an expansion of Persichetti’s language as applied to music for winds, introducing greater chromaticism and harmonic dissonance. This intriguing yet characteristic work consists of variations on brief didactic examples from the composer’s textbook, Twentieth Century Harmony.

Parable IX is one of the few instances among Persichetti’s 25 pieces in that series that are large both in scale and in forces required. In this work from 1972 the composer incorporated the emphasis on sonority and gesture that his colleagues were exploring during that period. It stands alongside the Symphony No. 6 as his most ambitious works for wind band.

There is much reason to recommend this new recording, which features the Illinois State University Wind Symphony, under the direction of Stephen K. Steele. Most notably, the sound quality is especially rich and transparent, allowing for greater clarity of lines situated at extremes of pitch. The performances are solid, thoughtfully conceived, and brilliantly executed, for the most part. However, I suspect that a few more hours of recording time might have eliminated a number of blemishes that mar this otherwise outstanding recording: some moments of imprecise ensemble and balance in the Divertimento, a glaringly obvious edit in Pageant, a few passages of imprecision in the Symphony, and some questionable intonation in the Parable. This is too bad, because aside from these minor defects the performance of the Parable is quite stupendous, as is that of the Symphony. The fast sections of Masquerade are played a little too fast; otherwise this would stand as the definitive performance of the work. Ditto the Allegro section of Psalm.

If I had to select a single recording to recommend, it would probably be Amos’s Naxos recording, which offers brilliant performances and includes some rarities, but excludes the Symphony. For the Symphony I would recommend the U. S. Marine Band recording (Naxos 8.570243), which is virtually flawless. And the first (1959) recording of this work—featuring Frederick Fennell and the Eastman Wind Ensemble—is perhaps the one with the greatest sense of excitement, and may still be available from some sources. But true Persichetti band devotees will probably want these two Naxos releases AND the Eastman recording (reissued on a Mercury CD), as well as the GIA performances AND this new Albany release, as each offers particular virtues absent from the others.