by Walter Simmons
CRESTON: Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano. SOWASH: Four Seasons in Bellville. Mirecourt Trio. TR RECORDS TRC-107
College record productions have long provided a means of encountering repertoire—usually of recent vintage—not otherwise found on disc. Such productions have usually been taken from mediocre concert performances, marred by substandard sound quality, audience noise, bargain-basement graphics, and little or no annotation—in short, they have not attempted to compete in the classical-music marketplace. Over the past couple of years, however, standards for such productions have risen dramatically, and one now encounters college recordings with production values on a par with major commercial releases. This trend is a positive development of importance to those interested in neglected contemporary repertoire. The current release, which should have considerable appeal to the mainstream classical listener, is an excellent case in point.
TR Records provides a showcase for the Mirecourt Trio (Kenneth Goldsmith, violin; Terry King, cello; John Jensen, piano), a superb ensemble in residence at Grinnell College in Iowa. The quality of the recording is of the highest caliber—rich, transparent, clean, and well balanced. Surfaces are immaculate, program notes are competent, and jacket design is attractive. Moreover, the release presents two very accessible works composed during the late 1970s by American composers who happen to be almost a half-century apart in age.
The Piano Trio, Op. 112, of Paul Creston testifies to the ongoing creative activity of one of the most distinguished members of the “older” generation of living American composers. Creston, who completed his Sixth Symphony three years ago, when he turned 75, continues to supplement his creative work with a vigorous regimen of writing, pursuing projects of a theoretical, as well as autobiographical, nature.
The Piano Trio is a four-movement work in Creston’s familiar chamber-music vein. Typically, limpid melodic and harmonic features reminiscent of Ravel are developed exuberantly in a neoclassical framework. To the listener unacquainted with Creston’s music, the impression is likely to suggest Poulenc, or perhaps Jean Francaix. At its best, as in the ubiquitous Sonata for Saxophone and Piano (1939), the Suite for Flute, Viola, and Piano (1952), and the recent Trio (1979) presented here, Creston’s chamber music displays warmth, a joyful, energetic vitality, and a consistently high level of craftsmanship in an idiom that has remained relatively unchanged throughout the past 45 years.
Recent interest in Creston’s music, reflected in part by increased recording activity, encourages the hope that he may regain the position of eminence that he held during the 1940s and ’50s as one of our most actively performed composers. However, as Paul Snook implies (Fanfare VII:4, p. 163, and elsewhere), little of the music of Creston that has appeared on recording of late makes a very strong case for his membership in the pantheon of great American composers. Not that there is any paucity of convincing music from which to draw: Creston’s distinctive creative personality can be found in all its glorious power and intensity in his symphonies (listen, for example, to the 1954 Westminster disc—desperately in need of reissue—featuring Nos. 2 and 3), in the symphonic poems Walt Whitman (briefly available around 1960 on RCA LM-2426—a horrible performance and recording), Corinthians: XIII (recently deleted from the Louisville series), Chthonic Ode (unrecorded), and Janus (unrecorded), and in the solo piano works Metamorphoses and Three Narratives (both unrecorded). Despite the influence of one composer or another here and there, this music speaks with a rhetoric tailor-made to its own exclusive aesthetic requirements. Creston sets forth the message so clearly in his Symphony No. 2 (1944) that the work, which was a hit with audiences around the world, almost serves as a statement of purpose: an exultation in the unlimited delights of kinetic rhythmic activity. It is the appeal of Creston’s rhythmic vitality that has won for him a legion of admirers that at one time included Toscanini, Stokowski, Monteux, Rodzinski, Reiner, Szell, and others of this ilk. Unfortunately, succeeding generations of conductors appear utterly ignorant of all the fine American composers of this vintage beyond Copland and Barber. (Does one expect Sylvester Stallone to inherit the wisdom of Olivier?) So the big, hearty works that are Creston’s most important utterances gather dust, remembered fondly by those old enough to have heard them. Through the years, however, Creston has also produced a great many works of more modest expressive scope, and much of his chamber music falls into this category. While the Piano Trio is an excellent work, in these terms, and magnificently performed and recorded here, some of us know what remains lying in the wings.
Of a different nature altogether, the music of Rick Sowash (born in 1950) seeks to capture and immortalize the spirit of his hometown, Bellville, Ohio. Four Seasons in Bellville (Sowash’s answer to Vivaldi) is delightfully unpretentious, with a generosity of melody that ingratiates itself immediately. Despite its explicit intention to convey impressions of smalltown life, the work avoids predictable clichés of musical Americana, presenting such dangerously trite subject matter with irresistible freshness, sincerity, and even nobility. Texturally and structurally it is simple in the extreme, and there are those who would dismiss such a piece as simplistic and trivial. True, this is not the sort of thing likely to turn up on CRI. Nor is it the sort of musical content one expects to encounter in a piano trio. But Sowash seems to have nothing to prove, and his piece, abetted by an extremely sympathetic and committed performance, makes a fine impression on its own terms.
If this disc is comparable to their other releases, TR Records has a most promising venture under way. I hope this offering reaches the large number of listeners who would appreciate it.