by Walter Simmons
MORAVEC Characteristics. Useful Knowledge: A Franklin Fantasy. Vita Brevis ● Simon Mulligan (pn); Randall Scarlata (bar); La Fenice; Amy Burton (sop); Trio Solisti (Maria Bachmann [vn], Alexis Pia Gerlach [vc], Jon Klibonoff [pn]) ● NAXOS 8.559698 (56:19)
I have been following the music of Paul Moravec for about ten years now, and I find him to be one of the most rewarding compositional voices of his generation. Now in his mid 50s, this postmodern neo-tonalist won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 most deservedly for a delightful piece called Tempest Fantasy (available in a brilliant performance on Naxos 8.559323 that features some of the same performers heard here). This new release introduces us to three more of his fine works, all first recordings.
What appears to be the primary work is Useful Knowledge. Subtitled “A Franklin Fantasy,” it was commissioned by the American Philosophical Society in honor of the 300th birthday of Benjamin Franklin in 2006. The 19-minute work is scored for baritone soloist with a small mixed chamber ensemble, including glass harmonica—the instrument invented by Franklin. Its appearance in the work most notably occurs at the very beginning and again toward the end. Described by the composer as “subjective and fanciful,” the piece falls into seven connected sections, with a text drawn from Franklin’s writings, both public and private. The text—not included in the booklet but available on the Naxos Web site—emphasizes Franklin’s metaphysical thinking, and certain lines are given added emphasis through recurrent use, e.g. “To pour forth benefits for the common good is divine.” What the text reveals so interestingly is Franklin’s fusion of the utilitarian with the sacred, as indicated by the quotation just cited. But as intriguing as the concept may be, the reader may well ask just what role music can be expected to play in a work that deals largely with ideas, rather than with mood, emotion, drama, or sensation—the kinds of subjects that lend themselves most readily to musical interpretation. Perhaps the best answer is that music can provide a pleasing aural framework for such thoughts—one that does not compete with them, or conflict with them in any way. That is precisely what Moravec has done here, while imparting to this framework an eager, hopeful exuberance that is wholly in keeping with the selected texts. In previous works Moravec has shown a particular mastery in writing for small mixed chamber ensembles, and that mastery is fully in evidence here. The vocal contribution, rendered sensitively by Randall Scarlata, is less striking musically, as might be surmised in view of the content of the work, but it is not unpleasant, providing an apt vehicle for Franklin’s ideas. All in all, it is an unusual, appealing, and highly effective composition.
The other vocal work is Vita Brevis, composed in 2002 for tenor and piano, but heard here in a version for soprano and piano trio. The trio, I Solisti, has performed and recorded a good deal of Moravec’s music, and displays a deep understanding of the composer’s mode of expression. Soprano Amy Burton fulfills her role with considerable artistry and musicianship. Moravec’s cycle comprises five songs that, as have many such previous cycles, span the phases of life from birth to death. The unusual twist here is that the emotional journey runs from gloom to joy, rather than the opposite direction encountered more often. The poems are by Agee, Wordsworth, Dante (perhaps the weakest setting), and Yeats (perhaps the most effective setting), ending with Mary Elizabeth Frye’s touching “In Remembrance.” The first song, “A Lullaby,” was also set by Thomas Pasatieri in his group of three Agee poems, and it is illuminating to compare the two. Moravec writes lyrical vocal lines well suited to the voice, but they lack the strong melodic focus that might allow them to take hold more deeply in the listener’s memory.
The remainder of the program is devoted to Characteristics, a group of seven solo piano pieces, averaging 3-4 minutes each. Composed in 1996, they represent Moravec’s application of another familiar conceit, each piece attempting to capture an aspect of the character of one of his musical friends. As is common with such works, the acuteness of his perceptions is chiefly of interest to those friends and their acquaintances. But for the majority of listeners, they are simply seven piano preludes. Moravec is at his most inventive and distinctive in his fast music, and that is clearly the case here. He creates patterns in perpetual motion that have a lightness and airiness that are easily identifiable as his and invariably appealing. But this is not to find fault with the others—they just don’t create quite as immediate an impact. As a group, they embrace a varied range of expression—delicate, dreamy, jazzy, etc. They are performed here by Simon Mulligan, a British pianist whom I have not previously encountered. His performance here is astounding in its technical security and precision in the fast pieces, while displaying great sensitivity, elegance, and grace in the others.
Listeners who have enjoyed previous recordings of Moravec’s music are likely to be equally pleased with this latest release. Those who have yet to discover his work are not likely to be disappointed if they are looking for a novel stylistic profile in music that respects traditional values.