PERSICHETTI Harmonium ● Sherry Overholt (sop); Joshua Pierce (pn) ● MSR CLASSICS MS-1432 (60:17)

Persichetti composed Harmonium—a cycle of 20 songs set to poems selected from Wallace Stevens’s eponymous 1923 collection—in 1951. It was the most ambitious work the 36-year-old composer had written up to that time, and it stands today as one of the landmarks of his compositional career. Persichetti was extremely sensitive to poetry: consider that he wrote three volumes of Poems for Piano, each short piece inspired by a single line of verse. The composer’s attraction to the works of Stevens is not surprising, as the poet’s economy of means, his ability to express the most serious thoughts with a light touch, and the elusiveness he achieved through oblique and paradoxical references are traits that apply with equal accuracy to Persichetti’s creative work. As he himself expressed it, “I have always loved Wallace Stevens’ poetry, probably because he will state facts in the opposite direction in order to make a truth in another direction.” Stevens’s lines, “The poem must resist the intelligence/Almost successfully,” might almost have been written by Persichetti himself. Unfortunately, Stevens died before he could hear a performance of the composer’s settings of his work.

As a result of this affinity between poet and composer, Stevens’s words and Persichetti’s music are wedded with virtually no distortion or accommodation. The songs abound, as do the poems, with subtle interrelationships; some songs offer relief, while others serve important structural functions as points of summation. On the whole, the textures of the piano part are remarkably spare and uncomplicated, yet are of the utmost importance. The melodic lines, too, are generally straightforward, although the treatment of tonality varies between angular atonality and diatonic simplicity; many of the songs do exhibit the wide leaps, attenuated tonal anchorage, and dissonant accompaniments that typically alienate more traditionally-minded music-lovers. One cannot deny that some degree of effort is required in tuning in to its mode of expression. Nevertheless, listeners familiar with Persichetti’s music will readily identify his familiar stylistic features. But, as with so many of this composer’s most challenging works, those listeners patient enough to familiarize themselves with the music will find many of the sparse textures and angular melodic lines gradually suggesting more mellifluous implications, which the imagination supplies intuitively, finally revealing a coherent artistic conception within which all the details fall into place. As I continue to listen to the cycle, I am still finding new felicities. But the true complexity of the work lies in the relationships among the songs, and in the connections between the poems and the music.

The first song, “Valley Candle,” introduces most of the musical motifs of the entire cycle. This and the six songs that follow comprise the first sub-group. These songs grow out of one another, each focusing on elements from the previous ones. The eighth song, “Six Significant Landscapes,” serves as a kind of cumulative consolidation of the first seven, while launching the sub-group to follow. They proceed in a fashion similar to the first sub-group. The seventeenth song, “Domination of Black,” is a passacaglia on a twelve-note theme, and is another point of cumulative consolidation. The final song, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” is by far the longest and most involved of the songs, occupying more than 20% of the total duration of the cycle. A compositional tour de force, this song is a summary of the entire work, integrating musical material from all the preceding songs.

Though touting itself as a “World Premiere Recording,” this is not technically true, although its predecessor was so obscure that it is almost not worth mentioning. But in the interests of historical accuracy, in 1979 Arizona State University released a handsome LP set featuring Harmonium, as sung by soprano Darleen Kliewer, with Lois McLeod, piano—both erstwhile Arizona State faculty members. That two-LP set also included an excellent performance of Persichetti’s Piano Quintet, with the composer as pianist—still the only recording of this chamber music masterpiece. (I have written to the Arizona State music department to look into a CD-reissue of this set, but never received so much as an acknowledgment.)

Perhaps it is illuminating to compare Harmonium with the Hermit Songs, composed just two years after the Persichetti, by Samuel Barber, probably the most beloved composer of American art songs. In the minds of many listeners, the two composers share a similar spot within the multidimensional matrix of American composition in the 20th century. What Harmonium lacks is the direct melodic immediacy of songs like “St. Ita’s Vision” and “Crucifixion,” which go directly to the heart—and this may indeed be a “deal-breaker” for listeners with more conservative tastes. But Harmonium is not about beautiful melodies; yet the work projects such scope, such breadth, and such wealth of significant detail, that full comprehension of it is a virtually endless process, though one that becomes increasingly rewarding, the deeper into it one delves.

For all the foregoing reasons it is indeed painful to raise one caveat about this recording, which I must do in the interests of impartiality, although I’d like to encourage readers to take the plunge anyway. The fact is that soprano Sherry Overholt does not provide an ideal rendition of the cycle. She is fine in the less demanding, more subdued settings. But in the more difficult songs, with wide leaps and more strenuous dynamics, her voice reflects duress, becoming strident and somewhat unpleasant. Rhythms and pitches are not always precisely accurate. To be sure, the demands of this cycle—with regard to intelligent musicianship as well as sheer vocal agility and beauty of tone—are great. There are not many sopranos capable of truly mastering it, and Overholt is to be congratulated for even taking on such a challenge. But in comparing it with that Arizona performance, I would have to say that Darleen Kliewer is a little more successful in negotiating its challenges. On the other hand, pianist Joshua Pierce is an experienced veteran in meeting the demands of 20th-century American music, from Nicolas Flagello to John Cage. He has a long history of involvement with the music of Persichetti, and he projects the details of his contribution with ease and aplomb—and far more effectively than the pianist on the Arizona recording. In this work the piano is an equal partner, not an accompaniment, and its importance is acknowledged by its prominence in the recording balance. In fact, I suspect that listeners new to the work will find themselves “grabbed” by some of the piano parts before they are captivated by the vocal lines.

In any event, this new release—like the New World Records set, released in 2008, featuring Geoffrey Burleson’s stupendous performances of all twelve of the composer’s piano sonatas—is a milestone in the history of American music on recordings. I would go so far as to assert that Harmoniumis arguably the greatest American song cycle.