GIANNINI: The Medead and songs by other composers

GIANNINI: The Medead ● Irene Jordan (sop); Henry Sopkin, cond; Atlanta SO (World  Premiere: 10/60); Paul Paray, cond; Detroit SO (1/4/62); songs by other composers ● JORDAN YSL T-343 (mono, analog); 2 CDs: 118:01 (Available from

I am grateful to Joel Flegler for permitting me, as critic-emeritus, to emerge from my retirement lair in order to submit this review of a release of singular importance. The Medead, by Vittorio Giannini, is one of the greatest works of the 20th-century never (until now) documented on a recording available to the public. It is remarkable that the piece has had to wait more than half a century for this to happen, and even now, it is a first release of live recordings dating from the 1960s, rather than a freshly recorded performance by one of today’s leading sopranos and with up-to-date sonic felicities. But now that the work is available in this incarnation, perhaps other performers will be inspired to provide fresh new renditions. The Medead is a four-movement monodrama for soprano and orchestra that tells the story of the ruthless Medea from her own perspective, through a text written by the composer; in a sense it is a hybrid of a symphony and a dramatic monologue. I might describe the style as derived from the language of Wagner and Strauss (in his Salome and Elektra vein), but with an Italianate passion and emotional immediacy, disciplined by a 20th-century concentration of focus and formal economy. Its emotional intensity is maintained almost without interruption for some 35 minutes. But as great a work as I consider The Medead to be, it is not for everybody. If the notion of a hyper-intense, post-Wagnerian composition for soprano and orchestra makes you want to head for the hills, that is probably a good idea. On the other hand, if my description makes you wonder whether you have been missing out on a real masterpiece, and you are able to enjoy a work such as, say, Samuel Barber’s Andromache’s Farewell, I would suggest that you waste no time in getting hold of this recording.

Vittorio Giannini (1903-1966) was born in Philadelphia into a highly musical family: His father and two of his sisters were professional singers of considerable repute. He himself enjoyed a modest reputation during the 1930s and 40s as a composer of highly romantic operas—many in a buffa vein—as well as concert songs (his “Tell Me, O Blue, Blue Sky” was performed by Eileen Farrell, Mario Lanza, Leonard Warren, and many others, and still appears frequently on recital programs today). He also wrote a number of utilitarian instrumental works, many of them lending a warmly romantic touch to Baroque forms. Such compositions, among them his Concerto Grosso, Prelude and Fugue for Strings, and Variations on a Cantus Firmus for piano solo, contributed to his reputation as a staunchly conservative traditionalist who created a body of benignly academic works of no great import. His most successful opera was a delightful adaptation of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. Giannini’s craftsmanship was reputed to be meticulous, and he taught dozens of budding composers while serving on the faculties of the Juilliard School, the Manhattan School of Music, the Curtis Institute, and, ultimately, as founding director of the North Carolina School of the Arts. During the late 1950s and early 60s he shrewdly fed the voracious appetite for original works for wind band, promoted by William D. Revelli in Michigan and Frederick Fennell in Rochester. With the intense irony endemic to the classical music world, these band works are the chief source of Giannini’s reputation today, and one of these, his Symphony No. 3, is among the cornerstones of the symphonic wind band repertoire. But what has remained much less well known is that during the early 1960s the composer, diagnosed with terminal heart disease and devastated by the failure of his second marriage, began to explore more serious—often Classical—subjects, treating them with a darker, harsher harmonic language and an astringent, less comforting lyricism than he had employed before, as well as tighter, more complex formal structures. Among these late works are most of the composer’s masterpieces, including his Symphony No. 5, Psalm 130 for double bass and orchestra, the dramatic monologues The Medead and Antigone, the opera Edipus, and the late piece for band Variations and Fugue. Some of these works have yet to be played even once; others are performed only occasionally. But among those who are conversant with Giannini’s body of work, The Medead is usually mentioned as his greatest accomplishment.

The Medead was one of the fruits of a commissioning project launched in 1958 by the Ford Foundation, under the aegis of W. McNeil Lowry. What was unusual about this project was that, in order to avoid adding to the dustpile of anonymous, justly maligned “foundation style” works, distinguished performing artists were invited to select composers of their own choice to write works for them, which they would then perform with a number of major American orchestras that had agreed to participate. Among the other works that resulted from this project were the Violin Concerto No. 2 by Paul Creston (chosen by Michael Rabin), Song of Orpheus by William Schuman (chosen by Leonard Rose), the Piano Concerto of Elliot Carter (chosen by Jacob Lateiner) and the Piano Sonata of Peter Mennin (chosen by Claudette Sorel). Soprano Irene Jordan, then about forty and at the height of her rather unusual career, chose Giannini.

What qualities lead me to value The Medead so highly? One is its consistent and unerring accuracy of emotional tone, relative to the text; another is the concentration of focus I noted above, with no musically or dramatically irrelevant digressions; especially significant is its formal structure, based on the initial presentation of two or three motifs whose development weaves a texture that is as musically lucid as it is dramatically coherent; equally important is the fact that while there are inevitable passages of non-melodic declamation, the dramatic highpoints draw the various musical elements into soaring, searing melodic apotheoses that direct and satisfy the listener’s attention; and, finally, the work embodies a whole tradition of bel canto operatic representation, exemplified most saliently by a “pastorale” section in the third movement, and the solemn ground bass that undergirds the shattering finale.

While the initial appearance of The Medead—in two different performances—is for me the main point of interest in this recording, the primary concern of the purveyors of the disc—which contains virtually no documentation other than the dates of performance—is soprano Irene Jordan. There is, quite strangely, very little information available about her in convenient sources. As far as I’ve been able to determine, she is still alive at this time, though in her late 90s. It is worth quoting from two reviews that appeared in Fanfare 23:3, commenting on what seems to be the precursor of this release. James Miller wrote, “What becomes of singers who seem to possess the goods but whose careers never seem to ‘take-off’? The name Irene Jordan is probably one unfamiliar even to most vocal buffs. She sang in the American premiere of Peter Grimes,… had a brief career as a Met comprimario, then, discovering that her mezzo-soprano voice was evolving into that of a dramatic soprano, she left the Met for further study and life as a dramatic coloratura. Although she ended up having a varied, interesting career, she got back to the Met for only one single performance, as the Queen of the Night. In his comprehensive history, The Metropolitan Opera, Irving Kolodin mentions ‘the breadth and weight of [her] dramatic sound,’… but says she was ‘erratic in pitch and insecure in skips.’…. Listening to this CD of live performances spanning 17 years, beginning in 1953, one listens in vain for that erratic pitch and insecurity, and hears, instead, a mezzo-soprano-colored voice knocking off high notes and ornamentation with confidence…. In addition to her technical finesse, she shapes the music sensitively. I was around during the 50s and 60s and, while it really was a comparatively rich period for voices, I remember nothing resembling hers until Joan Sutherland showed up.… Why someone who could sing like this pretty much escaped the limelight, I can’t say.” John W. Lambert added, “Jordan’s approaches to standard-repertoire items demonstrate that she was, in her day, far superior to a lot of people who now masquerade as vocalists. Today, a voice like this would make news even in papers that rarely cover the arts. One can only wonder.”

What is most striking about the soprano we hear in The Medead is her power and intensity, unblemished by ugly moments of loss of control or of imprecise pitch—and these are live recordings! One realizes that Giannini and Jordan fully understood the expectations each held of the other. This became abundantly clear to me after I had heard the attempts of several other sopranos to present this piece. The Atlanta premiere is of interest largely in demonstrating Jordan’s comprehensive mastery of the work from the start, while the orchestra—a far less imposing ensemble than it is today—scrambled to keep up under Sopkin’s tentative direction. But the 1962 performance, with the Detroit Symphony—also a far less supple and dexterous ensemble than it is today—enjoyed the leadership of Paul Paray, one of several French conductors whose distinguished artistry and musicality were slow to be recognized. Paray grasps precisely the tempo, the pacing, and powerful dramatic arc of The Medead, while Jordan is as acute in negotiating the work’s demands as she was in Atlanta, if not more so. But under Paray’s direction Giannini’s monodrama emerges as an indisputable masterpiece.

The second CD offers a series of songs recorded during several recitals much later on. Their main attraction lies in displaying the remarkable durability of Jordan’s voice, not to mention her musicianship. Of the eight items, the last four were taken from a 2004 recital, when she was 85! While they do require certain allowances from the listener, and in some of the eight—the Schubert in particular—her concern seemed directed more toward accuracy than toward expression of the text, these are not easy ditties. The Ravel, for example, is fairly demanding. Jordan’s renditions, even at this late age, are more remarkable for the virtues they offer than for those they lack.

In short, this is a release of interest to both vocal specialists and to those interested in uncovering the great American masterpieces of the 1950s and 60s that were buried during the stylistic skirmishes of that fractious period.