MENNIN: Symphonies: No. 3; No. 7. Concertato, “Moby Dick”

by Walter Simmons



MENNIN: Symphonies: No. 3; No. 7. Concertato, “Moby Dick”  Gerard Schwarz conducting the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. DELOS DE-3164 [DDD]; 57:32. Produced by Amelia Haygood and Adam Stern

Classical music on CD is such a strange business. The discography of Peter Mennin, one of America’s most eloquent, powerful,  and individual compositional voices, has been lying fallow, with no new recordings for almost a decade. Now Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle symphony have added Mennin to their valuable survey of American orchestral composers, with new readings of two important symphonies — one early and one on the borderline between middle and late — and a short work from the middle period. Immediately on its heels appears a CRI disc, reissuing classic performances of the same two symphonies. Meanwhile, less than a week before this writing, the Albany Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of their ambitious and talented young conductor, David Alan Miller, performed and recorded a group of Mennin works, including the Fifth and the masterful yet incomprehensibly neglected Sixth Symphonies, along with the Concertato, “Moby Dick.” When Albany releases this disc, expected within the next few months, all Mennin symphonies except for the first two, which he withdrew, will be available on CD in excellent performances. With an output of barely thirty works, Mennin, arguably America’s greatest symphonist, will then enjoy quite a generous representation on recordings.

Although Mennin served as president of the Juilliard School from 1962 until his death at age 60 in 1983, his chief interest was composing. His oeuvre is small, but virtually all his music  reflects the highest artistic intentions; there are no peripheral, frivolous, or unrepresentative efforts. Mennin’s mature work — dominated by counterpoint to an almost obsessive degree — reveals a bold vision of wild, massive forces in ceaseless turbulence and violent conflict, escalating in intensity toward cataclysmic explosions of almost manic brutality — all articulated through clear musical logic.

As is evident to anyone reasonably familiar with his work, Mennin’s style is remarkable for its chronological development along a powerful — if rather narrow — continuum. This evolution was so even and continuous that it is fairly easy to date one of Mennin’s compositions after listening to it for just a few minutes. His early works are characterized by a vigorous kinetic energy and sense of confident determination, with a propensity for the dark modes (the Phrygian and the rarely-used Locrian) and for syncopated, strongly accented rhythms. Over the years, the linear aspect of the music became increasingly chromatic, the harmony increasingly dissonant, and the rhythm increasingly irregular, resulting in an overall concentration and intensification of expressive effect.

Mennin’s remarkable precocity as a composer was matched by a rapid ascent to national prominence. He completed his Symphony No. 3 in 1946, on his twenty-third birthday, while still a graduate student at the Eastman School. Submitted as his doctoral dissertation, the work was premiered by the New York Philharmonic soon after its completion, before its acceptance by the Eastman doctoral committee. The Third is a fine example of Mennin’s early style. Many have likened it, with its brash assertiveness and strong, vigorous bass lines, to Vaughan Williams’ Fourth Symphony, although Mennin insisted that he never heard the work until he was much older. The Third Symphony was recorded by the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Dimitri Mitropoulos in 1955 — a fine performance that has been the work’s only representation on disc until now. Originally a Columbia Masterworks LP, it was reissued later by CRI, which has now made it available on CD. When a work is known for many years through only one recorded performance, a listener’s conception of the piece can become stagnant and two-dimensional, even if that one performance is a good one. Hence, for the new perspective it offers on the work, this new Schwarz/Seattle reading is most welcome. I am sure that Schwarz is quite familiar with the Mitropoulos performance; this new rendition essentially embraces that interpretation, but with sensitivity and nuance, while the modern recording allows textural details to emerge more clearly than on the older one.

Concertato, “Moby Dick” was composed in 1952, between the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. Its literary subtitle is almost unique within the output of this resolutely abstract composer, and the reference must be viewed as superficial (despite its prominence in the packaging of the disc), as Mennin himself insisted that it indicated more an emotional tone than a programmatic intention. Furthermore, the style and emotional tone of the music itself is exactly what its chronological place within the composer’s canon would lead one to expect, making it rather like a miniature symphony. Representing just about the midpoint of Mennin’s stylistic development, its unwaveringly high musical quality and concise ten-minute duration make it the ideal piece through which to discover the composer’s aesthetic world. 
 
This work has also been represented by one previous recording, done by the orchestra of the American Recording Society under the direction of Hans Swarowsky, shortly after work was composed. This performance, later reissued on Desto, was mediocre and the recording quality was poor, so the work long been in need of an updated reading. Leonard Slatkin has conducted it many times, and brilliantly, I might add, but has not committed it to disc. Unfortunately, Schwarz’s reading is quite inadequate, its sense of drama so restrained and compressed .. that it might be characterized as “Mennin on Valium.” This lethargic quality is so antithetical to the musical content that it is best attributed to insufficient rehearsal time, rather than interpretive intent. Having just heard the Albany Symphony’s performance of this work, I anticipate that that recording will be far more satisfactory.

The Symphony No. 7, composed in 1963, is perhaps Mennin’s greatest symphony–in fact, it may be the greatest of all American symphonies. In one 25-minute movement, subdivided into five connected sections, the work is a masterpiece of emotional intensity expressed through musical logic. The entire symphony is based on one twelve-tone theme, presented solemnly at the outset, which is elaborated continuously with a focused concentration that never flags for a moment. Words cannot do justice in capturing the meaning and import of a work like this.  Mennin’s Seventh is best known through a 1968 performance featuring the Chicago Symphony under the direction of Jean Martinon. That version was originally released on RCA but was later reissued by both New World and CRI, who have now made it available on CD. Martinon offered a meticulously refined and impeccably articulated reading. Again Schwarz has followed this general approach, with a sober, tightly-controlled, thin-lipped rendition of his own. With much of its explosive intensity built right into the notes, it is difficult to play the score as written without achieving this basic result. However, two other performances I have heard suggest that an even more powerful statement can be made of the work. One features the New York Philharmonic under the direction of George Szell, a consistent champion of Mennin’s music, who commissioned and premiered the Seventh with the Cleveland Orchestra. This performance with the New York Philharmonic was given during the same season as the premiere and offers a more fiery, muscular approach than Martinon’s, which seems rather discreet by comparison. The other is an unlikely reading featuring the Ukrainian State Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Pavel Kogan, released on Melodiya (C10 16447-88) during the early 1980s. This performance, ragged and raucous though it may be, is absolutely unforgettable in its visceral immediacy. I would never part with it. Again Schwarz/Seattle benefits from superior recording quality, enabling textural and contrapuntal details to emerge more transparently than in any other performance I have heard. 

In conclusion, all Mennin admirers will want this disc, if for no other reason than to enjoy alternative readings of these major works captured with modern recording techniques. The two symphonies are represented adequately, if not definitively. For a satisfactory rendition of the Concertato, “Moby Dick” we must still wait.