G. READ: Sonata da Chiesa for Piano, Op. 61. String Quartet No. 1, Op. 100. Sonoric Fantasia No. 1, for Harp, Harpsichord, and Celesta, Op. 102. Five Aphorisms for Violin and Piano, Op. 150.

G. READ: Sonata da Chiesa for Piano, Op. 61. String Quartet No. 1, Op. 100. Sonoric Fantasia No. 1, for Harp, Harpsichord, and Celesta, Op. 102. Five Aphorisms for Violin and Piano, Op. 150. Joseph Holt, piano; Boston Composers String Quartet; Leslie Stratton Horris, harp; Barbara Harbach, harpsichord; Gerald Berthiaume, celesta; Janet Packer, violin; Howard Karp, piano. NORTHEASTERN CLASSICAL ARTS NR 253-CD [DDD?]; 66:58. Produced by L. E. Joiner et al.

Gardner Read is a prolific American composer, a contemporary of such comparable figures as Barber, Schuman, Dello Joio, Diamond, and Persichetti. Born in Illinois in 1913, he studied at the Eastman School during the early years of the Howard Hanson/Bernard Rogers compositional regime. In addition to his creative activity, Read established a considerable academic reputation through a distinguished longtime association with Boston University, and as author of several well-known theoretical texts. Yet his compositional output, which must comprise nearly 200 opus numbers by now, has been so sparsely represented on recordings during the years, that a representative profile of Read’s compositional personality simply cannot be gleaned from the available evidence. Even I, familiar as I am with more than a dozen of his works, including his four symphonies, a cello concerto, and a large oratorio, do not feel a true sense of the stylistic range, or of the consistency of aesthetic aspiration and consummation, achieved by Read’s output as a whole.

Extrapolated from the small sample available to me, my impression is that Read’s own core aesthetic context is a somewhat emotionally reserved, structurally preoccupied tributary branching off from Howard Hanson’s brand of post-romanticism. While this basic romantic/expressive orientation has remained at the core of his output, he has, over the course of the decades explored a variety of other techniques and approaches that have entered the scene, working for a while in a more neoclassical vein, later embracing an emphasis on gesture and sonority as well, while indulging a taste for titles carrying vaguely futuristic connotations. While I find Read’s four symphonies to be thoroughly impressive works, worthy of serious consideration, and most of his other works that I have heard to be sincere efforts that display true expressive impetus and fine craftsmanship, I also find many of the works to be overly reserved and self-effacing in their personal projection, creating an overall impression of first-rate technique in the service of second-rate music. I say this while acknowledging that a more comprehensive knowledge of Read’s output might create a stronger personal profile.

With such a meager frame of reference, it is difficult to place in appropriate context the four works for small forces — one from the 1940s, two from the ’50s, and one from the ’90s — presented on this recent recording. The earliest is the Sonata da Chiesa for piano solo, dating from 1945. This 11-minute work in three movements offers a neoclassical treatment of venerable musical procedures. An imposing Bloch-like French overture soon gives way to rather routinely academic elaborations. The second movement is an attractive group of variations on a modal, folk-like melody, while the finale pursues a familiar Coplandesque generic American neoclassical vein, with spare contrapuntal textures, syncopated rhythms, and widely spaced melodies. The pervasive lack of character and impetus is possibly exacerbated by what sounds like a drastically under-energized, over-cautious reading by pianist Joseph Holt.

Read’s String Quartet No. 1 was composed in 1957, a fertile period for American works in that genre. Unfortunately, aside from some impassioned, heartfelt moments during the slow movement, the work is an earnest, well-executed, but thoroughly conventional statement in the neoclassical manner that dominated the right wing of academic American composition at the time. Listen, for example to Mennin’s Quartet No. 2 or Persichetti’s Quartet No. 3 — each written within a couple of years of Read’s effort — to experience the intensity of vision attained within this genre by others working in essentially the same portion of the stylistic spectrum. Again, the expressive impact here gains nothing from the performers, who seem to find little galvanizing in the music.

Sonoric Fantasia No. 1 was composed the following year, a 16minute work in one movement scored for harp, harpsichord, and celeste. Here Read has moved from routine neoclassicism to a more gestural, yet highly contrapuntal form of expression, with an obvious focus on the delicious timbral possibilities offered by this combination as well as on some of the other-worldly sound-images suggested by it. While listening to the work, one is hard-pressed not to be reminded of Daniel Pinkham’s irresistible and unforgettable Concerto for Celeste and Harpsichord, composed just a few years earlier. But this is a fine piece in its own right, and its freer, more imaginative structure makes a stronger, more personal impact than the earlier works.

The piece I find most compelling on the disc is the Five Aphorisms for violin and piano, composed in 1991 and consisting of musical interpretations of five quotations from widely disparate literary sources. As brief and varied in musical style and content as they are, these pieces display a touching expressive authenticity missing from the sonata and the quartet. Indeed, several of the sections are quite lovely and moving, and the performances by violinist Janet Packer and pianist Howard Karp do them justice. 

Although I must confess to some disappointment with this disc as a whole, I do believe that there is more of substance to the music of Gardner Read than we have yet heard, and I urge further, perhaps more selective, investigations.