ARGENTO Le Tombeau d’Edgar Poe. Valentino Dances. A Ring of Time. Reverie—Reflections on a Hymn Tune. Valse Triste Ÿ Eiji Oue, cond; Minnesota O; Chad Shelton (ten); William Schimmel (acc) – Reference Recordings RR-91CD (65:19)
Dominick Argento is an interesting and unusual figure — not only because of his ingenious music, but also for the remarkable course his career has followed. Now in his early seventies, he is an American traditionalist composer of essentially the same vintage as Lee Hoiby, Nicolas Flagello, and Robert Muczynski. Yet while these composers have had to overcome the neglect and disparagement of a musical establishment that regarded their work as old-fashioned, Argento — while less well represented than they on recordings — has managed largely to please critics and audiences alike, even winning the Pulitzer Prize for his vocal setting, From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, premiered in 1975 by Janet Baker. It is difficult to explain the apparent ease with which Argento seems to have earned the high esteem in which he is held. I suppose that some would say he is simply a better composer than the three mentioned above. I would, however, respond that a) I don’t believe that this is true, and, furthermore, b) I have never seen anyone achieve success in the world of classical music as a result of merit alone. If pressed, I would attribute Argento’s success to two factors: 1) a gift for generating extremely intriguing compositional concepts, and developing them with great sophistication, so that they are pleasing to the general listener without seeming to pander, and reveal a lyrical inclination without being “melodic” in the old-fashioned sense; 2) his having managed somehow to associate himself with the high cultural profile achieved by the state of Minnesota through its many notable arts institutions (among which the Minnesota Opera and the Minnesota Orchestra are only the best known), for the mutual benefit of all parties. (Argento specialist Mary Ann Feldman writes, “Having settled in Minneapolis to teach at the University of Minnesota, …Argento has composed works for every major musical organization in the State, including seven works commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra, four of which appear on this disc.”)
Argento is best known as a composer of operas, and most of his music features the voice in one way or another. Therefore this new compact disc is notable for the light it sheds on the composer’s orchestral music (although a closer examination of the contents reveals the operatic origins of several of these pieces). The works selected span a 25-year period, from 1972 to 1997. The earliest is A Ring of Time, a quasi-programmatic symphony, subtitled, “Preludes and Pageants for Orchestra and Bells,” written in honor of the Minnesota Orchestra’s 70th anniversary. Its concept offers a good example of the way Argento thinks: Anniversaries point to the passage of time; the passage of time is marked by the tolling of bells; four seasons mark a year; we can divide the day into four periods; we can divide a life into four stages. The result is a four-movement work: 1) Dawn/Spring/Youth; 2) Noon/Summer/Love; 3) Twilight/Fall/Struggle; 4) Midnight/Winter/Death. The music itself, however, is a bit sterile and over-conceptualized. Although there are occasional moments of stunning impact, and an achingly poignant Mahlerian epilogue, for the most part one is left with little but the sense of some Ivesian chaos and the sounds of lots of bells.
It is hard not to compare Argento with the many other Italian-American composers who have contributed so much to the symphonic and operatic repertoire, though perhaps such thinking smacks of ethnic stereotyping. Nevertheless, with all his sophistication and obvious artistic intelligence, Argento seems to lack the spontaneous wellspring of visceral musical creativity — pure, abstract, and passionate, unmediated by extrinsic thought-processes — that gives the music of so many Italian-Americans its tremendous power. Argento seems to need these complex programs to start his creative juices flowing. Perhaps this is why he is so drawn to opera. Even at his best, Argento always maintains something of a distance from his subject matter and the feelings he conjures, creating an emotional “buffer-zone,” a sort of post-Modern objectivity or neutrality.
The most striking piece on the disc is Le Tombeau d’Edgar Poe, a 16-minute orchestral suite shaped in 1986 from Argento’s opera The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe, composed ten years earlier. Drawing its title from a poem by Mallarmé, the orchestral work comprises four connected movements, each of which features a setting of a portion of Annabel Lee, sung by an offstage tenor. The music is darkly evocative and sumptuously orchestrated, with a moodiness suggestive of Bernard Herrmann. My only reservation is the offstage tenor effect, which I find annoyingly neither-here-nor-there — obtrusive but not present enough to fit into the harmonic structure.
Valentino Dances, clearly the “featured work” on the disc, is a ten-minute suite drawn in 1997 from the composer’s thirteenth opera, The Dream of Valentino, written in 1994. Here Argento takes the opportunity to enter the tango market, trying his hand at the dance form that inundated the music world at all class levels like a tidal wave during the past decade (thanks largely to the ironically posthumous international sensation created by the singularly talented Astor Piazzola). With an orchestration that includes alto saxophone, accordion, and a large percussion section, Argento’s suite conjures a mood of exquisite refinement and sophisticated taste, not unlike the tango movement from Barber’s Souvenirs.
In a sense, Reverie — Reflections on a Hymn Tune is the most “conventional” work on the disc, but it is also perhaps the most fully realized. Composed in 1997 for the Minnesota Orchestra to showcase on a European tour, the work is based on a German hymn called “Ellacombe,” and is the sort of rhapsody in which the featured tune only gradually comes into focus. Yet despite its essentially diatonic materials and its character as an “occasional piece,” its form is highly imaginative and realized with impeccable taste, as the theme is refracted through various perspectives, eventually achieving a genuinely noble grandeur that is almost Mahlerian in impact.
The very brief Valse Triste was one of a number of birthday offerings composed for conductor David Zinman’s 60th birthday. It is a dark and dreamy waltz, with a nodding acknowledgment to Sibelius.
The Minnesota Orchestra has named Argento their “Composer Laureate,” and their performances here reflect the vigorous advocacy one might expect on behalf of the works of their obviously beloved colleague. Under the leadership of Music Director Eiji Oue, they provide richly textured, dynamically charged renditions that present the music in the best possible light. Offering a substantial portion of the output of a distinguished figure somewhat under-represented on recording, this is an important release for those interested in American orchestral music of the late 20thcentury.