MUCZYNSKI: Sonata for Flute and Piano. Moments for Flute and Piano. Woodwind Quintet. Duos for Flutes. Duos for Flute and Clarinet. Movements for Wind Quintet. Fragments for Woodwind Trio. Preludes for Flute Solo

MUCZYNSKI Sonata for Flute and Piano. Moments for Flute and Piano. Woodwind Quintet. Duos for Flutes. Duos for Flute and Clarinet. Movements for Wind Quintet. Fragments for Woodwind Trio. Preludes for Flute Solo –Alexandra Hawley (fl); Robert Muczynski (pn); Stanford Woodwind Quintet; with Jean-Pierre Rampal (fl) – MARCO POLO 8.225041 (68:41)

Robert Muczynski was born and educated in Chicago, where he came under the powerful influence of Alexandre Tcherepnin, his chief mentor. Now seventy years old, Muczynski has been based since 1961 in Tucson, Arizona, where he served as composer-in-residence at the University of Arizona until his retirement about ten years ago. Not unlike his near-contemporary Lee Hoiby, Muczynski is also an accomplished pianist who has been a persuasive advocate for his own music as well as that of others. But while music for piano plays a central role in the oeuvres of both composers, Hoiby has also concentrated on vocal and choral music, while Muczynski has devoted his attention largely to chamber music.

In a recent review of a disc called Flute Moments (22:1, p. 375) followed by a postscript in “Critics’ Corner” (22:3), I discussed Muczynski as a sort of  “sleeper” among American composers — one whose career has been free from “hype” of any kind, whose works increasingly win praise from critics and find favor among performers, and have gradually found their way into the active repertoire, but have rarely called attention to themselves or to their composer. As a result, Muczynski’s identity as a creative figure is considerably less well known and understood than are the particular merits of individual works. Not since the early 1980s, when Laurel issued two LPs featuring the composer’s performances of his own piano music, has there been a recording devoted entirely to Muczynski’s music, though there are few flutists who are unaware of his flute music, few saxophonists unfamiliar with his saxophone music, and few pianists who don’t know his piano music.

No sooner did these comments appear in print than Marco Polo issued an all-Muczynski disc, this one featuring his entire output of pieces that include the flute, offering the very opportunity for the collective consideration of his work that I have felt is due. However, unlike the case with his piano music, which centers around three substantial sonatas (and an early concerto), Muczynski’s output-including-flute, though accounting for a good 15% of his opus numbers over the course of a 35-year period, includes an awful lot of very minor stuff, skewing the representation of the composer in the direction of utilitarian material, divertimento-like in character. Despite the presence of the sonata and Moments — the two really substantive items — the average movement length of pieces on this disc is just less than two minutes.

On the whole, Muczynski’s music falls within the genre of American neoclassicism, with its clear, concise, abstract forms, simple, transparent textures, and avoidance of pretense or grandiosity of any kind. The composers whose music his most resembles are Bartók, in its fondness for thematic ideas with a “question-and-answer” shape, Bernstein, in its propensity for “blue notes” and its exuberant treatment of irregular meters, and Barber, in its dark, moody lyricism. Yet there is more to Muczynski than resemblances to others; his relatively small body of work is notable for its impeccable taste and workmanship, for expressive content of a high order, and for its own distinctive aesthetic point of view.

As mentioned, the Flute Sonata (1961) and Moments (1992) are the most ambitious efforts heard here and the two that involve the piano. Roughly comparable in dimension and scope, they reveal aspects of both consistency and growth in the composer’s development. Each is a fine work of some twelve minutes duration that aspires to a level beyond the sort of ornamental trivia that comprises so much of the flute literature, while remaining thoroughly idiomatic in creating an expression suited to the natural qualities of the instrument. From the standpoint of the listener, the chief difference between the two is the greater formal and expressive complexity of the later work — one of the composer’s most recent and most fully consummated achievements.

The Sonata has been recorded a number of times; the most notable rendition features the veteran artist Julius Baker, with the composer at the piano, on a Laurel LP released in 1984. An excellent performance, it has never been reissued on CD (although Laurel has announced plans to do so at some unspecified time in the future). On this new disc, Alexandra Hawley plays beautifully as well, while Muczynski’s own playing is extremely fine in both cases, with far more polish and nuance than one finds in most composer-performed renditions. The most significant difference between the two lies in the quality of the recorded ambience: Baker/Laurel is very closely miked, creating the impression that the performance is taking place in one’s own living room; Hawley/Marco Polo is at the opposite extreme, with considerable reverberation, suggesting a spacious auditorium. The recording quality is especially advantageous to the pianist on the new Marco Polo release, but rather unflattering on the Laurel disc. Baker’s strong flute-playing dominates that performance, whereas Hawley’s rather translucent tone quality is slightly overwhelmed by the expansive piano sound heard on the new CD.

Flutist Teresa Beaman’s recording of Moments on a Laurel CD (LR-857) beat Hawley’s as a world premiere by just a few months. But Hawley’s reading (with the composer at the piano) far outstrips Beaman’s (with pianist Jane Davis Maldonado) as a performance, displaying a more vivid conception and a mercurial fluency that imbues the work with greater vitality and musical dimension. On this new release, Moments emerges as one of Muczynski’s most personal and mature compositions, likely to equal or surpass the sonata in popularity once flutists discover it.

The other work of some scope is Muczynski’s 1985 Woodwind Quintet, which has already won something of a foothold in the repertoire despite its relative recency. Although diverting in character, it can stand alongside the best of the American neoclassical woodwind quintet genre — i.e., the Carter Quintet and the Irving Fine Partita — without displaying the banality that marks so many lesser works of this kind.

The remaining pieces do not warrant individual comment. While minor inartistic significance, each individual movement succeeds in making an authentic and meaningful musical statement within the limitations of its medium. None–not even the duos or the unaccompanied preludes — is merely a dry exercise or empty cliché.Not clear from Marco Polo’s outer packaging is the fact that the Duos for flute and clarinet are simply re-arrangements of the Duos for flutes. Also slightly misleading is the announced participation of Jean-Pierre Rampal, who, as the headnote above indicates, is heard only in the Duos for flutes. However, the playing of the various members of the Stanford Woodwind Quintet (Ms. Hawley, James Matheson, oboe, Gregory Dufford, clarinet, Lawrence Ragent, horn, and Rufus Olivier, bassoon) is consistently superb.

Let’s hope Laurel reissues the Muczynski Plays Muczynski material onto CD SOON! And how about a disc featuring the three Piano Trios and the String Trio.