PISTON: Suite No. 1 for Orchestra. The Incredible Flutist. Fantasy for English Horn, Harp, and Strings. Psalm and Prayer of David. Concerto for String Quartet, Winds, and Percussion.

by Walter Simmons



PISTON: Suite No. 1 for Orchestra. The Incredible Flutist.  Fantasy for English Horn, Harp, and Strings. Psalm and Prayer of David. Concerto for String Quartet, Winds, and Percussion. Gerard Schwarz conducting the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Chorale; Juilliard String Quartet. DELOS DE-3126 [DDD]; 68:09. Produced by Amelia Haygood and Adam Stern. 

This is the Gerard Schwarz/Delos team’s third all-Walter Piston CD, released in time to mark the composer’s 100th birthday. It is a rather strange compilation, including — along with the popular and charming, if thoroughly unrepresentative, ballet, The Incredible Flutist — several odd items from the corners of his career. 

The earliest work presented here — and Piston’s earliest published work — is the Suite No. 1 (of two) for orchestra, composed in 1929, three years after his return from study in France. Compared with the sober, thoroughly integrated symphonies that came quite a bit later, this three-movement piece is something of a stylistic hodge-podge, with an opening section that features suggestions of early jazz in almost Ives-like juxtaposition, a mysterious middle movement reminiscent of the richly atmospheric early-20th-century French symphonic style represented by Roussel, and a highly contrapuntal neo-Baroque finale. The work is pleasant enough, but does not make a strong impact.

Next comes The Incredible Flutist, on which I’ve commented enough in the past, except to remind the reader that, within Piston’s rather uncompromisingly abstract output, this 1938 effort stands as his only theatrical work. The performance is fine, but so is Slatkin’s with the St. Louis Symphony (RCA 60798-2-RC; see Fanfare 15:5, pp. 221ff), and that is a more appealing program overall.

The Fantasy for English horn, harp, and strings is a reflective, pastoral sort of work, as one might expect. It is relatively lightweight in tone, and impeccably crafted, but a dry, impersonal quality keeps it at an emotional distance.

Another Piston oddity is the Psalm and Prayer of David, the composer’s only religious work and, if I am not mistaken, one of only two pieces that employ voices at all. The mood of this 17-minute choral setting is calm, cool, peaceful, and subdued with a neutrality of expression that many listeners are likely to find drab and colorless. 

The Concerto for String Quartet, Winds, and Percussion is Piston’s valedictory work, composed only a few months before death in 1976. Although some commentators have found it to be imbued with deep significance, the piece strikes me as rigorously tight-lipped and expressively reticent — dry and angular in its neoclassical language, though lithe and graceful in the way it unfolds.

Walter Piston is unquestionably one of the most consistently fine compositional craftsmen this country has produced. Furthermore, his eight symphonies display impeccable taste and formal judgment, a rhythmic vigor that is always dignified, and a lofty eloquence, all of which place them at the highest level within their genre. There is always a sense of humanity in Piston’s vision, but in many of his works, the tightly-reined  moderation of temperament may approach emotional remoteness for some listeners. Dedicated Pistonians will certainly find this a valuable release that adds several works to the catalog that are frequently encountered — and in excellent performances. But listeners just discovering the composer are advised to start with Second or Fourth Symphonies, then the Sixth, then the Seventh and Eighth (all these are currently available in fine performances.)   At that point you will know how you feel about Piston’s message and his sensibility.