CRESTON: Symphony No. 5. Choreografic Suite. Toccata. Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra. POULENC: Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra. BEREZOWSKY: Fantasie for Two Pianos and Orchestra.

by Walter Simmons



CRESTON: Symphony No. 5. Choreografic Suite. Toccata. Gerard Schwarz conducting the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and the New York Chamber Symphony. DELOS DE 3127 [DDD]; 68:35. Produced by Amelia Haygood and Adam Stern.

CRESTON: Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra. POULENC: Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra. BEREZOWSKY: Fantasie for Two Pianos and Orchestra. Joshua Pierce and Dorothy Jonas, pianos; David Amos conducting the Polish Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra. ALBANY TROY 112 [DDD]; 54:08. Produced by Beata Jankowska-Burzynska.

The music of Paul Creston is more popular right now than it has been at any time during the past forty years. The generous and varied serving of music found on these two new CDs documents this revival of interest, while amply displaying both the attractions and the limitations of this distinctive figure, illustrating the unique place he holds among his generation of American composers. (For background information and commentary, seeFanfare 14:6, pp. 143-44, 16:2, pp. 221-22). The Delos disc represents the second installment of Gerard Schwarz’s Creston survey and features three works never before available on recording (although an excellent performance of Choreografrc Suite conducted by Jorge Mester has sat “in the can” for years without ever being released). The Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra presented on the Albany disc is also a first recording.

Creston composed his Fifth Symphony in 1955, when his reputation was at its zenith. It is the most serious in tone of his six symphonies, with a focus on subjective emotional distress that make it a real rarity among his oeuvre. Creston’s contribution to the “victory through struggle” symphonic genre, the work is in three movements, the first of which presents an explosively agitated and turbulent statement of the problem: the second, an alternately reflective and grandly dramatic lament; and the finale, an assertion of defiance and purpose, which propels itself with incredible force and intensity to a triumphant conclusion. As with Creston’s few other serious-toned works, the symphony displays a tough, earthy grimness and a tendency toward melodrama reminiscent of the film noir style popular during the 1940s. It is always tightly argued motivically, but its emotional extremism does at times spill over into grandiose overstatement, which conductor Schwarz wisely and successfully attempts to rein in, heightening rather than diminishing the effect.

Creston composed his Toccata two years later, to showcase the virtuosity of the Cleveland Orchestra and its conductor George Szell. It is the sort of rousing and exuberant curtain-raiser for which Creston became somewhat typecast, with many solo passages that highlight individual members of the orchestra. The work is also something of a compositional tour de force, featuring sixty-five different rhythmic patterns within 3/4 meter. The overlapping interactions of these different, irregularly accented rhythmic patterns are the most distinctive aspect of Creston’s art, and create a sort of manic giddiness that raises the music above the trivial and conventional. However, in order to achieve this effect, the conductor must drive the music forward, and in this piece Schwarz tends to let the momentum sag at times.

The Choreografic Suite was composed in 1965. Creston was something of a pedant, and his efforts to revise rhythmic notation, to purge it of “irrational” practices were paralleled by a fascination with verbal language, and an impatience with the irrationality of English spelling. For a time he adopted an “improved” mode of spelling, which crept into the title of this work, although I don’t know why he didn’t spell it “Koreografic.” Anyway, the work consists of five movements of contrasting mood — really essays in motion — in Creston’s lightest, most accessible vein, providing an abstract framework for choreographic interpretation. It is formally analogous to the popular Partita for flute, violin, and strings — minus the neo-baroque overlay — composed thirty years earlier. Indeed, Creston’s propensity for depicting states of motion, rather than expressing states of emotion, points to the essentially Baroque character of his musical content, though realized in a Romantic/Impressionistic language, intensified by twentieth-century rhythmic features. The Choreografic Suite is too innocuously benign for my taste, but would be highly effective in the context of a pops concert. Again, Schwarz’s overly relaxed tempos — especially in the “Burletta” movement — emphasize the blandness of the music.       

The Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra was written in 1951 and consists of three movements — two rollicking Allegros flanking a central Andante pastorale marked by a tender lyricism. Virtuoso showpieces for solo instrument(s) and orchestra form another significant component of Creston’s output. Almost without exception they are sunny, energetic, and exuberant works that follow a conventional formal layout. Yet though their tone is pops-concert light and spontaneous, they display an attention to disciplined motivic development that gives the music more substance and durability than may be apparent upon casual acquaintance. This is the key to understanding Creston’s music and it is not lost on program annotator Eric Salzman. It is for all these qualities outlined above that Creston’s music cannot be mistaken for that of any other composer.

The prolifically recorded two-piano team of Joshua Pierce and Dorothy Jonas offer an absolutely bang-up performance of Creston’s concerto, with all the propulsive drive this music requires. They apply a similar approach to Poulenc’s irresistibly mischievous stylistic grab-bag, which may shock listeners used to a more elegantly Gallic reading, though others will find its vigor and virility refreshing. Nicolai Berezowsky was a Russian-American composer-conductor-violinist who lived from 1900 to 1953. His eleven-minute Fantasie is another vigorous and assertive work, suggesting Alexandre Tcherepnin flavored by Ernest Bloch.

For the past fifteen years, Pierce and Jonas have been gradually recording much of the two-piano literature, with a particular emphasis on work of the twentieth century. Perhaps because they do not have a relationship with any particular label, but have recorded for many, they have not had the benefit of publicity that might draw attention to their work. But their recordings have been consistently reliable, and have brought to light many worthwhile compositions. In addition, Pierce has done a good deal of recording as a solo artist, including an indispensable disc devoted to the piano music of Nicolas Flagello (Premier PRCD-1014; see Fanfare 15:1. pp. 216-18).

And while we are on the subject of unheralded recording artists, consider for a moment conductor David Amos, who leads the Polish Radio and Television Orchestra in providing Pierce and Jonas with solid orchestral support. He is another who has not had the benefit of an identity created in association with a single record company or orchestra. But it bears noting that the current enthusiasm for composers like Paul Creston, Alan Hovhaness, Arnold Rosner, and many others whose music is now being investigated by better-known conductors and orchestras began toward the end of the LP era with recordings conducted by David Amos. Indeed, lately it often appear as if his large discography serves as a repertoire blueprint for other conductors and record companies. Yes, sometimes these others have had the resources to produce more polished recordings than Amos’s pioneering efforts, but he deserves a good deal of credit for his foresight, discrimination, and courage in investigating areas of the repertoire that had not yet demonstrated their commercial viability. These comments do not intend in any way to diminish the accomplishments of Gerard Schwarz, who is making a tremendous contribution through his enormously informative and valuable survey of American symphonic music. Both these conductors have made major infusions into an all but moribund orchestral repertoire.

In conclusion, let me direct the powers that be to the most significant remaining gaps in the discography of Paul Creston. First, three orchestral works: Chthonic Ode, a thirteen-minute homage to the sculptor Henry Moore, in which an uncharacteristically dissonant harmonic language, in combination with characteristic rhythmic irregularities, serve to suggest the power, massiveness, and a symmetry of Moore’s work; Janus, the most fully realized example of Creston’s favorite prelude-and-dance format; and Symphony No. I, which first brought the composer widespread public attention — a work whose four compact movements each set forth one of the main expressive veins Creston was to mine throughout his career. Also among his most ambitious and fully realized efforts are two compositions for piano solo:Metamorphoses, a large and elaborate set of variations on a twelve-tone theme, and Three Narratives, a trio of highly virtuosic fantasies that might be seen as Creston’s answer toGaspard de la Nuit. None of these works has ever been recorded in any format.