BLOCH: Suite for Viola and Orchestra. Piano Sonata. BARTOK: Concerto for Viola and Orchestra. REALE: Piano Sonata No. 3, “Brahmsiana.” Salon Music. RUGGLES: Evocations. LIPKIS: Scaramouche Variations.

by Walter Simmons



BLOCH: Suite for Viola and Orchestra. BARTÓK: Concerto for Viola and Orchestra. Paul Freeman conducting the Slovenian Radio Symphony Orchestra; Marcus Thompson, viola. CENTAUR–CRC 2150 [DDD]; 51:48. Produced by Victor Sachse and Anton Dezmann

AMERICAN SOLO PIANO: AN ALTERNATIVE 20TH CENTURY. John Jensen, piano. MUSIC & ARTS–CD 757 [DDD]; 68:12. Produced by Peter Nothnagle.

BLOCH: Piano Sonata. REALE: Piano Sonata No. 3, “Brahmsiana.” Salon Music.RUGGLES: Evocations. LIPKIS: Scaramouche Variations.

Ernest Bloch’s creative maturity arrived relatively late: although he was 39 when he composed the Viola Suite, it still must be regarded as an early work — very loosely structured and improvisatory in formal style. Because its greatest appeal lies in the richly exotic, highly perfumed atmosphere of its subjective orientalism, the version with orchestral accompaniment is far preferable to that with piano. Marcus Thompson is familiar to discophiles as a dependable viola soloist and he provides an accomplished reading here, despite some uncertain intonation–far better than the only other available recording of the orchestral version, also on Centaur, featuring violist Szymon Kawalla with the Cracow Radio Symphony.

Bartók’s Viola Concerto is, of course, the work with which the composer was occupied when he died in 1945. Although he left only sketches, Bartók’s devoted student Tibor Serlv made a performing version of the work during the next couple of years Unlike the usual fate of such exercises, it was rapidly accepted into the repertoire, probably due to the sudden enthusiasm for Bartók’s music that his death seemed to precipitate. It is a gentle, largely contemplative work, with a folk-flavored finale and a fair share of virtuoso noodling. However, its lack of expressive urgency and dramatic focus has always prevented it from engaging my interest. Thompson offers a solid rendition of the work here, somewhat more precise than in the Bloch, but without the meticulous polish of Pinchas Zukerman (RCA 60749; see Fanfare 15:3). The Slovenian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Paul freeman provides adequate support, but cannot compare with Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony. This disc, then, is recommended to those who want the orchestral version of the Bloch Suite.

Bloch’s Piano Sonata is a later work, composed in 1935 shortly after the Sacred Service — a period when the composer was living in Switzerland and experiencing a temporary slowdown in productivity. Much of Bloch’s mature work may be seen as personal philosophical commentary on the troubling central issues of life, and the Piano Sonata — like the Piano Concerto — is a prime example. Yet despite its powerful, compelling character, the work has had few champions, and it remains infrequently heard. Unfortunately, pianist John Jensen does not make the most persuasive case for the work. Clearly, he is a thoughtful musician, attentive to subtleties of detail, and his reading of the second movement is especially sensitive. But his playing tends to be emotionally restricted, with a narrow range of dynamics and a lack of rhythmic propulsion. In a work of such blazing intensity, a rendition this subdued not only does not make the point–it can make one wonder what is the point. Far more convincing is the version by Istvan Kassai on Marco Polo 8.223289 (see Fanfare 14:1, pp. 187-89).

The Bloch Piano Sonata is the central work on this latest Music & Arts collaboration between between pianist John Jensen and composer/commentator Paul Reale, who provides program notes for these releases in the form of provocative essays on the fate of 20th-century music. The essay introducing this release is entitled “Whose 20th Century? or, Boulez Poisoned the Well,” and raises some good points about the destructive influence of self-styled prophets like Pierre Boulez and others who sought to legislate one style of composition as legitimate — a style that proved to have virtually no appeal to listeners — and to disqualify all others as invalid. However, even someone as pessimistic as I must question Reale’s assertion of the “demise of classical art music” as a fait accompli, when his series of recordings and his own music serve to illustrate the ongoing vitality of “classical art music.” As I stated in my comments on Reale’s previous essay (see Fanfare 16:6, pp. 127-8), the communication bridge between sincerely motivated composers and receptive listeners — though badly damaged — was not destroyed by the injunctions of those like Boulez who, recognizing their own creative bankruptcy, sought to rationalize it through an ideology based on the rejection of traditional musical values. Nor was it destroyed by their followers, the cowardly herd of academic bureaucrats who gambled that the university community would be a more gullible and more dependable source of income than the market and turned to the European ideology, with its pretense of revolutionary intellectualism, as a weapon against dissenters.  This is because all along there were dissenters, including authentically gifted composers with constituencies of their who knew all along that a fraud was being perpetrated and never bought into it. And, in truth, although 20-30 years ago it looked as though the university’s co-optation of new music posed the greatest threat to the ongoing vitality of serious art music, a far greater threat today is the classical music industry’s concentration on and insulting condescension to the casual listener at the expense of the committed devotee.

As the reader may infer, I am quite sympathetic to the spirit of Jensen and Reale’s enterprise. However, in addition to my reservations about Jensen’s playing, I don’t feel that the repertoire they have selected will generate much enthusiasm from listeners. Their releases have tended to feature a good deal of Reale’s own music, for which I do not blame them. A student of George Rochberg, he makes frequent explicit reference to pre-existing musical materials and styles, which he shapes in a sort of kaleidoscopic fashion. This sort of thing either works or it doesn’t. Most of what I have heard seems to defeat itself in an unfocused clutter. An exception is Reale’s 1975 Salon Music, which offers a more satisfying sense of overall coherence. The work’s title seems prompted by the composer’s reflection on the historical venue in which traditional Romantic pianism evolved, rather than being an indication of the musical style of the piece itself, which is quite challenging in its attenuated tonality and multi-layered, patchwork phraseology.

Less successful is the Sonata Brahmsiana (1985-6) which, in Reale’s words, “tries to capture the sweep and energy of the Brahmsian piano phrase, within the broad boundaries of an eclectic pitch language.” There is very little imitation of Brahms’ actual style. But I don’t think that the piece does “capture the sweep and energy of the Brahmsian piano phrase,” because, despite the flowing passagework, the constant shifts of momentum prevent the development of a long conceptual line, which is the quintessence of Brahms, although Jensen’s under-dynamized performance does not help.

Also disappointing are the Scaramouche Variations (1991) by 43-year-old Larry Lipkis, composer-in-residence at Moravian College in Pennsylvania. Lipkis, treating his material in what he calls “a kaleidoscopic, almost cinematic, fashion,” seems to share Reale’s aesthetic outlook. His piece is shaped with a convincingly musical sensibility, but displays the fragmentary gestures that have become clichés of 20th-century piano music, while lacking a strong personal profile to galvanize one’s attention.

And then we have the Evocations of Carl Ruggles, the uncompromising New England composer and painter who was a contemporary and colleague of Ives. These are four miniatures — linear, angular, and atonal. Reale quotes extensively from a ludicrously extravagant essay by 29-year-old Lou Harrison that compares these grimly austere pieces to everything from English virginal music and Frescobaldi to Schoenberg. Only the latter makes sense to me.

I wish I could find more to praise in this ambitious and well-intentioned effort.