PERSICHETTI: Parable XXIII (Piano Trio). Masquerade. King Lear Septet. COWELL: Trio in Nine Short Movements. REALE: Trio No. 2, “Drowsy Maggie.” GILLINGHAM: Serenade, “Songs of the Night”. SAPIEYEVSKY: Mercury Concerto

PERSICHETTI: Parable XXIII (Piano Trio). COVELL: Trio in Nine Short Movements.REALE: Trio No. 2, “Drowsey Maggie”. Mirecourt Trio. MUSIC & ARTS CD-686 [DDD]; 64:06. (Available from Music & Arts, P.O. Box 771, Berkeley, CA 94701)

PERSICHETTI: Masquerade. GILLINGHAM: Serenade, “Songs of the Night”. GILMORE: Five Folksongs. ZAPPA: Envelopes; Dog Breath Variations. SCHMITT: Dionysiaques. Barbara Pare. soprano; Eugene Corporon conducting the Cincinnati College Conservatory Wind Symphony. MARK MCD-1116 [DDD?].; 70:25. (Distributed by Albany Music Group)

PERSICHETTI: King Lear Septet. VILLA-LOBOS: Choros No. 7. KRENEK: Capriccio for Cello and Orchestra. SAPIEYEVSKI: Mercury Concerto. L. MOSS: Symphonies for Brass Quintet and Chamber Orchestra; Clouds. Albemarle Ensemble; Evelyn Elsing, cello; Armando Ghitalla, trumpet; Annapolis Brass Quintet; John Stephens conducting the American Camerata AMCAM ACR-10305CD IDDD?]; 75:09. Produced by Steven Benson. (Available from AmCam Recordings, Inc., P.O. Box 1502, Wheaton, MD 20915) or (Distributed by Albany Music Group)

Here are three worthwhile 20th-century miscellanies, each distinguished by the presence of an import work by Vincent Persichetti representing a different stage in his creative evolution.  The King Lear Septet dates from  the late 1940s, Masquerade from the mid-60s, and Parable XXIII from the early 80s.  Persichetti’s output does not fall into stylistically. distinct chronological categories — works vary more within periods than between periods — but, understandably, there are discernable differences at successive stages of development. As precocious as he was (his official opus 1 appeared at age 14), Persichetti did not, I believe, achieve full compositional maturity until his mid-thirties, by which time he had already completed a substantial portion of his output. Most of his earlier works lack an authentic, fully formed personal voice, cultivating the recognizable turf of Stravinsky or other influential figures, such as Copland, Harris, and Bartok, although his astounding technical mastery often surpassed theirs.

Persichetti produced many such works during the 1940s — a period of consolidation for him — some of them quite ambitious.  One of these is the King Lear Septet, written in 1948 for Martha Graham, and used by her for a choreographic work called The Eye of Anguish.   It is scored for woodwind quintet with piano and timpani, and is a grim, knotty, effort in a Stravinskian neoclassical vein. Probably his most serious work from this period, it is quite demanding for the listener, but, as is usually the case with Persichetti, repays repeated, focused attention. My only complaint is that the title raises expectations that are not fulfilled: there is nothing in the music that evokes the tone or spirit of Shakespeare’s great tragedy, or that suggests the emotion of anguish — a feeling that is generally absent from Persichetti’s music and perhaps from his temperament as well. A certain aggressiveness of attitude represents its only inclination in such a direction. Persichetti’s compositional approach is generally abstract; extramusical references — even to the spectrum of human emotions — rarely play a role, making the concept of this work somewhat uncharacteristic, although the music itself is not   The performance by the Virginia-based Albemarle Ensemble is appropriately tight, clean, and incisive, although the very important harmonic and contrapuntal role of the piano is somewhat buried by improper recording balance.Masquerade is one of the widely played and beloved pieces Persichetti wrote for symphonic wind ensemble. Eleven minutes in duration, it is a brilliant, kaleidoscopically unfolding set of variations on material that originally appeared in a didactic setting in his text, Twentieth Century Harmony. Composed in 1966, Masquerade is more dissonant and less clearly tonal than such band works from the 50s as PsalmPageant, and the Symphony No. 6. Nevertheless, its cool, light tone and exuberant rhythms produce a genial, exhilarating effect that masks its intricate (and fascinating) structure. The performance by the Cincinnati Conservatory Wind Symphony is excellent.

Persichetti began his set of Parables in 1965, completing 25 of them by the time of his death in 1987. He was typically evasive about them, stating only that they are “non-programmatic musical essays about a single germinal idea. They convey a meaning indirectly by the use of comparison or analogies.”  Most are short pieces for unaccompanied solo instrument — oboe, bassoon, guitar, harp, tuba, etc.– but some are on a larger scale. Many are based on thematic ideas borrowed from earlier compositions. For example, Persichetti’s largest effort, his opera The Sibyl (a bitterly pessimistic work based on the story of Chicken Little), is also identified as Parable XX and is based almost entirely on material taken from his easy piano pieces.

Parable XXIII, a 23-minute work for piano trio, dates from 1981, when Persichetti was devoting most of his attention to writing for the harpsichord; I don’t recognize its germinal four-note motif from any previous piece. The one-movement trio is one of the most elaborate and ambitious works from Persichetti’s final years, and exemplifies the sort of comprehensive integration of a broadly-based compositional technique that comprised his artistic manifesto. It is a densely textured, highly contrapuntal work that makes a rather severe surface impression, although its passion and poetry emerge ever more clearly with attentive, repeated listening. Mind you, I am no advocate of masochistic listening: there is enough great unfamiliar music around that offers at least some rewards to the listener right away, so that there is no need to endure music that simply doesn’t gratify. But even with Persichetti’s most forbidding works one can immediately sense the coherence and the authentic musicality that pervade the proceedings. And because of the richness, concentration, and subtlety of construction, each hearing whets one’s appetite for another, and one’s appreciation grows deeper and deeper. Abstract and self-contained, this is musical composition of the highest order, offering the depth o£ gratification provided by the art form’s greatest masterpieces. 

During the past 10-15 years, violinist Kenneth Goldsmith, cellist Terry King, and pianist John Jensen have been compiling quite an impressive discography, both as individuals and as the Mirecourt Trio — and on several different labels. Their efforts have been characterized by a dedication to the highest standards of performance, to unearthing lesser-known works, and to increasing the piano trio repertoire by inviting important composers to investigate the medium. This dedication, pursued aggressively and discriminatingly, has made them what is probably today’s preeminent piano trio. This new Music & Arts recording offers ample evidence of that claim. 

The other two pieces on the disc have their virtues, but serve mainly to highlight the extraordinary quality of the Persichetti work. Paul Reale is a 50-year-old composer based in California whom the Mirecourt Trio has championed. His Trio No 2 is a recent composition that uses the Irish tune “Drowsy Maggie” as a deep-level unifying device, somewhat in the manner of a cantus firmus. This is an interesting concept that facilitates the absorption of the work by the listener, although there is some incongruity between the freshness and simplicity of the tune (presented fully only in the finale) and the complexity and astringency of the treatment. Reale seems to be searching for a way of rejuvenating and individualizing an approach based on solid, traditional craftsmanship, and he succeeds with a work that is neither patronizingly obvious nor inscrutably austere

Henry Cowell’s Trio in Nine Short Movements is his last. completed work, and it exemplifies the composer’s brand of good-natured experimental whimsey. As with most of non-neo-colonial-American music, the piece is a mechanical, intentionally inexpressive execution of some quirky, rather simplistic compositional devices. Though based on shared melodic and rhythmic materials, the brief movements follow one another with no apparent sense of an overall formal shape or direction.  In a way, the pieces by both Cowell and Reale display a sort of search for novelty in a syntactical medium that may seem to some to have been exhausted, while Persichetti’s trio demonstrates how no language is ever exhausted as long as one truly has something to say and the technical means to say it well.

I look forward to further releases from the Mirecourt Trio. The notes mention a commissioned work by Joly Braga Santos, a Portuguese composer whose previous efforts have attracted my attention. And American composer Robert Muczynski has written three fine piano trios as yet unexplored by these players, as far as I know.

The disc featuring the Cincinnati Conservatory Wind Symphony offers a varied program of mixed interest. Serenade, “Songs of the Night”, a recent work by Michigan-based David Gillingham (b. 1947), makes a very favorable impression. Its five movements evoke a variety of nocturnal moods through the use of a deliciously coloristic postmodern language. The two pieces by Frank Zappa (a one-time Persichetti student) date from the 1970s and exist in a number of different arrangements, all done by the composer himself. Neither eccentric nor nihilistic as one might expect, they are nicely constructed, deftly scored pieces exploring a richly colored late-20th-century mode of expression.

The Gilmore and Schmitt pieces are somewhat disappointing. California composer Bernard Gilmore has selected five folksongs of different nationalities, presenting them in innocuous, rather drawn-out arrangements for soprano and band. They are sung here by soprano Barbara Pare in a stiff, formal manner that conflicts with the casual informality o£ the material. Florent Schmitt’s Dionysiaques stands out as the only “old”, non-American piece on the program. Somewhat comparable in style to Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice, it reveals a rather tame, mundane vision of the Dionysian ideal.

The Cincinnati Conservatory Wind Symphony appears to be one of today’s most proficient bands, and they perform these works with precision and nuance. The recording quality, however, is a bit lacking in brilliance.

The generous serving of music on the American Camerata disc is generally more forbidding in style, and will probably appeal to a smaller group of listeners. Here the pleasant but not terribly interesting Villa-Lobos septet is the only “old” piece.   Lawrence Moss’s two efforts explore an all-too-familiar atonal idiom that is, however, handled sensitively and with attention to shape, color, and mood. Although the language is fairly severe, the actual content is mild and genial. The late Ernst Krenek’s Capriccio also approaches the serial idiom with some artistic sensitivity, but there isn’t much in this music to encourage delving more deeply into it. Polish-born Jerzy Sapieyevski’s Mercury Concerto is a 14-minute work for trumpet and wind ensemble. Though not falling into any obvious stylistic category, it is a fairly accessible work that makes an excellent vehicle for the solo instrument, played outstandingly here by veteran Armando Ghitalla.

The American Camerata appears to be based in Maryland, and seems to function as a source-group for a variety of chamber ensemble combinations. Their performances here maintain a very high level. However, potential purchasers of this recording should be warned that the tracks listed on the index do not correspond to the actual tracking of the disc.