LEES: Piano Concerto No. 2. SHAWN: Piano Concerto. CRESTON: Dance Overture. A. BISHOP Crooning

LEES Piano Concerto No. 2. SHAWN Piano Concerto. CRESTON Dance Overture. A. BISHOP Crooning · David Alan Miller, cond; Albany SO; Ian Hobson, Ursula Oppens (pns) · ALBANY TROY441 (73:55)

This recent release offers a rewarding sample of diverse American works–light and diverting as well as serious and ambitious–whose dates of composition span nearly half a century. A four-movement piano concerto represents my first exposure to the music of Allen Shawn, a composer in his early 50s who studied with Leon Kirchner and Earl Kim at Harvard, and with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Evidently he has concentrated on solo piano and chamber works, although he has also written two operas to librettos by his brother, the actor and playwright Wallace Shawn. The Piano Concerto, composed during the years 1997-99, is a work of serious weight and import, largely atonal in harmonic structure though quite traditional in gesture, formal articulation, and overall rhetoric. It opens promisingly with intimations of ominous portent, as the piano offers a soliloquy at times stormy, at others reflective, against a somber backdrop. This is followed by a propulsive scherzo that makes an exciting impact. The dreamy slow movement immediately calls to mind the corresponding portion of Ravel’s G-Major concerto. But despite the romantic ebb and flow of its cantabile melody, the melodic and harmonic material is insufficiently arresting to sustain one’s interest. The finale, intended as the work’s culmination, opens with vigor and determination. But its multisectional structure and the overall grayness of harmonic character cause it to lose its sense of direction and ultimately to pall and founder. I suspect that some of its lack of focus is attributable to weaknesses in the orchestration, which fails to highlight and clarify the focal elements of the texture. A certain tentativeness in the orchestral playing further contributes to the problem, despite what seems to be a solid solo performance by Ursula Oppens. Displaying an authentic musical impetus, the concerto conveys a sense of unfulfilled potential, which might conceivably be redeemed by judicious revision.

A natural comparison is afforded by the Piano Concerto No. 2 of Benjamin Lees. Composed some thirty years earlier, it is a work of similar scope and ambition. More significantly, though Lees’s language is somewhat more strongly rooted in tonality, the tone and character of the two works share a great deal in common. Listening to them in succession highlights rather pointedly the shortcomings of the later work, as Lees’s concerto displays the meticulous craftsmanship–unwavering focus, clarity of texture, and streamlined sense of purpose–missing from Shawn’s effort. Though the work inhabits the same driving, aggressive post-Bartókian/post-Prokofievian stylistic realm as most of Lees’s music from the 1960s, it is powerful and convincing in its own right, despite a certain narrowness of expressive range. Those who enjoy Lees’s Fourth Piano Sonata will not be disappointed with this concerto. Ian Hobson, whose brilliant pianism and remarkable affinity for Lees’s music can be heard on a CD (Albany TROY-227; see Fanfare 21:3) devoted to his solo works, here offers a stupendous performance of the Concerto No. 2.  Furthermore, for whatever reason, the Albany Symphony acquits itself with far more confidence in this work than in the Shawn.

The two short, diverting pieces on the program also comprise an older and a newer work. Paul Creston’s Dance Overture was written in 1954, when the composer was at the height of his popularity, and it became one of his most frequently performed pieces. It displays the infectious rhythmic vitality and festive exuberance that came to typify much of his output. Although some collectors may favor Guido Cantelli’s stunning 1956 performance with the New York Philharmonic, which has been available on ASdisc AS-515, David Alan Miller leads the Albany group in a brisk, vigorous, clean-textured performance that successfully offsets the work’s slightly excessive density of sonority.

Surely the strangest work on the disc is Crooning, composed in 1998 by Andrew Bishop, a versatile figure who studied with William Albright and William Bolcom at the University of Michigan, and has been active in the jazz and pop music fields, as well as the world of concert music. Heard apart from any background information, the piece impresses as an imaginative, abstract 9-minute orchestral rhapsody in a vaguely contemporary tonal vein, in which wisps of melodic material slightly tinged with a vernacular flavor are refracted through distorting lenses. The piece follows an unpredictable course marked by metrical irregularity and rather astringent harmony, until it arrives at an unexpectedly whimsical conclusion. However, Bishop’s program notes describe the piece as a “love song without words” inspired by Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinata, and others from “the golden age of American popular songs,” intended “for shower soloists, the radio serenaders, and the crooner in each of us.” This description created expectations–in this listener, at any rate–that confused and interfered with the actual listening experience, which is pleasing enough on its own.