REICH: Music for Eighteen Musicians

REICH: Music for Eighteen Musicians. Steve Reich and Musicians. ECM-1-1129, produced by Rudolph Werner

Of the various reactions against the hyper-cerebral academic serialism that monopolized the modern music scene during the 1950’s and 60’s, one of the strangest and most highly publicized of the past few years has been the sort of ostinato-music practiced by, most notably, Philip Glass and Steve Reich (b. 1936). For those who have yet to experience this new genre, these composers have devised a sort of music based on the static reiteration of small, simple motivic units, which are then subjected to barely perceptible alterations that change the nature of the sound over a long period of time without abrupt transitions or contrasts of any kind. In Reich’s music, gently syncopated figures usually interact with a constant rhythmic pulsation of a rather rapid rate, adding to the mesmerizing quality of the music while giving a greater semblance of activity. Aside from rhythmic and textural aspects, the basic parameters of the music are simple: melodies are usually pentatonic, harmony rarely exceeds the seventh-chord in degree of dissonance, and tonality is static over long periods of time. The overall effect resembles, in a variety of different ways, African music, Javanese gamelan music, as well as the music of Lou Harrison, Carl Orff, and Harry Partch.

Music for Eighteen Musicians, completed in 1976 and first performed in that year, appears to be Reich’s most recent major work. I had the opportunity to attend a live performance of the piece on the same day that I received this record for review. Reich and his troop of musicians have achieved a rather impressive cult following, and every seat of Columbia University’s Wollman Auditorium was taken, with the overflow crowd filling  every available space on the floor. The players, among whom is Reich himself, appear in informal attire, and perform with no visible ostentation whatsoever. Despite the fact that some might detect in the music an evocation of psychedelia—what others might describe as a hypnotic or transcendental feeling—Reich vigorously denies that he has any such intentions; rather he insists that his music is meant to be apprehended by clear, perceptive minds; that, like the music of the classical masters, it is susceptible to appreciation on levels ranging from the casual to the professionally analytical, but that it presumes no mystical or mind-altering preparations or propensities. Still, I would venture a supposition that most listeners whose musical expectations have been conditioned by the rate of stimulus transformation afforded by the western symphonic tradition will find themselves impatient with the apparently static unfolding of Reich’s music, and that those listeners with the greatest proclivity for meditative or altered states of consciousness are likely to be those most favorably impressed by what Reich has to offer. Not the least of the attrac­tions of this music, incidentally, is the achievement of the performers, who are able to sustain these ostinatos over long periods of time without faltering—a feat that must demand extraordinary discipline. I might add that the crowd at Columbia rewarded Reich and his ensemble with an enthusiastic standing ovation.

I find Music for Eighteen Musicians to be the most satisfying and fascinating of Reich’s pieces that I have yet heard. Just under an hour in duration, it is scored for violin, cello, two clarinets doubling bass clarinet, four women’s voices, four pianos, three marimbas, two xylophones, and metallophone. The work is based on a succession of eleven chords, deliberately introduced at the outset. Each chord is then used as a prolonged cantus firmusover which a brief mini-composition is generated. The many sections that comprise the work are connected to one another, and a pulsating ostinato continues throughout. Furthermore, as section leads into section, several elements from one are held constant through the next, so that the progression is very gradual, and the continuity is never broken. The diversity of instrumental color in this particular work, and the concentration of musical substance, compared with other works of this genre, are undeniably compelling. There is a luxuriant yet strangely impersonal quality to this music, as wave-like rushes of delicate sound-crystals ebb and flow in throbbing pulsation. In its indulgence in depersonalized sensation there is something characteristically 1970’s.

Whether one is sympathetic to this sort of thing or not, few listeners would find any of these sounds objectionable in themselves. Yet the virtual absence of climax or contrast, and the extremely slow unfolding make great demands on the listener’s attention, and I for one find myself growing rather impatient by the time the piece is half over. This is, however, not to deny the inherent interest at any particular point or the originality of the sounds themselves and of the concept behind this approach to formal articulation.

This disc is a perfect illustration of the superior richness both of sonority and of detail offered by the recording medium. The intricacies of the music come alive with incredible clarity and depth, and the performances are truly inhuman in their precision. The surfaces are equally fine.

PERSICHETTI: Te Deum; Parable IX; Four Cummings Choruses; Symphony No. 6 (Excerpts).

PERSICHETTI: Te Deum; Parable IX; Four Cummings Choruses; Symphony No. 6 (Excerpts). Tennessee Tech Choral Union and Chamber Orchestra conducted by James Wattenbarger; Tennessee Tech Concert Choir conducted by Robert Chancellor; Tennessee Tech Symphonic Band conducted by Vincent Persichetti and Wayne Pegram. USC SOUND ENTERPRISES KM-1558

Here is yet another release devoted entirely to music by one of America’s most influential and multidimensional creative figures. Today newly thirty of Persichetti’s works are available on records, although soma of these are not listed in Schwann (notably the extra­ordinary two-record set produced by Arizona State University containing the four string quartets). The disc under discussion is the 11th release in a series sponsored by Tennessee Tech University, each installment of which is devoted to the music of one American composer. Previous issues have focused upon Morton Gould, Vaclav Nelhybel, and others.

Persichetti’s Te Deum of 1963, for chorus and orchestra, is a significant first recording. Somewhat more massive in gesture than one often finds in Persichetti’s music, it is nevertheless clear in texture and basically diatonic in substance, with a ruggedly unsentimental vigor that is distinctly American, yet without any of the clichés of musical Americana. A slight impression of episodic choppiness may be due to tempos that are considerably slower than the score specifies. If I am not mistaken, this is the first choral work of Persichetti to be recorded.

Four Cummings Choruses, with piano accompaniment, were composed one year after the Te Deum, and represent Persichetti’s more genial, impish vein. These sprightly settings of dominic has a doll, maggie and milly and molly and mary, nouns to nouns, and uncles are joyful and easily likable.

Parable IX, Persichetti’s very ambitious recent work for band, makes its second appearance on records in several months. An extremely challenging piece for the performers, it demands attentive listening as well, as its structure is articulated with great concentration. Yet all is propelled by Persichetti’s ever lithe and graceful rhythmic flow, and textures are characteristically transparent, so that this concentration of activity never becomes turgid or congested, as is often the case with music that attempts to pack too much into too short a time span, in the name of economy. A particularly noteworthy feature of this work is the manner in which virtuoso treatment of the instruments, in solo and ensemble, is built into the substance of the music. The performance, under the composer’s own direction, is quite competent, although the rendition by the University of Kansas Symphonic Band (Golden Crest ATH-5055) offers more crispness, clarity, precision, and dynamic contrast—important factors in this music. Of course, Golden Crest’s is a studio performance, which gives it an advantage over Tennessee Tech’s live concert recording.

The inclusion on the recording of the inner movements of Persichetti’s Sixth Symphony is quite superfluous, since the space might better have been devoted to a different piece in its entirety. Of course, the Sixth Symphony is probably Persichetti’s most widely performed work, and understandably so; anyone interested in contemporary American music who is unfamiliar with this inexhaustibly ebullient, warm, and delightful work ought to waste no time in acquiring it on Mercury 75094.

The potential purchaser of this record should be warned that the production is not fully up to professional standards. The performances, while adequate to introduce the music, are definitely of amateur/student caliber. There is a high level of tape hiss, applause is included after each selection, and, most irritating of all, the Cummings Choruses are not presented in their proper order. But they and the Te Deum are good music, and this is the only way to acquire them, so Persichetti fans will probably want the record simply for those pieces.

MENNIN: Symphony No.7. Concerto for Piano and Orchestra

MENNIN: Symphony No.7. Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jean Martinon (in Symphony); John Ogden, piano; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Igor Buketoff (in Concerto). CRI RECORDS SD 399, $7.95.

The reissue of these two great works, in performances of electrifying intensity, demonstrates unequivocally the towering position of Peter Mennin among contemporary composers. Paul Snook’s eloquent and perspicacious remarks upon selecting Mennin’s Symphony No.6 for the Classical Hall of Fame (Fanfare 1:6) articulated vivid impressions of music that is rarely viewed apart from its composer’s public image. As an astute correspondent observed two issues later, Mennin’s “establishment” position as president of the Juilliard School, and his reputation as a businesslike administrator, have produced a detrimental image of him as a composer of well-crafted but dull, conventional music. Even our own John W. Charles described his works as “tasteful, three-piece-suit commissions.” But such a characterization could not be further from the truth.

Mennin’s is an ambitious, wholly abstract approach to music in which dynamic motivic development serves not to build structures of balance, clarity, and Apollonian beauty in the manner of the 18th-century symphonists, but to propel and embody a relentless, often furibund flood of rhythmic, contrapuntal, and textural motion with grim determination to climaxes of frenzied proportions. This is music of overwhelming seriousness, thoroughly devoid of frivolity, coloristic effects, or romantic sentiment. The result is lofty but involved, quite pessimistic metaphysical commentary, rather than the more personal expression we think of as “emotion.” (“Music reflects the soul of the composer,” he has stated, “and there is such a thing as soul.”)

Some have suggested an affinity with Hindemith, but while there are similarities in the neo-Baroque textural patterns and the emphasis on counterpoint, the inner spirit is very different. Yet several other 20th-century composers, particularly those who have been drawn to the symphony for their major utterances, have written music characterized by a tone similar to Mennin’s: Edmund Rubbra and Vagn Holmboe, among others (not to mention Vaughan Williams in his Fourth Symphony); but Mennin is the chief American exponent, and carries this unflinching stance close to the point of madness. (“In my work there has always been some element of violence.”)

To those who inquire why one might be drawn to music of such uncompromising severity, let me point out that Mennin’s symphonic gesture, which defies the conventional polarities of classicism and romanticism, represents an attitude that stretches back to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Music like this elicits a cathartic exaltation from the simultaneous brilliance and fluency of its invention and the inevitability of its brutal course. And in addition, Mennin’s slow movements reveal a Bach-like dignity, sincerity, and eloquence. Indeed, if a criticism may be leveled at Mennin’s music, it is the charge of monotony. The unswerving absorption in an inexhaustible musical avalanche, interrupted only by solemn, doleful adagios, may be viewed as a rather narrow expressive range, and, indeed, one can hardly imagine living on a steady diet of Mennin. Yet if one compares the rollicking self-assertiveness of the 23-year-old’s Third Symphony (on CRI S278E) with the almost unbearably concentrated spasms of febrile delirium of the Eighth Symphony of 1973, 27 years later, and then traces the steps in between, then one cannot help but concede the fascinating process of compression and refinement of expression that have taken place through the decades. (“A symphony is not something that can be tossed off over a weekend. It is cultivated by those who believe in it.”)

Both of the performances on this record originally appeaared on separate RCA discs in different pairings. The Seventh Symphony was released in 1968 and the Piano Conceno in 1971. Interestingly, both works were premiered under the leadership of George Szell. The Piano Conceno was written in 1957, between the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies. It is conventional in its three-movement format, but the merciless tide of rapid notes in the outer movements is unmistakably Mennin and makes tremendous demands on the soloist. John Ogden, unrivaled as a virtuoso proponent of unjustly neglected piano music, tears through the work with appropriately headlong abandon.
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Mennin composed his Seventh Symphony in 1963, and it is his first to diverge from the standard three-movement form. A one-movement “Variation-Symphony,” this work achieves a maximum of integration and continuity, underscoring the essential fluidity of Mennin’s manner of symphonic articulation. Jean Martinon, a great conductor who died before his ability was fully recognized, leads a performance of incredible power, precision, dynamic contrast, and tensile strength. RCA did little to publicize these records when they were first issued; consequently they attracted little notice. Perhaps this new incarnation will draw the wide-ranging attention it deserves, as it is one of the most impressive representations of an American composer on records today.

The full rich, transparent, and vivid sound of the original RCA releases has been successfully retained in this reissue. Surfaces are excellent.

BARBER: Symphony No. 1; Essays for Orchestra Nos. 1 and 2; Night Flight. Concerto for Violin and Orchestra; Knoxville: Summer of 1915; Music for a Scene from Shelley. Sonata for Cello and Piano. DIAMOND: Sonata for Cello and Piano.

BARBER: Symphony No. 1; Essays for Orchestra Nos. 1 and 2; Night Flight. London Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Measham. UNICORN UN1-72010, $4.98.

BARBER: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra; Knoxville: Summer of 1915; Music for a Scene from ShelleyRonald Thomas, violin; Molly McGurk, soprano; West Australian Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Measham. UNICORN UN1-72016, $4.98.

BARBER: Sonata for Cello and Piano. DIAMOND: Sonata for Cello and Piano. Harry Clark, cello; Sandra Schuldmann, piano. MUSICAL HERITAGE SOCIETY MHS 3378, produced by Daniel Nimetz, $3.95.

The eight works by Samuel Barber offered on this array of recordings amount to nearly 20 percent of his entire output, and include several of his most beautiful, representative, and significant compositions. Each piece, except perhaps for Night Flight (a revised version of the slow movement of the “withdrawn” Symphony No. 2), is a masterpiece in its own way, and is essential for any record collection. The Unicorn discs provide a great temptation, as they offer, at a reasonable price, fresh recordings of a particularly desirable selection of pieces. But all this music has already been recorded in performances that are, for the most part, better than adequate, and many of the alternative versions are still available. Thus this review must answer two questions: 1) Do these recordings provide a good introduction for those listeners who have yet to discover this music? 2) Are these recordings fine enough to warrant inclusion in a collection that already contains earlier versions?

The answers to these questions are, generally speaking: 1) Yes, but only for those listeners whose reaction to unfamiliar music is not significantly influenced by the quality of performance; 2) No.

Most of Barber’s music, especially the pieces represented on these recordings, is impulsive and rhapsodic in nature. its strongest features are its gorgeous melodic content and its convincing emotional and dramatic power. Despite frequent comments praising its “superb craftsmanship,” Barber’s sense of form and development are weak, just barely adequate to convey the essence of his distinguished thematic ideas and his effects of mood and emotion. This shortcoming is not devastating to his stature as a composer; a melodic gift as distinctive as Barber’s is a far rarer commodity than the ability to build a tight musical structure, contrary perhaps to common belief. Many of the “old masters,” e.g., Tchaikovsky, suffered from the same imbalance in compositional resources. Their kind of music can be exceedingly effective and affecting, but it must be performed in a way that capitalizes on its strengths and camouflages its weaknesses — that is, by supporting the impulsiveness, following the sense of drama, and allowing the melodies to blossom according to their own inclinations; by avoiding excessive deliberation and a needless focus on details, and by never flattening out or holding back on climaxes. This seemingly obvious solution seems to have eluded each performing ensemble presented here, as each systematically follows the wrong course with a consistency that one might consider a premeditated interpretive strategy were it not so totally and blunder’ngly insensitive and lacking in any useful insight.

The works that fare best are those that feature soloists: the Violin Concerto and Knoxville, suggesting that conductor David Measham might bear most of the responsibility for the graceless, labored quality of these readings. Not that violinist Ronald Thomas or soprano Molly McGurk offer any real competition to Isaac Stern or Leontyne Price, but each has produced a passable rendering of his contribution. Thomas’ tone is weak and very limited in expressive range, and his whole approach is limp and dull, but he does manage technically to hold things together — admittedly pretty faint praise, and not much of a recommendation in a work whose sole attraction is its wealth of irresistible and unforgettable melodies. But those uninterested in the Hindemith Concerto paired with Stem’s version (Columbia MS-6713) will note that Unicorn offers Knoxville on the other side.

Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is a quite uncharacteristic excursion (for Barber) into the realm of American-flavored nostalgia (at its most sensitive and poignant, to be sure), and ironically its great popularity has led many into the erroneous impression that the work represents Barber at his most quintessential. Moreover, this single piece has become an exceedingly influential work as well, a veritable prototype for an entire school of progeny (Corigliano, LaMontaine, and Floyd, among others) drawn to this slightly reserved, self-effacing yet exquisitely lyrical approach to poetic settings, and to instrumental music, too. What makes this ironic is that theKnoxville style is not really pure Barber, as many elements were distilled from Copland and Stravinsky for this particular work. Anyway, McGurk’s version is not too bad. Her voice is attractively light, but with a strange edge. Her intonation is fine, but she seems quite uninvolved with the meaning of the work and does not project the text at all. Of course, she is far outclassed by Leontyne Price (RCA LSC-3062), whose Knoxville is paired with the two breathtaking excerpts from Antony and Cleopatra, which are also indispensable items, exemplifying post-1965 Barber at its best.

The Symphony No. 1, Essays 1 and 2, and Music for a Scene from Shelley are among Barber’s most perfect works, totally sincere in their rich, Gothic melodrama, and fully consummated in their formal designs. In addition, they are integrated dramatic entities, rather than melodies strung together. Measham’s ability to bring these pieces to life, and to project their great intensity, is feeble beyond belief. The orchestra sloshes around aimlessly, groping blindly among murky textures. Tempos are ponderous, melodies are completely undifferentiated, and climaxes come and go unnoticed. Each of these pieces, except for the beautifully elegiac Essay No. 1, is available in another, far superior recording. The powerful and majestic Essay No. 2 is best performed on the great all-Barber record conducted by the late Thomas Schippers (Odyssey Y-33230), who was probably Barber’s foremost interpreter. It is also available in a more constricted interpretation by the late Vladimir Golschmann on Vanguard 2083, a record that also contains the ominous and terrifying Music for a Scene from Shelley in a performance that, while not ideal, is much better than Measham’s desecration. And although Howard Hanson’s performance of the Symphony No. 1 (reissued on Mercury 75012) suffers from mediocre orchestral playing and shallow monaural acoustics, it is still one of the most sympathetic and convincing interpretations of the work ever committed to disc.

I would be remiss if I neglected to mention that the Unicorn discs are sonically excellent, and the surfaces immaculate. Somebody’s priorities are pretty strange!

Barber’s Cello Sonata was composed in 1932, making it the earliest work discussed here. It is a lovely piece, alternately gentle and passionate, and quite extended in scope, wearing its tender romanticism proudly. But cellist Clark is as in the dark interpretively as Measham, and similarly so. His tempos are so slow that the work’s fragile beauty becomes sluggish and simplistic. The opening Allegro is played at a slow Andante, so that the following Adagio is ridiculous. A rendition like this can only do the music a disservice. One wonders how such a performance could have possibly been accepted by a serious record company, especially when the cello playing is as technically weak as this, in addition.

Perhaps the duo became so involved with the considerable textural and technical challenges of the Diamond Sonata that they simply neglected the Barber. For while still somewhat tentative and precarious, the due seems to have the Diamond work under much better control. Dating from 1938, this is one of the composer’s most impressive efforts — an extremely earnest, contrapuntally involved, and densely packed work, saved from stolidity by a lively and engaging rhythmic vitality. Without the instantly ingratiating charm of the Barber, it appears a bit drab by comparison, but it is a substantial and quite accessible work, if somewhat more rarefied in its attractions.

A serious shortcoming of this release is the quality of the surfaces, which are pocked and gouged beyond the realm of acceptability. Perhaps my copy was not representative of the entire pressing, but I suggest caution. Aside from this, the sound quality is quite good.