PISTON Symphonies: No. 5; No. 7; No. 8.

PISTON Symphonies: No. 5; No. 7; No. 8. • Robert Whitney, Jorge Mester, conductor; Louisville Orchestra. • ALBANY AR011 [AAD]; 65:50. Produced by Howard Scott and Andrew Kazdin.

For those who missed them during their days as Louisville LPs, this CD provides the opportunity to become acquainted with three of the later symphonies of Walter Piston. Piston, who belonged to the generation that also included Virgil Thomson, Roy Harris, Howard Hanson, and Aaron Copland, was the foremost symphonist of the group—at least according to the highest standards of the genre as articulated convincingly by such specialists as the brilliant musicologist-composer Robert Simpson and his followers. Indeed, in “The Symphony in America,” included in The Symphony from Elgar to the Present Day (Penguin Books, 1967), a most valuable compendium of essays edited by Simpson, Peter Jona Korn writes, “Piston is without question America’s most mature composer. … He is a composer of moderation, in the most positive sense of the word— moderation that is the result of discipline and control, not of limitation. . . . There is . . . nothing extraordinary about him—except, perhaps, the strong possibility that his symphonies may well turn out to be the most durable written in America today.”

While I am not ready to embrace this assertion to the letter, this CD has given me the opportunity to refresh my thinking about a composer whose works have often left me rather lukewarm. Piston’s earlier symphonies, such as Nos. 2 and 3, which launched the composer’s stylistic profile to the listening public, are characterized by an exuberant optimism propelled by vigorous syncopated rhythms, set off by slow movements displaying a tender lyrical warmth. A hearty extroversion pervades, epitomizing both the strengths and weaknesses of the American symphonic “sound“ of the 1940s: solid, well crafted, engaging, but essentially glib, facile music of limited psychological or spiritual depth. 

However, with the Symphonies Nos. 5 (1954) and 6 (1955), Piston began to probe more deeply. The ingratiating lyrical flow and congenial bounce at times gave way to more serious moments of introspection. Of the two symphonies, I prefer No. 6, a work commissioned, premiered, and recorded (brilliantly) by the Boston Symphony under Charles Munch. The Fifth Symphony, a fine work nevertheless, seems somewhat less fully consummated. Perhaps this impression is weighted by the fact that the Louisville Orchestra during the mid-1960s (their weakest period, when this recording was originally made) was a far cry from the BSO. Yet their performance, while lacking panache and flair, does represent the work adequately. 

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Symphony No. 7 of 1960 represents a significant step forward from the two-dimensional provinciality of the earlier works to a universal utterance of the highest stature. Here is displayed not only the consummate mastery of compositional technique for which Piston was renowned, but revealed also are noble vistas of sober grandeur, articulated through the graceful and spontaneous yet logically controlled unfolding of abstract musical ideas. This is the work of a symphonist of the highest order, the kind of music that justifies the assertions of Peter Jona Korn quoted earlier. However, lacking overt drama or sentimentality, a work like this can easily appear impersonal and emotionally detached to the general listener. It is inevitable, perhaps, that such music must remain limited to a relatively small audience, although there is nothing in it that is the least experimental, “avant-garde,“ or antagonistic to the listener. In fact, the third movement, though treated with considerable sophistication, recalls the characteristically American exuberance of the finales of the composer’s earlier symphonies. Those patient enough to become familiar with this work are likely to agree that it is one of the great American symphonies of the mid-twentieth century. 

The Symphony No. 8 was composed five years after its predecessor and shares with it many stylistic features. As strong as it is, it does not, I find, match the earlier work’s elevation of content or concentration of design, falling at times into a drab monotony. There is, however, much to admire in it for those who are willing to devote the necessary concentration. 

By the mid-1970s, when this recording was originally made, the Louisville Orchestra had become a more polished group. Hence, the performances of Piston’s last two symphonies, under the direction of Jorge Mester, show a greater confidence and expressive flexibility than the Whitney-led reading. 
Albany Records, under the leadership of the delightfully feisty and indefatigably ambitious Peter Kermani, is to be recommended and encouraged for reviving some of the landmark recordings from the Louisville series, which was responsible for the first and only recordings of many of the finest American orchestral works. Future reissues are eagerly awaited. 

TWENTIETH-CENTURY HARPSICHORD MUSIC, VOLS. I, II, and III. Music by Persichetti, Adler, Albright, Martinu, Templeton, Sowash, Thomson, Rosner, Borroff, Locklair, Harbach, Near, V. Fine, Thompson, Pinkham, S. Jones. Barbara Harbach, harpsichord

TWENTIETH-CENTURY HARPSICHORD MUSIC, Volume IPERSICHETTI: Harpsichord Sonata No. 7. ADLER: Harpsichord Sonata. ALBRIGHT: Four Fancies. MARTINU: Sonate. Deux Pieces. Deux Impromptus. TEMPLETON: Bach Goes to Town. SOWASH: The Unicorn. Theme with Six Variations. THOMSON: Four Portraits. Barbara Harbach, harpsichord. KING­DOM KCLCD-2005; 71:20. Produced by John Proffitt.

TWENTIETH-CENTURY HARPSICHORD MUSIC, Volume II. ROSNER: Musique de clavecin. BORROFF: Metaphors. LOCKLAIR: The Breakers Pound. HARBACH: Spain­dango. G. NEAR: Triptych. V. FINE: Toccatas and Arlas. THOMPSON: Four Inventions. Barbara Harbach,harpsichord. GAS-PARO GSCD-266;70:40. Produced by John Proffitt.

TWENTIETH-CENTURY HARPSICHORD MUSIC, Volume IIIPINKHAM: Partita. S. JONES: Two Movements. LOCKLAIR: Fantasy Brings the Day. ROSNER: Sonatine d’amour. ADLER: Bridges to Span Adversity. Barbara Harbach,harpsichord. GAS-PARO GSCD-280;68:38. Produced by Roy Christensen.

If listening to these three CDs, containing three and a half hours of twentieth-century harpsichord music, doesn’t prove the instrument’s viability as a modern musical medium, nothing will. Barbara Harbach, a faculty member at the State University of New York at Buffalo, tours and records extensively as both harpsichordist and organist. Her enthusiastic, wide-ranging involvement in expanding and promoting the modern harpsichord repertoire can be gleaned simply by perusing the above list of works, many of which were composed with her in mind. Except for the few criticisms noted during the course of the following review, Harbach plays with precision and a refreshing verve, while exhibiting a healthy, exuberant musicality. Sixteen composers are represented—all of them American but Martinu. The pieces she has chosen embrace a wide and varied stylistic range, from those that trade, either seriously or parodistically, on the harpsichord’s association with the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to more mainstream neoclassical efforts, from some surprisingly effective examples of romantic lyricism, to a few offerings that are wildly sui generis. In an attempt to accommodate the reader, I will comment on the contents disc by disc, in the order that the pieces are listed above.

Volume I originally appeared (minus the Thomson and Sowash pieces) on LP (Gasparo GS-251) a few years ago, and was reviewed in Fanfare 9:5 (p. 305). The most substantial works on this disc are those by Persichetti, Adler, and Albright. During the. last years of his life, Vincent Persichetti concentrated intensively on the harpsichord, which he described as “a whole universe in itself.” The seventh of his nine sonatas for the instrument was composed in 1983. Its three brief movements are terse, concise, and thoroughly abstract in structure, featuring graceful, thin, linear textures idiomatic to the instrument. While the first two movements arc quite austere in tone, the finale explodes with an exuberant rhythmic vitality.

Samuel Adler is a prolific German-born composer now in his sixties who currently heads the composition department at the Eastman School of Music. Adler’s neoclassical sonata of 1982 is more rhythmically and texturally aggressive than Persichetti’s, with the kinds of forceful, dissonant sonorities one does not expect from the harpsichord. These create a jarring, but invigorating, effect. The slow movement, however, provides some tender moments. This is a brilliant, substantial work that becomes more engrossing with each hearing.

A rather bizarre piece that seems to be developing a following among harpsichordists is a wacky stylistic hodgepodge called Four Fancies, composed in 1979 by Michigan-based William Albright. Most striking are the first movement, a maddeningly abrasive takeoff on a Baroque French Overture, and the finale, a “Danza Ostinata” that the program notes link to near-Eastern music, boogie-woogie, Soler, and Terry Riley. The inner movements are more subdued, but mysterious and imaginative. The piece is often irritating, but intriguingly stylish nonetheless.

The three works by Bohuslav Martinu are rather disappointing. Deux Pieces date from 1935, while the sonata and Deux Impromptus appeared during the composer’s last years, 1958 and 1959 respectively. At best they display some modest, neo-Baroque charm, but, for the most part, are flimsy, routine, and uninteresting.

“Bach Goes to Town: Prelude and Fugue in Swing” is a movement from Alec Templeton’s 1938 Topsy-Turvy Suite, originally composed for piano. By now, the notion of jazzing up the Baroque idiom is not new, and this example sounds banal and dated, though it certainly loses nothing on the harpsichord. However, Harbach plays the piece so squarely and stiffly that what little charm it has is stilled.

Rick Sowash is a forty-year-old composer who studied at the University of Indiana. What I know of his music has been sweetly and simply tuneful, with an identifiably American flavor. Both pieces presented here follow that description. The Unicorn, composed in 1976, suggests a senti­mental pastorale—pretty, but extended beyond its durability through mere changes of registration. Theme with Six Variations was written a decade later and is too simplistic to take seriously.

Virgil Thomson’s Four Portraits were originally written for piano. Like most pieces by this vastly over-rated composer, some moments are pretty, others are banal, but all are vacuous.

If a listener wished to sample only one of these CDs, I would recommend Volume II, as the one with the most interesting program. Worthy of special attention is Arnold Rosner’s Musique de Clavecin, one of the most eerily fascinating compositions for harpsichord I have ever heard. As many Fanfare readers already know, Rosner has fashioned quite an original means of expression, using a language rooted in the distant past—in particular, in the idioms of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Not that this is so remarkable in itself—after all, the same can be said for Respighi’s suites of Ancient Dances and Airs, Gordon Jacob’s William Byrd Suite, Warlock’s Capriol Suite, and any number of other examples by Poulenc, Vaughan Williams, et al. But what makes Rosner’s music special is that, in most of his works, its stylistic atavism does not exist merely to provide quaint antiquarian charm, but rather, serves as a basic medium to convey a wide range of emotional states—some quite intense and powerful. This is more clearly illustrated by the 1974 Musique de Clavecin than by any other music of Rosner to appear on disc thus far. The work is in five substantial movements: The first is a grim, stately sarabande; the second, a sardonic, grotesque dance; the third is a macabre nocturne, somewhat reminiscent conceptually of Scriabin’s Vers la Flamme  in its reiteration of a simple but haunting chord progression that grows gradually from a soft and mysterious opening to a climax of nightmarish intensity and back; the fourth movement is a lovely Elizabethan dance of benign character; the work concludes with a somber passacaglia. Lasting twenty-two minutes, Musique de Clavecin contains virtually nothing a contemporary au­dience would describe as “dissonant,” but is full in texture and weighty in content—a challenge for the performer that Harbach meets admirably.

Also worthy of attention is a work from 1987 called Metaphors, by Edith Borroff, a New York-based composer in her mid-sixties, currently on the faculty of SUNY/ Binghamton. Described as a set of variations on a tone row, Metaphors is an expertly shaped, richly expressive piece—abstract in conception, but not at all forbidding.

Dan Locklair is a composer from North Carolina, now in his early forties. The Breakers Pound, composed in 1985, was inspired by a poem of Stephen Sandy called Freeway. This is an entertaining, parodistic sort of piece, with wild stylistic incongruities—from Baroque to boogie-­woogie—somewhat along the lines of Albright’s Four Fancies, but lighter in weight and more approachable.

Barbara Harbach’s own Spaindango is a rather ferocious little tour-de-force, with a faintly Spanish flavor. Despite its brevity, it makes a distinctly indelible impression.

Gerald Near (b. 1942) is a noted church musician based in Minnesota. His Triptych is simple and direct, with a melodic warmth reminiscent of Hanson and Creston.

Veteran composer Vivian Fine’s 1986 Toccatas and Arias is described as “a meditation on Baroque forms.” Though imaginatively constructed, it is rather dry in effect.

Randall Thompson’s Four Inventions originated as classroom exercises in counterpoint. Al­though much of Thompson’s music engenders warm affection, these Anna Magdalena-like trifles are too slight to warrant attention—or inclusion in a serious recital program.

Volume III adds a couple of new names to Harbach’s program, while delving further into the works of some composers previously sampled. Massachusetts-based Daniel Pinkham, now in his late sixties, has long been associated with the harpsichord—both as performer and composer. (His 1955 Concerto for Celeste and Harpsichord is a long-time favorite of mine.) The Partita offered here is an ambitious work in six substantial movements, composed in 1964. Perhaps the fact that the music was originally written as part of a television documentary accounts for its apparent lack of stylistic balance. Much of it is difficult to characterize—serious in tone, light in texture, cool, dry, and rather impersonal in effect. Though several of the movements strike me as excessively academic, others are delightful, especially an ebullient Scherzo and Trio, and a strangely Debussy-like (imagine!) Envoi.

Samuel Jones, now in his mid-fifties, is a professor of composition at Rice University in Texas. His Two Movements from 1988 are abstract, serious, solidly crafted, and conservative, as one might expect of an Eastman graduate from the Hanson years. In common with the Adler sonata and the Borroff Metaphors discussed earlier, Jones’s piece does not make a strong personal impression, yet promises further rewards on subsequent hearings.

Dan Locklair reappears on this disc with another oddly entertaining piece, this one called Fantasy Brings the Day (1989). Like much of the music presented here, it exhibits virtually no Baroque reference, yet exploits the harpsichord’s characteristics most effectively.

Arnold Rosner’s 1987 Sonatine d’Amour is rather less interesting than his Musique de Clave­cin. It is in two movements—the first, an incantatory recitative punctuated by broken chords; the second, a gentle, graceful dance. Part of the problem may lie with the performance: The melismatic melodies of the first movement are played rather metronomically, while the second movement is paced a bit slowly. In any case, the result seems monotonous and overextended.

Samuel Adler composed his Bridges. to Span Adversity in 1989, in memory of Jan deGaetani. Its two movements, though skillful, are awfully dry.

On the whole, this beautifully recorded set of CDs represents an impressive accomplishment, ensuring for Barbara Harbach an important place among today’s generation of harpsichordists—and a preeminent one among those who specialize in music of the twentieth century.

ROSNER: Concerto Grosso No. 1, op. 60. The Chronicle of Nine, op. 81: Prelude to Act II. Five Meditations, op. 36. A Gentle Musicke, op. 44. Magnificat, op. 72.

ROSNER: Concerto Grosso No. 1, op. 60. The Chronicle of Nine, op. 81: Prelude to Act II. Five Meditations, op. 36. Gentle Musicke, op. 44. Magnificat, op. 72. David Amos conducting the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra; with the Choir of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul and the Clarion Brass of San Diego. LAUREL LR-849CD; 66:20. Produced by Herschel Burke Gilbert.

This is an important release, sure to appeal to the not insignificant number of listeners who have already discovered Rosner’s music through the Opus One recordings of his French horn sonata and cello sonata, released during the past few years (see Fanfare 8:1, p. 299 and 9:5, p. 226). Like many others of today’s composers for whom there seems to be an active and receptive audience, Arnold Rosner writes music that is extremely straightforward, accessible, and rooted in traditional sounds and formal structures. Echoes and reminiscences of other composers abound, from Josquin and Gesualdo to Vaughan Williams, Shostakovich, and Hovhaness. Yet the cumulative impact of his music—with regard both to external style and inner meaning—is unmistakably unique and unquestionably original. This conclusion could be drawn from the two sonatas mentioned earlier, but becomes even more apparent with this generous offering of works for larger forces.

Rosner has been a stubborn individualist from the beginning. Carving out his “sound” before receiving any formal training, he endured the rigidly coercive dogmas of 1960s musical academia without compromise—paying more than his share of dues, perhaps, but eventually earning the first Ph.D in music granted by the State University of New York.

In a way, Rosner is a “neo-” composer: The Magnificat is clearly a neo-Renaissance work, A Gentle Musicke and Five Meditations might be termed neo-Elizabethan, Concerto Grosso No. 1 is neo-Baroque, and the opera prelude is what is usually called neo-Romantic. Yet there is a stylistic and psychological unity among these works that relates them as separate facets of an integral aesthetic approach, as opposed to merely superficial exercises in saprophytic opportunism. On a purely musical level, the unifying thread is their attempt to derive maximum expressive power from pure or almost pure consonance, treated in a modal or chromatic—rather than conventionally tonal—fashion. In other words, the traditional feature most inimical to Rosner’s style is diatonic tonality—the mainstay of the Classical period and the fundamental principle of Austro-Germanic music theory. Thus, while the predominance of consonant harmony gives Rosner’s music a famil­iar, accessible sound, its avoidance of conventional tonal patterns and relationships distinguishes it from the rhetoric of most western music of the past three centuries.

Of the pieces presented here, the most stunning is the six-minute Prelude to Act II of the opera, The Chronicle of Nine, completed in 1984 and based on the story of Lady Jane Grey, the teenage girl who—caught in a political web woven by others—became Queen of England for nine days before being dethroned and executed. The story is ideal for Rosner, providing the opportunity for an intense emotional experience within the historical context of sixteenth-century England—a natural setting for Rosner’s musical language, with its many deliberately archaic usages. This unusual stylistic interpretation is apparent in the Prelude—also included in The Tragedy of Queen Jane, the four-movement orchestral suite drawn from the opera—a solemn dirge of tremendous power, eloquence, and majesty, prompting great interest in The Chronicle of Nine as a whole.

The Concerto Grosso No. 1 was composed in 1974 (another followed several years later). Scored for chamber orchestra, this is a strikingly energetic work that calls to mind such Northern European neoclassicists as Vagn Holmboe and Harald Saeverud. Opening with a stark French Overture, the body of the first movement is a bracing, contrapuntal allegro. The second movement is a rather plaintive hymn, while the third movement, based on an infectious rhythmic pattern in 5/8, concludes the work with exuberant vigor.

While the Concerto Grosso is clearly a work of this century, despite its nod to the spirit of the Baroque, Rosner’s 1979 setting of the Magnificat could probably fool many a casual listener into identifying it as an actual work of the Renaissance, so tentatively does it deviate from archaic norms, although its frequent juxtapositions of major and minor thirds are more blatant and overt than Purcell would ever have allowed. However, listeners familiar with Rosner’s other neo-Renaissance works will hear plenty of his own idiosyncratic harmonic and rhythmic traits. Those who require that twentieth-century music exhibit at least a post-nineteenth-century level of aggres­sion and dissonance may find this (and other Rosner pieces) too tame for their tastes; others will appreciate its reverent spirituality on its own terms, while perhaps finding its unabashed anachro­nism startling and refreshing.

Also in the category of unabashed anachronisms—though charming nonetheless—are the Five Meditations for English horn, harp, and strings, originally composed in 1967 but revised in 1980, and A Gentle Musicke for flute and strings, dating from 1969. These are the sort of pieces that delight programmers of commercial classical FM stations: novel and unfamiliar, yet totally accessible—and with short movements, along the lines of Warlock’s Capriol Suite. Lively pseudo-Elizabethan dances alternate with slow, serene neo-Renaissance canzonas somewhat reminiscent of Hovhaness (whose entry in the New Grove was written by Rosner). I prefer the greater conciseness and exuberance of A Gentle Musicke, but both are delightful.

David Amos, who is developing quite a reputation as a champion of unjustly neglected twentieth-century music, provides some of his most persuasive performances on this disc. The Concerto Grosso is given a reading of great incisiveness, bristling with energy, while the opera prelude projects the necessary weight and grandeur. The Jerusalem Symphony generally plays well, making a convincing case for the music, as does the chorus in the Magnificat. Sound quality is extremely good; in fact, the only real objection I have is to the design of the front cover, which is extremely cluttered with data of marginal importance, better relegated to the back cover (where it appears again anyway).

PANUFNIK Symphony No. 1, “Sinfonia Rustica.” Autumn Music. Nocturne. Tragic Overture. Heroic Overture. Symphony No. 3, “Sinfonia Sacra.” Arbor Cosmica. Concerto for Violin and Strings. Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra. Hommage à Chopin.

PANUFNIK: Symphony No. 1, “Sinfonia Rustica.” Autumn Music. Nocturne. Tragic Overture. Heroic Overture. Andrzej Panufnik cond; Monte Carlo Opera Orchestra. Jascha Horenstein cond; London SO. UNICORN-KANCHANA UKCD 2016; 71:11. Produced by Harold Lawrence.

PANUFNIK: Symphony No. 3, “Sinfonia Sacra.” Arbor Cosmica. Andrzej Panufnik cond; Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam, New York Chamber SO; NONE­SUCH 9 79228-2; 58:27.

PANUFNIK: Concerto for Violin and Strings. Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra. Hommage àChopin. Mark Stephenson, cond; London Musici; Krzysztof Smietana, violin; Robert Thompson, bassoon; Karon Jones, flute. CONIFER CDCF 182; 50:00. Produced by John Kelso, Mark Brown.

For approximately thirty-live years, since his immigration to England at age forty, Andrzej Panufnik has been slowly but steadily building an international reputation as one of the most original, individual, and compelling composers of his generation—one whose music reveals very few stylistic antecedents, partakes hardly at all of traditional expressive rhetoric, yet makes an emotional impact on the general listener quickly and directly. When I first discovered Panufnik’s music—through the Symphony No. 2, “Sinfonia Elegiaca”—more than twenty-five years ago, his name was virtually unknown in the United States; however, I was instantly struck by both the individuality and the expressive immediacy of his work. By now his music has been performed by many of the world’s most eminent soloists, orchestras, and conductors; most of his major compo­sitions have been made available in excellent performances on handsomely produced recordings. Accompanying (and contributing to) his growing reputation have been eloquent annotations on his works by articulate, erudite admirers, as well as elegant commentaries by the composer himself. These three CDs contain ten substantial compositions dating from 1942 to 1985; two are among his greatest works. The performances are consistently superb, offering a fine representation of the various facets of this unusual and often perplexing composer.

In his program notes, Panufnik has always stressed the importance of both a compelling spiritual impetus and the “self-imposed discipline” provided by a strict structural schema based on limited means—usually a few specified pitch intervals. At its best, Panufnik’s music fulfills both self-determined requirements, creating a fresh and original aesthetic approach that has given rise to remarkably constructed works imbued with profound emotional content. However, in other works, rigid application of such compositional constraints strangles the expressive dimension, with results that sound compulsive and mechanical, suggesting a sort of proto-minimalism. Many works suffer from this constriction to one extent or another; some arc sabotaged by it altogether.

Panufnik’s music exhibits a characteristic “sound,” which crystalized during the 1950s and 60s. Its distinctive elements are: diatonic melodic lines, sometimes inflected by slides and quarter-tones, drawn literally from or suggested by Polish folk music; imaginative instrumental usages that produce strikingly unusual and often ethereal timbral effects central to the essence of the music; and an idiosyncratic harmonic language based on simple polytonality and an almost obsessively ubiq­uitous juxtaposition of both major and minor triads—widely spaced—and major and minor sev­enths. This variable or ambiguous treatment of the third and seventh scale steps, though ostensibly Polish in origin, happens to coincide with the “blues” scale and gives much of Panufnik’s music (as it does to that of Carl Nielsen) an American accent that is quite incongruous with the composer’s actual identity, both aesthetic and ethnic. Toward the late 1960s, Panufnik began to broaden his language, as more stringent applications of his structural concepts gave rise to more dissonant, less tonally rooted harmonic combinations. While these innovations expanded a harmonic vocabulary that was in danger of overuse to the point of mannerism, the musical results have often sounded contrived and sterile.


Tragic Overture, the earliest of the works offered here, was originally written in 1942, although it was destroyed in the Warsaw uprising against the Nazis and had to be reconstructed later on. It is a very strange piece, displaying in somewhat primitive form the “proto-minimalism” noted earlier. The work’s continuous multi-layered texture is permeated by a four-note intervallic/rhythmic motif that appears sequentially in both diminution and augmentation. Exhibiting some rather evoc­ative examples of wartime onomatopoeia, the piece creates an effect that is either ominous and eerie or monotonous and mechanical, depending on the disposition of the listener, rather than “tragic.”

A more elaborate piece is the Nocturne, composed in 1947. A sort of surrealistic dreamscape, the work begins in ethereal wisps, building gradually to a gigantic, dissonant cataclysm, then receding and concluding as it began. Major-minor conflicts pervade, perhaps excessively so. The orchestration is brilliant, with some striking use of piano and horn.

“Sinfonia Rustica” is the first of Panufnik’s extant symphonies (which now number ten), each of which is appended with an evocative subtitle. “Sinfonia Rustica” was composed in 1948 and revised several years later. Its impact is relatively mundane, in comparison to the composer’s norm, its ambitions generally modest, its concerns primarily folkloric. This straightforward simplicity will give to listeners largely familiar with Panufnik’s later symphonies a revealing insight into aspects of his compositional technique. The formal structure of the symphony is thoroughly conventional, providing little more than a scaffolding on which to drape the Polish folk melodies that are its chief focus. However, despite its less personal objectives, it is recognizable as a work of Panufnik virtually from the outset—not only through its idiosyncratic harmonic language, but also through certain banal, mechanical oversymmetries that seem almost amateurishly simplistic. The slow movement, on the other hand, is haunting and beautiful, while the orchestration is characteristically luminescent and vivid throughout.

Hommage a Chopin was originally written for soprano and piano in 1949, and was rescored for flute and strings some years later. In much the same vein as the “Sinfonia Rustica,” the work resembles Chopin about as much as the music of Steve Reich does. However, it is based on Polish folk melodies from the region where Chopin was born—hence, the title. It is a lovely piece in five short movements and a welcome addition to the easy-on-the-ears flute-and-strings repertoire also graced by compositions like Foote’s Night Piece, Hanson’s Serenade, Bloch’s Suite Module, Creston’s Partita, and Rosner’s A Gentle Musicke.

Heroic Overture, a work prompted by patriotic political concerns, was completed in 1952 and draws upon a pandiatonicism and polytonality derived from Stravinsky, with melodic material coincidentally reminiscent of Copland. This is another baffling work—baffling largely because its incongruous, American-Cowboy banality is difficult to understand, coming from a composer whose intentions are as lofty as Panufnik’s usually are. The composer’s voice is heard most clearly in a series of ascending canonic sequences that seem compulsively over-extended,

The remaining works were composed after Panufnik’s escape front Poland to England in 1954. Autumn Music is, along with “Sinfonia Elegiaca” and “Sinfonia Sacra,” one of the composer’s indisputable masterpieces—a meditation on the metaphorical implications of autumn, inspired by a friend’s terminal illness. It was composed for chamber orchestra during the late 1950s and early 60s. In it spiritual content, formal structure, and sonority unite in a work of exquisite beauty and originality. One can point to such unforgettable passages as the doleful pendulum-like tolling of the piano’s lowest B as the double bass bows in unison, as accompaniment to the elegy that forms the centerpiece of the work, or to the enormous variety of meticulously devised percussion timbres that are heard throughout, but such enumerations cannot convey the extraordinary impact of the piece itself. Autumn Music simply must be heard.

The same can be said for the Symphony No. 3, “Sinfonia Sacra,” which appeared in 1963. Like much of Panufnik’s music, this work was inspired by intense patriotic feelings, and is con­structed around an ancient Polish hymn that carries both military and religious connotations. Thus, some portions of the symphony are martial in character, while others are spiritual. The work comprises two movements, of which the first is in three sections, or “Visions,” The second movement is called “Hymn” and builds gradually from an ethereal solo in violin harmonics to an ecstatically cathartic peroration that unites all the elements of the work. Admirers of, say, Gorecki’s Third Symphony are urged to make the acquaintance of “Sinfonia Sacra.”

Panufnik’s “Sinfonia Sacra” was first recorded in 1967 by the Monte Carlo Opera Orchestra on EMI ASD-2298, together with the same performance of “Sinfonia Rustica” reviewed here. That recording was re-issued about ten years ago on Unicorn UN1-75026. Panufnik himself, an experi­enced conductor and persuasive exponent of his own music, led the performances. While the reading of the more modest “Sinfonia Rustica” is fine, the Monte Carlo Opera Orchestra was somewhat overtaxed by the demands for subtle control and endurance made by “Sinfonia Sacra.” Thus the appearance of this magnificent work in a brilliant new recording, featuring the Concert­gebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam under the composer’s direction, is an event of some significance (see Want List).

Panufnik composed his Concerto for Violin and Strings in 1971 at the request of Yehudi Menuhin, who introduced the work and later recorded it (EMI EMD-5525). In truth, that perform­ance was pretty unpleasant, and is duly overshadowed by this smooth, refined, and accurate new rendition featuring the Polish violinist Krzysztof Smietana. The concerto is unusual in both style and form—primarily lyrical in character, with the violin almost constantly in the forefront. The second movement is quite beautiful, though the composer’s arbitrary intervallic fetishes make the outer movements sound a little silly at times.

Arbor Cosmica is one of Panufnik’s most highly praised recent works. Composed in 1983 for twelve string instruments, it consists of twelve sections, or “Evocations,” and lasts more than a half hour. The entire work is derived from a single three-note chord, according to an elaborate construct developed analogically to the structure of a tree. Arbor Cosmica is a major work, in many ways a summation of Panufnik’s evolution since the late 1960s. Its harmonic language is much broader and more varied than that found in the works of the 1950s and early 60s, yet traces of vintage Panufnik appear frequently. Each “Evocation” exhibits a particular pattern of gestures, or motion-states, that remains static in character throughout, despite pitch lines that ascend and descend. Thus, the effect is of a succession of these static motion-states, without any sense of dramatic progression from one to the next. The work maintains interest primarily through its richly varied and imaginative string writing. The performance, featuring the New York Chamber Symphony under the composer’s direction, is superb.

The most recent work offered here is the 1985 Bassoon Concerto, dedicated to Father Jerzy Popieluszko, who was tortured to death in 1984 by the Polish secret police. Its five movements are structured rather like an operatic scene, with a Prologue, two Recitatives, an extraordinarily beau­tiful Aria half the length of the entire work, and a concluding Epilogue. It is quite an unusual concerto, played expertly here by Robert Thompson, an American bassoonist who was instrumental in commissioning the piece and has performed it many times throughout the world.

I hope that I have not confused the reader by discussing these works in chronological order, rather than disc by disc. Admirers of Panufnik will find all three indispensable, as each is a meticulous production—beautifully recorded and eloquently annotated. The Horenstein perform­ances on the Unicorn-Kanchana disc date from 1971 and are exceedingly fine. The Conifer disc was sponsored by Technics Hi-Fi, who deserve considerable praise for their substantial efforts.

VINCENT PERSICHETTI: Symphony No. 5 (for Strings); Piano Concerto . (Liner Notes)

New World Records 80370
VINCENT PERSICHETTI
Symphony No. 5 (for Strings)
Piano Concerto

Philadelphia Orchestra
Conducted by Riccardo Muti, Charles Dutoit
ROBERT TAUB, piano

During the last four decades of his life, the name of Vincent Persichetti came to signify musicianship of a comprehensiveness virtually unmatched among American composers. Today his influence continues, reaching young pianists nurtured on his Sonatinas and Little Piano Book, school musicians who first experience serious contemporary music through his works for band, church choirs who turn to his Hymns and Responses for the Church Year as an inexhaustible resource, young composers who find his classic textbook Twentieth Century Harmony an indispensable tool, and soloists and conductors for whom his sonatas, concertos, and symphonies stand among the masterworks of American music. Throughout his life Persichetti encouraged healthy, creative participation in music at all levels of sophistication, while shunning dogmas that advocate one compositional approach at the expense of others.

Persichetti was born in Philadelphia in 1915, and remained a lifelong resident of that city. At the age of five, he learned to play the piano, organ, and double bass at the Combs Conservatory. He also studied theory and composition under Russell King Miller, who became his most influential teacher. Immersing himself in music while in his teens, Persichetti memorized the scores to be performed weekly by the Philadelphia Orchestra and then attended the concerts to compare his mental realizations with the actual sounds. Composition was an integral part of his study from the start, as was exposure to other arts. Persichetti attended art school during his adolescence, and sculpture continued to be an important creative outlet for him until his death in 1987.

Upon graduating from the Combs Conservatory with a Bachelor of Music degree in 1936, Persichetti became head of its theory and composition department. From 1932 to 1948 he served as organist and choirmaster at Philadelphia’s Arch Street Presbyterian Church. In 1941 he earned a Master of Music degree from the Philadelphia Conservatory, which then appointed him to head its theory and composition department. His doctorate followed four years later and then, in 1947, William Schuman invited him to join the Juilliard faculty as well. Persichetti was appointed chairman of the Juilliard composition department in 1963, and of the Literature and Materials department in 1970, and commuted regularly between Philadelphia and New York.

During his active teaching career Persichetti continued to compose prodigiously, producing more than 160 works. Through his compositions—and through his writings and lectures—Persichetti eloquently advocated the creation of a fluent working vocabulary, or “common practice,” capable of a rich spectrum of expression, based on the wealth of materials and techniques that appeared during the twentieth century. His own music extends over a broad stylistic range—rooted in the languages of Stravinsky, Hindemith, Bartók, and Copland—from extreme diatonic simplicity to complex, contrapuntal atonality. However, Persichetti’s stylistic evolution does not follow a conventional chronological sequence, from simplicity to complexity. Rather, the composer identified two temperamental elements present in his work from the beginning: a “gracious,” amiable spirit and a “gritty,” abrasive one. These two elements underlie his entire output, to one degree or another, in various manifestations.

Persichetti’s stylistic breadth has prevented some casual listeners from recognizing a personal profile or unifying character in his music, leading them to construe it as a mere display of virtuoso craftsmanship. With greater familiarity, however, a distinctive personality emerges, characterized by an almost childlike sense of mischief and a pervasive geniality of spirit in full control of whatever dynamic conflicts may be at work within the music. His works reveal a propensity for pandiatonic, quartal, and polytonal harmony, lucid contrapuntal textures, and lively, syncopated rhythms in duple meter. Although he often worked with large structures, Persichetti was inclined toward sparse gestures and epigrammatic forms—indeed, many of his large works are elaborate integrations of diminutive elements.

Both the Symphony No. 5 (Symphony for Strings), Op. 61, and the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 90, are major works from the most fertile, representative period of Persichetti’s compositional career. Each emphasizes the “gritty” aspect of the composer’s creative personality, displaying considerable structural complexity, an attenuated sense of tonality, and an astringent harmonic vocabulary.

The Symphony for Strings, the fifth of Persichetti’s nine symphonies, was composed in 1953 on commission from the Louisville Orchestra, which introduced it the following year under the direction of Robert Whitney. Similar in structure to others of the composer’s most significant works from the 1950s, e.g., the Concerto for Piano, Four Hands, Op. 56, the Quintet for Piano and Strings, Op. 66, and the Piano Sonata No. 10, Op. 67, the symphony is in one continuous, highly concentrated multi-sectional movement based entirely on the elaborate theme introduced at the outset by the violas. This fifteen-measure theme, which contains all twelve chromatic notes within the first five bars, sets a severe tone and then builds to a level of emotional duress uncharacteristic of the composer. As the work unfolds, the enormous potential of this theme is explored through a series of linked episodes contrasting in tempo and character, but all intricately related to the opening theme. Despite its abstract design and harsh harmonic language, the symphony reveals moments of tenderness and warmth, and seems to exude a sense of exultation in the joy of pure creativity.

The Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 90, was completed in 1962 and first performed two years later in Hanover, New Hampshire, by pianist Anthony di Bonaventura with an orchestra from Dartmouth College conducted by Mario di Bonaventura. Persichetti himself was a virtuoso pianist, and his twelve sonatas, six sonatinas, two concertos, a concertino, and numerous other works reveal a thorough mastery of twentieth-century keyboard technique. The concerto’s musical language is similar to that found in the fifth symphony, though the two works are entirely different in structure, gesture, and attitude. In contrast to the intense concentration of the symphony, the concerto is an expansive, three-movement work that wholeheartedly embraces the traditional romantic virtuoso genre, with the soloist asserting a heroic stance in opposition to the orchestra, dazzling with pyrotechnics and cajoling with warm lyricism. However, the hearty bravura manner disguises a formal structure no less logical and unified than the outwardly more economical symphony.

The work is almost entirely derived from the intervallic implications of the stentorian five-note motto proclaimed at the opening by the horns. The sprawling first movement develops the thematic material in a loose, dramatic, fantasy-like manner that allows for leisurely excursions through a variety of moods. The second movement provides a wistful lyrical interlude. The vigorous final movement is probably the most immediately accessible movement of the concerto, and a fine example of Persichetti’s distinctive use of duple meter. A tour-de-force of rhythmic agility, the movement accumulates tremendous energy, recalling material from the preceding movements before coming to a brilliant conclusion. 
—Walter Simmons

Walter Simmons writes regularly for Fanfare magazine, is a contributor to The New Grove Dictionaries of Music and is a recipient of the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for music criticism.

SELECTED DISCOGRAPHY

BagatellesO Cool is the ValleyParable IX; Serenade No. 1; So Pure the Star; Turn Not Thy Face. University of Kansas Symphonic Band, Robert Foster conducting. Golden Crest ATH-5055. 
Harmonium; Piano Quintet. Darleen Kliewer, soprano; New Art String Quartet; Lois McLeod, Vincent Persichetti, pianists. Arizona State University JMP-102679. 
Love; MassWinter Cantata. Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, Tamara Brooks conducting. New World 80316. 
Serenade No. 7; Piano Sonatas Nos. 10 and 11. Ellen Burmeister, pianist. Owl 29.

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

Patterson, Donald L. and Janet L. Vincent Persichetti: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, Conn. Greenwood Press, 1988. 
Shackelford, Rudy. “Conversation with Vincent Persichetti.” Perspectives of New Music, 1981-2, pp. 104-34. 
Simmons, Walter. “Vincent Persichetti.” In The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, H. Wiley Hitchcock and Stanley Sadie, eds. London and New York: Macmillan, 1986.

BLOCH: Piano Works, Volume 1: Poems of the Sea; Five Sketches in Sepia; Nirvana; In the Night; Enfantines; Four Circus Pieces. Volume 2: Sonata; Visions and Prophecies; Ex-voto; Danse Sacree

BLOCH: Piano Works, Volume 1. Poems of the Sea; Five Sketches in Sepia; Nirvana; In the Night; Enfantines; Four Circus Pieces.  Istvan Kassai, piano. MARCO POLO 8.223288 [DDD]; 56:26. Produced by Monika Feszler and Antal Dora.

BLOCH: Piano Works, Volume 2. Sonata; Visions and Prophecies; Ex-voto; Danse Sacrée. Istvan Kassai, piano. MARCO POLO 8.223289 [DDD]; 40:39. Produced by Monika Feszler and Antal Dora

One does not ordinarily associate Ernest Bloch with music for piano solo; indeed, not even the best known of these pieces can be said to have entered the regular repertoire. Thus admirers of Bloch’s music have reason to cheer the appearance of these two CDs that purport to offer the composer’s complete piano solo output, including a number of pieces new to recordings.

The vast majority of Bloch’s compositional output appeared during two incredibly fertile periods: the early 1920s, shortly after his immigration to the United States, when he served as director of the Cleveland Institute of Music, and the 1950s — his final decade — which he spent living on the coast of Oregon. Most of Bloch’s solo piano music dates from the Cleveland years — specifically, from the two-year period, 1922-23. The exceptions are the brief Ex-voto, composed in 1914, before the composer came to this country, and two larger works–the Sonata and Visions and Prophecies — composed during the 1930s, when he had returned to live in Europe for several years. All this piano music (except for the Sonata) comprises either brief, individual character pieces or collections of same, many of them in the style of mysterious, exotic nocturnes — a genre to which Bloch contributed generously, with similar pieces for violin and piano and for string quartet as well. None of these pieces has ever attained prominence, but the recent appearance of so much of Bloch’s lesser-known music on recordings has brought to light many beautifully evocative miniatures that could easily enhance a variety of programming contexts.

The relatively early Ex-voto had been published in a Swiss fashion magazine(!) and was discovered among the composer’s papers after his death. Three minutes long and simple to play, it conjures a haunting, solemn beauty.

In the Night is one of the pieces from 1922. Subtitled “a love poem,” it is a mysterious, deeply-felt miniature that, like much of Bloch’s piano music, shows the influence of Debussy as filtered through his own unique sensibility. Somewhat better known are the Poems of the Sea, composed the same year. These three short, impressionistic tone poems with folk-like melodic touches are attractively evocative, if somewhat conventional in their manner of effect. Also dating from 1922 are the Four Circus Pieces, written in the space of a few days and never intended for publication. I suppose that some listeners will be amused by them and will enjoy discovering an unfamiliar side of the composer’s personality in their impish grotesquerie. But I find these burlesques, which instantly call both Golliwog and Petrouchka to mind, somewhat second-hand, inauthentic, and unimportant.

A good deal more piano music appeared the following year. There are the Enfantines, a series of ten pieces for children. This is one of the loveliest, most inspired collections of easy piano pieces I know, with a sweet, delicate warmth that may surprise listeners used to Bloch’s more familiar persona as “impassioned prophet of doom.” Here again the influence of Debussy is evident. My only reservation is that while the Enfantines are delightful pieces to play (or to hear one’s children play), they are not the kind of music that “the serious record collector” is likely to return to for repeated listening.  I guess what bothers me — and it is my only real quibble regarding these new discs — is that if the Enfantinesand the Four Circus Pieces had been omitted, the remainder of the music could have fit on one CD, to the advantage of the prospective consumer. 

Also from 1923 is Danse Sacrée, one of the only surviving fragments from Bloch’s projected (but uncompleted) opera, Jezabel. The dance is a slow, exotic piece of quasi-Oriental impressionism, a bit more symmetrical and predictable than the composer’s best efforts in this vein. For example, Nirvana, written the same year, is a miniature masterpiece — profoundly introspective, other-worldly, and pure Bloch. Concluding this period of the composer’s piano music are the Five Sketches in Sepia, a group of short preludes whose sparse, fragmentary figurations and attenuated tonality suggest late Scriabin. 

Bloch’s major large-scale solo piano composition is his 1935 Sonata, a stern metaphysical statement in three connected movements that total nearly 25 minutes. Similar in conception to the earlier Violin Sonata No. 1 and Piano Quintet No. 1, the Piano Sonata communicates through a rich, expressionistic language of expanded tonality and cyclical techniques, created by fusing both French and (to a lesser extent) German elements current during the early 1900s with the violent passion, exoticism, and idealism of Bloch’s own creative temperament. A minor technical glitch: There is only one cue for the Sonata although one for each movement is listed on the package, throwing off the whole list of cues.

The following year saw the completion of Voice in the Wilderness, a suite in six movements for cello and orchestra. Each movement opens with a richly-colored orchestral statement, followed by a reflective commentary by the cello. Shortly after finishing this work, Bloch adapted much of the orchestral material into a five-movement piano suite called Visions and Prophecies. Though somewhat pale and two-dimensional without orchestral dress, the result is tighter and more concise than the version with cello, while the piano sonority lends clarity to the composer’s mature, highly inflected harmonic language. This group of darkly atmospheric mood portraits is probably Bloch’s most successful group of miniatures.

Istvan Kassai is a Hungarian pianist in his early 30s who has won his share of awards and prizes, although I have not encountered his name before. He presents Bloch’s piano music with persuasiveness and conviction, exhibiting particular sensitivity to matters of tonal coloration, which (as implied) highlights the music’s stylistic lineage from Debussy — even in the case of the aggressive Sonata. An older recording of the Sonata featuring another Hungarian pianist, Istvan Nadas (on a Period LP from the 1950s) displayed somewhat more impetuosity and abandon. But Kassai’s fine rendition does not suffer by comparison. Indeed, these richly recorded performances justify further consideration of music that has been all but overlooked for more than half a century.

BARBER: Prayers of Kierkegaard. Die Natali. CRESTON: Corinthians: XIII. TOCH: Symphony No. 5, (“Jephta”).

BARBER: Prayers of Kierkegaard. Die Natali. CRESTON: Corinthians: XIII. TOCH:Symphony No. 5, (“Jephta”). Jorge Mester. and Robert Whitney conducting the Louisville Orchestra; with Gloria Capone, soprano; the Chorus of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. ALBANY TROY021-2 [AAD]; 69:47.

This latest CD reissue of items from the Louisville backlist is of great merit: Not only does it return to the catalog first and only recordings of four works, but two of them are among the finest creations of their respective composers.

Prayers of Kierkegaard is Samuel Barber’s 1954 setting of excerpts from the intense writings of the Danish religious philosopher. This is a work of unsurpassed beauty in the composer’s canon, with passages of warm lyricism, hushed, awe-filled reverence, and some moments of drama and excitement. There is a lovely soprano solo, the choral writing is gorgeous, and the sequence of sections is masterfully shaped for maximum effect. No one who enjoys the music of Barber should remain unaware of this work — one of the three or four most consistently inspired and superbly realized compositions from the pen of someone with many artistic successes to his credit. Filmmusic buffs may notice remarkable similarities betweenPrayers of Kierkegaard and portions of Miklos Rozsa’s score for Quo Vadis, written three or four years earlier, but this takes nothing from the Barber, which is, obviously, a much more subtle, finely wrought composition.

Die Natali, a set of “Chorale Preludes for Christmas,” was written in 1960. Not only is it a work of considerable compositional virtuosity, combining eight familiar Christmas carols with great ingenuity, but it is quite an orchestral tour de force as well, featuring some challenging instrumental writing. Yet, except for one passage near the end based on original thematic material, the work is surprisingly dry and impersonal, especially in view of the composer’s norm with regard to emotional openness. Nevertheless, Die Natali is an entertaining showpiece and if it is a little cool in tone, at least it avoids the mawkish sentimentality that usually emerges in this sort of effort.

Paul Creston, one of America’s most prominent composers forty years ago, lived to see most of his music plummet into obscurity with the advent of the serialist hegemony during the late 1950s. Although Creston’s major symphonic scores, championed by the likes of Toscanini, Monteux, Rodzinski, ct al., define one of the most individualistic and personally distinctive styles of his generation, he was known during his final decades (he died in 1985) primarily for pieces for unusual instruments, such as marimba, saxophone, and trombone, as well as for a few pops-concert curtain-raisers. True, the composer himself was partly responsible for such misplaced emphasis, reinforcing this type-casting through the commissions he accepted, while directing much of his energy toward the dissemination of some rather dogmatic ideas regarding rhythmic notation. However, Creston continued to produce first-rate music into the 1960s, and the orchestral poem Corinthians: XIII is one. of the finest examples.

Written in 1962, Corinthians: XIII is an expression of the composer’s emotional reaction to the famous chapter from the New Testament. The work is sectional in form, following one of Creston’s favorite structural devices: A literary, artistic, or philosophical concept is divided into several component sub-concepts; each is then given musical expression, unified by a single theme that is transformed into various guises that reflect the different aspects of the extra-musical concept. In the case of Corinthians: XIII, the concept is love, and the work’s three sections deal with love between mother and child, between man and woman, and between man and mankind. As is true of Creston’s best works, Corinthians: XIII displays a remarkable gift for realizing these extra-musical concepts with music that sounds thoroughly natural and spontaneous, yet is brilliantly logical and coherent in its development of the unifying thematic idea.

Though its style is rooted in the richly expanded triadic harmony and sumptuous textures of Debussy and Ravel, with nothing to offend the most conservative listener, the work is unmistakably Creston from the first two chords. The music is deeply felt and sincere: The first section touchingly evokes a tender maternal ardor; the second section becomes more lively, with some characteristic rhythmic felicities, building up to an appropriately heated climax, which leads directly into the final section, a solemn, reverent hymn in which the work’s unifying theme is transformed into the Gregorian melody “Salve Regina,” cloaked in diaphanous, richly harmonized orchestral dress.

Of evident craftsmanship and musicality but of less overt appeal is Ernst Toch’s Symphony No. 5, a “rhapsodic poem” inspired by the Biblical story of Jephta and composed in 1963 — one of the composer’s last major works. Toch was born in Vienna in 1887 but lived in California from 1936 until his death in 1964, and his large and varied output reflects a broad cultural base. “Jephta” reveals a strongly Viennese flavor in its fluent, Berg-like expressionism, flexible enough to include moments of simple diatonicism. But, though colorfully orchestrated and sensitively shaped, with a predominantly romantic/dramatic character, the work exhibits a degree of harmonic astringency and structural complexity that makes it somewhat less accessible than the other works on this altogether worthwhile disc.

All these performances are thoroughly adequate to convey the quality of the music, while leaving plenty of room for improvement with regard to both execution and interpretation. The sound quality of the CD transfers is vastly superior to the original LP releases.