Picks of the Year: 1995

Each year at this time, as the compact disc continues to replace concert performance as the musical medium of consequence, it is mind-boggling to review the annual bounty of unknown treasures that have entered the discographic repertoire. Four of my five choices this year celebrate such esoteric discoveries.  Of them, Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah may not be considered truly obscure, being one of the most widely performed American operas. However, it is only now available on commercial recording, making it accessible to a much broader audience, in a gorgeous performance (reviewed in 18:3) that should be pretty irresistible to the mainstream opera lover. Nicolas Flagello and Vittorio Giannini rank with Samuel Barber as the foremost American avatars of the 20th-century consummation of traditional European late-Romanticism, and their gradual emergence into the musical marketplace is one of the most exciting developments of recent years. It was difficult to choose between the new Albany disc and the Flagello/Schwantner release on Koch International (both reviewed in 18:5), featuring works inspired by the words of Martin  appeal to a small group of enthusiasts. However, more and more listeners seem to be discovering the inexhaustible delights offered by his highly individual, meticulously crafted works The disc noted here (reviewed in 18:4) features new recordings of three of his most important compositions. The highly accessible yet thoroughly individual music of Arnold Rosner has developed something of a cult following during the past ten years. His latest CD (reviewed in this issue) demonstrates exactly why, with four of his best, most representative works. My one selection that does not feature little-known music is Robert Shaw’s glorious recording of the respective Stabat Maters of Poulenc and Szymanowski (reviewed in 18:4). These two deeply-moving works each of which represents its composer at his best, make a fascinating and most apropos pairing. 

FLOYD: Susannah. Nagano/Studer/Ramey/Hadley/Opera de Lyon. (VIRGIN 7243 5 45039 2; two discs)  
FLAGELLO: Serenata. Andante Languido. GIANNINI: Concerto Grosso. Prelude and Fugue. GOULD: Harvest. Amos/New Russia Orchestra ALBANY TROY-143)  
MARTIN: Symphonie. Symphonie Concertante. Passacaglia Bamert/London Philharmonic. (CHANDOS CHAN-9312)  
POULENC: Stabat Mater. SZYMANOWSKI: Stabat Mater. Shaw/Atlanta Symphony Chorus/Orchestra. (TELARC CD-80362)  
ROSNER: Of Numbers and of Bells. Horn Sonata. Cello Sonata No. 1. Nightstone. Various duos. (ALBANY TROY-163)

COWELL: Concerto Grosso. Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 10. Air and Scherzo. Fiddler’s Jig. PERSICHETTI: The Hollow Men. MACDOWELL-LUCK: To a Wild Rose.

COWELL: Concerto Grosso. Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 10Air and Scherzo. Fiddler’s Jig. PERSICHETTI: The Hollow Men. MACDOWELL-LUCK: To a Wild Rose. Richard Auldon Clark conducting the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra; Humbert Lucarelli, oboe. Gary Louie, alto saxophone; Ashley Horne, violin; Chris Gekker, trumpet. KOCH INTERNATIONAL 3-7282-2Hl [DDD]; 56:36. Produced by Michael Fine.

This is something of a sequel to the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra’s previous Henry Cowell disc, reviewed about a year and a half ago (Fanfare 17:2, pp. 211-12). At that time, I offered an overview of Cowell’s active and varied career and a general assessment of his enormous compositional output, so I will restrict my comments here to the specific works involved. 

The most notable item here is the rarely heard and never-before-recorded Concerto Grosso in five movements, scored for solo flute, oboe, clarinet, cello, and harp, with string orchestra. Composed in late 1963, it is one of Cowell’s last major works. However, its 26-minute duration should not be taken as indication of aesthetic weight, as the Concerto Grosso is an utterly benign diversion. Though the hymn with which it opens suggests Hovhaness at his most fervent, this is its most intense moment; the work quickly relaxes into a familiar pattern in which Anglo-American folk-like elements alternate with intimations of the Far East, with a cakewalk thrown in, all of which periodically collide with certain compositional idiosyncrasies, in this case involving 7th-chords in various guises. As often in Cowell’s music, the result is pleasantly innocuous, yet strangely synthetic and flit in both affect and effect. 

The disc also features the tenth in Cowell’s series of 18 Hymns and Fuguing Tunes, the composer’s neo-Colonial American variant of the prelude and fugue. Dating from 1955, this is probably the best known of the group, thinks to Neville Marriner’s widely circulated Argo recording from the 1970s, with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. While No. 10 is more harmonically and contrapuntally involved than most of the others, its expressive character is rather gray and neutral.

Air and Scherzo for alto saxophone and chamber orchestra is another late work and a nice one it is. The Air his a vaguely Bach-like, improvisatory quality, while the Scherzo becomes, is it often does in Cowell’s hinds, a jig. 

Speaking of which, the Fiddler’s Jig is in irresistible two-minute confection. It is, in a way, Cowell’s answer to Percy Grainger. 

Presenting the composer at his most amiable, none of these pieces suggests any aim other than to entertain; nary a cloud darkens the sky. The performances are all very good as well. Oboist Lucarelli and saxophonist Louie are excellent. My only criticism is that the woodwinds in the central portion of the Concerto Grosso’s opening movement could be more smoothly coordinated. 

I do wish, however, that the disc had been filled out with more Cowell — Tales of Our Countryside, perhaps. Conceptually, the Persichetti and MacDowell pieces don’t seem to belong, and hang like irrelevant footnotes. The Hollow Men is far more severe than anything else on the disc. The eight-minute commentary for trumpet and strings on a poem by T. S. Eliot was composed in 1944, before Persichetti’s relatively late arrival at his own compositional voice. Most of his pre-1950 works seem to explore the languages of other composers, however artfully. This piece has always struck me as a rather dry and colorless afterthought on Copland’s Quiet City, and its remarkable frequency on recording puzzles me. The performance here featuring trumpeter Chris Gekker is a fine one — the best I’ve ever heard. Arthur Luck’s orchestration of MacDowell’s Grieg-like chestnut is certainly pretty enough. 

L BOULANGER. Clairieres dons le ciel. Les Sirenes. Renouves. Hymne au soleil. Pour les funerailles d’un soldat. Soir sur la plaine.

L BOULANGER. Clairières dans le ciel. Les Sirènes. Renouvea. Hymne au soleil. Pour les funérailles d’un soldat. Soir sur la plaine. Martyn Hill, tenor’; James Wood conducting the New London Chamber Choir Amanda Pitt, soprano; Jeanette Ager, mezzo-soprano; Peter Johnson, baritone; Andrew Ball, piano. HYPERION CDA66726 [DDD]; 67:10. Produced by Gary Cole. (Distributed by Harmonia Mundi USA.) 

For many years Lili Boulanger was represented on recording solely through an LP of religious choral works conducted by Igor Markevitch, produced under the supervision of sister Nadia, and released in this country in 1960 on the Everest label. Many acquainted with that recording were stunned by the psychological maturity, depth of feeling, and technical sophistication of the music. In his program notes for this handsome new Hyperion release, the amazingly versatile, incredibly productive, and always knowledgeable and insightful Christopher Palmer describes his reaction to the Everest LP: “I was transported by what I heard. . . . That music . . . effectively changed my life. . . . Nothing provides a rational explanation for how Lili, at the age of twenty-four, died the great composer which in my estimation she was. The entire Boulanger phenomenon, in fact, is unique in the history of music.” 

While concurring wholeheartedly with Palmer’s sentiments, I must add that the music on that recording (which, unfortunately, I do not believe has been reissued on CD) is just about the best of Lili (I refer to her in this way not to be overly familiar or patronizing, but simply for clarity and convenience). Only the ambitious thirteen-song cycle Clairières dans le ciel, featured on this Hyperion release in what seems to be its first complete appearance on CD, displays a comparable depth and individuality. Actually, although Lili’s composing career was brief (1911-I8), it may be divided into two phases. The first culminates in 1914 with Clairières, while the second comprises the final three years of her life. The works of the earlier period are impressive for their fluency and authenticity of feeling, but essentially reflect the subject matter and stylistic features current in French music at the time. This is true for much of Clairières as well, except for the final song, which points to the direction taken in her later works. The five examples that appear on the Everest LP, I might add. all derive from her final three years. The new Hyperion disc, on the other hand. concentrates on the earlier period. 

For Clairières dans le ciel, Lili selected thirteen of the twenty-four poems Francis Jammes entitled Tristesses. Together, they reflect the stages of enchantment, passion, insecurity, hope, disappointment, and abandonment that form the timeless emotional progression of romantic yearning — an inexhaustible theme for artists. To what extent and in what way these emotions were experienced by the sheltered, chronically ailing twenty-one-year-old, is a matter of speculation. But not only is there evidence that Lili identified herself with the number 13, but also that she somehow related herself to the elusive — or perhaps doomed — nymph of the cycle, who disappears from the poet’s life for unknown reasons. Based on the harmonic language of Debussy, the music reflects the Symbolist poetry through an elaborately and masterfully woven texture of voice and piano. Motifs are developed throughout the cycle, culminating in the final song, “Demain fera un an,” which occupies fully one-fourth of the duration of the entire cycle and consolidates the sequence of emotions that have appeared thus far into a harrowing expression of emptiness and loss. This is truly one of the great French song cycles of the first quarter of this century. Although seemingly sung more often by sopranos, Clairières is intended for tenor, and the best previous recording of the cycle, released in 1968 to mark the fifteenth-anniversary of Lili’s death, featured Eric Tappy, with Jean Françaix as pianist (EMI CVS-2077). Martyn Hill, who has distinguished himself impressively on previous Hyperion releases. does a comparably fine job here, with exquisitely sensitive and fluent accompaniment by Andrew Ball. The composer herself orchestrated a number of the songs from this cycle: I sure would love to hear how they sound! 

Of the five remaining pieces, some are more interesting than others. Several appear on a Bayer CD (BR 100 041) reviewed by David Johnson in Fanfare 13:2 (p. 277). 1 never fail to admire Johnson’s erudition, but his taste-based judgments almost always differ diametrically from mine, and here is no exception (although he does agree with Christopher Palmer, me, and just about everyone else that Lili’s setting of the Psalm 130–not adequately represented on recording at this time — is her towering masterpiece). Of these earlier pieces, Hymne au Soleil (1912) is a strong statement, both stark and ecstatic, somewhat archaic in flavor, pointing, with what Palmer describes as a “sturdy masculinity,” to the power of her later works. The dark majesty of Hymne au soled is expanded and deepened both musically and emotionally in Pour les Funèrailles d’un soldat, composed at about the same time and somewhat similar in style and tone. A rather mediocre performance of the orchestral version of this work, again conducted by Markevitch, was issued in France during the late 1970s and in this country a couple of years later. A new one would be most welcome. The version heard here is scored for baritone solo, chorus, and piano (played by three hands). 

Les SirènesRenouveau (both 1911 — among her earliest completed works), and Soir sur la plaine (1913) are notably less interesting — suffused with nature images, presented with a gentle warmth, sweetness, and light far more conventional both in expressive content and in musical realization than we are accustomed to from Lili. Their presentation suffers further from the rather unfortunate vocal uncertainty of soprano Amanda Pitt. 

As Lili Boulanger’s discography continues to grow, what is needed most urgently is a good modern recording of the Psalm 130 setting, “Du Fond de l’Abime.” A most novel and intriguing idea would be to group together three different adaptations of this psalm: Lili’s 1917 setting for soprano, chorus. organ, and orchestra, the Czech Vitezslav Novak’s orchestral tone poem (which also includes organ) from 1941, and the American Vittorio Giannini’s 1963 rhapsody for cello (or double bass) and orchestra. Yes,  each is dark and gloomy, but each also represents its respective composer at his/her best, and the stylistic affinities — clearly coincidental — and distinctions create a fascinating and rewarding program.. 


PERMIT ME VOYAGE: SONGS BY AMERICAN COMPOSERS. Mary Ann Hart mezzo soprano; Dennis Helmrich, piano. ALBANY TROY-118 [DDD]; 71:49. Produced by Judith Sherman. ARGENTO: From the Diary of Virginia Woolf. CARTER: Voyage. COWELL: Three Songs. FLANAGAN: Two Songs. HUNDLEY: Four Songs GORDON: Two Songs. SCHOCKER: Mama Called

MOSTLY AMERICANA. Jennifer Poffenberger, soprano; Lori Piitz piano. ENHARMONIC ENCD93-012 [DDD?]; 66:06. Produced by David DeBoor Canfield. (Available from: Ars Antiqua, 6060 McNeely Street, Ellettsville. Indiana 47429) HUNDLEY: Eight Songs. LEHMAN: Pilgrim Songs. ROREM: Five Songs.BAKER: Song Cycle. MENOTTI: The Medium (Monica’s Aria) TURINA: Poema en forma de canciones

Here are two enjoyable and informative American vocal miscellanies, well performed and recorded, that cover similar — one might even say, overlapping — repertoire, though one features a soprano, the other a mezzo. To begin with the Albany disc, mezzo-soprano Mary Ann Hart opens her program with Dominick Argento’s From the Diary of Virginia Woolf. Unlike most Pulitzer Prize-winning music, this work has become a classic in only twenty years. Argento himself is quoted in the notes as saying, “Not a week goes by that I do not receive a letter from a singer or a listener saying how moved they were by a performance of the “Virginia Woolf Diary.” This is its fourth recording, at least, although unfortunately it was never committed to disc by Janet Baker, who premiered it and for whom it was written in 1974. Not so much a “song cycle” as a group of interior monologues set tomusic, From the Diary… is a work of extraordinary freshness, sensitivity, intelligence, and originality, with a rarefied lyricism that weaves in and out of tonal focus throughspontaneous stylistic shifts that parallel the shifting levels of reference in the diary entries, from description and reminiscence to reflection and commentary. It is a work to which one returns eagerly, deriving ever-deepening pleasure and richness of meaning. The only comparable vocal music I can think of isVincent Persichetti’s Harmonium (1951), an hour-long cycle of twenty Wallace Stevens settings. (This masterpiece has been recorded only once, on a 2-LP set issued in 1979 by Arizona State University [see Fanfare 5:21).

I am familiar with two of the previous recordings of From the Diary…: I preferred Marta Schele’s on Proprius to Virginia Dupuy’s on Gasparo, but I prefer Mary Ann Hart’s to either of them. Hers is a tad smoother and more controlled than Schele’s; both have pleasant voices and offer intelligent musical readings, but the latter is afflicted by a slight hootiness. 

Mary Ann Hart has chosen to follow the Argento with a setting by Elliott Carter of a portion of Hart Crane’s Voyages. The music, dating from 1945, is serious and demanding, but not impenetrable, falling somewhere along the lines of the composer’s sonatas for piano and for cello, written at about the same time The-6-minute setting is not as immediately convincing as the Argento, but it encourages deeper acquaintance.

The three songs (selected seemingly at random from about a zillion) by Henry Cowell were composed at different times during his career, and share little in common other than mixing the odd and the conventional. They are quite uninteresting and contribute little to the program. William Flanagan wrote some nasty criticism, as well as music — mostly songs — before committing suicide in 1969, at the age of 46.  “Horror Movie” is oh-so-sophisticated and clever, while “Valentine to Sherwood Anderson” is a very sweet and pretty setting of a strangely gentle poem by Gertrude Stein. Richard Hundley is the one composer who appears on both these discs and I will comment on him later. The songs by Ricky Ian Gordon and Gary Schacker are in a much lighter — almost pop — vein. They are simple and cute and, at times, quite touching.

Mary Ann Hart is familiar to Fanfare readers through her work on Albany’s project to record the Ives songs; she also appears on the soundtrack of the Disney Beauty and the Beast and teaches on the Vassar faculty. She is consistently fine on this recording, as is her pianist, Dennis Helmrich.

Jennifer Poffenberger studied at the University of Indiana, where this recital was recorded. She has a light, pleasant soprano, which she  employs with intelligence, providing us with another rewarding recital. (However, a minor editing glitch — between the Hundley and Rorem groups — must be noted.)

Richard Hundley is a composer in his sixties who concentrated on vocal music. He studied with Virgil Thomson and William Flanagan, and his many songs have appeared regularly on recital programs for years, arid are now beginning to appear on recordings. Yet he is listed in neither The New Grove nor Baker’s. I am not sure how to explain this absence of recognition and documentation, but I suspect that it is attributable to a lack of academic affiliation combined with a concentration on what is often viewed as a peripheral genre. I wonder what Ned Rorem would have to say on the subject. It is worth a moment of reflection because the eight songs on this Enharmonic disc, the four on the Albany disc (none of which overlap), along with others I have chanced upon over the years, indicate a real talent. Listening to these songs, one is struck by their genuineness, their naturalness, and their spontaneous ease of expression, as well as their lack of pretension. Hundley has a light touch — there is nothing deep, disturbing, or problematical about these songs. But I can think of many more imposing figures who would be hard-pressed to come up with a song as appealing as “Come Ready and See Me,” for example.

Also worthy of attention are the Pilgrim Songs (1989) of Mark Louis Lehman. Like William Flanagan before him, Lehman (b. 1947) is active both as a critic — and an excellent one, at that — and as a composer. In addition to writing regularly for the American Record Guide, he is a member of the English faculty at the University of Cincinnati. Lehman wrote the poems as well as the music for this attractive cycle, whose seven songs form a series of impressions and reflections along a spiritual journey, set within an ancient world of the imagination. This framework gives the cycle a nicely shaped coherence. The poet-composer’s own program notes describe the concept unerringly, when he writes, “Both lyrics and music have a faintly archaic flavor,” and notes the music’s “modal, folksong-like style.” I can only enlarge on this by pointing to the simply-textured, generally two-voiced piano accompaniments, enlivened by melismatic arabesques, and featuring much use of perfect intervals. The cycle is balladic, rather than dramatic, with a generally even emotional tone, except for “In the Storm. It is all very pretty and appealing.

The group of five songs by Ned Rorem are among his earliest (1946-53) and most popular. They are also, I must admit, among my favorites, especially “Pippa’s Song,” which, once heard, is never forgotten

Then there are the odds and ends. The familiar waltz from The Medium is typically ingratiating. David Baker’s 1969 Song Cycle is notably less interesting than everything else on the disc and its presence can only be explained with reference to his eminence on the University of Indiana faculty. And Turing’s Poema en forma de canciones (1918) is pleasant enough for those tolerant of the limitations of Debussy-influenced Iberiana. But, like, hey — what do they have to do with a CD featuring mid-20th-century American music? The “mostly” in the title isn’t an adequate excuse.

This leads to my only real criticism — it is relatively minor, but it applies to both discs, which otherwise offer a fair share of pleasant listening. Neither program has any real conceptual coherence: the music varies so much and so disparately with regard to quality, style, weight, and tone that the result in each case is really a grab-bag, rather than a recital. Not that all the music on a recital should sound the same, but variety can be planned and balanced in such a way that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, so to speak. But, as 1 said, this is a minor matter. Otherwise, the performances are excellent, as is most of the music.

MARTIN: Erasmi Monumentum. Concerto for Seven Winds Percussion, and Strings. Etudes for String

MARTIN: Erasmi Monumentum. Concerto for Seven Winds Percussion, and Strings. Etudes for String Orchestra. Matthias Bamert conducting the London Philharmonic; Leslie Pearson, organ. CHANDOS CHAN-9283 [DDD]; 66:49. Produced by Brian Couzens.

The chief attraction of this disc is what I believe to be the first recording of Erasmi Monumentum, a 24-minute work in three movements for organ and orchestra, composed in 1969 to honor the Renaissance scholar, Erasmus. It is easy to suppose that Martin saw something of himself in the Dutch humanist, often described as a voice of reason and moderation in a period torn by fanaticism, as these qualities are clearly apparent in his musical personality. There are various references to Erasmus in the movement titles and in verbal quotations that appear within the score, but their relationship to the music is tenuous, as philosophical references always are. Nevertheless, the piece has some wonderful moments typical of the lofty austerity of Martin’s late work The first movement, “Independent Man,” is somber, grave, and passacaglia-like, culminating in a melody that is quintessentially Martinian in its icily intense chromaticism. The second movement, “The Praise of Folly,” is a vulgar, almost Ibert-like burlesque — quite a departure from the composer’s dignified norm. It is fairly busy and involved in its working out, which maintains interest and prevents it from seeming silly. The third movement, “A Plea for Peace,” is searingly dissonant at first, but proceeds toward a profound, understated serenity. The organ is generally subdued — a deep supporting presence, for the most part — and blends nicely with the orchestra on this recording. Listeners fond of Martin’s music will surely want to know about this work.

Both the Concerto for Seven WindsPercussion, and Strings,  and the Etudes for String Orchestra represent something of a balance between diverting neoclassical entertainment and a deeper, more penetrating level of expression. The same might be said for Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste, a work that repeatedly comes to mind while listening to both these pieces by Martin. The first movement of the 1949 Concerto is a perky tour-de-force for the soloists, although its musical content is less interesting to me. But the second movement has a stately, somber beauty uniquely characteristic of Martin, while the third movement might be described as transcendently nifty This work has been given a good deal of attention lately. A recording featuring Richard Kapp’s Philharmonia Virtuosi (Ess.a.y CD1014) was reviewed in Fanfare 15:1. Paul Snook described it as “meticulous and magisterial,” recommending it “totally and unreservedly to one and all”; the release was also “urgently recommended” by John Wiser in the same issue. Owning that disc myself, I would agree with my colleagues: indeed, I think this performance even surpasses the fabled Martinon/Chicago SO recording. The new London Philharmonic performance does not display a comparable level of crispness and transparency.

The Etudes, composed during the mid 1950s, are heard less often than the Concerto. Of its five movements, the first three seem a little superficial to me, but the last two are beauties John Wiser praised a DGG recording (435 383-2) of this work played by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, conducted by Thierry Fischer in Fanfare 16:4. (That disc also contains the Concerto for Seven Winds, et. al.)

Frank Martin’s music requires incisiveness and crisp precision to achieve its most effective representation. The performances on this new Chandos disc, while adequate, do not boast these qualities. Indeed, I have yet to be favorably impressed by any of Matthias Bamert’s work as a conductor. Martin was a great composer, and surveying his music is deeply rewarding. But I would direct most listeners to either the Ess.a.y or the DGG recordings noted above, reserving recommendation of this Chandos disc only to those far enough along in their exploration of Martin to require the rarely heard Erasmi Monumentum.

BARBER: Violin Concerto. Violin Concerto. KORNGOLD: About Nothing (Suite). BRUCH: Violin Concerto No. 1.

BARBER: Violin Concerto. KORNGOLD: About Nothing (Suite). Gil Shaham, violin; Andre Previn, piano and conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 439 886-2 [DDD]; 61:10. Produced by Alison Ames and Werner Mayer
BARBER: Violin Concerto. BRUCH: Violin Concerto No. 1. Anne Akiko Meyers, violin; Christopher Seaman conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. CANYON/EMERGO EC 3699-2 [DDD]; 45:39 Produced by James Mallinson and Tamio Watanabe.

Like so many of Samuel Barber’s works, the Violin Concerto has become firmly entrenched in the active repertoire, appearing frequently in concert performance and on recordings and chosen by celebrity violinists as a proven crowd-pleaser. Its chief appeal lies in its first two movements, which offer a generous outpouring of typically Barbarian lyrical beauty. But as lovely as they are, they are not terribly difficult, either technically or interpretively. The third movement is difficult technically, not interpretively, and is something of a throw-away. The main interpretive challenge is to balance the work: to make a conceptual distinction between the first and second movements, and to make the finale sound as though it has an artistic reason for being, beyond giving the soloist an opportunity to play fast. This latter is a lost cause, incidentally. Nevertheless,  a reasonably accomplished violinist can make a favorable impression with the concerto, and a fine artist can do even more. Now that the work has become familiar enough to violinists that each one is no longer learning it “from scratch,” there is quite an abundance of excellent performances on recordings.Stern/Bernstein/NYPO has always been a favorite, but I don’t believe it is currently available;  Oliveira/Slatkin/St. Louis SO is excellent, as is Salerno-Sonnenberg/M. Shostakovich/LSO. Now we have two more — one good, and the other even better.

I will begin with the Campion/Emergo disc, briefly and apologetically. Anne Akiko Meyers is a fine violinist, and these are solid performances, although the orchestra is rather over-balanced on the recording. But sad as it may be, this disc will most likely get lost in the shuffle — as it deserves to, unless it is budget-priced — because of some real marketing and programming blunders. The point is this: Who or what is the presumed market for a 45-minute CD featuring a low-visibility soloist playing two standard concertos? Surely these questions must occur to someone involved with the production. The only explanation I can offer is that someone whose ego has interfered with his reality-testing thinks that Meyers’ playing is so great that people will seek out this parsimoniously filled disc in favor of those featuring much more celebrated artists. But it isn’t. However — and this is the part that saddens me  if she had included, along with the Barber, two — not one — of never-recorded concertos mentioned at the end of this review, there would be a whole constituency of listeners clamoring for it. So, the result is a lost opportunity for a perfectly respectable violinist and one more superfluous CD.

The Korngold Concerto is a sensible pairing for the Barber, as it is not overly familiar and will appeal to many of the same listeners. Actually, the two concertos provide an interesting comparison. They were composed within five years of each other, and both are works in which the melodic element is predominant. Yet their musical effect is quite different: The Barber is a more psychologically intimate work, ringing truer as a genuine personal expression. The Korngold gives the impression — as does most of his music — of having as its chief aim simply to ingratiate, with all the manipulativeness and cloying insincerity the word implies. By contrast, Barber’s temperament emerges as far more refined and aristocratic. I know that one can point to Barber’s having curried favor with the upper crust, and to the environment in which Korngold was nurtured as a true musical aristocracy, in which the utmost refinement was cultivated. That’s what makes this interesting. But I am making a musical comparison, not a biographical or moral one. For some reason or other, Korngold capitalized on his prodigious facility — he composed with an effortlessness that Barber could only have envied — as a means of counterfeiting real artistic expression, and, as a result, except for a couple of the operas, his works do not have the stature of which he would seem to have been capable. Nevertheless, I should add that, taken purely as confection, Korngold’s Concerto can be fun to hear once a decade or so.

The suite of incidental music from Much Ado About Nothing was written in 1920, about the time of Die Tode Stadt — my favorite Korngold work. Presented here in a version for violin and piano, the suite is pretty inconsequential stuff, although those who love Korngold will find the movement called “Scene in the Garden” to be just what they’re looking for.

Gil Shaham is a young Israeli violinist, still in his early twenties, and the latest beneficiary of the industry’s mega-hype, so that he already enjoys wide name-recognition. But I must admit that his playing here is extraordinary. He draws as much drama as possible from the essentially lyrical Barber — especially from the first movement, so that the poignant reflectiveness of second creates a bit of contrast. Though not recorded as extensively as the Barber, the Korngold Concerto has also had its share of distinguished advocates. Jascha Heifetz gave the premiere in 1947, and recorded it several years later.  His rendition is, literally, incomparable. The next recording of significance was Itzhak Perlman’s glib, slick, and typically sterile 1981 reading with the Pittsburgh Symphony, conducted by Andre Previn, who leads the work here. Shaham shares Perlman’s cosmetic qualities, but offers more. His tone is rich, warm, and smooth as velvet, his intonation is razor-sharp, and technical challenges are tossed off with ease. But there is also an underlying intensity of conviction that Perlman so often lacks. Both these concertos are ideally suited to Shaham’s gifts — how he would handle the Schoenberg Concerto I do not know. The sound quality of this recording, featuring Deutsche Grammophon’s highly touted “4D” process, offers a vividness that is quite stupendous. That additional factor makes this disc the clear preference for both concertos.

P.S. Yesterday afternoon while driving in the car, I happened to tune in the local commercial classical station, when the self-important host on duty introduced the Barber Violin Concerto with the words, “This is one of the two great American violin concertos, the other, of course, being the Bernstein Serenade.” While I admire both these works, what never fails to infuriate me about these pseudo-cognoscenti who serve as the gate-keepers of the classical music business is their presumption that all the contenders have had their day and that the jury has delivered its verdict to those in the know. (Of course, this guy is so “in the know” that a few minutes later he pronounced Dominick Argento’s name with an aspirated g, as if he were Spanish.) Anyway, has the hypothetical jury weighed in the balance Vittorio Giannini’s Violin Concerto, from the same period as the Barber and Korngold? Or the Second Violin Concerto of Paul Creston, championed by Michael Rabin? Or the beautiful Violin Concerto of Nicolas Flagello, as brimful of soulful lyricism as the Barber, but never played even once’?! And, what about William Schuman’s Violin Concerto (the only one of these works that has been recorded)? — it may not be a melodious work, but it is a brilliant and powerful statement. As Fanfare readers know so well, the scope of the repertoire is far beyond the ken of most of the professional musical establishment.

FLOYD: Susannah

FLOYD: Susannah. Kent Nagano conducting; Cheryl Studer, soprano (Susannah Polk); Samuel Ramey, bassbaritone (Olin Blitch); Jerry Hadley, tenor (Sam Polk); Choeur et Orchestre de l’Opera de Lyon. VIRGIN 7243 5 45039 2 [DDD]; two discs: 41:24, 53:13. Produced by Martin Sauer.

This much-heralded new release prompts reflection on an odd and perplexing phenomenon of American musical life: the repertoire of recorded opera does not accurately represent what is performed by opera companies around the country. There are any number of American operas performed regularly around the country that do not appear on major recordings. One of the most striking examples is Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, here in its first commercial recording (although there were several pirate recordings during the LP era), billed as America’s most widely performed opera, with more than 700 performances during its forty years of existence (although I am quite sure that Menotti’s Amahl tops that figure by quite a margin). Now this important new set provides the opportunity for a somewhat different audience to discover the work, and for its many admirers to enjoy it with the benefit of what might be thought of as a “dream cast.”

Susannah was Carlisle Floyd’s first full-length opera, and was written in 1954, when he was twenty-eight. Although he has composed many fine operas since then, on equally intriguing subjects, none has ever achieved the success of his first (isn’t that just like opera?). Susannah is based on the Biblical story in which a young woman is unjustly accused of adultery by two of the town’s respected elders. Floyd, a product of the rural South himself, transplanted the story to then-modern-day Tennessee, where it could be naturally populated with such familiar American archetypes as vicious and gossipy sexually repressed hypocrites, led by a Bible-thumping preacher, the innocent, free-spirited victim, her unstable, overprotective brother, and a village simpleton. The paradigm is made more complicated by the fact that the preacher, Olin Blitch, is not the conventional personification of evil, but rather a man torn by the irreconcilable conflict between an antiseptically oppressive notion of pure righteousness and the longing for human contact in all its manifestations.

Floyd notes that the then-prevalent scourge of McCarthyist idiocy and villainy was an underlying theme when he conceived the opera. This is true of some other American operas as well — most obviously, Robert Ward’s The Crucible. But it is worth noting that the much-maligned but-in truth — richly rewarding repertoire of American opera is permeated by many of the themes, character types, and settings found in Susannah.Copland’s The Tender Land, Douglas Moore’s Ballad of Baby Doe, Hanson’s Merry Mount, and Giannini’s The Scarlet Letter are just a few more examples to prompt reflection and exploration.

Floyd wrote his libretto in heavy rural dialect, and I must say that the casual ellipses and elisions of such speech, enunciated with the studied precision characteristic of trained singers, can sound a little ridiculous until one becomes accustomed to it. But the plot is straightforward and tightly structured, unfolding at an ideal pace, the emotional focus is intense, and the characters are vividly and clearly drawn.

The music is tuneful and ingratiating, a smoothly integrated fusion of simple American folklike modality and intense Puccinian emotional volatility, all of which is clearly proclaimed by the gripping overture. Although some of the more vernacular moments — the square-dance music and the hymn-tune music in the first scene, for example, and the “Jaybird” song in the following scene — are a bit of a tum-off for me, the proportion of truly compelling material is very high. Susannah’s gorgeous aria, “Ain’t it a pretty night?” (act II, scene 2) is a well-known showstopper; Little Bat’s confession, followed by Sam’s “It’s about the way people is made,” build magnificently toward act I’s heartbreaking conclusion; Blitch’s incredibly intense exhortatory sermon (act 11, scene 2), followed by his visit to Susannah and seduction (act II, scene 3} — all are unforgettable moments that accumulate musical and dramatic momentum and carry the listener along in the manner of opera at its best. Also as in the most popular operas, the integration of elements is simple yet clever:the interrelationship of musical motifs, metrical schemes, and language is neat, streamlined, and clear with even a little familiarity, making the work’s enduring success easy to understand.

Composer Floyd supervised this recording and termed it “definitive,” and it certainly is fine in many ways — most, in fact. The sound quality is great, the pacing is fine, the choral singing and orchestral playing are excellent. Jerry Hadley is wonderful as Sam, as is Samuel Ramey as Blitch. I’m afraid that I do have some reservations about Cheryl Studer, though. On the positive side, her voice has a rich vibrancy that is very satisfying as it expands to fulfill her grandest moments, while her characterization of the more poignant passages is deeply touching as well. But it is consistently difficult to discern the words she is singing (a problem with several of the lesser characters as well) and, if I am not mistaken, she is noticeably flat in two crucial spots. (I checked this out with a couple of colleagues, and I must confess that the verdict was not unanimous.) I understand that Studer was not able to be present at the recording dates, and dubbed in her part at a later time. I wonder whether this fact might explain some of these minor deficiencies.

On the whole, this is a strongly recommended addition to the discography of American opera. Many enthusiastic fans of the standard operas will love Susannah, and I hope that it points the way toward further exploration of this still-much-neglected genre. 

HANSON: Lux Aeterna. Dies Natalis. The Mystic Trumpeter. Lumen in Christo. Concerto da Camera. Yuletide Pieces. Concerto for Organ, Harp, and Strings. Psalms 8, 150, 121. A Prayer of the Middle Ages. Nymphs and Satyr. Symphony No. 2 (“Romantic”)

HANSON: Lux Aeterna. Dies Natalis. The Mystic TrumpeterLumen in ChristoGerard Schwarz conducting the Seattle Symphony Chorale and Orchestra; James Earl Jones, narrator. DELOS DE-3160 [DDD]; 69:17. Produced by Amelia Haygood.

HANSON: Concerto da Camera. Yuletide Pieces. Concerto for Organ, Harp, and Strings. Psalm 8, “How Excellent Thy Name”. Psalm 150, “Praise Ye the Lord”. Psalm 121, “I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes”.  A Prayer of the Middle Ages. Nymphs and SatyrBrian Preston, piano; Meliora Quartet. David Fetler conducting the Rochester Chamber Orchestra; David Craighead, organ; Eileen Malone, harps. Roberts Weslevan College Chorales; Barbara Harbach, organ. ALBANY TROY-129 (DDD/ADD]; 69:08. Produced by John Gladney Proffitt.

HANSON: Symphony No. 2 (“Romantic”). COPLAND: Billy the Kid: Excerpts. Rodeo: Hoe-Down. GRIFFES: The White Peacock. The Pleasure-Dome of Kubla Khan. GOULD: TropicalCharles Gerhardt conducting the RCA Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Philharmonic Pops Orchestra. CHESKY CD-112 [ADD]; 62:15. Produced by Charles Gerhardt.

Howard Hanson was a composer of some endearing and lovable music, despite uneven inspiration and limited craftsmanship. His finest, most fully realized works are his symphonies (and not all seven, either) and his 1933 operatic masterpiece, Merry Mount. His many remaining works must be regarded as peripheral to these, and one’s appetite for them will depend on one’s ability and willingness to tolerate certain excesses in taste and lapses in workmanship in order to enjoy the transitory sensory delights of sonority, texture, gesture, and the rich, throbbing melodies that are his most distinctive contribution. Preceding a chronological discussion of the music, here is a consumer-oriented overview of the three discs themselves.

The new Delos release brings to light a number of substantial works that are very rarely heard, and in fine, sympathetic, committed performances, well recorded. These selections fill out the picture of Hanson’s less-well-documented post-Eastman retirement years, while including a little-known pre-Eastman work as well. However, none of these compositions is an undiscovered masterpiece, on a par with the mainstream works of Hanson’s middle years.

The Albany disc reissues performances from a CD on the now-defunct Bay Cities label (see Fanfare 13:2, pp. 228-31), which originally appeared on a Spectrum LP in 1986. That material is augmented by four short choral works, most of which have not appeared on recording before (Psalm 150 was recorded by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir), as far as I know. Hanson enthusiasts who do not have the Bay Cities disc will want this one, as it further documents the pre- and post-Eastman years, although I must warn those who do have the Bay Cities disc that the four additional choral pieces are nothing to get excited about.

The Chesky disc reissues material originally recorded in London during the 1960s and released in a number of different packagings over the years. Included is arguably the best ever recorded performance of the “Romantic” Symphony, handling the work’s intentions and excesses, strengths and weaknesses with complete and sympathetic understanding. (And a small cut – -or was it an editing error? — heard on the Quintessence LP, just before the end of the work, has been restored.) On the other hand, Schwarz/Seattle (Delos D/CD-3073; also reviewed in 13:2) offers a lusher, richer sonic ambience, compared with a certain edginess on the Chesky.

The earliest Hanson piece here is the Concerto da Camera for piano and string quartet, composed in 1917, the year after the composer’s graduation from Northwestern University, and seven years before he assumed directorship of the Eastman School of Music. The fifteen-minute, single-movement work inhabits a French-flavored hyperchromatic late Romanticism, highlighted by a certain Grieg-like melodic simplicity. A key melodic element is the “Theme of Youth” upon which Hanson built his Fantasy Variations some thirty-five years later. It is a luscious work, superbly played, that should appeal to those who enjoy the chamber music of, say, Faure and Saint-Satins, although it displays hardly a suggestion of the mature Hanson style.

The two Yuletide Pieces from 1920 are each a couple of minutes long and are easy to dismiss as trifles. But the “Impromptu in E Minor” should not be overlooked. It is a passionate, ultra-romantic character piece of intermediate difficulty in execution that really ought to be better known. as it would bring pleasure to thousands of pianists, as well as listeners. I guarantee — test your friends: No one will ever guess the composer.

The Delos disc introduces Lux Aeterna, a seventeen-minute tone poem composed in 1923 while Hanson was in Rome, where he was studying with Respighi. Although it was completed the year after the “Nordic” Symphony, it does not reveal the distinctive Hanson voice as clearly as the symphony does, nor does it share the “Nordic’s” coherence of phraseology. Featuring viola obbligato, the work is essentially a sequence of lush, fervent, and colorful episodes strung together rather ineptly, with no concession to classical formalities.

The “Romantic” Symphony and the organ concerto are really the only works featured here that represent Hanson’s essential mainstream style. I have noted frequently in the past that although the “Romantic’ Symphony is his most popular work and may be one of his most representative ones, it is also representative of his most flagrant weaknesses — lack of organic development, episodic structure, overuse of ostinatopatterns chief among them. However, this doesn’t seem to bother anyone, aside from those who don’t find much value in Hanson’s more finely tailored works either. All these same points hold for the organ concerto as well, originally composed in 1926, but revised for smaller orchestra in 1941: a formal disaster, but brimful of sumptuous textures and warm. exuberant emotions, performed beautifully on this recording. See opening paragraph.

This brings us to the later pieces — all except Psalm 8 composed after Hanson’s retirement from Eastman in 1964. Hanson was notoriously enthralled by his own music (not a universal phenomenon among composers) and frequently indulged a penchant: for self-quotation, especially in his later works. (I don’t know how many times he returned to the particular motif that introduces “the theme” (actually, the secondary theme of the first movement) from the “Romantic” Symphony.) He was also known to have been what might most charitably be called a Christian chauvinist, a trait of character reflected in his religious works — which are not terribly inspiring musically — as a tendency toward sanctimonious piety. Though some of these works have their redeeming moments, I do hope that Gerard Schwarz is not planning to record a Bicentennial commission called New Land, New Covenant, an evening-length bomb suitable for the Dan Quayle/Pat Buchanan crowd.

Now. as for the four short choral works on the Albany disc — three psalm settings and A Prayer of the Middle Ages: very bland, benign stuff, verging on the routine. despite a heartfelt moment or two. The baritone soloist in Psalm 121 is unfortunate.

The Lutheran chorale tradition is one of the chief underlying elements in Hanson’s stylistic profile. and comes to the fore in Dies Natalis, a set of variations on a chorale theme. composed in 1967. The theme itself is a typically Hansonian motif that also appears not only in Lux Aeterna but as 
opening motif of Merry Mount. One of his stronger late works, Dies Natalis exists in two versions, one forr orchestra and one for band. A fine performance of the band version, featuring the Eastman Wind Ensemble, has been available since the early days of the CD (Centaur CRC-2014). However, the orchestral version is superior, as the Delos recording demonstrates, because the melody that precedes and underlies the presentation of the chorale theme at the beginning and end of the
work — and is its most memorable element — simply requires the richness of the string sonority to make its full impact.

With Hanson’s music — the later works especially — so oriented around sonority and gesture, the quality of the performance — and of the recording as well — can make the difference between aimless and repetitive pattern-noodling and stirring epiphanies of exultation. Thus, despite an absence of true musical substance, Hanson*s 1969 setting for speaker, chorus, and orchestra of Whitman’s The Mystic Trumpeter makes a splendid impact in Schwarz’s stunning performance, which features James Earl Jones’s fiery declamation of those verses not given over to the chorus. Again there are self-quotations: from the Sixth Symphony in the passage concerning love. and from Chorale and Alleluia toward the beginning of the “culminating song.” But Whitman’s conceit of a ghostly trumpeter who guides the poet through glimpses of the various facets of life provides Hanson with an opportunity to suggest a rapidly shifting series of moods and images. which he accomplishes with great vividness and color.

Lumen in Christo was composed in 1974 for women’s voices and orchestra. Drawing its text from a number of biblical references to light and containing explicit but well-integrated quotations from both Haydn and Handel. this ambitious work is probably the strongest fruit of Hanson’s final decade. Its strikingly arresting opening is followed by a setting of “in the beginning” that sounds like a Gentile’s answer to the first movement of the Chichester Psalms. The second half proceeds with a slow progression of simple musical ideas that could easily sound vacuous. but in Schwarz’s radiant performance evokes a lovely, ethereal serenity.

Returning to the Albany disc. the thirteen-minute ballet suite Nymphs and Satyr is Hanson’s last completed work and. as such. bears some significance, although it is quite flimsy in substance. The lengthy opening section features the warmly undulating waves of which Hanson grew so fond in his later years. A brief central scherzo is based on what I could describe as a bucolic Swiss flavored mountain tune that Hanson originally wrote to sing to his dog. 1 wish he had used something else. The final section returns to the ingratiating spirit of the opening. leaving us with a gentle valediction. The performance is by the Rochester Chamber Orchestra under the direction of David Fetler. who gave the premiere, in the composer’s presence, shortly before his death. Their reading is sympathetic, but a little rough and scrawny,  and the solo clarinet, whose role is important, has some problems.

Hanson’s music is now very well represented on disc. Only a few works of significance are missing. One is the Cherubic Hymn — perhaps Hanson’s finest choral work — and another is Pan and the Priest, an early tone poem somewhat more compelling than Lux Aeterna. Frankly. I am surprised that Schwarz has overlooked them in his survey,  in favor of some really inferior pieces. What is really needed to complete the picture is the first full recording of Merry Mount, which, after all, created quite a sensation when it was premiered by the Metropolitan Opera in 1934 with Lawrence Tibbett in the leading role.

Griffes’s two tone poems — each originally written for piano — are appealing and evocative examples of the sort of highly perfumed and exotic impressionism that was current during the 1910s. Yet Griffes’s music exhibits a cool detachment that distinguishes it from the feverishness of much of this genre. Coincidentally, Griffe’s scoring of these works resembles Hanson’s own highly distinctive approach to orchestration, with an airy translucence derived in part from treating the woodwinds and brasses as independent sections, rather than as reinforcements of the strings. Note that Billy the Kid is represented by five excerpts that add up to only about ten minutes. Morton Gould’s Tropical is a three-minute trifle that can easily be dismissed without comment. However, it really does warrant a few words. Composed during the Great Depression, at a time when Gould was building a national reputation as a composer-conductor-arranger of light classics on radio, this little piece of unmitigated kitsch recalls an era in American musical demography that has totally ceased to exist. 1 would suspect that listeners under the age of forty-five will be mystified by it,. while older listeners will experience a dim nostalgia.

These performances, however, are fantastic. I have never heard the Griffes pieces sound so intense and exciting, and the Copland excerpts are electrifying — perhaps even too much so at times. For the past twenty years or so English conductor and record producer Charles Gerhardt has made a great contribution. by approaching film scores as if they were meant to be art. and contemporary classics as if they were meant to be fun. In the process, he has bridged the gap between “popular” and “serious” genres to some extent, while building a constituency that appreciates both as the “serious fun” they are capable of being. This is epitomized by his performance of Hanson’s “Romantic” Symphony.

POULENC: Stabat Mater. SZYMANOWSKI: Stabat Mater. GREGORIAN CHANT: Stabat Mater.

POULENC: Stabat Mater. SZYMANOWSKI: Stabat Mater. GREGORIAN CHANT: Stabat Mater. Robert Shaw conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. TELARC CD-80362 [DDD]; 58:24. Produced by Robert Woods.

This is a wonderful recording. for a number of reasons. First, it features gorgeous performances of two great works. Then, taking a closer look, one is struck by what an ideal pairing these two works are,  although one would not ordinarily think of the urbane and naughty Parisian and the nationalistic visionary Pole as comparable figures. But consider: in their musical interpretations of Mary’s beholding the crucifixion of Jesus, each of these Catholic composers has produced a work that represents him at his most characteristic best. (Another parallel is that each work is matched in quality within its respective composer’s output by a quasireligious opera,set in the past, as well: Dialogues of the Carmelites, on the one hand [Fanfare 18:2. pp. 329-301. and King Roger, on the other [Fanfare 13:2. pp. 378-97].) Until recently, admiration for each of these Stabat Mater settings was limited primarily to each composer’s country of origin, and to specialized connoisseurs. Then, within the past couple of years, each work appeared in a more cosmopolitan presentation,together with other works by their respective composers: a Virgin Classics disc of Poulenc’s choral music, conducted by Richard Hickox, highly praised by James North (Fanfare 17:1. pp. 235-36), and an all-Szymanowski disc on EMI. conducted by Simon Rattle, whose performances were received with substantial reservations by Adrian Corleonis (Fanfare 18:2. p. 395). Coupled as they are on this auspicious new Telarc release, conducted by Robert Shaw, the two works are likely to be discovered by a much larger group of listeners, who will wonder where this music has been all their lives.

Poulenc’s Stabat Mater dates from 1950. and is a far more profound. contemplative. and deeply satisfying work than the better-known Gloria. It is not altogether free of its composer’s characteristic flippancy (for example, the strange incongruity of setting the words, “Oh Mother, . . . make me sense the force of your grief . . .” to music of Christmasy good cheer, punctuated by an obscene smirk, in the “Eja Mater”). But its overall tone is one of mournful gravity, its solemnity growing impassioned at times,but all projected through a sensuous. richly luxuriant harmonic texture — a juxtaposition that is unique, deeply moving, and hauntingly beautiful.

Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater was composed in 1926. Like Janacek’s exactly contemporaneous Gagliolitic Mass, it is an attempt to imbue a liturgical text with rustic directness and immediacy, reflected in the use of the vernacular language. (However, 1 find the Szymanowski the more compelling of the two works by far.) In the process, the composer achieves a fusion of Eastern European mysticism and nationalistic melos within a postimpressionistic harmonic/orchestral conception. As program annotator Nick Jones puts it, “[Szymanowski] created a work of supreme beauty and pathos. imbued with archaisms suggesting the ancient church modes of Western music and the simplicity of folk expression.” I can add little more than to urge the hesitant listener to turn immediately to “Spraw niech placze z Toba razem” for evidence of this assertion.

Despite their obvious surface differences, both these works seek to convey profound spiritual suffering through a postimpressionist musical sensibility. Both have a static, contemplative quality that achieves rapturous intensity. One wonders how today’s younger listeners, caught up in the current craze for contemplative, spiritual music, might react to works such as these. 1 suspect that Henryk Gorecki himself might be among the first to urge his many fans to discover his elder compatriot’s Stabat Mater.

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus provide utterly radiant performances of these two masterpieces — though the ethereal aspects of the Szymanowski are emphasized more than the rustic ones — captured within a rich, spacious sonic ambience. They are preceded by a rendering of six verses of the chant melody, Stabat Mater dolorosa, believed to date from the late fifteenth century.

FLAGELLO: Passion of Martin Luther King. Serenata. Andante Languido. SCHWANTNER: New Morning for the World. . GIANNINI: Concerto Grosso. Prelude and Fugue. M. GOULD: Harvest.

FLAGELLO: Passion of Martin Luther King. SCHWANTNER: New Morning for the World. James DePreist conducting the Portland Symphonic Choir and the Oregon Symphony Orchestra; Raymond Bazemore, bass and narrator. KOCH INTERNATIONAL 3-7293-2H1 [DDD]: 58:54. Produced by Michael Fine  

FLAGELLO: Serenata. Andante Languido. GIANNINI: Concerto Grosso. Prelude and Fugue. M. GOULD: Harvest. David Amos conducting the New Russia Orchestra. ALBANY TROY-143 [DDD]; 65:50. Produced by Vadim Ivanov 

Here are two exciting new releases that expand the discography of Nicolas Flagello (see overview of Flagello’s life works at the front of this issue), while drawing attention to other wonderful music as well. Released to coincides with the birthday of Martin Luther King in January, the Koch release highlights two extraordinary musical tributes to the Black leader. As Coretta Scott King suggests in the program booklet, the Flagello and Schwantner represent very different approaches to their subject. Schwantner emphasizes King as the inspiring leader who encouraged the black people of this nation to persevere in their struggle to achieve racial justice. Flagello focuses on King as the embodiment of Jesus Christ in our time, martyring himself for the principle of universal love Having been present at the premieres of both works, I can attest. to the overwhelmingly powerful effect each produces in live performance. 

Flagello’s Passion of Martin Luther King is constructed along the lines of an oratorio, in which five choral settings of Latin liturgical texts alternate with solo settings of lines taken from King’s speeches. Actually, the choral portions originated in a work entitled Pentaptych, which Flagello had composed in 1953, but which had left him with certain reservations. King’s assassination 15 years later crystallized for him the realization that the eloquent words of the contemporary spiritual leader could provide just. the human f ocus the Pentaptych lacked. He immediately restructured the work, selecting excerpts from King’s speeches and setting them in an expressive arioso that blends seamlessly with the choral portions, in such a way that the vernacular solo element continually reverberates against the timeless spirituality of the Latin choral sections in a deeply moving synergy. As it stood in 1968, the Passion ended with a setting of “I Have a Dream,” followed by a choral , Jubilate Deo, and it is this version, on never-released recording with brother Ezio as soloist, that has circulated through the tape underground. However, in 1973, James DePreist, who was preparing to conduct the first public performance, persuaded Flagello to omit these two sections, for reasons that have never been made clear to me.  Flagello acquiesced to this request, composing an ecstatic new finale based on material that appears earlier in the work, and this is the version we now hear. Years later, Flagello conceded that DePreist’s suggestion improved the work’s effectiveness, but he remained fond of the “I Have a Dream”/Jubilate Deo sequence. He had begun to compose another choral work, to be called Psalmus Americanus, which would incorporate this material, but never completed it. 

One of the reasons I have presented all this background information is to explain that the music of the Passion, though dated 1968, reflects many characteristics of Flagello’s ultra-romantic pre-1959 style — more deliberate pacing, greater metrical regularity, more consonant harmonic language, and an unambiguous sense of tonality. As always, the orchestration is sumptuous and virile with no stinting on the climaxes, and the choral writing is gorgeous, with especially exquisite part-writing in the Cor Jesu and the Stabat Mater. The solo settings of King’s words are apt — although, admittedly, the refined bel canto approach is a far cry from the robust rhetoric of Black evangelical preaching. In truth, despite the extravagant grandeur of the: music, this is a very personal, almost mystical, interpretation of Martin Luther King, rather than a work of social consciousness. Bass Raymond Bazemore lends poignant expression to his part, but a richer, fuller, more operatic voice could do better justice to it. James DePreist who has conducted the work many times, continues to lend it his tremendous intelligence and musical sensitivity. 

Joseph Schwantner was born in 1943 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for an orchestral work called Aftertones of Infinity. As one of the defectors from academic serialism, he and his work received a good deal of attention around that time. Schwantner developed a distinctive approach that combined an exquisite sensitivity to fanciful gestures and delicate, ethereal sonorities — reminiscent of George Crumb — with phantasmagoric verbal imagery, and frequent use of tonal, consonant musical elements, resulting in a colorful and accessible musical surface with some New Age qualities For some reason, his work seems to have lost: the spotlight more recently, although many of: the younger orchestral composers who have emerged during the past decade have: used his techniques. 

New Morning for the World was composed in 1982, though, like the Flagello, it also draws upon material used in earlier pieces . It is scored for narrator and orchestra, and its musical content is more straightforward and conventional than in any other of Schwantner’s works known to me. Only its copious use technicolor percussion effects dates it as a work or the final quarter of this century. In the manner of’ Copland’sLincoln Portrait, the orchestra serves as a backdrop, creating a vivid framework of moods and emotions against which the: extensive excerpts from King’s speeches are highlighted. Although the orchestra is frequently in the foreground, the text, with its own very musical sense of oratory, is the central point of focus, and retains a much stronger sense of its own identity than in the Flagello. The brilliantly-scored music combines elements of an urgent, exhortatory nature with hushed, fervent., hymn-like passages, which ultimately merge in an ecstatic climax whose effect is hard to resist. 

Schwantner’s work was initially recorded shortly after its premiere, with baseball star Willie Stargell as narrator. He handled his role with eloquence and dignity and I have never been able to understand why that .recording has riot: been reissued on CD. In my review (Fanfare 7:2, pp. 307-8), I expressed a sense of ambivalence about the work, describing my reaction as ” somewhat :like weeping at a sentimental melodrama, while. being fully conscious of the devices employed to induce such a visceral response.” There is a tremendous reliance sure-fire musical devices, without the den sity of structure, or the sense of multiple dimensions that the Flagello offers. On the other hand, having revisited the work periodically during the twelve years since its premiere,  I can testify that it retains its power. It is an enormously effective work, as satisfying in its way as Copland’s enduring memorial to Lincoln. As narrator, Raymond Bazemore offers a touching reading of King’s profound words. 

Rather than producing the sense of redundancy that I feared, bringing together the two works and their differing perspectives enables them to complement each other beautifully, as Mrs. King states in her introductory notes, making this a recording of historical, as well as musical, significance. 

Though less weighted with extramusical interest, the Albany disc is an equally rewarding now release and features four premiere recordings.

Both the Flagello and Giannini works are flavored by Baroque stylistic features, though in the piece by Flagello, these aspects area minimal. Serenata, composed in 1968 for chamber orchestra, is an entertaining diversion — virtually the only one of his mature works that: is devoid of emotional. stress. Its four-movement design is modeled loosely on the Baroque suite, but its musical content. is thoroughly romantic, arid generally warm and cheerful in tone. 

Flagello’s 1959 Concerto for String 0rchestra actually displays explicit use of Baroque features in its outer movements, but not in the “Andante Languido” that forms the central slow movement, offered on this recording. Listeners new to Flagello’s music may think of the elegiac poignancy of Barber’s Adagio combined with the somber severity of Honegger’s Second Symphony and the: pathos of theAdagio lamentoso from Tchaikovsky’s Sixth. But those familiar with his work know that. this heartbreaking lament is echt Flagello in its purest form — one of his core creations (as well one of his own personal favorites). The entire Concerto would be most welcome on recording, but: the “Andante Languido” is certainly effective.– and affecting — on its own. 

Neo-romantic adaptations of Baroque forms and concepts was a key preoccupation of Vittorio Giannini (Flagello’s teacher and mentor) — especially during the 1940s and 50s. The Concerto Grosso of 1946 and Prelude and Fugue of 1955 — both for string orchestra — are excellent examples of his approach, and listeners who enjoy Bloch’sConcerto Grosso No. 1, Creston’s Partita and the Albinoni-Giazotto Adagio will certainly respond to these ingratiating pieces. The outer movements of the Concerto Grosso are bustling and vigorous, at times suggesting the composer’s proclivity foropera. buffa, and with lots of 18th-century-style counterpoint. The slow movement is an  impassioned expression of grief that combines Italianate lyricism with a Bach-like sense of gravity. 

The Prelude and Fugue is essentially cut: from the same cloth, but. I like it even more. It is somewhat more tightly structured and equally heartfelt, with a terrifically exhilarating arid beautifully elaborated fugue in quintuple meter . Giannini was an enormously appealing composer whose la rge and varied output remains unexplored. With this release, and the disc of 24 songs ( ACA C M-2001 1-11 , see Fanfare 16:1 , pp. 242-44), perhaps the exploration is beginning. With most of Howard Hanson’s output available on recording, the equally accessible. and far better crafted) music of Giannini is the next logical step for the growing number of  listeners drawn to this gener ation of American neo-romantics. 

As a bonus, the Albany disc includes the first recording of Morton Gould’s Harvest. This 14-minute tone poem scored for strings with harp and vibraphone is more ambitious arid serious in tone than most of Gould’s better-known pieces, with .less emphasis on overtly vernacular elements. It was composed in 1945, during the period when Gould was at:. the height of his fame — when his weekly light-music series on radio made: him a household name, and Dmitri Mitropoulos was introduc ing his Third Symphony with the New York Philharmonic. If Flagello and Giannini were out of touch with their times, Morton Gould has always been a man of his time. Yet: from today’s perspective, as the musical personalities of Flagello and Giannini seem to transcend their time and place. Gould’s work reveals so little other than its time anal place reflected through counterfeits of then-fashionable Harris and Copland works. In a certain sense, this makes Harvest one of Gould’s most revealing pieces.

David Amos conducted these recordings in Moscow with a group called the New Russia Orchestra. They play with considerable accuracy and sensitivity, producing some. of the most: incis ive performances I have heard under Amos’ sympathetic direction. The sound quality of this disc, as well as the Koch disc, is superb.