AMERICAN CHORAL MUSIC. PERSICHETTI: Flower Songs. CORIGLIANO: Fern Hill. COPLAND: In the Beginning. FOSS: Behold, I Build an House. IVES: Psalm 90

AMERICAN CHORAL MUSIC • James Morrow, cond; University of Texas Chamber Singers and Chamber Orchestra; Susanne Mentzer (mez) • NAXOS 8.559299 (72:11)
PERSICHETTI Flower Songs. CORIGLIANO Fern Hill. COPLAND In the Beginning. FOSS Behold, I Build an House. IVES Psalm 90

This recent Naxos release offers a selection of significant American choral music, meticulously performed and recorded. Although I was not previously familiar with their work, the University of Texas Chamber Singers, based in Austin, have been around for half a century now, and their current conductor, James Morrow, has brought them to a very high standard. Their performances here display considerable sensitivity and refinement, with precise intonation, and exquisite tonal blend and balance. And mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer renders the solo portions of these works with considerable artistry, although at times her voice reveals a hard edge.

I must confess to finding the program itself of somewhat uneven musical interest. The two strongest works easily justify acquisition of the disc, while the three others … Well, I’m sure they will hold appeal for some listeners. The major offering here is, without question, the Persichetti Flower Songs, presented in their first recording. With a duration of approximately twenty minutes, they were composed in 1983, and are among the composer’s final works. He had not written for chorus in almost a decade, and this final contribution was something of a farewell to the medium, as well as a farewell to one of his favorite and most often-set poets, E. E. Cummings. Persichetti seemed to find in Cummings something of a kindred spirit, with a verbal playfulness and an impish sense of humor that often camouflaged a serious idea. Although many of the composer’s major works from the preceding two decades were rather austere in character, harsh in their musical language, and complex in construction, these settings of seven poems selected from throughout the poet’s career, but all sharing the flower as a metaphor, are irresistibly gracious and delightful, exhibiting the lively exuberance missing from Persichetti’s more “serious” choral settings. Although their musical language reveals a simplicity of texture and line, with largely consonant, tonal harmony, they display no less care and attention to detail than do his more challenging works. On first hearing they may appear to be—though attractive and accessible—simple and perhaps somewhat ordinary; however, closer inspection reveals that virtually nothing about them is ordinary, routine, or accidental. Every articulation, every rhythmic irregularity is carefully calculated. The third song, “Early Flowers,” incorporates in disguised form the same hymn (“Round me falls the night”) used in the second movement of the composer’s Symphony No. 6. Flower Songs towers above most of the other pieces on the program, and its presence here is an important addition to the Persichetti discography. 

John Corigliano’s setting of Dylan Thomas’s Fern Hill has been recorded several times before. It is one of the composer’s earliest works, written in 1959-60. More recently, Corigliano fashioned A Dylan Thomas Trilogy, with Fern Hill as the opening work. Yet despite its early position in the composer’s oeuvre, it too is composed with masterful attention to detail. Its sensibility and musical language shamelessly embrace the expressive world of Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, though its retrospective evocation of the carefree freedom of youth, a natural complement to the James Agee text set by Barber, is largely free of the latter’s melancholy overlay. Even the orchestration has the same crisp Stravinskian transparency combined with the American’s delicacy and sensitivity. Yet despite its clear derivation, Fern Hill is truly a beautiful and deeply touching work, evoking a sense of mood with remarkable technical mastery and expressive sophistication for a 22-year-old composer. Listeners with more traditional tastes are likely to consider it among his best work. In fact, though I know that many feel otherwise, I have long felt that Corigliano betrayed a great gift when he turned away from the discipline of candid self-revelation, reaching instead for immediate theatrical impact in ways that have at times tended toward the meretricious. Although he has accomplished the latter with great skill and effectiveness, achieving much success in the process, he might have attained a higher, more enduring type of success had he pursued a more personal, introspective path. Fern Hill is a prime example of the “road not taken.”

Though performed beautifully, the three other pieces offer much less musical interest. Copland’s In the Beginning, composed in 1947, is by far the most often heard of his few choral works. Though a pleasant enough piece, it lacks the incisiveness that characterizes his best compositions. Barely recognizable as a work of Copland, it even has moments that call Vaughan Williams and Britten to mind. Written in 1950 for the opening of the Marsh Chapel at Boston University, Lukas Foss’s Behold, I Build an House is a short cantata whose biblical text describes the building of King Solomon’s temple. Scored for chorus with interludes for organ (played ably here by Seung Won Cho), it is not as compelling as other Foss works from this period, such as Psalms, A Parable of Death, and Song of Songs, although their appeal is largely second-hand. Ives’s setting of Psalm 90 occupied him on and off throughout his career; he didn’t complete the work until 1924. The result veers among passages that are alternately striking, banal, awkward, and dull.

All in all, a mixed bag. I trust that readers will know whether or not this disc belongs in their collections. One final point: No texts are included. With a recording comprising sung texts exclusively, this is hard to justify. Yes, I suppose that these literary and biblical sources can be found through other means. But in today’s marketplace, this must be regarded as an incomplete package. By now Naxos has built a reputation for excellent performances and recordings of an exceedingly broad range of repertoire; their packaging now must be brought up to that standard.

MORAVEC: Chamber Symphony. Cool Fire. Autumn Song. Morph. THEOFANIDIS: Visions and Miracles. L. BIELAWA: The Trojan Women. GATONSKA: Transformation of the Hummingbird. (2 CD’s)

MORAVEC Chamber Symphony. Cool Fire. Autumn Song • Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival • NAXOS 8.559393 (45:30)

MORAVEC Morph. THEOFANIDIS Visions and Miracles. L. BIELAWA The Trojan Women. GATONSKA Transformation of the Hummingbird •String Orchestra of New York City • ALBANY TROY941 (59:18)

Now in his early 50s, Paul Moravec has emerged as perhaps the most consistently fascinating and richly imaginative American composer of his generation; since winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2004, his work has been steadily attracting increased attention and praise. (The premiere of his opera The Letter, based on the Maugham story that served as the basis of a terrific film starring Bette Davis, will be a highlight of the Santa Fe Opera this summer.) Moravec has been described as a “neo-tonalist,” and his music is readily accessible and appealing, yet with a distinctive identity of its own. It is clearly an outgrowth of our current period of post-modern eclecticism, rather than a representative of any established dogma of either the past or present. Moravec has greatly benefited from the advocacy of some of today’s most gifted musicians, such as violinist Maria Bachmann and pianist Jon Klibonoff and the Trio Solisti of which they are two-thirds, eighth blackbird, and the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival (led by flutist Marya Martin) and the String Orchestra of New York City (SONYC) featured here. A graduate of both Harvard and Columbia Universities, Moravec currently heads the music department of Adelphi University in Long Island, NY. He was discovered early on by Terry Teachout (music critic of Commentary and drama critic of the Wall Street Journal). Teachout’s consistent and eloquent championing has made a significant additional contribution to the growth of the composer’s reputation (while making it difficult for other commentators to write about him without seeming redundant). Teachout has noted the Mendelssohnian effervescence of Moravec’s fast music—the aspect of his work that tends to attract the listener’s attention first—as well as a crystalline lucidity to his sonorities somewhat reminiscent of Ravel. However, what has not been observed before, as far as I know (although it will be immediately apparent to anyone familiar with both composers), is that Moravec’s closest stylistic antecedent is Bohuslav Martinu—another composer known for effervescent exuberance and crystalline sonorities—although there is a good deal more expressive and contrapuntal density to the younger man’s work. (Born in Buffalo, New York, Moravec is of Czech descent, although I would hesitate to attach more than coincidental significance to this connection, as I don’t discern any ethnic folk reference in his work.)

The new Naxos CD is the company’s third all-Moravec release, and it certainly merits the praise accorded both previous issues (as well as those issued by other companies) for both the quality of the music and the quality of the performances (see Fanfare 28:5 for Robert Carl’s and my comments, 29:6 for Carl’s alone, 30:6 for Peter Burwasser’s, and 31:1 for Philip Scott’s),. The Chamber Symphony was composed in 2003 on commission from the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival, a longstanding summer music festival based in eastern Long Island. The 20-minute work in four movements is scored for a mixed septet that includes marimba alternating with vibraphone. The fast movements are brilliant and exciting, offset by a calm, yet mysterious slow movement; the work will be irresistible to those listeners who have already been captivated by this composer’s music. Cool Fire, of approximately the same duration as the symphony, was written two years earlier, and is scored for flute, piano, and string quartet. Teachout relates the instrumentation to Chausson’s Concert in D for violin, piano, and string quartet, although there is really nothing but the similar scoring to link the two works. The title Cool Fire suggests the tension between spontaneous expression and formal control that Moravec identifies as the crucible in which his creative efforts are ignited (as is most great music). The general spirit of the music is generally similar to that of the Chamber Symphony, although this earlier work offers perhaps a touch more euphoric exuberance, with an absolutely scintillating finale. Both, incidentally, offer the faintest passing whiffs suggestive of jazz .

In attempting to characterize Moravec’s music, a number of commentators have used the term “neo-romantic,” while then hastening to assure readers that they don’t mean to suggest the slobbering sentimentality they seem to associate with the term. As an adamant advocate of the “neo-romantic” aesthetic, I would assert that this term cannot be applied simply to any recent music that is tonal, melodic, and seems to strive toward some notion of “beauty.” There is a lot more to it than that. (Put more bluntly, no one would ever confuse Moravec with Samuel Barber or Howard Hanson—with no disparagement of any of them intended.) I prefer the term “neo-tonal” in describing Moravec’s music, as this term places it in the contemporary context where it belongs, rather than linking it with music of the past that reflects very different values.

The foregoing point is readily illustrated by the Autumn Song (2000) for flute and piano, which fills out the Naxos disc. Lyrical and melodic, this brief work, heard in a lovely performance by Marya Martin and Jeewon Park, reveals an austere beauty of its own, independent of any linkage to the past.

The Albany disc presents the leaderless String Orchestra of New York City (SONYC) in impeccable performances of a varied program of recent works. The most recent—and most impressive—is Moravec’s Morph (2005), which reveals a rather different sort of expression than that reflected in the works just discussed. Associated in his mind with both the myth of Apollo and Daphne and with Morpheus, the god of dreams (Moravec is fond of mythological and literary references), this through-composed 17-minute work “morphs” continuously and with great subtlety through a variety of moods, attitudes, and activities, from an abrasively dissonant opening, to a sensitive and delicate final conclusion. With its broader range of expression, and more consistently serious demeanor, not to mention some brilliantly intricate counterpoint, I find it to be a somewhat “meatier” work than most of the Moravec I have heard, and one that invites repeated audition.

The other works on the Albany disc warrant attention as well. The three other composers—Christopher Theofanides, Lisa Bielawa, and Michael Gatonska—are each about ten years younger than Moravec. Although I am not as familiar with his music, Theofanides seems to be another of the post-modern neo-tonalists. Born in Dallas, he studied at Yale, Eastman, and the University of Houston, and is currently on the faculties of both the Peabody and Juilliard Schools, and has enjoyed many awards, commissions, and performances. His Visions and Miracles was originally composed for string quartet in 1997. The first movement, “all joy wills eternity,” is high-spirited and jubilant, with an interestingly non-toxic use of dissonance. With its modal, dance-like melodies, in its re-casting for string orchestra it almost suggests the familiar and much-beloved genre of English string music, although I suspect that this is far from the composer’s own conception. The second movement, inspired by a quotation from Timothy Leary, explores the implications of a major scale through fragmentation and modal mixtures. But it is the last movement, entitled “I add brilliance to the sun” that I find most interesting, with its middle-Eastern-sounding heterophony, and some novel and very effective techniques of ensemble-writing. As a whole, this intriguing piece is likely to be enjoyed by a wide range of listeners, especially those receptive to tonal string music that gently pushes the conventional limits of the genre.

Lisa Bielawa is the daughter of composer Herbert Bielawa, and was associated for some time with the Philip Glass Ensemble, although she has been engendering considerable interest in her own work. The Trojan Women also began as a work for string quartet, based on music originally written in 1999 for a theatrical production of Euripides’s tragedy. Each of the work’s three sections seeks to convey an expression of grief associated with the three respective tragic heroines. As with Theofanidis’s work, the musical means used in the first two sections remain largely within the general vocabulary of early/mid-20th-century tonal string music: The first is dolorous and lugubrious; the second draws upon lively, irregular rhythmic patterns. The third section, however, dispenses with audible rhythmic pulse and displays much use of slow portamenti and other microtonal techniques, creating a very eerie effect, and giving the entire work a broader compass.

The final piece is Transformation of the Hummingbird, by Michael Gatonska. Gatonska, who appears to have been born in Poland, is another figure on the scene who has received a variety of auspicious grants and commissions. Though not an invariable guide, pretentious and deceptively meaningless program notes so often signal pretentious and meaningless music that I approached this work with a strong negative bias, which was initially confirmed by my listening experience. However, further immersion changed my impression considerably. Showing some influence of the leading Polish composers of the late 20th century, the 14-minute piece unfolds as an extremely varied and imaginative series of brief episodes that embrace a wide range of musical vocabularies. Some of these episodes are not terribly appealing, and I wasn’t always sure I detected an over-arching aesthetic meaning to the work, but the more I listened to it, the more convinced I became. It is certainly a much better piece than the program notes suggest; he should do himself a favor and junk them.

This is my first exposure to the ensemble SONYC, and I am extremely impressed by their vigorous, committed, and incisive playing, as well as by their flawless precision. As a result the CD is an excellent overview of some of the intriguing and appealing music composed in America during the past few years, in this case highlighting repertoire for string orchestra. It provides a most encouraging impression of an especially fertile creative period.

HOVHANESS: Piano Concerto, “Lousadzak.” Symphony No. 2, “Mysterious Mountain. HARRISON Symphony No. 2, “Elegiac”

HOVHANESS Piano Concerto, “Lousadzak.” Symphony No. 2, “Mysterious Mountain” . HARRISON Symphony No. 2, “Elegiac” • Dennis Russell Davies, cond; American Composers Orchestra; Keith Jarrett (pn)• NIMBUS NI-512 (67:00)

This is a reissue of a recording originally released on the Musicmasters label in 1989. It brings together the music of two composers who, as Tim Page’s program notes point out, first came to public attention as kindred spirits, linked together with John Cage, interestingly enough. Readers may be aware that Lou Harrison was one of the composer-critics whom Virgil Thomson ushered in as associates to the New York Herald-Tribune during the mid 1940s. This was the period when Alan Hovhaness, until then an impoverished eccentric struggling to gain attention in the Boston area, attempted to cast his lot in the broader arena of New York City, after having essentially been ridiculed out of Tanglewood by Aaron Copland and his coterie. Both Thomson and Harrison were among the first with access to an influential forum of opinion to champion Hovhaness’s music, and their enthusiastic advocacy contributed significantly to establishing his early reputation. Of course, as the years passed, each of these figures—stubborn individualists themselves—proceeded in his own personal direction, and each ended his career at quite a different point from the others on the American compositional matrix.

Lousadzak, composed in 1944, is certainly one of the most unusual piano concertos ever written (neither a single chord nor sequence of octaves appears in the piano part). The music assigned to the solo instrument imitates a number of Armenian folk instruments, especially those in the dulcimer family, while the string ensemble plays the role of a folk orchestra, providing an accompaniment of primitive polyphony. Both Harrison and Cage were present at the work’s New York premiere, and evidently it really took the audience by surprise. Harrison later recalled that it “was the closest I’ve ever been to one of those renowned artistic riots.” From the standpoint of some six decades later, when Hovhaness is no longer alive, having left behind a legacy of hundreds upon hundreds more compositions, Lousadzak stands as one of his indisputable masterpieces. Somehow the work evokes, as its name, meaning “the coming of light,” implies, a haunting and mysterious sense of the beginning of time. It also has a real sense of drama—not drama in the romantic, climactic sense, but a gradual accumulation of passion and intensity as the work unfolds. No one who has written off Hovhaness after having heard only the over-inflated, endlessly soporific compositions of his later years should fail to acquaint himself with this important representation of one of the composer’s most fertile periods. One is hard-pressed to name another work of his that is as consistently compelling and inspired.

That a pianist with the varied interests and talents—not to mention the distinguished reputation—of Keith Jarrett turned his attention to Lousadzak has served to attract the notice of listeners unlikely otherwise to have encountered such a work. And Jarrett’s performance has much to recommend it. But there are also aspects of his reading that I find wrong-headed. The ethnomusical context from which this work derives is one of individual improvisation alternating with passages in which the ensemble comes to the fore. The improvisational passages tend to be rhythmically free and rhapsodic (an approach of which Jarrett—in other contexts—is a consummate master). Though thoroughly notated, Lousadzak emulates this style, and should be performed in a manner that is in keeping with it. But for some reason Jarrett approaches this profoundly non-virtuosic music as if trying to press it into service as some sort of technical showpiece, with overly driven, frenetically rushed tempos. Conductor Davies seems of the same mind as Jarrett, constantly pressing the piece forward, squaring off its phrase rhythms, and sacrificing much of its depth and subtlety. A performance that better captures the work’s spirit was released in 2005 on the Black Box label (see Fanfare 29:3), featuring pianist Martin Berkofsky. Although the Russian Globalis Symphony Orchestra lacks the precision and refinement of the American Composers Orchestra, pianist Berkofsky evinces a deeper understanding of the mode of expression represented by Hovhaness’s work. 

Mysterious Mountain has loomed as Hovhaness’s best known and most popular composition ever since it first appeared on recording during the late 1950s. (The fact that this work is identified as Symphony No. 2 should not be taken to mean that it was the second symphony Hovhaness composed. In fact, it was not given this appellation until a number of years after it was composed. To summarize briefly, toward the middle of his career, Hovhaness revised, re-titled, destroyed, or partially or completely recast many of his compositions, leaving “holes” in his opus number listings and, in some cases, his numbering of symphonies. He would often “plug up” these “holes” with works composed either earlier or later than the numberings would suggest.) The great success of Mysterious Mountain, composed in its final form in 1955 (although portions date back to the 1930s), can be attributed to two factors: 1) Just two or three years after its completion, Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra recorded it for RCA Victor; 2) It is a beautifully tranquil and euphonious work in a neo-ecclesiastical vein almost entirely devoid of harmonic dissonance. Readers may be interested to learn that in a letter written in May, 1961, the composer wrote, “As to my ‘Mysterious Mountain’ my feelings are mixed—I am happy it is popular but I have written much better music and it is a very impersonal work, in which I omit my deeper searching.”

The Reiner/Chicago recording set a performance standard for Mysterious Mountain that is hard to surpass, although even that performance is marred by a blemish or two. But its overall pacing and phrasing seem little short of ideal. By now there have been at least half a dozen recorded performances of this work. Most tend to take the first movement, Andante con moto, at tempos much faster than Reiner’s 7:25. Of them Davies’s 5:09 may be the fastest. Andante con moto is a very vague tempo indication, leaving much room for interpretation, even more than most such designations. The expressive content of the music must be the determinant, and at Davies’s tempo, this quintessentially tranquil movement sounds brusque and rushed—clearly against the grain of the music. The more actively polyphonic second movement—which happens to be my favorite—is done magnificently. The mysterious opening of the third movement is again disconcertingly hasty, while the remainder of the movement proceeds lovingly, the pure, consonant harmony exquisitely in tune.

It is perhaps not too much of a stretch to observe that the “Elegiac” Symphony plays a similar role within Lou Harrison’s oeuvre that Mysterious Mountain plays in Hovhaness’s: that is, they both attempt to integrate the spirit, as well as some of the exotic usages, of Eastern music within a Western symphonic context. This makes Harrison’s piece, in particular, especially unusual. A large work (longer than both Hovhaness pieces together), the “Elegiac” Symphony comprises five movements, and reportedly occupied Harrison intermittently from 1942 until 1975. Perhaps its dedication to the memory of Serge and Natalie Koussevitzky accounts for the symphonic approach. Harrison’s familiar fingerprints—modal melodies of somewhat Balinese cast presented in unison or with a heterophonic or simple polyphonic treatment—are clearly evident (especially in movements 1, 3, and 5), but are here expanded to symphonic proportions—not solely a matter of duration, but also of a certain grandeur of both gesture and sonority. This very aspect of the work may alienate some of the composer’s more extreme admirers, while others are likely to find it all the more appealing for the same reason. The symphony is scored for a large orchestra, which is approached with considerable subtlety and delicacy—especially the use of the tackpiano, a specialty of the composer, somewhat related to Cage’s “prepared piano.” The three odd-numbered movements—entitled “Tears of the Angel Israfel,” “Tears of the Angel Israfel II,” and “The Sweetness of Epicurus” respectively—are indeed “elegiac,” but not in the highly personal, Samuel Barber-like sense, but rather, in a more abstract, cosmic, contemplative sense, conveying a feeling of serene acceptance. The last movement is especially warm and poignant, concluding the work with deep, heartfelt beauty. The second movement, Allegro, poco presto, is scherzo-like and more Western in style, with some chromaticism, although gamelan-like effects clearly identify the composer. The fourth movement, “Praises for Michael the Archangel,” presents a stark contrast. Its harsh, aggressive harmonic dissonance, and 12-tone material remind us that at one point Harrison studied with Arnold Schoenberg. Altogether, Harrison’s Symphony No. 2 serves as an excellent introduction to, and consolidation of, the many facets of this unique composer, presented in a fashion accessible to the more traditionally-oriented listener. 

HANSON: Centennial March. Chorale and Alleluia. Dies Natalis. Laude. Merry Mount Suite (trans. Boyd)

HANSON Centennial March. Chorale and Alleluia. Dies Natalis. Laude. Merry Mount Suite (trans. Boyd) • John Boyd, cond; Philharmonia à Vent • KLAVIER K-11158 (57:25)

Howard Hanson is associated in the minds of many listeners with the “Golden Age of the American Wind Ensemble,” as the 1950s have been called. For one reason, it was during Hanson’s reign as Director of the Eastman School of Music that Frederick Fennell conceived and realized his concept of the “symphonic wind ensemble”—a small, flexible, proficient group of woodwinds, brass, and percussion dedicated to matching the performance artistry of fine symphonic or chamber orchestras. Secondly, Hanson’s own approach to composition placed such an emphasis on those three instrumental groups that many of his major orchestral scores display the crisp clarity of the wind ensemble. And thirdly, he did contribute his share of works originally conceived for this medium. However, in truth, these compositions are not of the highest caliber: They are not among his finest artistic accomplishments, nor do they represent the symphonic band repertoire at its best, although Hanson enthusiasts may enjoy their reminiscences of his other, stronger works. 

This recent release, produced by Jack Stamp—one of today’s leading figures in this musical domain—presents a program of Hanson’s music for winds, although it does not include his entire output for the medium. (Missing are the early Triumphal Ode, the March Carillon, and the Suite for Piano, Winds, and Percussion.) But it does include the popular orchestral suite from the composer’s opera Merry Mount, transcribed by the disc’s conductor, John Boyd. The Philharmonia à Vent is a highly proficient professional ensemble in residence at Indiana State University, and its membership is drawn from the faculties of a number of large Midwestern colleges and universities. They offer largely splendid performances on this recording, which is dedicated to the memory of the late Frederick Fennell, co-founder of the ensemble.

Hanson’s music for band highlights the prominent influence of the Lutheran chorale on his compositional style; three of the pieces presented here reflect this tradition: Chorale and Alleluia, Dies Natalis, and Laude. The first of these was the composer’s initial contribution to the medium, dating from 1953-54, and it is one of his most frequently performed pieces. It is based on an original chorale theme; the Alleluia motif is introduced almost immediately as a response to the chorale. Though it makes an effectively stirring impact, the second portion of the piece falls victim to one of the composer’s chief weaknesses: excessive use of ostinati. Here the Alleluia motif is treated as a rapid ostinato, creating a texture that can almost be termed proto-minimalist. However, within Hanson’s post-romantic language it bespeaks a paucity of invention.

Dies Natalis began as an orchestral work, composed in 1968. Hanson himself created an alternate version for band three years later. The 15-minute piece falls into three sections: Introduction and Chorale, Variations, and Finale. The chorale is the familiar “How Lovely Shines the Morning Star,” which the composer considered to be the “greatest single musical influence of my life as a composer.” Listeners will note the resemblance of the chorale to the opening theme of Merry Mount; it can be found in the early tone poem Lux Aeterna as well. Dies Natalis is a pleasingly euphonious composition, although the variations are a little routine; for me the most distinctive music is the throbbing, Lydian-flavored theme that appears in the Introduction and returns in the Finale.

Laude is similar in concept and proportion to Dies Natalis, also falling into a three-part form of Chorale, Variations, and Metamorphoses. Composed in 1975, when Hanson was 79, the piece is based on a pre-existing hymn-tune he sang as a youth. Here the most notable music appears during the central variations, where some stunning and rather uncharacteristic harmonic progressions leap out and compel one’s attention. The work culminates in an apotheosis that fuses the chorale theme with the “big tune” from the composer’s Third Symphony.

Previously unfamiliar to me was the Centennial March, an occasional piece written in 1966 to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the composer’s native state of Nebraska. Utterly predictable in every respect, the piece nevertheless reveals its composer’s fingerprints in virtually each measure. (The march begs comparison with Vittorio Giannini’s Dedication Overture for band, an occasional piece of similar proportions, composed at about the same time. Both illustrate the way a composer with a strong personality can create a purely utilitarian work within an overly familiar, highly restrictive format, yet proclaim his own individual identity throughout.)

The band transcription of the Merry Mount Suite serves chiefly to offer wind players the opportunity to play some of Hanson’s most distinctive and best-loved music. It cannot be said to provide much to the listener who has the orchestral version at his disposal. However, what is most immediately striking is how little one misses the orchestra—or even realizes its absence. Only in the luscious Love Duet does the absence of the string section become really noticeable. Unfortunately, what is also noticeable is the stiffness of conductor/transcriber Boyd’s phrasing of this music, which listeners have heard under the direction of some first-rate orchestral conductors. This is a shortcoming all too common among band directors: brilliant, exciting passages are held back metronomically, while warm, languid sections are hurried along rather brusquely.

Hanson enthusiasts and collectors of “serious” band music will probably want to own this recording. But it cannot be considered an indispensable entry in Hanson’s discography.

COOMAN: NEW DAWN (Song Cycles and Piano Music).

COOMAN NEW DAWN (Song Cycles and Piano Music) • Amanda Forsythe (sop); Jeffrey Grossman (pn) • ALBANY TROY1053 (72:33)
Gold into Diamonds. Seven Haiku. Lingering, Lonely Callings. New Dawn. Chorale Preludes. Bell Mosaic. Oakdale Sketchbook. Aria: Yet Brighter Light. Rainshower. Kahlenberg. Winter Sonatina. Mountain Toccata.

Although one can easily lose count, this may be the fifth release (including three on Naxos) to have appeared during the past twelve months alone, entirely devoted to the music of the prolific young American composer Carson Cooman. (Previous reviews can be found in Fanfare 31:3 and 31:5.) Cooman’s output embraces the full range of musical genres—operas, choral works, songs, orchestral music, chamber music, solo keyboard works, etc. But what is more remarkable is this composer’s broad stylistic range, which extends from consonant, purely diatonic pieces all the way to atonal or quasi-serial works, not to mention many that combine those two poles in unusual ways. Most of Cooman’s music is written on commission, and is explicitly intended for practical performance, of which there have been many. (In addition, he is active as an organist, performing only new music; and he produces recordings and writes criticism—for Fanfare as well as other publications.) 

This latest is the most rewarding of the all-Cooman discs I have heard. Comprising three song cycles and assorted short pieces for piano solo, the program concentrates on the most tonal, consonant aspect of his output. (His larger works, for larger forces, tend to represent the less tonal, more dissonant side of his compositional voice.) I hasten to add that it is not the conservatism of its language per se that I find so appealing about this music, but rather, how sincerely and meaningfully Cooman is able to express himself within this language. The music is largely warm and uplifting, with an unmistakably American flavor, suggesting an intersection between the styles of Copland and Rorem in their simplest, most direct pieces. A particularly personal device is the frequent use of cluster-chords as sonic enrichment within diatonic contexts, rather like the overtones of a carillon. Some pieces, e.g. Bell Mosaic and Kahlenberg, display a sense of serene tranquility that suggests an openness to recent, more meditative or contemplative styles. Some, which seem to emphasize pure harmonic sonority, occasionally call to mind the music of Messiaen. 

The most ambitious selections represented here are the three vocal works. The largest of them—Lingering, Lonely Callings, a cycle of eight songs dating from 2004-05, set to lovely, poignant poems by Elizabeth Kirschner—is the most compelling and consistently rewarding music I have yet heard from Cooman. These songs reveal a consistently fluent lyricism and exquisite sensitivity, conveyed through the simplest of means, resulting in a beautifully touching group of songs, shaped into a coherent cycle. Given both their simplicity and their immediacy, I would imagine that these songs—both individually and as a group—will prove to have great utility for voice students. One might argue that such direct, straightforward expression is a fundamental pre-requisite from which a legitimately meaningful, more sophisticated compositional voice may be derived.

Comparably rewarding is the shorter, more recent (2007) cycle entitled Gold into Diamonds. This group of four songs was commissioned by soprano Amanda Forsythe as a gift for her mother, Rebecca Forsythe, whose poetry serves as the texts. Perhaps slightly more complex harmonically, these songs are no less affecting than the earlier group. The poetry is verbally direct, yet subtle and profound in meaning, and Cooman’s settings are aptly suited to them.

Seven Haiku were written for the wedding of the soprano and her husband in 2005. They are sensitive micro-miniatures set to texts by the Welsh-American composer-poet Hilary Tann. 

Soprano Forsythe has a light, flexible voice whose lovely, intimate quality is very well suited to the spirit of Cooman’s vocal writing. Only at the most stressful moments does her control begin to fray. Pianist Jeffrey Grossman remains a sensitive and fluent accompanist throughout.

The nine short piano pieces, played with flair and conviction by Grossman, are largely examples of Cooman’s Gebrauchsmusik, pieces just a few minutes in duration that he often composes to commemorate special occasions, or as gifts for friends. Some of these “occasions”—the program notes for Rainshower describe it as “a musical postcard on a particularly rainy day in Cambridge, Massachusetts”—call to mind the comment, attributed to Milhaud, that simply coming down to breakfast was for him sufficient inspiration to prompt a musical composition. However, Cooman’s pieces of this type are rarely trivial, usually displaying real care, sensitivity, and a convincing expressive impetus; some are real gems. The music they call most readily to mind are Bernstein’s Anniversaries, or perhaps Virgil Thomson’s series of musical “portraits.” Cooman’s efforts clearly hold their own in this company, comparing favorably in many cases. Especially effective is the recent Mountain Toccata, a rough-hewn, Appalachian-flavored piece written for pianist Grossman. Oakdale Sketchbook is, as Op. 52, one of Cooman’s earliest (age 15) efforts, a group of ten tiny pieces intended for children. These are, again, remarkably evocative, imaginative, and varied, in view of the simplicity of their means, although several are beyond the technical reach of most beginning pianists. Only the Chorale Preludes (1999) do I find to be less than satisfying.

This release is an excellent introduction to the music of Cooman, one of the most fascinating of today’s youngest generation of composers. It is recommended especially to those who wonder whether there is anything that remains to be said within a purely tonal, diatonic musical language.

BLOCH: Piano Quintets: No. 1; No. 2; In the Mountains: Night; Paysages; Two Pieces; Suite for Viola and Piano. Suite Hébraïque. Suite for Viola Solo. Baal Shem Suite: Nigun. (2 CD’s)

BLOCH Piano Quintets: No. 1; No. 2; In the Mountains: Night; Paysages; Two Pieces • Goldner St Qt; Piers Lane (pn) • HYPERION CDA67638 (70:27)

BLOCH Suite for Viola and Piano. Suite Hébraïque. Suite for Viola Solo. Baal Shem Suite: Nigun • Karen Elaine (va); Delores Stevens (pn); David Amos, cond; London SO2 • LAUREL LR-864, ADD (63:52)

It wasn’t that long ago when discographic representation of Ernest Bloch’s chamber music—which includes most of his greatest works—consisted of largely mediocre performances, clueless as to the music’s expressive articulation and performance requirements. Even today, academic musicology and those whose education derives from it continue to remain ignorant of Bloch’s role and stature within the history of 20th-century music. However, as usual, record companies are way ahead of academia: Outstanding, deeply committed performances of Bloch’s music—including the chamber works—abound today, readily available for interested listeners, students, performers, et al. to discover, study, and enjoy. The two recent releases discussed here further contribute to this trend.

Bloch’s two piano quintets are among his greatest and most representative works. Composed some 34 years apart, they illustrate the evolutionary course of Bloch’s expressive apparatus from his early maturity through his late maturity. The earlier work is about 35 minutes long, while its successor is less than 20; the later work is less rhetorical, less hyperbolic, more concentrated, but no less intense, no less serious, no less grim in its emotional coloration, although both works conclude with a beatific serenity—a sense of acceptance, or resolution, that seemed essential to the composer’s world-view.

When I began writing for Fanfare, there was no recording of the Quintet No. 2; few even knew the work existed, and No. 1 was typically identified simply as “Piano Quintet.” Today there must be half a dozen performances, and the two works are natural discmates, as they appear on this Hyperion release. And most of these performances are superb. The Goldner String Quartet is an Australian ensemble, and pianist Piers Lane, though born in England, is also based “down under”—not the most obvious source for informed performances of the music of Bloch. And, judging from the photos in the program booklet, these are all young musicians. Their performances are brisk, refined, and technically acute, with no shortage of passionate emotional commitment—in short, they are fully adequate readings, and no prospective consumer, drawn to this particularly well-designed program, is likely to be disappointed. For comparison I selected the two recordings I have hitherto found most satisfying: the Aura Quartet with pianist Hans Joerg Fink (Musiques Suisses MGB CD 6203) and the Pro Arte Quartet with pianist Howard Karp (formerly on Laurel LR-848CD, but now divided between two different issues, each with additional pairings; see www.laurelrecord.com for details). A close assessment finds the new contenders skimming over the surface a bit; more notable than that, however, Hyperion mixes the piano a bit too far in the background. I hasten to emphasize: These are very minor cavils—nothing like the kinds of deficiencies found in pre-1980 recorded performances—and only become evident in direct, side-by-side listening. But the Pro Arte/Karp renditions match power and precision to an ideal degree, and still loom as the best recorded performances of these works ever. The Aura/Fink performances fall somewhere in between—a little more bite and intensity than Goldner/Lane, but not quite the power of Pro Arte/Karp. 

Though they may appear to be trifles, the filler pieces on the Hyperion disc are not to be overlooked. Paysages, composed—as was the Quintet No. 1—in 1923, comprises three sketches, each associated with a particular geographical region: the Arctic, the Swiss Alps, and the South Sea islands. But this is far from travelogue music, as Bloch was not seeking to depict locations, as much as spiritual states of mind that he associated with those locations. As such they are rewarding on a deeper level than one might otherwise expect. “Night,” one of three short pieces—also dating from 1923—grouped under the title In the Mountains, is one of the mysterious nocturnes which Bloch was so fond of writing. This one is dedicated to his student Roger Sessions. And what could appear more “miscellaneous” than Two Pieces for string quartet, one written in 1938 and the other in 1950? But these are two highly expressive and very substantive, if brief, pieces—the first, slow and reflective; the second, vigorous and aggressive. Because they appear to be mere scraps, they are unlikely ever to attract much attention, but they are first-rate miniatures, as finely wrought as any of the composer’s string quartets, with subtle mood-painting and large emotional gestures. These short pieces have also been recorded by the Pro Arte Quartet for Laurel (on LR-826CD and LR-841CD), and, as with the quintets, their performances are marginally more intense and vigorous. But again, heard on their own, the Goldner performances are fine.

The new Laurel release (the company has built a considerable reputation for its fine Bloch recordings) focuses on the composer’s viola music. (I should add that although this is a new release, most of the music was actually recorded in 1990.) Much the same situation applies here as with the Piano Quintets: After many years of representation via mediocre performances, these not insignificant works can now be found on several recital discs in fine performances. Karen Elaine is active in the West Coast music scene, as a composer as well as violist. (She is also, according to the accompanying notes, an expert scuba diver and instructor!) 

Bloch’s major viola work is the Suite for Viola and Piano, composed in 1919. Winner of an auspicious award and generally well-received by critics, this composition played an important role in spreading the composer’s reputation. Bloch’s own instrument was the violin, and he expressed himself eloquently and naturally via string instruments. He was also a brilliant orchestrator. However, his writing for piano does not reveal a similar facility. He must have been aware of this to some extent, because he eventually orchestrated many of his works that originally featured the piano. In the case of the Suite for Viola and Piano, the orchestration followed less than a year later. This exotic, highly perfumed, but rather prolix work is far more successful with orchestral accompaniment, as its rich colors greatly enhance what can only be hinted at on the piano. The Suite Hébraïque was originally composed for viola and piano in 1951; its greatly improved orchestral version appeared two years later. From the standpoint of the consumer, if the latter work is represented here in its orchestral transcription, why not the Suite for Viola and Piano as well? I am sure that the answer involves various practical factors, finances among them. Nevertheless the question is sure to arise in the minds of most prospective consumers.

As the Quintet No. 2 represents a later parallel to its predecessor, the Suite Hébraïque may be seen as an analogue to the Baal Shem Suite, composed almost three decades earlier. Whereas the earlier work exudes its earthy shtetl origins freely and openly, the later one, while unmistakably suggestive of Judaica, exhibits a modicum of distance and reserve, suggestive and descriptive, rather than self-expressive. Elaine’s performance of the work is generally fine, more robust and energetic than Gérard Causseé’s performance with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande on Cascavelle (RSR-6170), although not without some minor technical blemishes. Elaine receives solid support from the London Symphony Orchestra under David Amos’s able direction. 

Elaine’s performance of the Suite for Viola and Piano is also generally good, fully grasping the spirit and character of the work. However, in comparison with Ernst and Lory Wallfisch’s excellent recording of Bloch’s music for viola and piano (on EBS 6044), Elaine’s intonation is not quite as secure nor her articulation quite as sharp, while Lory Wallfisch proves a more forceful partner than Delores Stevens in this very forceful music.

During his final years, Bloch composed a series of solo suites in the manner of Bach: three for cello (1956-57), two for violin (1958), and one for viola. He died before completing the latter work, although Elaine has provided a plausible ending of her own. Many commentators have waxed ecstatic over these works, proclaiming them the crowning achievements of his oeuvre, the ultimate distillation of his basic compositional essence. I have no desire to tear these works down, but I do feel compelled to state that I do not share this feeling, finding them rather dessicated and academic. Elaine’s performance is a bit more relaxed than Wallfisch’s, but reveals the same sort of technical blemishes found in the other works.

Perhaps the most interesting entry on this new release is the transcription for viola and string quartet (done by Elaine herself) of “Nigun.” Probably as frequently performed as Schelomo, “Nigun” is the second movement—and the high-point—of the Baal Shem Suite, although it is often featured by itself on violin recitals. The title Nigun refers to an especially soulful, passionate type of Chasidic melody. Like Schelomo, the piece presents Bloch in his most unrestrained, throbbingly fervent vein, and this is captured especially well on the viola. This selection was recorded in 2008, and is played on a larger instrument than the one used on the rest of the disc, further enhancing the vocal quality of the performance.

BARBER: Piano Sonata. Excursions. Nocturne. Marion BAUER: Three Impressions, Op. 10. Pine-Trees, Op. 12, No. 3. Six Preludes, Op. 15.

BARBER Piano Sonata. ExcursionsNocturne. Marion BAUER Three Impressions, Op. 10. Pine-Trees, Op. 12, No. 3. Six Preludes, Op. 15 • Stephen Beus (pn) • ENDEAVOR CLASSICS END-1017 (57:22)

This is a recent release of more than passing interest. Although there is no shortage of recordings of Barber’s Piano Sonata, few of them really make a convincing statement of the work. Stephen Beus definitely does, and for that alone, the recording warrants attention. He also injects some blood and vitality into the Excursions, which usually sound anemic and overly fastidious. And the gorgeously Scriabinesque Nocturne he plays beautifully.

The CD is also noteworthy for its sampling of music by Marion Bauer (1882-1955), who, I learned, rather to my surprise, appears not to have been related to her near-contemporary Harold Bauer. Born in Washington State, she received a thorough musical training, and, in addition to composing, was active as an advocate of 20th-century music, a critic, and a writer of several respected texts on the subject. She taught on the faculty of New York University for many years, and elsewhere as well. The pieces on this recording date from the 1910s; I am sorry to report that they are not terribly interesting. Falling within the general category of Debussy-styled impressionism, the music offers little individual personality, although—following the opus numbers—each piece reaches out on its own a little further than the last; the more mature pieces are reasonably well-crafted within the rhetoric they inhabit. But her pieces are far overshadowed by, say, Barber’s highly nuanced and sophisticated Nocturne, which draws from much the same aesthetic; her pieces don’t even display the assurance or self-possession found in the roughly contemporaneous, Debussy-influenced piano pieces of Ernest Bloch. But since one encounters her name frequently in contemporary accounts of American musical life during the first half of the 20th century, it is interesting to hear what her own creative work sounds like. However, Stephen Beus’s muscular approach overpowers the material somewhat.