N. LLOYD: Three Scenes from Memory; Five Pieces for Dance; Episodes; Piano Sonata. MENNIN: Five Pieces; Piano Sonata. Myron Silberstein, piano.

N. LLOYD: Three Scenes from Memory; Five Pieces for Dance; Episodes; Piano Sonata. MENNIN: Five Pieces; Piano Sonata. Myron Silberstein, piano. Naxos 8.559767

Liner Notes

Norman Lloyd (1909-1980) and Peter Mennin (1923-1983) are apt discmates. Both were Pennsylvania-born composers who also devoted substantial portions of their careers to teaching as well as educational administration. Both served together on the faculties of the Juilliard School from 1947 until 1958. And Lloyd was one of the figures considered as possible successor to William Schuman when he stepped down as president of the Juilliard in 1962, although Mennin was ultimately chosen for this position. But despite these points of overlap, the careers of the two men were distinguished by markedly different emphases.

Norman Lloyd played a significant role in many facets of American musical life in the 20th century, although neither his name nor his music is often heard today. Born in Pottsville, PA, Lloyd received his undergraduate and graduate training in music at New York University (1932; 1936). His career owed much to his relationship with William Schuman during the 1930s and 40s. In 1936 he joined the music faculty at Sarah Lawrence College, where Schuman was already experimenting with his own ideas regarding music pedagogy. When Schuman assumed the presidency of the Juilliard School in 1945, he took Lloyd with him, and the two men, in consultation with Vincent Persichetti and Richard Franko Goldman, developed the Literature and Materials Program, which revolutionized music education in America.

But during those early years Lloyd had other interests as well. One of these was modern dance. After accompanying Martha Hill’s classes at NYU, he spent his summers at Bennington College (1934-42), where, as accompanist, he became acquainted with a number of distinguished choreographers, chief among them Martha Graham, as well as Doris Humphrey and José Limón. In fact, in 1935 Graham commissioned him to compose music for Panorama, Bennington’s first major dance production, which included “Puritan Hymn” (heard on this recording). It is thus no surprise that it was Lloyd who developed the dance department at Juilliard in 1951. During the Depression he and his wife Ruth performed jazz and popular music as a piano duo. Lloyd also became interested in film, and composed music for more than 30 documentaries before and during World War II. Perhaps the accomplishment for which he was best known was providing the musical arrangements for The Fireside Book of Folksongs (1947), as well as for several other popular collections of folksongs that graced the pianos in thousands of American homes during the late 1940s and 50s.

Upon earning his doctorate from the Philadelphia Conservatory in 1963, Lloyd accepted the position of dean of the Oberlin College Conservatory. While there he co-authored—along with Arnold Fish—the widely used textbook Fundamentals of Sight Singing and Ear Training (1964). In 1965 he was invited to join the Rockefeller Foundation as director of arts programming. During this period he found the time to write the Golden Encyclopedia of Music (1968). He remained at Rockefeller until his retirement in 1972, and died of leukemia in July, 1980.

Lloyd did not regard himself primarily as a composer, thus much of his music remained unpublished, and dates of composition are not always available. For example, it is not certain exactly when he composed his Three Scenes from Memory, short piano pieces simple enough for elementary students to play. Each piece was dedicated to one of his early music teachers at the Braun School in Pottsville, PA. The gently pandiatonic  “Winter Landscape” was dedicated to Carrie Lou Betz. “Sad Carrousel,” wistful and waltz-like, was dedicated to Mrs. Robert Braun. In “City Street,” quartal harmony predominates, although the piece ends with reiterated triads, in a manner reminiscent of much of Schuman’s music. This piece was dedicated to Florence Stephens.

Five Pieces for Dance were composed during the period 1935-38, when Lloyd was actively involved in the dance program at Bennington. As noted, “Puritan Hymn” was written for Martha Graham’s Panorama. Though simple to play, it displays polytonal dissonance and changing meters, while evincing a heavy tread. “Blues” was dedicated to Louis Horst. It is relaxed and idiomatic, following the standard twelve-bar blues prototype. “Piping Tune—Tune for the Open Air” is a charming pentatonic melody with a distinctly Celtic flavor. “Dance Hall Study” was written for Anna Sokolow, and is a somewhat clown-like treatment of irregular rhythmic groupings over a constant duple-meter accompaniment. It is a little more difficult and complex than the preceding pieces. “Theme and Variations,” dedicated to Martha Hill, is the longest, most difficult, and most elaborate piece of the group, though the variations are clear and easy to follow.

Episodes, dedicated to Stanley Lock, a longtime member of the Sarah Lawrence music faculty, were most likely composed during the 1940s. Suitable for an intermediate-level pianist, they are more substantial than the previous pieces, and reveal a greater compositional security. American in flavor, they inhabit a language reminiscent of composers like Aaron Copland and Vincent Persichetti. No. 1 has a wistful, nostalgic feeling; No. 2 is similar, but a trifle sunnier; No. 3 is perky, displaying a light touch and pandiatonic harmony; No. 4 is austere and meditative; No. 5, more complex and difficult than the others, is sprightly and lighthearted, with delightful rhythmic twists.

The Sonata for Piano is Lloyd’s most ambitious composition for the instrument. Composed in 1958, it was dedicated to pianist Joseph Bloch and his wife Dana. Bloch gave the work’s premiere in 1966. The sonata is a compelling, convincingly developed abstract work in three movements, and features nervous, heavily-accented rhythmic syncopations, pandiatonic and polytonal harmony, and much intervallic parallelism and contrary motion—all of which represented something of a lingua franca among American composers during the 1950s, especially those associated with the Juilliard School.

The first movement, a driving Allegro, is based on a descending motif of gradually expanding intervals. A lyrical, contrasting middle section is based on the same motif. The second movement, Slowly and freely, is wistful and reflective, and is based on a descending scalar motif and its inversion. The third movement opens with an introduction marked Roughly, with rapid running figurations that recall the motifs from both preceding movements. This leads directly into the Finale, With a rhythmic drive. The briskly energetic movement opens with a playful, jazzy motif of its own, but with hints of the thematic material from the two previous movements. This lively movement culminates in an exultant conclusion.


While composition was one of many musical activities that engaged the interest and involvement of Norman Lloyd, the life of Peter Mennin revealed a different emphasis. Although he too spent much of his career in musical administration, composition was unquestionably the endeavor that was most important to him. His responsibilities as president of the Peabody Conservatory (1958-1962) and the Juilliard School (1962-1983) occupied much of his time and attention, with the result that his oeuvre is small. But he compensated for that by producing works that were major statements almost exclusively (nine symphonies, three concertos, sonatas for piano and for violin and piano, and a large-scale cantata head the list), with little in the way of peripheral or diverting fare.

Born in Erie, PA, Mennin (né Mennini) was drawn to music by the age of 5, when he began rigorous formal training with a European teacher of the “old school.” This early exposure led to his subsequent embrace of some of the more orthodox disciplines than were in favor during the mid-20th century, rejecting “the American tendency to look for an easy way. There is no easy way,” he insisted. After completing high school, he entered Oberlin, where he remained for only two years, as he did not get along with his teacher, Normand Lockwood. However, he did complete his first symphony there, before volunteering for a stint in the military. Attracted by their policy of performing student works, Mennin entered the Eastman School in 1944, where he worked under Howard Hanson and Bernard Rogers, although he bristled at any interference in his aesthetic intentions. While there he completed a Symphony No. 2, which won two awards, although he subsequently withdrew the work, as he did its predecessor. For his doctorate he wrote his Symphony No. 3, which was premiered by the New York Philharmonic in 1946, before it had even been accepted by the Eastman doctoral committee. The following year William Schuman invited him to join the Juilliard faculty, along with Norman Lloyd.

The successful premiere of his Symphony No. 3 led to a recording by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos. By the 1950s Mennin was recognized as one of the leading American symphonic composers of his generation, winning honors and awards throughout the decades to follow. His Symphony No. 7 (1963) is considered by many to be one of the greatest of all American symphonies.

In 1982, Mennin was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, but kept this fact secret from most of those around him, devoting the time that remained to his responsibilities at Juilliard, and to the completion of a Flute Concerto. He died in June, 1983.

Mennin’s own music reflected concerns that appeared early on, and continued to evolve throughout his career. The most salient characteristic of his music is a continuous unfolding of polyphonic lines through imitative counterpoint, rather than the more conventional dialectical opposition and integration of contrasting themes. Indeed, he emphasized counterpoint above all other elements, almost to the point of obsession. Mennin believed that the most important quality for a composer is individuality, and his own work readily illustrates that conviction. His mature compositions seem to reflect the sober contemplation of ferocious conflict among wild, massive forces in ceaseless turbulence, escalating in intensity toward cataclysmic explosions of almost manic brutality—all articulated through clear musical logic and meticulous craftsmanship. Over the course of decades, the linear aspect of Mennin’s music became increasingly chromatic, the harmony increasingly dissonant, and the rhythm increasingly irregular. This evolution may be heard clearly in the two works presented on this recording, one from his earlier years, the other one of his later compositions. His body of work thus stands as an inexorable progression, each entry grimmer, harsher, and more severe than the last.

Five Piano Pieces, originally entitled Partita, were composed in 1949, and received their first performance at the hands of Grant Johannesen. The title Partita would have implied a connection to the Baroque suite, which the individual movement titles still suggest: PreludeAriaVariation-CanzonaCanto, and Toccata. The pieces comprising the “suite” follow the composer’s general procedures at this point in his creative development, although their impact is somewhat less distinctive than that left by his larger works. The odd-numbered movements are torrential perpetual-motion affairs—toccata-like, despite their different titles—largely in two voices, with irregularly grouped patterns and phrases, and prominent use of ostinato in the third movement. The two even-numbered movements are slow and somber, with long-breathed lyricism, and build to powerful climaxes. Several of the movements are written in the Phrygian mode.

Mennin’s Piano Sonata was commissioned by the Ford Foundation on behalf of pianist Claudette Sorel. Completed in 1963, the work displays a much harsher, more dissonant harmonic language than is found in his previous works, as well as linear writing that is much more freely chromatic. Although each of its three movements is clearly anchored in a tonal center, each is largely atonal throughout its course of development, while the meter changes with virtually every measure.

The first movement, Poco moderato, opens with a slow introduction that presents the movement’s primary thematic material, which includes several motifs that will figure significantly later in the work as well. The first is a descending motif that ends in an accented mordent—a characteristic Mennin gesture. This motif recurs throughout the movement for brief moments of repose, and suggests the shape of the motifs that dominate the remaining movements. Another motif, a four-note figure consisting of two descending minor-seconds, is the chief focus of development once the vigorous Allegro commences, and is transformed several times through octave-displacement. As the movement proceeds, the tempo changes a number of times, linear counterpoint becomes highly dissonant, and textures quite dense; the emotional temperature is tense and grim. By the time it reaches its resolute conclusion, a tonal center of C has been affirmed.

The second movement, Adagio, displays a deeply searching, improvisatory quality. It revolves around a lofty melody of somewhat melancholy cast, which eventually builds to a powerful, dissonant climax. Again, despite its highly chromatic linear writing and extremely harsh harmonic language, a tonal center of C-sharp minor clearly frames the movement.

The finale, Veloce, is a tremendously propulsive movement in perpetual motion, with a constant figuration, but ever-changing meter, suggesting the general feeling of a rondo. Again, although the harmony is quite dissonant, the tonality is clearly B-flat minor. Before it reaches its grimly decisive conclusion, motifs from the first movement make their appearance. Some commentators have remarked on a similarity to the finale of Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata, while the coda of the movement has provoked comparisons with the corresponding passage in the last movement of Barber’s Piano Sonata. However, the aggressive energy and ceaseless drive of this movement are far more characteristic of Mennin’s body of work than of Prokofiev’s or Barber’s.

Mennin’s Piano Sonata is an extremely difficult work to render effectively, and few pianists have taken on the challenge. But, as this recording illustrates, it ranks among the great American contributions to the genre.

Notes by Walter Simmons
Author, Voices of Stone and Steel: The Music of Schuman, Persichetti, and Mennin (Scarecrow Press, 2011)

Myron Silberstein

Myron Silberstein’s professional performance career began at the age of seventeen, when he won first prize at the twenty-sixth annual Giornate Musicale International Piano Competition in 1991. He made his full-scale European debut at the Giornate Musicali Festival the following summer. Silberstein’s 1993 U. S. debut at the Joan and Sanford I. Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall was hailed for its inventive programming and virtuoso playing. Silberstein’s debut recording on Connoisseur Society included a critically-acclaimed performance of Ernest Bloch’s rarely-heard Piano Sonata and first recordings of pieces by American composer Vittorio Giannini. Most recently, Mr. Silberstein’s musical direction of Chicago Opera Vanguard’s production of Martin Wesley-Smith’s opera Boojum was nominated for a Joseph Jefferson Award. Mr. Silberstein resides in Chicago, where he serves as General Manager for VOX 3 Vocal Music Collective, an organization devoted to the performance of overlooked art-song repertoire.

Acknowledgments

This recording was funded in part by generous contributions from Laura Flanigan, Helena Brown Axelrod, and Hank Perritt.

Special thanks to Catie Huggins for facilitating the loan of several of Norman Lloyd’s scores.

LESHNOFF Double Concerto. Symphony No. 1, “Forgotten Chants and Refrains.” Rush

LESHNOFF Double Concerto.  Symphony No. 1, “Forgotten Chants and Refrains.” Rush ● Michael Stern, cond; IRIS Orchestra; Charles Wetherbee (vn); Roberto Díaz (va) ● NAXOS 8.559670 (56:33)

Turning 40 this year, Jonathan Leshnoff is proving to be one of the most gifted traditionalist composers of his generation. Born and raised in New Jersey, he is a graduate of the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, and cites as his most important teachers Moshe Cotel and Thomas Benjamin. He seems to have settled in Baltimore, and is currently composer-in-residence of the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, and on the faculty of Towson University.

This is Naxos’s second release devoted to the music of Leshnoff. I reviewed its predecessor favorably in Fanfare 34:3; that one featured a violin concerto and a string quartet. Looking back at that review, I see that I wrote about his Violin Concerto, “Flagrantly and unabashedly tonal and melodic, its conventional and accessible style calls to mind the music of Lowell Liebermann, though it reveals a greater sense of expressive urgency.” Funny, I was thinking exactly the same thing as I listened to this CD, except that I find this more recent release even more appealing by quite a margin. Like the earlier CD, each piece falls into a slightly different stylistic category, yet each remains satisfying in its own way.

Almost immediately after composing his Violin Concerto, Leshnoff was asked to write a Double Concerto featuring violin and viola. He completed the work later the same year, in 2007. This ambitious four-movement concerto grabbed me immediately. Its style is thoroughly traditional and clearly tonal in the late-romantic sense. That is, the listener will hear nothing that couldn’t have been written by a neo-romantic composer 50 years ago. This is, of course, a bold and courageous posture for a composer to take, because not only does he place himself in direct comparison with many celebrated figures of the recent past, but his chosen language makes it virtually impossible for him to avoid the “sounds like” references that so many critics use to diminish the stature of traditionalist composers and their works. I must emphasize that “sounds like” references in this review are provided solely to give the reader a frame of reference that might facilitate his forming a mental impression of what the music sounds like, not a criticism or accusation of “derivativeness.”

Lasting nearly half an hour, the Double Concerto is a serious, passionate work in four movements. Its opening movement is fraught with a grim, heartfelt pathos strongly reminiscent of Ernest Bloch. The second movement is a lively, exciting scherzo with no shortage of lyrical moments. The third movement is a mysterious nocturne that returns to the somber cast of the opening. The finale is a perpetual-motion affair that calls Shostakovich to mind; despite its continuous vigor, it ends the work on a subdued note. The solo performances, featuring violinist Charles Wetherbee (who excelled in the aforementioned Violin Concerto) and violist Roberto Díaz are truly masterly, while the orchestra, under the direction of its founder Michael Stern, provides the solid, confident support one might expect of a far more seasoned ensemble. The IRIS Orchestra, formed in 2000 as the resident orchestra of the Germantown Performing Arts Center in Tennessee, is extraordinarily fine, and Stern appears to be a committed advocate of Leshnoff’s music.

Leshnoff’s Symphony No. 1 was commissioned by Stern, and is subtitled, “Forgotten Chants and Refrains.” It was completed in 2004—earlier than the Double Concerto—but is more obviously a work of the turn of the 21st century, in its emphasis on sonority and gesture reminiscent of the music of Joseph Schwantner, as well as in its passages of rhythmic stasis. The work comprises five movements, played without pause, and is supposedly a “Brotherhood of Man” sort of statement. Lately I find myself on a campaign against references to extramusical content and meaning that is not borne out by the music itself. I have no particular criticisms of Leshnoff’s symphony, which I enjoyed greatly—I just think that its pretense of “[speaking] to all humanity in an uplifting way” is irrelevant. The symphony opens with a slow introduction that produces a great sense of anticipation that is released in the energetic movement that follows. The third movement—the centerpiece—is the longest, and after an eerie opening, becomes more hymnlike, with quotations from earlier religious music, including Gregorian Chant (presumably for purposes of spiritual uplift), before returning to its initial mysterious character. The fourth movement also includes quotations and, like the second, provides rapid activity through swirling gestures. The finale, “Resolution,” is solemn and chant-like, bringing the work—like the Double Concerto—to a subdued conclusion. Despite my carping about extramusical meaning, this is a satisfying work with potentially broad appeal, demonstrating that there is still plenty meaningful to say within the symphonic genre.

Rush is a relatively short, very animated work dating from 2008 that partakes of the post-minimalist manner of John Adams and Michael Torke. It is quite successful in generating the kind of excited exuberance for which such pieces seem to strive, although Rush offers quieter moments as well.

As indicated earlier, the performances presented here are superb, and the music provides just less than an hour of fully enjoyable listening.

LEE PUI MING She Comes to Shore

LEE PUI MING: SHE COMES TO SHORE ● Lee Pui Ming (pn); Jed Gaylin, cond; Bay-Atlantic Symphony ● INNOVA 796 (64:20)
to …. coils. turning. open. dive. she comes to shore.… she. shimmers

Lee Pui Ming was born in Hong Kong in 1956, immigrating to the United States to pursue her musical studies in 1976. For the past 30 years or so, she has been based in Toronto, where she has developed an enthusiastic following for her piano improvisations. She is also a Biodynamic Craniosacral therapist. None of the foregoing information is available anywhere on the CD package. (From what I was able to glean from the Internet, Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy is a mystical/New Age-flavored variant of massage therapy. But that is not what concerns us here.) Not only is the package devoid of informative notes, but what verbiage appears is barely legible, thanks to gray type on a blue background. Admittedly, this presentation did not exactly create a sense of positive anticipation for the music contained therein.

However, Lee’s music is quite pleasant, revealing a fertile creative imagination. Though I am not deeply immersed in the world of piano improvisation, her pieces call to mind the highly esteemed piano improvisations of Keith Jarrett, and I would think that those who are fond of that aspect of Jarrett’s work would respond favorably to Lee’s. Like Jarrett’s classic improvisations, Lee’s are not based on the familiar harmonic language of jazz and its elaboration of popular songs; instead, her work draws upon the styles of Impressionist and post-Impressionist classical music, some remote suggestions of Asian influence, and what is generally thought of as “New Age.” But these influences are well homogenized and integrated into a meditative, tasteful, yet highly virtuosic musical flow.

The “big piece” here is the 23-minute Concerto for Improvised Piano and Orchestra, dating from 2009. The work is divided into three movements, which elide smoothly one into another. Obviously, the fact that the piano part is improvised, at least to some extent, suggests that the orchestral contribution must be generic enough to accommodate whatever fancies Lee decides to pursue. The first movement is therefore rather simple, but not simplistic or insubstantial, contributing to the sense of motion as well as some harmonic support, creating a foundation for the piano’s attractive filigree. In the second movement the orchestra introduces some two-part counterpoint that probably displays the clearest suggestion of Asian influence, while cluster ostinati in the brass effectively inspire the piano to increased intensity. The third movement blossoms into a luscious melody featuring both piano and strings.

The solo selections offer some variety within the generally consistent style: some are more mellow, others are surprisingly feisty, with cluster dissonances, others utilize unconventional sound sources, such as percussion effects created by striking the body of the piano, and harmonics achieved by striking the keys of strings dampened by the hand—an effect pioneered by Henry Cowell. Altogether, the CD is authentically musical and attractive, and, as noted, is likely to appeal to listeners who will self-identify by reading this review. For this listener, while the talent of the composer-pianist is unmistakable, a little goes a long way.

HOLST Symphony in F, “The Cotswolds.” Walt Whitman Overture. A Hampshire Suite (orch. G. Jacob). The Perfect Fool. Scherzo

HOLST Symphony in F, “The Cotswolds.” Walt Whitman Overture. A Hampshire Suite (orch. G. Jacob). The Perfect Fool. Scherzo ● Douglas Bostock, cond; Munich SO ● SCANDINAVIAN CLASSICS 220559-205 (65:04)

This is a reissue of a CD originally released on Classico and was reviewed with somewhat muted enthusiasm by Peter Rabinowitz in 23:6.

Gustav Holst was a most unusual composer, with several different creative personalities that don’t share much in common. His oddness is only partly explained by the particularly uneven representation of his work in the repertoire. A member of the same generation as Vaughan Williams and so many other English composers known disparagingly as “the cowpat school,” which might be described more objectively as those composers who found inspiration in the folk music of England and its environs and couched it in a pastoral language with roots in Impressionism. And, yes, Holst certainly falls into that group by dint of a number of works that share those attributes. But his best-known work, The Planets (1914-16)—certainly one of the most popular orchestral works of the 20th century—reveals that side of his creative personality only in the “trio” melody from the “Jupiter” movement. Perhaps the popularity of this work—indeed, its over-familiarity—has led to a somewhat patronizing attitude toward it, and with it a failure to acknowledge the novelty of conception, original stylistic juxtapositions, and expressive breadth it displays with great eloquence, not to mention its extraordinarily imaginative orchestration. In fact, aside from that Elgarian tune in “Jupiter,” there is very little about the work that links it to a national “school” or to the music of other composers (although some claim to hear reminiscences that elude me), and that, along with a certain visionary sense of impersonal detachment, make his music quite difficult to characterize. Aside from A Hampshire Suite, that is the case with much of the remaining music on this disc, although its level of interest must be said to be uneven. Missing from this program is the composer’s fascination with Oriental literature and philosophy—another element of his heterogeneous stylistic range.

Perhaps the least interesting piece is the aforementioned A Hampshire Suite, as it is merely an orchestral arrangement done by Gordon Jacob of Holst’s classic Second Suite in F for wind band. Certainly delightful in its own right, it can readily be grouped with similar pieces by Vaughan Williams, not to mention Gordon Jacob himself, along with the many other English composers who found inspiration in their indigenous folk music.

Of interest largely to those who enjoy and are familiar with only Holst’s best-known works are two pieces dating from 1899-1900, when the composer had yet to find his own voice: the Walt Whitman Overture and the ambitious four-movement Symphony in F, subtitled “The Cotswolds,” after the beautiful English hills. The Overture is remarkable for its stylistic anonymity, as well as for the absence of any suggestion of the spirit of Walt Whitman. The language might be described as “international” in style, like that of so many pre-Elgar English composers, such as Sir Arthur Sullivan (Holst was 17 years younger than Elgar), with suggestions of Wagner (both early and late), resulting in moments of both bombast and banality.

The Symphony in F is cut from much the same cloth, although looming far above the rest of it is the slow movement—more than a third of the work’s duration—subtitled “In Memoriam William Morris,” dedicated to the Pre-Raphaelite artist who had died just three years earlier. This elegy is quite beautifully moving, almost Tchaikovskian in its mournfulness, and more complex harmonically than the rest of the work. Yet despite the evident sincerity of its feeling, there are numerous indications of immaturity. The three other movements are surprisingly ordinary, with some suggestions of Dvořák, and even Raff—but with nowhere near the musical or emotional complexity of what, say, Elgar was writing at the time.

But exemplifying Holst’s mature musical personality is the ballet suite drawn from The Perfect Fool, variously described as an opera and as incidental music, dating from 1918. This is probably the composer’s best-known music, after The Planets, which the music frequently calls to mind,and the pieces based on English folksong. With extraordinarily brilliant orchestration, it is a marvelously imaginative and individualistic work—captivating yet strangely impersonal in its exuberance. Perusing the Fanfare archive to see how my colleagues have characterized this music, I discovered that, while the piece appears on many recordings, its character and style is not really addressed by any of the reviewers, confirming my observation about the elusiveness of this quite delightful music.

But the most interesting music of all is the Scherzo, apparently the last music composed by Holst, shortly before his untimely death in 1934 at age 60. This six-minute morsel leads one to deeply regret that he did not live to complete the symphony for which this movement was intended. The brief, unsigned liner notes say nothing about this piece, but it is strangely jaunty, in an off-center sort of way that does not identify it with any national school. Most notable is its highly flexible and inventive treatment of rhythm, which accounts for its off-center effect.

Douglas Bostock is an English conductor whose career has mostly been located in Germany. The performances here are generally quite fine, although I found some of the tempos in the Cotswolds Symphony to be a little on the sluggish side.

In conclusion, let me say that I encourage those listeners who appreciate The Planets as more than a mere audio spectacular to look more deeply into Holst’s output. I think that they will discover a highly intriguing creative voice.

BECKMAN Big Muddy

BECKMAN Big Muddy ● Richard Stoltzman (cl); Patrick Beckman (pn) ● NAVONA NV5815 (enhanced CD), 40:35

Patrick Beckman is an Illinois-born and –based pianist and composer. One of those musicians who has endeavored to keep his age pretty well hidden, he is, I suspect, somewhere in his early 60s. Although he has been active in the academic world, his musical involvements have been quite varied, embracing works for the musical theater, music for dance, and  rhythm and blues, and as well as more “straight” classical pieces. Big Muddy is an ambitious five-movement suite for clarinet and piano composed in 2008, and inspired by and based on musical styles that originated around the Mississippi basin. The result is a hybrid of jazz styles and techniques articulated with the composure and balance provided by a more classical foundation. Although this is not the kind of music to which I typically turn for pleasure, I found Big Muddy quite enjoyable to listen to, and would recommend it to anyone enjoys the music of, say, Dave Brubeck or others of that ilk.

In fact, the only aspect of the recording I found unpleasant, I’m sorry to say, is some of the playing of Richard Stoltzman. A highly active and much admired musician with exceedingly broad interests, he has certainly earned a good deal of respect. But I found the jazz-based inflections of his playing often grating, piercing, and strident. This is not because I am allergic to jazz-style clarinet-playing in general; there is something about Stoltzman’s playing here that is too close for comfort, and had me leaping to turn down the volume repeatedly. Beckman’s own playing is fine, and, I must admit, he praises Stoltzman’s contribution to the skies.

The “enhanced” CD includes more information about the participants—but no birthdates—and a study score of the music. 

BECK In Flight Until Mysterious Night. Sonata No. 2 for Cello and Piano. In February. Gemini. Slow Motion. Third Delphic Hymn. September Music. String Quartets: No. 1; No. 2, “Fathers and Sons”; No. 4; No. 5

BECK In Flight Until Mysterious Night. Sonata No. 2 for Cello and PianoIn February. GeminiSlow Motion. Third Delphic Hymn. September Music ● IonSound Project (Peggy Yoo [fl], Kathleen Costello [cl], Eliseo Rael [perc], Laura Motchalov [vn], Elisa Kohanski [vc], Rob Frankenberry [pn]); Margaret Baube Andraso (sop) ● INNOVA 797 (69:21)

BECK String Quartets: No. 1; No. 2, “Fathers and Sons”; No. 4; No. 5 ● San Gabriel St Qt; Nevsky St Qt; Da Kappo St Qt ● INNOVA 867 (63:03)

These two discs provide a richly rewarding representation of the music of Jeremy Beck (b. 1960), with which I am making my first acquaintance. Having studied at the Mannes School, Duke, and Yale with such luminaries as Jacob Druckman and Martin Bresnick, among others, Beck has pursued a decidedly old-fashioned approach. Although the results are not strikingly individualistic by any means, his music is impressive for its thorough mastery of traditional craftsmanship, for its consistently engaging personality, and for some works that reveal considerable expressive depth. Of the eleven compositions represented here, not a single one is dismissible as unworthy, and all are heard in precise, polished performances that impose no compromise on the impressions they make. Beck is currently based in Louisville, Kentucky, where he maintains a law practice that probably enables him to compose without undue concern with the impact of his music in the marketplace.

The pieces on both discs are drawn from the same period—roughly 1980 through 2010—which essentially spans Beck’s creative life, but each offers music of somewhat different character. The first disc features the IonSound Project, a mixed sextet with whom Beck became acquainted during a year he spent as visiting professor at Chatham College in Pittsburgh. In residence at the University of Pittsburgh, the ensemble became enamored of his music, and this recording grew out of that relationship. September Music (2002) was the first piece performed by the ensemble, while In Flight Until Mysterious Night (2009) was composed specifically for this recording.

Most of the pieces on the earlier recording display a largely diatonic musical language, with a mild degree of dissonance, not unlike the populist musical language of Aaron Copland, but without drawing upon obvious “Americanisms.” Nevertheless the music reveals its national origin unmistakably through its pert and lively, syncopated rhythms. I would describe its style, within my own frame of reference, as exuberantly neo-classical. Thus his music might be said to resemble that of, say, Robert Baksa or Rick Sowash. However, Beck’s music is built upon a structural foundation that is considerably more elaborate and dense than theirs, and thus leaves a much deeper impression. In that sense, though not in surface sound, it calls to mind the two piano trios of Patrick Zimmerli, about which I enthused several years ago (Fanfare 29:4) and which made my 2006 Want List. Like Zimmerli, Beck writes what a certain type of listener would call “real music:” that is, essentially, music composed according to the formal principles modeled by Brahms (not that either composer’s music “sounds like” him). This gives Beck’s music a strength and substance not generally encountered among the more recent avatars of traditionalism. It also means that, regardless of the catchy titles of the pieces on the first disc, the music is thoroughly abstract, and would be no less attractive (though perhaps harder to remember) with purely generic titles (as on the second disc). Yet for the most part, their appealing surface and thorough craftsmanship make them infectious and very likeable.

I could discuss each piece individually, but while they are not carbon copies of each other by any means, they embody a certain aesthetic that the reader of the previous paragraph will be able to identify in relation to his own predilections. Nevertheless, so as not to shirk my responsibility altogether, I will note that I found the Sonata No. 2 for cello and piano (1988) to be the most impressive work on the disc, its character somewhat more serious than the cheerful exuberance of most of the other pieces, with a contrapuntal developmental texture that I suspect would have met with Brahms’s enthusiastic approval. In February is a vocal work set to the composer’s own text. Here I found the poem’s irony and ambivalence not matched by the straightforwardness of the music’s character. Beck notes that Slow Motion,for vibraphone and piano, was inspired by the music of jazz artists Gary Burton and Chick Corea, and their influence is easily detected in this delightful piece. Third Delphic Hymn, originally composed for viola solo in 1980, is the earliest piece presented here, written during Beck’s first year as an undergraduate at the Mannes College of Music. He rearranged it for violin solo in 2003. The title is a reference to the earliest known examples of written music. As a piece for an unaccompanied string instrument, it is brief enough to be effective rather than grating.

The second CD features four string quartets performed by three different ensembles. These are extremely solid works that cut deeper than most of the pieces on the first disc. While still largely diatonic, the contrapuntal lines produce a somewhat higher degree of vertical dissonance, and the sense of tonality is less obvious. They are thoroughly abstract, making them difficult to describe without resorting to the sort of structural play-by-play that is of virtually no interest to anyone first becoming acquainted with the music. (The liner notes fall into this trap, although—admittedly—what else is there to say?) But the music, while perhaps less appealing on first hearing, is no less impressive, and displays no less mastery in its presentation of expressive substance conveyed with consummate craftsmanship. Although they are more introspective compositions, with less overt resemblance to other, more familiar works, they offer the kinds of rewards that most traditional listeners expect from the string quartet genre. All four quartets (one wonders about the absent Quartet No. 3) are gratifying works, although No. 2 is perhaps a bit less successful in holding the listener’s attention. They receive generally excellent performances by the three different ensembles. While perhaps not as immediately ingratiating as the first disc, it is not one iota less impressive, and I expect that these quartets will prove to be increasingly rewarding with greater familiarity. I hope that at some point Beck’s music will receive the recognition that it deserves. I gather that he has also a number of operas to his credit, and I am curious to see and hear them.

BARRAUD Impromptus. Trois lettres de Mme de Sévigné. Chantefables. Trois poèmes de Pierre Reverdy. Chanson de Gramadoch. Quatre mélodies

BARRAUD Impromptus. Trois lettres de Mme de Sévigné. Chantefables. Trois poèmes de Pierre Reverdy. Chanson de Gramadoch. Quatre mélodies ● Nicolas Kruger (pn); Salomé Haller (sop); Christophe Crapez (ten); Didier Henry (bar) ● MAGUELONE MAG 111.178 (enhanced CD, 61:30)

I have had recordings of major works—symphonies, an oratorio, et al.—by Henry Barraud (1900-1997) for many years. These works have led me to the conclusion that Barraud was one of the foremost French symphonic composers of the 20th century. From the standpoint of context, he was a near-contemporary of Francis Poulenc, but lacked that composer’s inclinations in the direction of wit and irony. Poulenc’s music may be more distinctive, but Barraud’s often has more substance and depth. He is seen more accurately as a descendent of the robust, serious-toned music of Florent Schmitt, Louis Aubert, and, perhaps, Arthur Honegger. During his lifetime Barraud was an important figure in French musical life, as a member of various composer’s organizations but, most notably, as director of the ORTF for many years. Hence I have long been dismayed that none of his major works (and only a few minor ones) have ever appeared on compact disc. So when I discovered this new release, which features the composer’s grandson as pianist (and annotator) in the performance of six Impromptus for piano and five song cycles, I was excited to get hold of it, even if these aren’t the large orchestral works I might have preferred.

Having acquainted myself with the disc, I find myself a little disappointed—not by the music or the performances, but by the presentation. Yes, of course it would have been nice to have some major orchestral works, but I know that economic factors are often prohibitive. And the music here is all first-rate, if less ambitious in its scope. The six Impromptus are very well-wrought essays in a familiar post-Debussian idiom. However, if one selects No. 3, one will have a taste of the kind of emotional depth of which Barraud was capable. But the biggest disappointment involves production values. As pianist, Nicolas Kruger provides fine, tasteful performances.

But his essay, presented in French and English, is quite brief and discusses only the Impromptus. Although there is plenty of information about the featured soloists, there is no information whatsoever regarding the song cycles that comprise the majority of the recording. The sung texts may be accessed by placing the CD into the disk drive of a PC, but they are in French only. And, as I discovered after several hours of fruitless research, information about the texts is not readily available, especially in English, and translations seem to be non-existent. Perhaps the French feel that any cultivated aesthete ought to be fluent in their language, but times have changed, and this is no longer to be taken for granted. And your reviewer is one of those who does not boast such fluency. Perhaps this deficiency should have disqualified me from reviewing the disc, but I wanted the opportunity to advocate on behalf of the composer. But it will unfortunately limit the specificity and depth of my own comments on songs that are clearly closely tailored to their texts.

The earliest—and perhaps the most challenging songs to appreciate—are the Trois poèmes de Pierre Reverdy, which date from 1933. They are sung by tenor Christophe Crapez, who brings an attractive voice and fine artistry to his renditions. These songs are inward in tone, with music that is rather angular and relatively austere; the last, “Un homme fini,” is especially compelling. Next in chronology are the Chansons de Gramadoch, set to Victor Hugo texts in 1935. These, sung sensitively by baritone Didier Henry, seem to refer back to an “olden” style with simpler, lighter textures. Trois lettres de Mme de Sévigné date from 1938, and feature soprano Salomé Haller. All three of these settings are excellent—the second, in particular, is almost a French “patter-song” with a slightly Eastern-European flavor, providing a considerable challenge to soprano Salomé Haller, who acquits herself with grace and aplomb. Quatre mélodies were composed in 1942, to poems by Lanza del Vasto, and feature baritone Didier Henry, who again proves himself a persuasive advocate. These are powerful, penetrating songs, not unlike the late songs of Samuel Barber. The latest group comprises Huit Chantefables pour les enfants sages, composed in 1947, and they appear to be Barraud’s best known song cycle. Animal fables, they are based on witty, satirical verses by Robert Desnos. All three vocal soloists contribute to this group. Unlike the serious, introspective musical expression found in most of the other songs, these are generally light-hearted and clever. “L’Aligator” even comes close to paraphrasing Gershwin.

Listeners fluent in French and well-versed in French literature will probably derive a deeper appreciation of these songs than I did, and I believe that those who value the French mèlodie will be quite impressed if they are unfamiliar with Barraud’s contributions to the genre. As noted, the performances are excellent, although I found the sonic balance between voice and piano to place the latter too far in the background. This new release appears to be directed chiefly toward the French market, which is a pity, as Barraud was a composer of international stature. From my own perspective, despite my linguistic limitations, I found all the music on this CD to be exquisitely subtle, masterly, and rewarding on a variety of different levels. My wish is now for a recording of some of Barraud’s larger, more ambitious scores.