journal_II -- Vol. 22, #1; fall 2007/spring 2008


“Briefly Noted”

Short Reviews of New CD Releases

Paul Moravec: Tempest Fantasy; Mood Swings; B.A.S.S. Variations; Scherzo
Trio Solsti, David Krakauer, clarinet. (60:40)
Naxos 8.559323

This is a re-release on Naxos of a very recent disc on Arabesque of the music of American Paul Moravec (b. 1957), and it includes his 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning work Tempest Fantasy. Since I commented on the original release, I will simply reiterate that Moravec’s music was long overdue for such major recognition, and that this is a superb disc of American chamber music. The Tempest Fantasy is an extended, five-movement work for clarinet and piano trio inspired by characters and scenes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

The performances by clarinetist David Krakauer and Trio Solsti are excellent and capture the continuous excitement of Moravec’s musical language. Also on Naxos is a strong release including another large chamber work of Moravec, The Time Gallery. Both are strongly recommended. – Thomas Abbott

***

John Harbison: Piano Trio No. 2, “Short Stories” ; Gatsby Etudes; The Violist’s Notebook; Ten Micro-Waltzes; Cucaraccia and Fugue; Cello Suite; Piano Trio No. 2
Naxos 8.559243
Amelia Piano Trio, Reiko Aizawa, Jason Duckles, John Harbison, Ida Kavafian, Anthea Kreston, Steven Tenenbom, violas. (70:30)

This disc of chamber music by distinguished American composer John Harbison (b. 1938) focuses mostly on recent shorter compositions. Though some were composed for “occasional” purposes originally, all are characterful and appealing additions to the chamber repertoire. Harbison’s language could perhaps be described as a mixture of Roger Sessions and Igor Stravinsky, with a good dose of baroque-era structural and textural influence thrown in as well. Unlike many composers, Harbison’s formative experiences were with the cantatas of Bach and other sorts of baroque chamber and choral music, rather than the typical romantic symphonic tradition. As such, he has often used baroque formal and style models as the starting points for his musical explorations.

The two piano trios were composed 35 years apart, the first in 1968 and the second in 2003. The first is in the style of most of Harbison’s music from the 60’s and 70’s – a sort of angular post-serial syntax with many contrasts, tempered by strands of aborted lyricism. The very short work is tightly constructed, but feels a bit like a “museum-piece” compared to the wittier and more open other works on the CD, all from far more recent vintage.

The second piano trio of 2003, subtitled “Short Stories” was a work inspired by Harbison’s engagement with the music of Haydn at the Token Creek Music Festival in Wisconsin (of which Harbison and his violinist wife Rose Mary are the artistic directors). Harbison notes how Haydn’s piano trios are more “unpredictable and experimental” than his string quartets and symphonies. Harbison’s own trio has much of the spirit of Haydn, and its four movements run through a gamut of moods in short portraits, employing wit and humor as essential style elements.

Gatsby Etudes (1999) for piano were written for pianist Judith Gordon, who had been Harbison’s choice to record a rehearsal tape of the entire piano accompaniment of his opera The Great Gatsby, commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in 1998. In thanks to Gordon for all of this work, Harbison composed these piano etudes for her, basing them on music from the piano reduction of the opera’s score. Each etude (Parlors, Parties, and The Green Light) refers to music and emotional themes from the opera. These are fun pieces that would find a welcome place on any recital, with their mix of the vernacular and classical. They are the most enjoyable piano works of Harbison’s that I know.

Although primarily active as a composer and conductor, Harbison is also a violist, and he composed the two volumes of The Violist’s Notebook (2003) in response to the music of Bartolomeo Campagnoli, a composer of etudes well-known to the viola world. About these small works, Harbison notes: “Each is dedicated to a violist, mostly hard-core, but a few doublers are included. Book I was assembled in the margins, over two years. Book II was written one a day, a selfassigned experiment.”

The Ten Micro-Waltzes (2004) are very short piano pieces which were written to be a part of a festival of Harbison’s chamber music put on by Emmanuel Music.

Cucaraccia and Fugue (2003) is a somewhat light and humorous piece for multiple violas. About it, Harbison writes: “It begins with a species of viola joke, and continues with a fugue that tends to take itself rather seriously, unlike the violists I know.”

Cello Suite (1993) was composed immediately after Harbison’s large cello concerto of 1993 and was designed as an exercise to approach the cello in a different sort of work. The performances by the Amelia Piano Trio and various violists (including Harbison himself) are engaged and suitably fun-loving.
                                                                                                                      – J. Bixler Taylor

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CD Review:

Billband: Blurred
Innova 609 Time: 32:24

by David Cleary

One complaint your reviewer has against some Downtown music is its excruciating length. Coupled with obsessive, often undeveloped material, the result can be numbing to brain and posterior alike. Credit New York-based composer Bill Ryan with penning fare in this vein that combines polished workmanship with knowing when enough’s enough.

The four selections on this release, Original Blend, Capacity 49, Blurred, and Drive are scored for modified jazz combo and are built from brief gestures presented in patterns that are often subtly varied in length and phrasing. With its static repeated single-pitch platform and somewhat more process style concert music feel, Blurred recalls Terry Riley’s In C and Steve Reich’s 1970s oeuvre. Its sound world is fetchingly atmospheric. The other items here are more bubbly, extroverted, and jagged with extended sections of drum kit backing, all helping demonstrate a more obvious kinship to jazz; mainly because of the prominent percussion, all have an infectious toe-tapping immediacy that imparts immense surface appeal to crafty inner workings. All four tracks contain plenty of dynamic shading, strongly varied textures, and a somewhat loose yet highly convincing feel for architecture. And all have a good sense of when to stop – Ryan never outstays his welcome.

Performances are terrific. Billband, consisting of David Cossin (drums), Wayne DuMaine (trumpet), Steve Gosling (piano), Michael Lowenstern (bass clarinet), Todd Reynolds (violin), and Taimur Sullivan (saxophones) play with a bright, compelling sound and exhibit machine precision tightness. Editing is flawless and sonics are wonderfully vibrant. Some listeners may object to this CD’s comparatively short duration, coming in at slightly more than half an hour – but this critic was left happy yet hungry for more, not feeling cheated. Here is a disc that is a must for everyone, especially lovers of Downtown styles.

CD Review:

Jordan and the Dog Woman: Beth Denisch, composer
Juxtab JTM 5827 Time: 56:29

by David Cleary

An attractive photographic portrait
of Beth Denisch at the piano
is included in the original publication.

Based at the Berklee College of Music, Beth Denisch writes New Tonalist concert music that shows acute familiarity with vernacular idioms. In fact, she often cheekily combines several such influences in one piece, though it must be said, to telling effect.

No better example can be cited in this regard than Southern Lament (2003) for solo guitar. Here, one encounters a flamenco repeated- note ostinato anchored by arpeggiated gospel style underpinning and interrupted with blues flourishes. Surprisingly, it all goes together like cake, ice cream, and chocolate syrup. The mezzo-soprano/harp entry Star Goddess Song (2004) evokes a pentatonic primitivism incongruously tinged with hints of Broadway. And The Forth Project (1994), an opus primarily polytonal in sound, manages to squirrel in blues and jazz inflected movements alongside more highbrow Expressionist and Impressionist entries.

Despite being scored for the same combination (woodwind quintet and percussion), Jordan and the Dog Woman and Women: the Power and the Journey (both 2003) sound nothing like each other. The former is baldly triadic, often suggestive of folk idioms, though Denisch manages to veer off into both beatnik and arcanely Neoclassic territory.

Playing is generally strong here. The Equinox Chamber Players (Paula Kasica on flute, Ann Hohmann on oboe, Jeanine York-Garesche on clarinet, Donita Bauer on bassoon, and Carole Lemire on horn), percussionist Henry Claude, pianist Sandra Hebert, guitarist Apostolis Paraskevas, harpist Felice Pomeranz, and mezzo-soprano Kathryn Wright offer up performances brimming with flair and personality. Sound is stuffy in Forth Project and betrays distortion in Jordan, but is fine otherwise. Editing is excellent. Much recommended.

***

CD Review:

RiverRun (Symphony No. 1); Symphony No. 2: Stephen Albert; Naxos 8.559257 Time: 64:24
Russian Philharmonic Orchestra,
Paul Polivnick, conductor.
by Carson Cooman

Without doubt, American composer Stephen Albert (1941-1992) is one of the greatest musical losses of the 20th century. Killed in a car accident in the prime of his career, he was in the midst of producing works of profound significance to American music. A life-long New Yorker, Albert studied at the Eastman School of Music and the University of Pennsylvania; he taught at Stanford University and Smith College, before becoming professor of composition at The Juilliard School in New York City. He served as composer-in-residence with the Seattle Symphony in the 1980’s and fulfilled commissions from many major American orchestras and organizations.

This superb new disc on Naxos nearly completes the recording of his mature orchestral works. Albert’s next-to-last composition, the astounding clarinet concerto Wind Canticle (1991), was finally released two years ago on Albany Records in a strong performance by the Steven Schempf and the Bowling Green Philharmonia. I cannot recommend that recording highly enough. Wind Canticle would be one of my “desert island” compositions, as it sums up everything Albert does best in one compact, wonderful work. Thankfully, Naxos has decided to include music of Albert in their admirable “American Classics” series. This widely distributed new release should provide some much needed visibility for these important pieces.

Albert’s first symphony, RiverRun, was first released on Delos in an excellent performance by its commissioners, the National Symphony Orchestra under Mstislav Rostropovich. Well more than half of Albert’s compositions are inspired by the writings of James Joyce, in particular Joyce’s last major work, the fantastical novel Finnegan’s Wake. Given the depth of allusions and endless wordplay that fill the novel, it is not surprising that it could provide fertile ground for ongoing musical inspiration. In some of his “Joyce” works, Albert sets the actual texts to music. The symphony, by contrast, is a purely musical piece. However, it does share much of its musical material with the extended song cycle TreeStone (1983) for soprano, tenor, and twelve players (also recorded on an out of print Delos CD by the New York Chamber Symphony). Thus, if one knows TreeStone, one knows all sorts of words for the melodies that appear within RiverRun.

Structurally, the work overtly resembles a typical four movement symphony – Rain Music, Leafy Speafing, Beside the Rivering Waters, and River’s End – each movement with a title from Finnegan’s Wake. The use of myriad ostinati throughout the piece portrays the ever-present running river.

The third movement is perhaps the most striking; it is formally structured as a scherzo and trio (actually more of a “march and scherzo” as described by Albert). The most wild and fun music in the work appears within this movement. A tune is quoted that was adapted by James Joyce from an Irish folk song and was originally notated within the text of Finnegan’s Wake. Albert combines Joyce’s tune with his own material, often deliberately set up to be off-kilter in rhythmic alignment. The “scherzo” material, by contrast, is whirling and child-like, bringing back material from the earlier movements. The march theme returns to end the movement in a stupor, before it all fades away to nothing.

The final movement builds in intensity throughout; it is cast in three primary sections, each separated by contrasting interludes. The movement draws together music from all the previous three movements, developing it dramatically before finally disappearing in a water-filled coda.

The work, which was awarded the 1985 Pulitzer Prize in Music, is one of Albert’s most distinctive compositions. This is one of the most important American symphonies of the second half of the 20th century and is a work of fascinating shapes, colors, and ideas – holding the interest of the listener for every moment.

Albert’s Symphony No. 2 was his last composition. He wrote it on commission from the New York Philharmonic and left it unfinished at his death. His friend, composer Sebastian Currier, was asked by G. Schirmer (Albert’s publisher) and the Albert family to complete the work. In his excellent liner note to this release, Currier describes his process – which involved primarily fleshing out already detailed orchestration notes and adding some other minor additions based on Albert’s sketches and general style. Currier states his opinion that Symphony No. 2 represents a full flowering of romantic symphonic impulses in Albert’s language that had always been present, but kept somewhat “in check” in previous works.

Unlike the fantastical world of RiverRun, the second symphony is audibly a more “conventional” piece in many regards. The myriad ostinati that featured so prominently in RiverRun are not a part of the second symphony. Rather, rich melody runs throughout, constantly developing, and awash in Albert’s very characteristic orchestration and colors. This is the first recording of the second symphony, and we can be very thankful that this magnificent work is finally available on recording.

About Albert’s style, Currier writes:
When discussing musical form and structure, he liked to make the distinction between predictability and inevitability. To be predictable was simply boring. For him, the most intense, the most memorable points in a piece were those that were unpredictable, but nonetheless felt totally inevitable. Looking back, a life can seem that way too. Although one could endlessly wonder what his “Third Symphony” might be like, in the end it is great to have these two thoughtful, finely crafted and expressive pieces.

Despite being prematurely silenced, Albert left an output that contains some of the most significant American music of the century. In terms of other noteworthy works in need of recording, the exhilarating violin concerto, In Concordiam (1986), is also only available on a Delos recording currently out of print, and the other major late orchestral work Anthems and Processionals (1988) has never been recorded. Several earlier orchestral and major chamber works from the 70’s also have never seen commercial release. Albert wrote only one nonvocal chamber work after 1980. That piece, Tribute (1988) for violin and piano, is a gorgeous work whose absence on violin recitals and recordings is truly inexplicable.

The performances on this recording by American conductor Paul Polivnick (music director of the orchestras at Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio) and the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra are very compelling. Though the National Symphony’s recording of RiverRun is superior (most particularly in the third movement), this new RPO performance is still strong and is the only readily available option for hearing these two works. If you care at all about truly great music, run out and buy this disc.

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