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CD Review

Ingolf Dahl

Defining Dahl: The Music of Ingolf Dahl

  • Concerto for Alto Saxophone
  • Hymn (orch. Lawrence Morton)
  • Music for Brass Instruments *
  • The Tower of Saint Barbara
* New World Brass
John Harle, sax
New World Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas
Argo 444459-2 71:56
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Please, sir, I want some more.

I suppose Ingolf Dahl has become a footnote of Stravinsky biography – Igor's great Southern California friend – a shame, really, since Dahl's a spiffy composer in his own right. Dahl fled from Europe to this country during the 1930s and settled in greater Los Angeles, becoming part of an extraordinary expatriate community that included Stravinsky, Milhaud, Krenek, Toch, and Schoenberg, among many others. Dahl was, strictly speaking, an academic, teaching for years and years at the University of Southern California a number of exceptional musicians, including Michael Tilson Thomas, who always acknowledges his debt to Dahl. Dahl's music, however, is far from what people loosely call "academic," although it's certainly superbly crafted. It has nobility, grace, and even good humor. I remember a concert from Santa Fe with Ursula Oppens and a partner (probably Paul Jacobs or Gilbert Kalish) who performed Dahl's very funny quodlibets on American folk-songs for two pianos. The object of Dahl's quodlibets was to put together songs you wouldn't normally associate – like "She'll be comin' 'round the mountain" and "Good Night, Ladies," except that Dahl's juxtapositions were far more spectacular than my example. At any rate, the piece raised some charmed laughter from the audience – a party piece, from a great party. Still, Dahl had a wide expressive range. At the serious end, his music seems a cross between Stravinsky and Hindemith.

The works here, excepting the Hymn, have been recorded before. I probably shouldn't complain, because I can't call Dahl exactly over-recorded, but it would have been nice to have a substantial new piece on the program. It seems that even when they dip into rare repertory, recording companies tend to dip into the same rare rep, as if conductors can't sell a new score to the business people without the technological help of a previous recording. So forgive me for not jumping up and clicking my heels over this release.

The Saxophone Concerto was written to commission in 1949, but it certainly invites comparison with Stravinsky's Ebony Concerto, originally composed for clarinettist Woody Herman, just a few years before. Dahl's concerto came to light at the prompting of the classical sax virtuoso Sigurd Rascher, responsible for many of the modern concertos for this instrument. I have no idea how good a sax player Rascher was, but he did instigate some lively work. Saxophonists owe him a lot. Dahl's concerto mixes neo-Baroque forms and melodic turns with jazz-like outbursts here and there, usually from the accompanying band, as does the Stravinsky work. Stravinsky, however, wrote for an actual jazz band – Woody Herman's Thundering Herd – while Dahl's sound comes closer to the classic wind ensemble. All in all, we can call neither work jazz. Stravinsky's sound-world evokes mainly the "gypsy-jazz" orchestras immediately following World War I, while Dahl's calls to mind the Americana of the Forties – particularly such composers as Piston and Foss. Dahl's idiom, however, lies close to Stravinsky. Yet the music's emotional world, particularly the first two movements, overflows with a wistfulness Stravinsky lacks. The finale opens everything up. Rhythmically lively – almost as manic as Martinů – it's a melodic and dancing delight. Soloist John Harle's tone is so rich and creamy, one often could mistake it for a French horn – no rasp of saliva buzzing in the reed. He puts out a seamless line, with no break or even change in tonal quality throughout the instrument's range. The New World Symphony accompanies ably, despite a slight stumble here and there in the rhythmically and contrapuntally demanding finale. Thomas, however, keeps everything bouncy.

Dahl wrote Hymn for piano solo. Thomas commissioned the orchestration heard here. I've not heard the original. The orchestration sounds heavy to me, at least in the tutti sections, and the New World Symphony's rhythmic scrappiness doesn't help matters, tending to hold back the impetus of the work with a spongy attack. The declamatory opening, for example, should crackle like important news and lacks the bite of a good pianist tearing into the drum-like trills. It merely sounds. Still, Thomas never lets things grind down to a creak. Like all of Dahl's music, the piece contains both flawless craft and a large measure of poetry – not the drooping-lily kind, but filled with sharp detail – including some nifty voice-leading (essentially a chorale) which generates bright, unusual harmonies and many different textures.

Music for Brass Instruments (1944) may be the closest thing to a Dahl hit, the "Intermezzo" movement having been used as a signature piece for Armed Forces Radio. Anthony Linick's liner notes credit the piece with a revival of the brass quintet among composers. That may well be (despite the towering example of Hindemith's Morgenmusik from the Twenties), although I wouldn't discount the rise of touring brass quintets – the American, the Empire, the New York, and so on. Nothing stimulates a composer like the hope of performance. The first movement, "Chorale Fantasy ('Christ lay in the bonds of death')," takes the chorale tune (same one as in Bach's Cantata #4) for a slow walk and then a joy ride. The tune mainly stays in subsidiary parts or shows up in bits and pieces. It works mainly as a "spine," which holds together Dahl's own rather striking themes. The quiet ending shows one of Dahl's most beautifstrokes – the "Alleluia" of the chorale against one of Dahl's own themes, which turns out to be the "Alleluia" upside-down. The "Intermezzo" is again Dahl in an exuberant mood, making use of once more a Forties Americana idiom. The finale, "Fugue," reflects, rather than lets off steam. I've heard better performances than that from the New World Brass. They come off best in the first movement, where everything seems held in superb balance. The "Intermezzo" almost, but not quite, plods where it should excite, a problem of a fractionally too-slow tempo. The "Fugue" is the hardest movement to keep together, even more difficult than the first movement. Here, things just melt into unconnected notes – passages lie there like large puddles. In many places, I can't even tell what the fugal structure is, a problem I've not encountered with other groups.

The longest work here is the ballet The Tower of Saint Barbara. I have no idea whether a staging ever took place. Robert Whitney and the Louisville Orchestra, champions of the modern during the Fifties and Sixties, premièred the piece in 1955. Dahl revised the work in 1960, and Thomas conducts the revision. The work tells of the martyrdom of the Christian saint at the hand of her own father, over a non-Christian marriage. Dahl apparently worked in many musical dramatic tags that explicate the plot, but as one who has almost no idea of that story, most of these fine points sailed right by me, although apparently the soft strings represent Barbara and the brass the world of her father, the king. I can, however, attest to the beauty of the score, which, while fully in a neo-classic idiom, manages to avoid its clichés. Yet the score displays positive virtues as well: a grave beauty, really interesting textural shifts, and an even-handed distribution of interest throughout the orchestra. Finally, there's an almost indefinable sense of mastery that calls to mind Tovey's comment: Why do the great masters never seem to have to scramble out of compositional holes?: They never fall into them into the first place.

The work tempts one to view it as a four-movement symphony, even though I doubt it uses standard symphonic forms. Its tone emulates the classical symphony: opening allegro, scherzo, slow movement, and finale. Still, it lacks symphonic rhetorical structure, and though ideas transform and develop, they do so in ways that have little to do with classical (or neo-classical) symphonic development. So, it's a suite then. The piece, despite often blazing passages (especially for the brass), nevertheless looks mainly inward. Like much of Hindemith, little in it shakes you by the scruff of the neck. Its beauty steals over you. Thomas and the New World Symphony give their best here, with a committed, convincing advocacy, and the music thoroughly deserves it. The other works deserved as much.

The sound is as handsome as the works themselves.

Copyright © 1999, Steve Schwartz