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CD Review

Peter Mennin

  • Concertato (Moby Dick)
  • Symphony #3
  • Symphony #7 "Variation-Symphony"
Seattle Symphony Orchestra/Gerard Schwarz
Delos DE3164
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In a way, it is fairly easy to describe the musical style of the American composer Peter Mennin (1923-83): it is quite direct, utterly serious, free of humor and orchestrational color, and emotionally cool. He tended to make frequent use of counterpoint, and his harmonies grew a bit more dissonant in his later compositions. From this description you might be prone to dismiss his works as soulless, unappealing. But there is an element in his music that rises above description; hence my qualification at the outset. His works are imbued with an urgency and depth that seem to fill the air with an inevitability that some profound purpose is being unearthed in the notes. You sense the music is going somewhere, somewhere it must, but may not want to go. This tendency is most noticeable in Moby Dick (1952) and the Seventh Symphony (1963).

The inspirational source of the former work is tailor-made for Mennin's often violent style. This is a concert, not a program, work, where no specific events, therefore, from Herman Melville's novel are depicted in the music. But clearly, in the grimness and raw power of the score, you can see images of the whalers and the fanatical Captain Ahab in hot pursuit of this grand monster of nature. At least I can. It is a tense, exciting piece throughout its eleven minute duration. Mennin draws you in, puts you on the edge of your seat, and keeps you riveted there till the final crushing notes sound.

The Seventh Symphony, which comes last on the disc, is the most substantive work here. Lasting just over twenty-six minutes and cast in five sections within a single movement, the piece seethes with tension and is rife with musical ideas in the appearance and innovative reappearance of the themes throughout. And there is that feeling, that ominous feeling, of inevitability here: you sense you're being taken, at times hurled, to some dubious destination, where surely a decisive resolution to the perilous journey's accumulated conflicts will occur, but a resolution you're hesitant to embrace. This is a well-crafted work which should be better known. Maybe Delos's marketing ploy of headlining Moby Dick will attract the curious and accomplish that very hope.

The Third Symphony (1947) is an energetic, rugged work, also fully deserving greater attention. It is marginally brighter in mood than its disc mates, and features a songful, if slightly tense, Andante second movement, followed by a driving, almost frenzied finale. Some might prefer this earlier symphony to its later sibling, its expressive language being a bit more lucid and direct, its formal design more conventional. The Seattle Symphony Orchestra performs admirably in all three works under the knowing baton of Maestro Gerard Schwarz, a man who, via an array of Delos recordings now, clearly demonstrates an incisive grasp on the music of that varied group of twentieth-century American composers – Diamond, Hanson, Creston, Piston, and Mennin. Delos supplies notes by the informative Jim Svejda, and lavishes Schwarz and his players with excellent sound. Highly recommended.

Copyright © 1998, Robert Cummings

Trumpet