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CD Review

American Music for Strings

  • Norman Dello Joio: Meditation on Ecclesiastes
  • Alan Hovhaness:
  • Psalm and Fugue for String Orchestra, Op. 40a
  • Shepherd of Israel, Op. 92 *
  • Arnold Rosner: Responses, Hosanna, and Fugue, Op. 67
* Sheldon Merel, tenor
Kenneth Smith, flute
Philharmonia Orchestra/David Amos
Kleos KL5119 76:35
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Summary for the Busy Executive: One masterpiece for sure.

All the composers on this CD, critic Walter Simmons would probably call "Voices in the Wilderness." All of them stand outside the established American mainstream. Every single one of them is, at the least, worth listening to. I say all this because you may not have all that much time to buy this CD. When the bottom fell out of Warner Bros. music and the Harmonia Mundi label correspondingly shrank (according to rumor, due to the WB pop music division and the television arm bleeding large chunks of cash), a wonderful series on little-known American music disappeared, this CD among them. It has resurfaced on Kleos, and you have another chance at it.

I bought the original Harmonia Mundi CD for the Dello Joio Meditations on Ecclesiastes. I had known the piece from an old CRI LP in a performance conducted by, I think, Alfredo Antonini. Dello Joio, once a golden-haired lad of American music (he won a Pulitzer for Meditations), stands largely to the side these days. A real pity. A student of Hindemith, he has his own voice. His music sings with a distinctive lyricism, quickly recognizable when heard and not like Hindemith's at all. The only thing he seemed to take from the older composer was immense craft. Meditations portrays the composer's response to the Biblical passage beginning "To everything there is a season." Dello Joio builds the work as a set of variations, not so much on a theme – although one finds a section labeled "Theme" – as on the idea of a descending and ascending minor third. The interval appears prominently either at the head or at the tale of almost every melodic idea. The section called "Theme," however, bears a strong resemblance to an idea Dello Joio has used in other works – the Piano Sonata #3 and Variations, Chaconne, and Finale, for example. This idea, in turn, is based on the Christmas chant "In dulci jubilo."

The composer apparently intends each variation to "describe" the verse placed as an epigraph before it, but this will obviously depend on the listener. In other words, I don't find that the music comes all that close. For me, Dello Joio's music in general doesn't characterize emotional states all that strongly, beyond the conventional. For example, "… and a time to die" is solemn, "… a time to kill" aggressive and biting, "… and a time to heal" smooth and a little sad, but none of them in particularly personal ways. "… a time of hate and of war" sounds pretty tame, compared to Holst's "Mars" or Schmidt's apocalyptic visions in his Book with Seven Seals. Meanwhile, however, Dello Joio's piece succeeds for me even without the programmatic element. The music has its own interest, both structurally and idiomatically. The composer creates a convincing overall rhetorical structure for his variations. The end – after all, along with the opening, usually one of the two strongest points of any work – evokes peace in an especially moving way.

Like something by E.E. Cummings, an Alan Hovhaness work immediately points to its creator. Also like Cummings, people tend either to love or to hate the composer's output. One has trouble finding a middle ground of opinion. Psalm and Fugue comes from 1940, shortly after Hovhaness, after writing in an apparently neo-Sibelian style, found the voice by which we now recognize him. Lou Harrison called Hovhaness a melodist that comes along once in a hundred years. Allowing for the hyperbole, we can still say that Hovhaness at his best has created a highly personal melodic idiom, beautiful and surprising. The harmonic sense is quirky as well. The Psalm, essentially a chorale, sings sweet enough to break your heart. The Fugue, slow and working up toward grand, takes its subject from the Psalm.

Hovhaness dedicated Shepherd of Israel, from 1952, to the State of Israel, in the early optimistic days of that country. The work mixes long, singing lines with fugal and canonic sections. Beyond that, however, the title gives rise to a certain set of emotional expectations, which the composer fills. The opening movement, for flute and strings, calls up the lonely Galilean hills. The tenor soloist sings in Hebrew (no texts provided, so I have very little idea what he sings about), I suspect a psalm of David. The lines remind me of cantorial chant, but Hovhaness has probably made it all up, since it doesn't lie all that far away from his usual solo-against-strings melodies. The final movement incorporates a solo trumpet as the melody instrument, giving the work a shot of determination. It's not all mooning about and communing with the stars. Not quite as inspired a work as the Psalm and Fugue, but a poetic piece nevertheless.

As I say, I bought the CD for the Dello Joio, and I wasn't disappointed. The Hovhaness I regarded as a nice "extra." But the Rosner hit me like the revelation hit Saul on the Damascus road. I had never heard of Arnold Rosner, and keep in mind that I have a special interest in Modern American music. From the opening bars of Responses, Hosanna, and Fugue, I was hooked not only on the piece, but on the composer – to me, a major voice. Most every other living composer under the age of 60 suddenly shrank. Rosner seemed to create the music I not only wanted to hear, but to write. It was uncannily close to the music in my head which I could never myself have gotten out. I might as well have wished myself Brahms. I immediately went on the lookout for everything else by Rosner I could find. With maybe just a couple of exceptions, he has not only reinforced my high opinion, but he's actually grown in stature. I simply don't understand why orchestras, commissioning powers, and universities aren't rushing to honor themselves by giving him work.

The piece uses strings and solo harp. "Responses" starts out as a Hovhaness-like hymn, but without the compulsive orientalism. The movement pits solo string ensemble against the string mass (with color "accents" from the harp), in a way similar to the Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia. Indeed, as the piece winds its way, you hear several influences – Hovhaness, Vaughan Williams, Bloch, possibly even David Amram – but the eclecticism doesn't seem to matter. The sources disappear into a powerful, convincing, and very personal statement. The second movement, a quick dance, plays off vivacious, "New World" rhythms and syncopations against "Old World" modes. The final movement begins as a slow fugue on a beautiful, even "naturally flowing" subject. I find the last movement not a fugue as much as I find it in fugue, to use Tovey's distinction. Fugue and episodes flow in and out of one another seamlessly. Indeed, I regard the episodes at least as rhetorically important as the fugal ones. The movement leaves one not with the impression of a contrapuntal workout as much as a deeply-felt song. One doesn't find very often a composer who changes for you what you think music can be. Rosner did and continues to do so for me.

The performances are mostly quite good. Amos obviously believes in what he programs, and the Philharmonia is undoubtedly one of the best orchestras around. As a performance, the Psalm and Fugue comes off with the most feeling. Shepherd of Israel suffers from a weak tenor soloist, at times a quarter-step flat, but not enough to sink. The Rosner and the Dello Joio are no walks in the park. Both require a conductor who can make music move purposefully over a long span, and Amos certainly does that. I hesitate only because these are, in essence, the only modern recordings, and so calling them the best makes little sense. Nevertheless, Amos champions everything here with great strength, and the sound surely beats the CRI tinfest fans of American music so often put up with.

Copyright © 2005, Steve Schwartz