Summary for the Busy Executive: Pretty toys and more.
A collection of mostly light American miniatures, all of it from the Twentieth Century. Robert Russell Bennett's Hexapoda, taken up by Heifetz among others, has little to do with the jitterbugs of its subtitle. It's as enjoyable as cotton candy, and about as memorable. I would have loved to have seen a recording of his violin concerto instead.
Lukas Foss, born in Germany, had to flee during the Thirties and wound up studying with Hindemith in the United States. Foss has always struck me as one of the most lavishly-gifted composers since Mozart. Like Mozart, he can make something breathtakingly complicated sound like the most natural thing in the world. He also sucks in the musical climate around him like a sponge. He quickly absorbed the influence of Copland and Stravinsky in the late Thirties and early Forties, and the 3 American Pieces, written at the bright young age of 22 and still among his most attractive works, shows the confluence of all these musical sources. The works here began life as 3 Pieces, for violin and piano. When Foss arranged them for flute, they became 3 Early Pieces, and when he orchestrated them for solo violin or solo flute, they acquired the present title. Apparently, he liked them enough to return to them and tinker. They sparkle, they glitter, they wear their considerable art lightly, like Mozart, as a matter of fact.
H.T. Burleigh, one of the most important composers of art-settings of spirituals, is still probably best-known as the Dvořák student who convinced the older man to look at Black folk music as worthy of serious expression. Southland Sketches, a suite in the tradition of MacDowell, shows a composer who in turn learned from his teacher. These are superbly-crafted things. Indeed, you hear moments that you could easily imagine penned by Dvořák himself. The difference comes down to the general effect. Burleigh's sketches have the modesty of most sketches. Dvořák's miniatures – say, the Slavonic Dances or Cypresses – imply worlds.
Copland's "Nocturne" is the first of his 2 Pieces for violin and piano of 1926. It's a kind of blues meditation, from the composer's brief jazz period, similar in idiom to his piano concerto, written the same year. In many ways, it foretells the mood of the better-known Quiet City from many years later. Copland quickly gave up explicit references to jazz, for some reason considering jazz "limited" in expression. This, of course, meant only that he wasn't that interested in it in the first place to actually seek it out. Jazz was for Copland as it was for most European composers, mainly a veneer of exotica. The fact that it comes from so early in Copland's career and yet shows such maturity and depth even in a small space gives rise to a regret that Copland didn't try to extend and deepen this jazz line of thought.
The real find, as far as I'm concerned, is the two-movement Bernstein sonata, almost never done. An early work, although not juvenilia, it shows Bernstein on the road to finding his own voice. The first movement reveals Hindemith's influence as well as a basic layer of "hard" Modernism. The more interesting second movement, a set of riffs on ideas in the first, still doesn't sound like the Bernstein we all know, but it does show, even at this stage, traits that he carries along with him – notably, a fondness for speaking in the "prophet's voice." Nevertheless, the small frame of each variation doesn't allow him to go over the top, and the piece comes across as both lively and seriously engaged, if not as startlingly individual as the composer's mature music. Even minor Bernstein improves on major lots-of-others.
The chief interest of Victor Steinhardt's tango lies in the disconnect in tonality between violin and piano (he may even have written it in two different simultaneous keys, for all I know). However, the piece really doesn't go anywhere. Lincoln Mayorga, a very successful studio musician in L.A., contributes a rumba which suffers from the same problem. Pleasant enough, neither of these pieces will harm you.
However, things quickly pick up with Dave Grusin's 3 Latin American Dances. Grusin, a successful jazz arranger and pop producer as well as a composer, claims nothing more for these pieces than "a good time," but he sells himself short. They have more invention in them than many works twice their length and five times as "serious." The interplay among violin, piano, and cello knocked my socks off, particularly the duet for the solo strings at the beginning of the third dance, "Joropo Peligroso." We also get a tango "de Parque Central," a sturdy homage to Piazzolla, and a delicate danzón.
The Steinhardts do best in the better pieces. I always prefer Arnold Steinhardt as a chamber player than as a soloist. In the latter case, he seems to lack a personality, despite the technical perfection of his playing. When he finally begins chamber conversation with cellist Amanda Forsyth, sparks fly. Each player seems to inspire the other. Pianist Victor Steinhardt, when accompanying only his brother, does little more than stay out of his way. In the trio, he proves he has something of his own to say. I can conclude only that Amanda Forsyth is the magic ingredient. Nevertheless, a generally strong program, well-played.
Copyright © 2007, Steve Schwartz