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DVD Review

Norman Lloyd & Peter Mennin

Naxos 8.559767

Piano Music

  • Norman Lloyd:
  • 3 Scenes from Memory
  • 5 Pieces for Dance
  • Episodes
  • Sonata for Piano
  • Peter Mennin:
  • 5 Pieces
  • Sonata for Piano
Myron Silberstein, piano
Naxos 8.559767 69:53
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Summary for the Busy Executive: "Ah, did you once see Shelley plain?" – American Midcentury.

A small cautionary tale, I suppose. This recording appears due to a Kickstarter campaign, apparently because no commercial company thinks it a good idea to record worthwhile but unknown American music. Nevertheless, the fact that this disc exists means some people, at least, want to hear it.

I actually met Peter Mennin and sort-of knew Norman Lloyd – My Brush with Greatness. Lloyd was the Dean of the Oberlin Conservatory my freshman and sophomore years. I knew him to say hello. He seemed nice enough. I remember most his participation as piano soloist in the Bloch Concerto Grosso #1, played by Suzuki students in the Oberlin program. I had no idea he composed. I met Mennin at an Oberlin graduation (as a member of the college choir, I took part in four graduations). Other than shaking his hand and murmuring that I liked his music, that was it. You could do worse for your parents' college money.

Lloyd studied with Aaron Copland, among others, at New York University. He was known mainly as a dance composer. However, he possessed an educational streak. He provided piano accompaniments to folksongs in a popular collection (The Fireside Book of Favorite American Songs, which we had in our piano bench). He worked at Juilliard, Oberlin, and the Rockefeller Foundation in various administrative roles. He didn't consider himself a composer and thus didn't work to get his original scores published. This CD, produced by that successful barn picker of American music Walter Simmons, allowed me to listen to Lloyd's music for the first time.

The 3 Scenes from Memory – "Winter Landscape," "Sad Carrousel," and "City Streets" – clearly show Copland's influence in the harmonies, phrasing, elegant use of material, and borrowings so small that they may well be things that Lloyd just absorbed into his own musical bloodstream. They also reveal Lloyd's penchant for pedagogy, since he purposely wrote them for beginning students. But just because a beginner can play them doesn't mean that they lack musical sophistication or interest. I can state that if beginners' pieces like this were around, rather than the boring nothings I had to play, I wouldn't have stopped studying piano. The Episodes – "Slowly, but with motion," "Lento," "Whimsically," "Slowly," and "Gaily" – continue the pedagogical line, this time for more intermediate players. The Scenes obviously describe things, as so many easy pieces do. The Episodes are more abstract, more emotionally and structurally complex, and delve deeper into Copland's "hard" music. The stark spareness of "Slowly," for example, would have fit right into Copland's Piano Variations. Both scores, however, stand out for their beauty.

As a composer, Lloyd was known in the Thirties for his work with choreographers. 5 Pieces for Dance comes from that period and consists of fugitive works for the likes of Martha Graham, Anna Sokolow, Louis Horst, and Martha Hill: "Puritan Hymn: Dance for Five," "Blues," "Piping Tune – Tune for the Open Air," "Dance Hall Study," "Theme and Variations." "Puritan Hymn," for Martha Graham, has whiffs of the self-importance that sometimes clung to Graham's works, full of Jungian archetype, Angst, and Greek myth (did she ever write a merely amusing dance piece?). "Blues" is a fairly straightforward blues, written out. It's remarkable in that it lies so close to the real thing, with no attempt to distance itself through abstraction. "Piping Tune" gives us a Celtic dance while "Dance Hall," for Anna Sokolow, depicts a dive where the patrons, maybe due to booze, sometimes miss a beat. "Theme and Variations" (for Martha Hill) stands as the longest, most complex, and most musically sophisticated of the set. It consists of a theme (easily noticeable because of its unusual opening intervals) and several variations, usually distinguished by rhythm and texture changes. The theme breaks into three basic cells, all of which Lloyd varies. Again, elegance and wit distinguish this music.

The Sonata, the big work on the program, comes from the Fifties. All of Lloyd's virtues show themselves, particularly elegance and structural sophistication. The language has become less Copland-specific and more generally neo-classical. The piano writing reminds me of people like Mennin, Persichetti, and the neo-classical Lukas Foss. One of my favorite features of the sonata is the way Lloyd momentarily brings out an inner line, which often fools the ear into believing it hears more voices than actually on the page. The Sonata contains three movements, fast-slow-fast. The fast sections crackle with rhythm. The slow sections sing. Sadly, I don't believe this score will catch on. While superbly well made, it doesn't aspire to visionary pronouncements, and unfortunately most members of the classical audience fail to find satisfaction in mere poetry and intelligence. They want transcendence, the fools.

While Norman Lloyd, suffering from an excess of modesty, didn't consider himself a Real Composer, Peter Mennin never regarded himself as anything but. He began his studies at Oberlin, under the composer Normand Lockwood, but disatisfied and at odds with Lockwood, left for Eastman, from which he graduated. After military service during World War II, he joined the composition faculty of Juilliard and became its head after William Schuman left. All of his works are ambitiously big in intention, and to his credit, he succeeds far more often than not. At one point in his career, writers considered him the next great American symphonist. His heyday lasted from the late 40s through the early 60s. However, along with such lights as Piston, Harris, Schuman, and Diamond, he seems to have fallen through the cracks, as far as performances and recordings go. Fiercely independent, Mennin had a strong artistic profile, but one that some listeners have trouble grasping. Although you might not be able to identify a Mennin piece if you came upon it on the radio, nevertheless you would very likely want to hear it again. Seriousness (serious as hell), rhythmic counterpoint, and ambition (in a good way) run through his catalogue. If he has a flaw, it's that all of his stuff wants to take the express to Masterpiece Mountain. The witty or merely amusing didn't interest him creatively. He didn't write much, but his creative corpus bristles with rewarding work.

The 5 Pieces (1949) – Prelude, Aria, Variation-Canzona, Canto, and Toccata – like the Lloyd non-sonata pieces don't last long, but what a difference. He originally grouped them under the title Partita, thus – as Walter Simmons notes – establishing connections with the Baroque suite. Yet the work has little to do with the dance origins of that form. Mennin compresses a ton of dynamite into these little thimbles. I have never encountered the complete set before. I used to own an LP with Grant Johannesen, who premiered the score, pairing the last two movements as "Canto and Toccata."

Mostly in two very independent voices, the Prelude stands as the quintessential Mennin allegro: electric, almost manic, highly contrapuntal. Any connection to the Baroque era has become so abstract, you don't wonder that Mennin got rid of the Partita title. However, the Baroque returns in the Aria, a rather Hindemithian conception of Bach, in three independent voices, singing a solemn tune, a bit reminiscent of Air on a G String. The title Canzona shows up more than once in Mennin's catalogue. During the Renaissance, it referred to a very rhythmic instrumental piece, often based on a vocal work. Gabrieli was one of the first to conceive of the canzona as a purely instrumental work. The Variation-Canzona, as its title implies, is both quite rhythmic and a variation set: theme, 4 (I think) variations, and coda. The variations separate from one another mainly by texture. The longest movement in the suite, the Canto resembles the Aria, but in a more uneasy mood. Mostly quiet, it builds to a climax and then slinks off. Walter Simmons observes that most Mennin allegros, no matter what the title, are essentially toccatas, a keyboard form (originally lute) designed to show off the brilliance of an executant's fingerwork (think of a "toccata" as a "touch piece"). The notes of the final Toccata come at you fast indeed. I think of fireworks rising and bursting. You may feel out of breath by the time it lets go of you.

By the early Sixties, Mennin's music had become a lot more complex, even complicated. The Piano Sonata falls into this period. The language is gnarlier, the counterpoint grittier, and the architecture knottier. The music's power remains. You don't have to know all the goings-on "beneath the hood" to feel it. The melodic idiom emphasizes the half-note, up and down, throughout the score, although Mennin hasn't lost his ability to sing or to dramatize.

After a tense slow introduction, the music explodes in an angry allegro, another driving toccata. The textures are almost orchestrally conceived. You can easily imagine different instrumental sections coming to the fore. Again, one must note the counterpoint. I had been listening to some Vaughan Williams music for band, and it struck me that Mennin's counterpoint has a family resemblance, particularly to the older composer's Toccata marziale and scherzo from the Symphony #8. Particularly impressive is the contrapuntal clarity and the allotment of lines to different planes of sound. Again, the slower music interrupts the allegro and builds to another "shot-from-guns" allegro. At the end, the allegro begins to wind down, this time more spasmodically, and the movement ends with a quick snap.

The solemn, even lugubrious, adagio slow movement, after an essentially chordal texture, then lets the piano begin an aria. This alternates with brief interruptions of the chords. Mennin doesn't confine his song to the upper part only, but moves it around, in keeping with his affinity for counterpoint.

The finale, "Veloce," puts on another pyrotechnical display. On three different contrapuntal planes practically throughout, again you can easily imagine it orchestrated, although Mennin writes impeccably for the piano. The final measures so electrify that you may be momentarily dazed, like after a death-defying ride, when it's over. This seems to me one of the great Modern piano sonatas. It may not have the genius melody of Samuel Barber's sonata or the vision of Elliott Carter's, but it's as well written and gives the same number of volts on the emoto-meter. I am grateful to have finally heard it. Perhaps this recording will spur other pianists to take it up.

Not that I complain about Myron Silberstein. He plays superbly. I first knew him as a sensitive Gershwin interpreter. I've also reviewed him in the Bloch Piano Sonata, for which he makes the best possible case. I've always admired him as a player who finds the music of a piece, rather than just the notes. Here, he brings out Mennin's tricky counterpoint like nobody's business, without sacrificing the score's considerable drama. In the Lloyd, he plays with great feeling. To me, an outstanding disc.

Copyright © 2018, Steve Schwartz