George Perle is perhaps best known for his work as a musicologist. Born in 1915, he studied at DePaul University (Chicago) and with Ernst Krenek; he died as recently as January 2009. Perle published widely – especially on the Second Viennese School, particularly Berg. His two most influential books on theory and composition are undoubtedly Serial Composition and Atonality: An Introduction to the Music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern (University of California Press, 1962/1991 ISBN-10: 0520074300 ISBN-13: 978-0520074309) and Twelve-Tone Tonality (University of California Press, 1978/1996 ISBN-10: 0520201426 ISBN-13: 978-0520201422). The latter title indicates Perle's most significant contribution to compositional theory: he devised "twelve-tone tonality" which recognizes a hierarchy among the notes of the chromatic scale such that each is related to one or two pitches – effectively as tonic note(s) or chord(s).
Perle – A Retrospective is a two-CD set from contemporary music specialists and champions, Bridge. It features a dozen works by Perle for various forces; they were all composed between 1957 and 2004. It's one of a handful (others include orchestral works with and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra on Albany Records 292, for piano with Michael Boriskin on New World Records 80342, the and complete wind quintets with the Dorian Wind Quintet also on New World Records 80359) and by far the most substantial collection devoted exclusively to Perle's music. Those interested in the directions that 12-tone music has taken in the last 75 years or so should certainly investigate this set – especially if they're familiar with or curious about the work of Perle.
The Nine Bagatelles set the scene: they're original, evocative pieces; short, and intended for Horacio Gutiérrez, who performs them with great aplomb here. The same can be said for Steven Dibner's basson playing in the Three Inventions for Bassoon, which are lively, full of unexpected turns yet completely aware of how he can help Perle meet the challenge he set himself of writing with harmonic originality in a post-diatonic era; one answer is to write for solo instruments. The result is a need to play without embellishment or implied richness when it's not due. Shirley Rhoads Perle plays the short Adagietto con affetto from the "Chansons Cachées" with just as much effect. The three much more richly harmonic French Christmas Carols are tonal and decidedly conservative. Their inclusion and positioning is also indicative of the pace, the variety, which the CDs' producers have achieved so successfully.
The Triptych for Violin and Piano is back in the intense (yet flexible and spacious) world of the emphasis given to the sounds made by the instruments of the Three Inventions for Bassoon. Christopher Oldfather's piano and Curtis Macomber's violin playing (he doubles on viola for the Partita) are exemplary: pithy, punchy yet suitably refined. They seem to make a prelude for the more substantial, somewhat lugubrious yet equally compact string quartet, "Brief Encounters". It stands midway between the highly experimental and the less severely serial. Divided into three larger parts and a total of fourteen short movements (ranging in length from 40 seconds to four minutes) it's played with latitude, confidence yet clear direction by the DePaul String Quartet (Robert Waters, violin; Ilya Kaler, violin; Rami Solomonow, viola; Stephen Balderston, cello). Their strength is also in having conveyed the work's unity despite the structure: it's one of the two longest works on this CD and lingers in the mind after listening as much because of the players' sense of purpose as anything else – especially since it does vary in idiom considerably. The second concerto for piano and orchestra is also longer than the other works here at nearly 20 minutes. It's the work which acknowledges Berg most fully in this collection (Bartók's influence is in evidence too – particularly in the opening and last movements [CD.1 trs.33,35]) and is played with great vigor by Michael Boriskin with the Utah Symphony Orchestra under Joseph Silverstein. For the String Quartet's dolorousness and calm, the Piano Concerto antithetically leaps and bounds, is percussive and strident. Yet the playing never skips expression to reach effect.
The second CD has fewer works but just as much variety and sterling performances. The Serenade no 3 for Piano and Chamber Orchestra seems to pick up where the Concerto left off; there is something of a jazz influence in the melodies and harmonies of the small chamber orchestra; two saxophones are also included in the line up. The Music Today Ensemble also gave the work's first performance (with Richard Goode) in 1983. At the same time, its five substantial movements have a classical feel and are certainly varied both internally and one with another. Like most of the representative sample of Perle's music across these CDs, the listener can't easily predict which direction any one movement or piece will take. At the same time, there's no randomness or willful, wild change for its own sake. Again, the performers have the experience and confidence to let the music take them all where it must.
The Partita for Solo Violin and Viola is the last in a series of works for solo string and wind instruments which Perle composed over nearly a quarter of a century from 1942. It's written in such a way that both instruments can be played by the same performer (here Curtis Macomber), changes occurring between the five movements, which are dance forms – inspired by the Baroque practice. Macomber's playing is appropriately spectacular. He keeps just enough distance between a squarely twentieth century concept and its earlier model – especially since the listener keeps expecting to hear… Bach! And in places does. But this must be its own work. And it is.
The Six Celebratory Inventions are piano pieces grouped from individual compositions composed in honor of other composers' birthdays. In some ways, although they precede it, they are reminiscent of the Nine Bagatelles and also show Perle's compositional technique at its most raw and exposed. Not that the playing of Molly Morkoski is in any way rough or incomplete. It's stylish, melodically aware and respects Perle's use of rhythms in every way.
Bassoonmusic has the distinction of being Perle's last composition, from 2004. Written for Steven Dibner, it's again performed by him here; almost needless to say, he twists and changes seamlessly across and between he multiple juxtapositions of musical ideas in which Perle so clearly delights. Not that it's a slight piece. Rather, varied in – for a last work – an extraordinarily explorative way. As with the Three Inventions, the sounds of the instrument are of great interest to Perle. So Dibner makes sure that they are to the listener. The set ends with the Quintet for Strings which is the oldest work here – from 1957. It's a bleak work with more questions and dourness than answers and hope. Perhaps this in some ways epitomizes Perle's realistic outlook on music and the world. Perhaps it's indicative of the strength and depth of Perle's compositional skills. This performance makes this all the plainer by highlighting the work's drive and – in the context of its inclusion on the same set as the String Quartet of 40 years later – by emphasizing the consistencies in Perle's music. In any case, the Chicago String Quartet (Joseph Genualdi; violin; Jasmine Lin; Baird Dodge, viola; Rami Solomonow, viola; Christopher Costanza, cello) with second violist Baird Dodge neither pulls punches nor disguises or downplays its impact.
Each CD is of generous length, running to over an hour and a quarter. Given that the performers are drawn from an unusually wide pool, it's good to be able to note that the standard of playing is universally high. That – over and above the collection in one place of such a varied range of exciting and pleasurable music – makes this CD set one to recommend without hesitation. The booklet that accompanies the CDs nicely sets the scene and provides useful background to each piece and the text of the Carols as well as several photographs from Perle's life, though next to nothing on the performers. The recordings themselves are up to Bridge's usual high standards. As a creditable and enjoyable introduction to the music of the composer, Perle – A Retrospective cannot be faulted. As a representative survey of his music, it's exemplary. As two and a half hours of enjoyable modern music, it's highly likely to please.
Copyright © 2011, Mark Sealey.