Summary for the Busy Executive: Problems from the non-problemmatic.
The bass fiddle has become a kind of stepchild in classical music. So few things have been written expressly for it, that almost any work featuring it as soloist carries with it the whiff of a stunt. That's certainly not the case of any of the three pieces here, perhaps because all these composers tend to treat the instrument like a cello, concentrating on coaxing out the lyrical and meditative qualities of the instrument.
I got interested in this disc initially because of writer and critic Walter Simmons, who has long beaten the drum for American composer Vittorio Giannini. His enthusiasm for this composer puzzled me, for I had always regarded Giannini's music as attractive, but too smooth by half. On the other hand, I haven't heard nearly the amount of his catalogue Simmons has. However, Simmons singled out the Psalm 130 as one of Giannini's best, and a critical judgment should depend on the best an artist has. Our judgment of Bach doesn't hang on the Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother. We don't revere Stravinsky for his first piano sonata. Therefore, this CD presents us with an opportunity to hear a neglected Modern American with his best foot forward.
Giannini came into prominence during the Thirties, mainly as an opera composer. Band people likely have played his Symphony #3. A successful teacher, his best-known student is probably Nicolas Flagello (whom I greatly prefer). However, Giannini fell out of notice during the postwar period, and he died, really before his time, in the Sixties. My judgment before this CD was "well-made, but not particularly compelling," in large part due to the pieces I had heard. The symphony for band, for example, provides something satisfying to play, rather than a Mahlerian Manifesto. In other words, the composer works from a different, lighter aesthetic.
Psalm 130, according to Simmons, represents Giannini at his most authentic. The circumstances surrounding its composition are horrible enough. Giannini had not only been diagnosed with a serious heart condition, but his second wife, whom he had loved practically to distraction, divorced him. He poured himself into this composition, with noticeable results. Passionate, striving for the big statement, the score certainly represents the finest Giannini I've heard. It falls into three large sections, A-B-A: declamatory and agitated, searching and meditative, and a return to the opening outcry. You can't doubt the composer's sincerity of expression and emotion or his mastery of craft. This is music more Romantic than even neo-Romantic. I'd compare it to Howard Hanson in the Twenties and Thirties. And yet… I listen in vain for something that tells me a certain individual wrote it, as one can almost always tell Hanson after a few bars, notwithstanding what you may think of the piece. Giannini uses the tropes of the late Nineteenth Century with at least great understanding, but nothing surprises me. I hear a collective, rather than a particular take on these things. As I listened, moved by what I heard, I nevertheless wondered why the music didn't move me more. Simmons's liner notes make a passing comparison to Bloch's Schelomo, and that clarified my dissatisfaction. Schelomo reaches into my chest and twists my heart. Psalm 130 simply isn't vulgar enough, as if the composer had too much taste and respect for the listener's "space." Most great composers – I can think of exceptions, although Mozart (who I'll bet has popped into several heads by now) doesn't strike me as one of them – ruthlessly pursue and work through their ideas, committed even to ideas which may be intrinsically cheap. The "message" and the full emotional freight it carries blocks out other considerations, especially those of dignity and good taste. I find in Giannini's Psalm less of the hesitation that usually plagues his other works, but it still seems to prevent him from risking excess. To paraphrase Blake, you don't know what enough is, until you know what too much is.
John Carbon studied with Peter Racine Fricker and Thea Musgrave, among others. His music seems more lyrical than either. In one movement, Endangered Species carries with it a very silly program which I made sure I repressed before I listened to the music. Fortunately, the music doesn't need the program. It sort of alternates between agitation and singing. Like Giannini, Carbon aims for great emotion, and like Giannini, something holds him back at the last minute. As in Giannini's Psalm, much of immense interest happens in this piece, but one feels a certain lack, for some genius passage that puts a capstone on the work – something like, as a matter of fact, the great climactic theme of Schelomo. In short, as much as Carbon gives me, I still want more.
William Thomas McKinley has enjoyed fairly successful careers both as a classical composer and as a jazz man. The Passacaglia doesn't have any jazz in it, as far as I can tell. In other words, it wouldn't have surprised me if a person sans a jazz background wrote it. Despite the title and the assertion of the liner notes (arguing for a modern passacaglia), this really isn't a passacaglia, but a variation set, with a finale that runs through the highpoints of the rest of the piece. You can easily jettison the assumption of a passacaglia without damaging the work. However, of the all the scores on the program, this shows the least focus. The orchestra often buries the bass to the point where it need not play at all. Furthermore, despite interesting, witty, even beautiful variations (I think particularly of a "Ravel Bolero" section), the work has no effective rhetorical thread. It doesn't pull you along. Rather, you pretty much get one damn thing after another, except in the slightly-under-two-minute Finale.
Fredrickson, on the other hand, is undoubtedly one of the two best double-bassists I've heard. I'm in the minority about Gary Karr; his playing never attracted me. Fredrickson's strong points are his phenomenally clear tone, remarkably free of buzzing, and his ability to sing, particularly winning in the Giannini and in the Carbon. Fredrickson plays his instrument as a cello, with the ability to give shape to music in which shape isn't always easy to discern. Still, Fredrickson doesn't betray his instrument. You always know you're hearing a bass, just one brighter, more flexible, and static-free than you normally encounter. On the other hand, the Slovak Radio Orchestra seems to me as if it's reading through.
Copyright © 2005, Steve Schwartz