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CD Review

Hugo Weisgall

Naxos 8.559425
  • T'kiatot: Rituals for Rosh Hashana 1
  • Psalm of the Distant Dove 2
  • 4 Choral Etudes 3
  • A Garden Eastward 4
1 Steven A. Ovitsky, shofar
2 Ana Maria Martinez, soprano
2 Kristen Okerlund, piano
4 Phyllis Bryn-Julson, soprano
3 BBC Singers/Avner Itai
1 Seattle Symphony Orchestra/Gerard Schwarz
4 Barcelona Symphony-National Orchestra of Catalonia/Jorge Mester
Naxos 8.559425 68:03
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Intellectually (though not always emotionally) gripping.

Hugo Weisgall, probably best known for his chamber opera The Stronger, was born in Czechoslovakia. His family emigrated to the United States in 1920. He missed most of the Third Reich, at least as a victim, but as an aide to General Patton saw the horrors of the concentration camps.

Fluent in several languages, Weisgall was a polymath. He earned a doctorate not, interestingly enough, in music, but in medieval German literature. He studied conducting with Fritz Reiner and composition with Rosario Scalero (the teacher of both Barber and Menotti). Before World War II, he tried to study with Bartók, but the composer turned him down, supposedly pleading a full student load. I say "supposedly," because I always understood that Bartók, believing that composers were born, never took composition students. It didn't seem to hurt Weisgall, nor did the study with the arch-conservative Scalero. Weisgall went his own way, mostly along the path laid down by Berg, although he could do just about anything he wanted to as a composer. No technique or style seemed beyond him.

This mastery comes out in T'kiatot, a three-part orchestral work. There are no breaks between movements, but movement joins movement through links in passages for an offstage shofar, a ceremonial instrument made from ram's horn, used in the Jewish New Year service (Rosh Hashana). Shofar players – and shofars for that matter – don't come along every day, and the instrument is often fitted with a trumpet mouthpiece and played by a trumpeter. I wonder whether Schwarz did this in his younger, trumpet-playing days. Weisgall writes a serial, dodecaphonic piece but constructs his basic series in such a way that he can incorporate traditional, triadic material. He handles the techniques with such grace, it really doesn't matter on what side of the tonal-atonal divide the piece falls on. Quite frankly, a lot of it reminds me of Honegger's Pacific 231. Weisgall handles the shofar and the traditional shofar calls really well, with rhetorical elan. Each of the three movements portrays some theological point – God's rule, God as recorder of our thoughts and deeds, and the heralding of the Messianic age – but the work trots along just fine without a listener knowing any of this or even agreeing that Weisgall has aptly described these concepts. The first movement I would characterize as grim, but vigorous. The second is scherzo-like, wittily rhythmic. The third is martial – no surprise there – with lots of fanfares and the traditional shofar calls most apparent. One feels both intellect and passion in the work. For me, it awakens near-atavistic memories.

Weisgall composed the song cycle Psalm of the Distant Dove in 1992, five years before his death. Again, he demonstrates a "hard" eclecticism. One hears the Copland of the Emily Dickinson songs, for example, and an architectural approach that owes much to Schoenberg. Nevertheless, the songs don't feel stylistically scattered. Instead, one senses Weisgall moving along a spectrum of dissonance, toward more or toward less. The poems come from the Bible and from Sephardic (Mediterranean Jewish, mostly Spanish) poetry, all translated to English. The dove, because it mates for life, often symbolizes true love. In juxtaposition, the songs tell of God's distance from the Jews and grapple with the difficult question of why the Jews, steadfast in their devotion, suffer. The songs are all beautifully and leanly built, with an almost fanatic concern for finding the right note at any moment, rather than a wash of mood. That concentration, more than anything else, reminded me of Copland. Weisgall expresses his texts very well indeed. Despite an angular vocal line, the songs are all "doable." Unfortunately, not one motive or gesture sticks, with the exception of the "odd man out" of the piece: a solo piano elegy for William Schuman, beautiful and, in its quiet way, just as uncompromising as its mates. The Four Choral Etudes come from a roughly twenty-year period, beginning in 1935. All of them set well-known (comparatively speaking) Hebrew texts: Psalms 19, 118, 114, and a Passover song. All of them are eminently tonal, though with expanded tonality, not particularly dissonant, gorgeous, and difficult as sin. It surprised me that the most elaborate of the bunch was Weisgall's version of the Passover hymn "Ki lo na'e." He uses the traditional melody (or a traditional melody, anyway), but as Bach uses something like the chorale tune "Christ lag in Todesbanden" in his Cantata #4. All sorts of stretching and altering goes on, while Weisgall constructs complex, yet clear contrapuntal textures.

The composer apparently conceived of A Garden Eastward as a vocal symphony (with movement headings of "Fantasia," "Scherzo," and "Free Variations"). For the première, he had titled it Three Symphonic Songs, indicating an orchestral song cycle. He then changed the title to its present one, adding Cantata for High Voice and Orchestra. "Cantata," I suppose, will do as well as anything. The work sets English translations of three poems by the medieval Spanish Sephardic poet Moses ibn Ezra. I think it worth mentioning that Weisgall always picks his texts with intelligence and taste. He is also a very canny vocal writer. His interest in opera shouldn't surprise anybody. The lines, again, are fairly angular and work the extremes of the soloist's range, but they're not beyond reach. This is also a completely tonal, at times even diatonic and bitonal, work, and I must say the final measures are gorgeous. At one point, the composer considered this his most beautiful piece. However, beauty lies in the eye (or ear) of the beholder. I don't agree with Weisgall, pretty though the work may be in places. Even on this CD, I much prefer the T'kiatot and the Four Choral Etudes. The problem lies again in the comparative facelessness of the material. The only people in the lobby humming the tunes after it was all over would probably have been the composer and the soloist.

None of these pieces are easy, and the performances achieve more than mere run-throughs. Schwarz and the Seattle give handsome shape to the T'kiatot. Martinez and Okerlund deliver the Psalm with a nice heaping helping of drama and to a great extent overcome a rather thankless score. The BBC Singers stand among the finest vocal ensembles in the world. They and Itai unknot the knotty Four Choral Etudes to reveal their beauty and "inevitability," to steal from Leonard Bernstein. Mester and the Barcelona Symphony provide a capable accompaniment to the amazing Phyllis Bryn-Julson. She has to have perfect pitch, she's so dead on, even when Weisgall is doing his damndest to throw her off with orchestral lines that almost, but not quite match her.

Overall, the CD represents a bit of a gamble. Like Sessions, Weisgall has always had a small, but loyal fan base. Still, the Naxos price might tempt a few to take the risk.

Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz

Trumpet