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CD Review

Sheila Silver

Piano Music

  • Concerto for Piano (1996)
  • 6 Préludes pour piano, d' aprés poèmes de Baudelaire (1991)
Alexander Paley, piano
Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra/Gintaras Rinkevicius
Naxos 8.557015 66:02
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Struggle music.

In an otherwise blameless tribute to his teacher Nadia Boulanger, one reads a passage, rather quaint today, in which Aaron Copland wonders why there hasn't been a woman composer at the level of great men. He must have known the work of Louise Talma and Ruth Crawford Seeger, neither of whom has anything to apologize for. Why not at least mention them, as he did a number of middling males? Even today, we tend to pat women composers on the head, as we might ooh and ah over toddlers playing T-ball.

Especially since the Seventies, a number of women have written as well or better than very good men: Larsen, Gubaidulina, Ustvolskaya, Zaimont, Le Fanu, and many others. I've only recently discovered Sheila Silver's music, a string symphony called Shirat Sara (song of Sarah), on Naxos' series of American Jewish music from the Milken Archives (Naxos 8.559426). Now, I have no reliable masterpiece detector. To me, a masterpiece is something decided by a lot of people over time, and the game of Find the Masterpiece has never particularly interested me. But that work made me ask: if not, why not? A student of Ligeti among others, Silver has a big voice, a superb technique allied to a complicated mind with something necessary to say. Despite the dissonant (though tonal) idiom, I suspect she's highly accessible to an audience not thrown by, say, Le Sacre du printemps. The emotional payoff of her music is fundamentally Romantic.

Silver herself thinks of her piano concerto as a symphony with piano soloist. I think of it as a concerto. I'll try to explain. Brahms' first piano concerto is obviously a concerto, despite its symphonic scale. A Martinů symphony, despite the distinctive color of the piano, remains pretty solidly a symphony. In less-obvious cases, Leonard Bernstein's Age of Anxiety symphony, with its extensive piano solos, still strikes me as a symphony, while much of Brahms' second concerto fits Silver's label. It comes down to emphasis. Who initiates things? Who has more of the strong material? Who makes the strong rhetorical points? What's the soloist's position in the texture? Silver's concerto requires a virtuoso, but often that virtuoso merely accompanies. Nevertheless, she has given the soloist too dramatic a part for it to serve as a mere character player.

According to what I've read in and around the Internet, Silver strikes me as a composer caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. She's too wild for the genteel and too tame for the no-real-music-before-1980 crowd. Even among her fans, one finds disagreements about individual works. I take heart from this. It indicates that the value of the music is something that can't be immediately decided.

Silver is a classic Modernist, with a traditional sense of time. The concerto proves as ambitious and as "big" as I had expected. It runs close to three-quarters of an hour, with a third movement slightly less than half the total length. More important, it speaks with what I'd call a depth of discourse. Though emotionally rewarding, it bursts with intellectual abundance. Though complex, complexity isn't its main point. At its best, it bespeaks a maturity of mind and culture found in few composers.

The work begins with a chant idea, which will reappear at several important points in the score. It both takes part in thematic development and also acts as a musical icon, functioning almost symbolically, like the crashing dissonance that opens the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth. A longish introduction – about a third of the movement – ensues, with elaborations of the chant, in growing levels of intensity, from piano and orchestra. Out of the last notes of the intro comes an allegro, portraying crisis. The composer describes it as the hero buffeted by fate. Despite its considerable fury, it doesn't seem a personal crisis, but one from without, like a hurricane. The crisis dissipates, leading to yet another section based on the chant, which this time introduces another angry section, with Bernsteinian, jazzy overtones. Out of this rises a lengthy cadenza, based mainly on the crisis music. As the cadenza proceeds, again the crisis winds down, and the chant returns. With a minute to go, the music turns optimistic. Silver compares the mood to an immigrant reaching the shores of the new country.

The slow movement, an update of Bloch rhapsody, begins with an evocation of Jewish cantorial chant by the soloist against quiet, very moving chords in the orchestra. The composer professes that the image in her mind is of a prayer, "broken and crying." I get other images, but only because that I have years of experience with that kind of prayer in other contexts. This leads to fanfares and march-like fragments, bright and epic, until the return of the rhapsody. This time, the piano accompanies, and wind solos take the role of cantor. Occasionally, a fanfare or two breaks in, but not enough to interrupt the flow of the prayer. Toward the end, Silver creates one of the most expressive moments in the concerto, as hints of the first-movement chant and crisis play against the cantorial melismata.

The third movement, unfortunately, is the weakest of the three. The composer has supplied a program I won't go into here. Basically, it outstays its welcome by at least six minutes. It begins with a largo introduction (six minutes long) which would have better been cut, full of nothing but empty rhetoric and second-hand gestures, that became second-hand even before Liszt. Furthermore, the rest of the movement could use some occasional nips and tucks. Too bad, she was doing so well up to that point. However, once the intro gives way, she pretty much finds her feet again. A spare melody begins in the right hand over long notes in the orchestral basement. After a couple of minutes, I realized the latter was the first-movement chant, but Silver emphasizes the new melody. The piano builds it up until it grows into an ecstatic hora (is there any other kind?). The orchestra joins in, with echoes of Bernstein again, Ginastera, and Bartók. The dance comes across as the "crisis" music in a more positive light. The music shifts to a lower gear with a languorous "oriental" dance. This eventually winds down as the hora revs up, but the hora never fully gets going again. It flares and flickers, and the concerto comes to a quiet, radiant conclusion.

In 1990, Silver found herself on a grant in the south of France, and she composed her Six Préludes there. It should surprise no one how much of France the préludes have soaked up. In essence, Silver has turned her own idiom to Impressionistic character-pieces, in the vein of Debussy's préludes. For the most part, she gets inspiration from lines of Baudelaire. The exception, the fourth prélude, takes off from the composer's personal experience – walks through a forest half-devastated by fire. This and the one that follows (based on the line "There, all is perfection and beauty, Luxury, calm and delight") count as my favorites of the set. However, while each prélude is fairly strong in itself, this doesn't necessarily make for a strong set. Indeed, compared to the Debussy books of préludes, Silver's score lacks variety. Her idiom seems narrow here, as opposed to richness of the concerto. Nevertheless, no one says you have to listen to all the préludes at once.

The performances reach very good without crossing over into great. They let you know the ambitions and the success of each piece, but you can imagine someone coming along who'll do better. Alexander Paley is the star here, and his performance demonstrates a long-term intimacy with the music. Silver writes dangerous music. If the pianist doesn't have the thread, the whole thing will fall apart. Particularly in the concerto's third movement, the pianist plays music dangerously close to marking time. It's a tribute to Paley that he keeps so much of it out of deadening stasis. The orchestra plays with passion.

Naxos continues to explore a wide range of music. It may be the most doughty label around. Can it last?

Copyright © 2007, Steve Schwartz