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CD Review

American premières

  • Lee Hoiby: Sextet for Wind Quintet and Piano
  • Bruce Adolphe: Night Journey
  • Joan Tower: Island Prélude
  • Lalo Schifrin: La Nouvelle Orleans
  • Conrad De Jong: Variations on the Spanish La Folia
Lee Hoiby, piano
Dorian Wind Quintet
Summit Records DCD 117
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Woodwind groups have commissioned many contemporary works, probably because they don't have the huge archives of string repertoire. I've met many new composers on woodwind albums, and, due to the nature of most wind music, generally composers at their most attractive.

Bruce Adolphe describes his Night Journey as a night train ride. Musically, it's a study in perpetual motion, with a slow middle section. Adolphe scores economically and surely, and he's particularly impressive in how he breaks up the moto perpetuo among the wind quintet. Harmonically, he recalls Bernard Herrmann at a bit less than his darkest, but there's still a slight sense of unease.

Joan Tower is one of the most powerful contemporary composers now writing, when the music comes together, which for me it doesn't always. Her series of Fanfares for the Uncommon Woman failed for me, mainly because she made the mistake of stuffing them too full. They were complex but misshapen, like a ratatouille or a gumbo. Also, she deliberately courted comparison with Aaron Copland's classic Fanfare for the Common Man, a short masterpiece of piercing clarity and power, so she did herself no favors. On the other hand, her Piano Quartet is to me a classic – big-boned, taking big breaths, and intellectually vital. The Island Prélude for wind quintet (a version also exists for oboe and strings) has a program absolutely unessential to the comprehension of the piece: about a remote island with a river and a bird. Basically, the work is ten minutes of mood, and nothing much, other than the usual motific development and playing with wind colors, happens. The work is static, perhaps, because the program is static – picture rather than process.

People probably know Lalo Schifrin best as the composer of the "Mission: Impossible" theme, but he's led a distinguished jazz life as an arranger for Dizzy Gillespie and a somewhat less successful career as a classical composer. La Nouvelle Orleans is a bit of a mess structurally, with an extended Prélude, which has little to do with the piece itself, and an attempt to evoke jazz. Surprisingly, the jazz part of the piece succeeds the least – essentially a slow blues to the cemetery and a quick march back (as if we've never heard that before). Schifrin writes expertly, but not very inventively. Further, I've yet to figure out why when classical composers try to ape New Orleans jazz, they almost always leap to Chicago or Kansas City dixieland. New Orleans jazz differs rhythmically – distinctively so – from these other two types. You can hear the real rhythm in the Rebirth Brass Band, in Professor Longhair, and even in some of the Neville Brothers.

This disk marks my first acquaintance with the music of Conrad De Jong. The Variations on La Folia take a Renaissance dance hit and bend and twist it in novel ways. De Jong also breaks the theme into bits and varies the bits. The idiom is mostly neo-classical. Five of the variations feature solos for each of the five wind instruments, including a breakneck spot for the French horn. The theme itself appears relatively whole in the second variation and at the end. The Dorian Winds have the measure of the work.

About twice as long as any other work on the disc, the two-movement Lee Hoiby sextet wins the title Most Substantial. The first movement relates to sonata (with interesting variants), while the second is a theme with eight ingenious variations and a coda which sums up the movement's ideas. I don't know why composers have shied away from the combination of piano and winds (as opposed to piano and strings), for there's a drawer-full of some very attractive works, including the Poulenc Sextuor and the Rimsky-Korsakov Quintet. I rate the Hoiby with the Poulenc – that is, among the best in the genre. Part of my admiration stems from the surprising emotional depth Hoiby finds in this combination. Chamber works for winds, after all, usually show off wit, rather than profundity. Hoiby has the gift of connecting to the listener's emotions without indulging in dour uplift, as if one had to excuse one's own happiness on earth in order to get into heaven. That is, high spirits can indeed be spiritual. I have no idea how Hoiby behaves in everyday life, but his artistic personality certainly knows how to dance. The idiom is essentially American neo-classic, close to Copland's Sextet. Throughout, the work demonstrates vigor and clarity.

The opening movement bounds out of the gate with a stirring, striding first subject, which moves into a long-breathed lyrical second subject, similar to Barber. It would be easy for me to say that the second subject, which zings the heartstrings, is the emotional core of the movement, but that unfairly slights the first subject. The development is a marvel of extremely inventive counterpoint and transformations of the two subjects. The theme Hoiby plays with in the second movement breaks up nicely into two parts. Some variations emphasize the first part, others the second. Although each variation keeps its own musical character, it acts more than as an "interchangeable module." The order of the variations seems important, which means that Hoiby plays two games here: invention, responsible for the interest of an individual variation, and architecture, which welds the bits into an entire movement, much as Brahms does in the Haydn Variations. Hoiby knows his compositional onions. These are not only shapely works, but the shape contributes to the listener's emotional drama. In fact, in retrospect, the sextet shows up some of the previous compositions as a bit aimless and confused.

The Dorian Wind Quintet does well by all these works. They turn things up a notch in the Hoiby, probably because the piece demands it of them and possibly because of the powerful drive of Hoiby (a virtuoso pianist and superb chamber player) at the keyboard. The recorded sound is fine.

Copyright © 1996, Steve Schwartz