Music: Finding the Beautiful

Last December, Morley Books, the publishing arm of Crisis, launched my book, Surprised by Beauty: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music. I mention this not to agitate sales, but because the widespread aversion to 20th-century music, well-earned by the cacophonists, makes me sorry for those who, having been aurally battered, shy away from anything written during the period. I am reminded of the dimensions of the loss by the volume of releases of very fine, often sheerly delightful 20th-century music with which I have been inundated in the past several months. There are so many that I can only briefly mention each in the hopes of tantalizing you with their most likely unfamiliar names.

The very first LP I bought, four decades ago, was of the film score of Nino Rota’s War and Peace. Rota (1911-1979) is probably known to most of you as the film composer of Godfather fame. As releases from the BIS, ASV, and Chandos labels during the last several years have demonstrated, he was so much more. As you can hear in his symphonies, concertos, and chamber music, there is something unspoiled in this man’s music. It is pristine in the delight it takes in things. This is confirmed by the French Naive label’s release of a two-for-the-price-of-one CD set that contains his solo piano music, exquisitely performed by Danielle Laval, on the first CD and orchestral works, two with piano, on the second. Much of the solo piano music is steeped in Bach, while the Concerto Soiree for Piano and Orchestra is strongly reminiscent of Poulenc’s effervescent Piano Concerto, especially with its sense of mischief, fun, and nostalgia. This music is an irresistible combination of Italian lyricism and French panache.

Poulenc is the right name to mention in segueing to the music of Jean Francaix (1912-1997) because Francaix shared his inimitable sense of insouciance. Francaix’s music gurgles cheerfully along as if life itself were a divertimento. Like Rota’s music, Francaix’s has a kind of innocence to it. I find this immensely attractive and entertaining. Hyperion gives us a good sample of Francaix’s orchestral charms in a release containing his Symphony in G Major (composed in Haydn’s memory); Serenade; the ballet, Scuola di Ballo; and two other works. These are very well performed by the Ulster Orchestra, under conductor Thierry Fischer.

Further news on the French front brings us the complete Melodies of Paul Paray (1886-1979), the long-time conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Paray’s stellar career as a conductor unfortunately eclipsed his role as a French composer. Fortunately, he had a faithful student in

Eduard Perrone, who after his musical studies, became a priest at Assumption Grotto parish in Detroit. From his unlikely perch as a pastor, Father Perrone has marshaled the resources of his congregation and local professional musicians to produce a series of extraordinary CDs of Paray’s music, starting with Paray’s gorgeous Mass for the 500th Anniversary of Joan of Arc, reviewed earlier in Crisis. A new two-CD set has arrived from Grotto Productions, containing the orchestral songs of Paray, paired with those for piano and sacred songs with organ. The double album is titled “Affairs of the Heart,” and there is a sweetness pervading this music, whether secular or sacred. If you have any affinity for the quintessentially diaphanous French touch with these matters, I can highly recommend this string of musical pearls. I confess I succumbed, especially to the orchestral songs. I continue to be astonished that anything so ambitious can be produced by a modest-sized parish. The accompanying booklet and texts are first-class.

Readers may recall my rave review two years ago of Gabriel Pierne’s utterly charming Christmas cantata, Les Enfants a Bethleem, on the Erato label. Pierne (1863-1937), a classmate of Claude Debussy, also wrote a gorgeous ballet, Cydalise et le Chevre-Pied. I always loved the old EMI recording of the suites from this ballet, but that release is long gone from circulation. For the first time, we now have a recording of the complete ballet, marvelously played by the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra, under David Shallon, on the Timpani label. This recording has won just about every prize available in the French world and also the Cannes Classical Award, which is an international prize. Cydalise, written around the same time as Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe, captures some of its same sensuous atmosphere and even shares with it a vocalizing choir in the background. If you love the Ravel work, this is a cinch for you.

American composer David Diamond (b. 1915) fell under the spell of Ravel, whom he knew, but went on to write some of the most idiomatically American music of our time. Several issues ago, I praised to the skies the first release in the Albany label’s complete traversal of Diamond’s eleven string quartets, with the Potomac Quartet. The second release in the series has arrived, with Quartets Nos. 2, 9, and 10. Diamond is a composer with a yearning and passion for the ineffable. It suffuses all his music, which is why it is often heartbreaking to listen to. Do not miss it, especially the poignant Second Quartet. It is great music. Diamond’s later quartets are less accessible and more angular, but no less infused with his unquenchable passion. The Potomac String Quartet undertook this indispensable venture out of love for Diamond’s works, and it shows in its wholehearted embrace of even the sometimes-difficult later pieces. Diamond is trying to speak through his music, and the Potomac Quartet gives him urgent voice.

Albany provides us with another unique CD of American music, containing premier recordings of Roy Harris’s Symphony No. 2 and Morton Gould’s Symphony No. 3, magnificently performed by the Albany Symphony Orchestra, under David Alan Miller. Curiously, both composers abandoned their progeny, and it took Miller’s efforts to shape up the original scores for presentation here. It was worth the effort. Harris’s was one of the most original voices in American music, and if his many symphonies are sometimes less than perfect, it is because he aimed so high. Harris did reach perfection in his signature Third Symphony. His Second is a work of premonitions. One hears themes he developed in his later works. It is wonderful to have this performance to help complete the picture of this idiosyncratic genius. Gould was often condescended to for the more popular idioms in which he wrote many of his lighter works and for their great popularity. The Third Symphony shows how serious he could be in the symphonic genre. The reviews of this work that I have read fail to mention one of its most striking aspects, and that is how obviously influenced it was by Harris’s work, which is why it makes such a logical disc mate. All in all, this is a brilliantly executed, inspired pairing.

The budget Naxos label features another pair of world-premier recordings in its ongoing series of releases of Norwegian composer Geirr Tveitt’s music. Tveitt (1908-1981) wrote some wonderfully wild, folk-inspired music that, no matter how eccentric and rooted in its Hardanger locale, never fails to grip one through its roots in song and dance. I am entranced by his exhilarating music. If you have en-joyed the previous releases, you will be delighted by the Variations on a Folksong from Hardanger for two pianos and orchestra and the Piano Concerto No. 4, Aurora Borealis, stunningly performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, under Bjarte Engeset, with pianists Havard Gimse and Gunilla Sussmann.

Naxos scores again with its new release of Ernest Moeran’s Symphony in G Minor and the Sinfonietta, with David Lloyd-Jones conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in exciting performances. (Naxos has already released a CD of Moeran’s string quartets.) These two pieces are among the relatively unknown great English orchestral works of the first half of the 20th century. This is surely nature music, but not only of the English countryside. It contains strong whiffs of Sibelius’s northern vastness, as well. This is better than Bax and as exciting as Walton. If English music after Elgar is a mystery to you, this would make a great introduction.

Slip one of these releases under the door of someone who hates 20th-century music and see what happens.

  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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