Music: The Beautiful Revolution

There is a lot of territory to cover to bring a flood of spring releases to your attention for this summer’s delectation. This will have to be done at the expense of a general theme tying them all together or of a detailed analysis of each CD. I am, however, taken by American composer Beth Anderson’s statement that “to make something beautiful is revolutionary.” A revolution is a turn or, perhaps, a return. It brings us to a foreign shore that, as once described by G. K. Chesterton, we are all the more thrilled with by the discovery that we have just stepped back on home territory, finally knowing it for what it really is. Beauty does this. It brings us home, or as near to it as we can come on this earth.

I wish I were as thrilled with Anderson’s music. She takes her credo from Friedrich von Schiller’s remark that “true genius is of necessity simple.” At least from a cursory listen, I find that she may have confused the simple with the simplistic. Like most composers of her generation (b. 1950), she was schooled in Schoenberg’s organized cacophony and then rebelled against it. That is all to her credit, but on the evidence of her New World Records release, Swales and Angels, she is not quite out of the recovery room. Her music is beautiful in a simple way. However, I am not convinced by country fiddling in what sounds like crossover 18th-century music. Some of the works on this release remind me of Arthur Honneger’s prescient remark, made at the height of Schoenberg’s popularity, that “I strongly fear that the twelve-tone fad—we already see its decline—may initiate a reaction toward a too simplistic, too rudimentary music. The cure for having swallowed sulfuric acid will be to drink syrup.”

Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962) does not suffer from this problem. A young American composer, Higdon is one of those remarkable creatures, like Libby Larsen of whom I recently wrote, who seems perfectly at ease with the wonder of musical sounds within a tradition that for her is unbroken. In a recent Fanfare magazine interview, she spoke of her experience of judging a recent competition of young composers. She said, “I’ve looked at 78 applicants. I think only one or two of the scores were atonal, which is amazing—all the rest of the works were tonal.” This is the revolution to which I have been trying to point since this column’s inception. It has been a sea change. Higdon’s works on two new Telarc CDs give further evidence of its success. A collection of American works on Telarc’s Rainbow Body, named after Christopher Theofanidis’s composition of the same name, includes Higdon’s work Blue Cathedral, a luscious, dreamy tone poem.

Telarc has also devoted a complete CD to Higdon’s works, Concerto for Orchestra and City Scape, that give a fuller idea of the scope of her talent. The Concerto is a musical romp with a high energy level that deftly exploits orchestral color to the fullest. Higdon definitely tips her hat in Bartok’s direction, as one would have to in a composition of this name, with the scurrying strings in the opening part of the first movement. However, the feature that caught me most by surprise is the audible influence of Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara in the Concerto’s sweeping climaxes. Higdon’s string writing in the second movement is simply superb and is reminiscent of the best of Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett in this genre. I also suspect she has heard the magical works of William Mathias. This is bold, imaginative music, made all the more exciting by the fact that it is completely conventional. It is an adventure we can have in our own home. In these works and in Blue Cathedral, Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra breathe vibrant life.

I am afraid that I seem to have stumbled on a theme. Yet I promised brevity. Now I shall try to deliver it. George Rochberg (b. 1918) is the American composer mainly responsible for breaking the stranglehold of twelve-tone music in this country. One magnificent work with which he did this is his Violin Concerto from 1974.1 grew to love this work in its premier recording with Isaac Stern and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under Andre Previn. That CD is no longer available, and it turns out that Rochberg omitted some 13 minutes of music at Stern’s request. Therefore, we now have the restored original version in a stunning performance by violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved and the Saarbrucken Radio Symphony Orchestra, under Christopher Lyndon-Gee, on Naxos. Aside from the additional store of treasure, this performance seems more sharply etched to me, with every detail given expressive emphasis. The work has an alluring film-noirish atmosphere that I cannot shake. This is a very big work—every bit as major as the landmark violin concertos of the 19th century. It is full of pain and nostalgia and aching beauty. At Naxos’s budget price, it is almost a disgrace to call a treasure like this a bargain. Yet there it is.

Sorry, that was not short enough. I will try harder. Quincy Porter (1897-1966) was a conservative, tonal American composer, which explains his neglect. I fell in love with his music years ago through the haze of an abysmal recording of his wonderful New England Episodes on an old CRI record. I also love his chamber music. Now comes the adventurous Albany Records to the rescue with Sinfonia Varsovia’s excellent performances, under Ian Hobson, of Porter’s two symphonies, plus his Poem and Dance. Please buy this CD so Albany will release more of his music. Thank you.

Further to the south, we have two treats from Brazil. The continuation of CPO’s outstanding cycle of Heitor Villa-Lobos’s symphonies brings us his No. 7, coupled with the Sinfonietta No. 1. If you have heard any of the predecessors in this series, this release, as capably performed by the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Stuttgart under Carl St. Clair, is self-recom¬mending. If you don’t like teeming musical jungles, stay away and just read the guidebooks.

As we now know from the BIS label’s release of Camargo Guarnieri’s Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3, Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) was not the only game in Brazil town. Guarnieri (1907-1993) bowed in the direction of the master by dedicating his Second Symphony to Villa-Lobos, but Guarnieri’s works are much more tightly organized and recognizable as symphonies. Aaron Copland discerned his genius. Where have these splendid works been all these years? They, along with the Abertura Concertante, are given superb performances by the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra under John Neschling.

I was jolted for a moment when I saw “volume one” of the Chandos label’s Weinberg symphonies. Why a Polish and not a Russian orchestra? Then it clicked. Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996) wrote all of his music in the Soviet Union, to which he fled in World War II, but he was Polish. As I looked closer at the label, I recognized the National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Katowice, and the conductor, Gabriel Chmura, from a concert tape of Weinberg’s Eighth Symphony sent to me by Weinberg’s biographer, Per Skans. How good of Chandos to begin its series so superbly with these forces in a symphony not otherwise available—the Fifth—in the Olympia cycle of Weinberg’s works, along with the Sinfonietta No. 1. In short, Weinberg’s music is Shostakovich without the biting sarcasm and sense of grotesquerie and Mahler without the neuroses. This release is a sign that his 22 symphonies and four chamber sym-phonies are going to get the attention they deserve.

Before leaving Poland, I must report on Krysztof Meyer’s Mass, cornpleted in 1996. It appears on a CD featuring the prowess of conductor Antoni Wit in live performances with the Warsaw Philharmonic that includes orchestral pieces by Lutoslawski and Penderecki. This lovely work, which contains an inspired Glo-ria and some agitated and quite powerful sections in its Credo, shares a lineage with Andre Caplet’s luminous Mass and, closer geographically but still French-inspired, László Lajtha’s Missa in Diebus Tribulationis from Hungary. This is a work of living faith that keeps the tradition alive. Amen.

  • 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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