PERRY: Jamestown Concerto. SCHUMAN: A Song of Orpheus. THOMSON: Concerto
for Violoncello and Orchestra.
Yehuda Hanani (cello); RTE National Symphony Orchestra (Ireland)/William
Naxos 8.559344 (B) (DDD) TT: 72:11
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Two masterpieces and a painting of Elvis on black velvet. Three conservative
modern American cello concerti -- a nice idea, imperfectly carried
out. It all comes down to repertoire.
William Perry studied with Hindemith. Although a great composer, Hindemith
had less luck as a teacher. He trained a boatload of composers, few
of whom had anything special to say. However, all received a first-class
technique, and many became professional craftsman. Mitch Leigh, for
wrote the off-Broadway musical Man of La Mancha -- not exactly a world-beater,
but competently done. Perry, in addition to his concert work, produces
TV and writes movie soundtracks. His Jamestown Concerto sounds like
it -- a Max Steiner score (although written decades after Steiner's
which tells a story of the early Jamestown Colony. In all, a nicely-orchestrated
bore. Professional musicians could play this music in their sleep,
and it wouldn't surprise me to learn that they did.
The output of symphonist William Schuman, at one time considered in
the same breath as Aaron Copland, has fallen into a lamentable state
Although highly regarded and even successful, he seldom had a "hit." Presently,
I can think of only two works that achieved any sort of popularity: his
Third Symphony, a favorite of Bernstein's, and his New England
based on the music of the Revolutionary War composer William Billings.
Song of Orpheus, written for the prominent cellist Leonard Rose, appeared
in the early Sixties. Columbia duly recorded it and released it as an
LP, with Rose as soloist, on the B side of the premiere recording of
the Barber Piano Concerto, with Browning and Szell. That Barber performance,
one of the best, has made it to CD; Rose's Schuman never has.
Schuman based the piece on his early setting of Shakespeare's "Orpheus
with his lute" (available, believe it or not, on three separate
labels -- Vox, Albany, and Hyperion). He fashioned not so much a set
of variations as a fantasia on the song, a kind of vocal sarabande. The
work, in one movement, nevertheless falls into several large sections:
the cello sings the song almost all by itself; the orchestra, led by
the oboe, repeats the song with cello commentary; a cadenza for cello;
a quick section; another cadenza; the cello taking the lead against mainly
pizzicato accompaniment from the strings; a final section led by the
english horn singing the song, with cello commentary, to a soft close.
For the most part, the song flits through the score in such a way that
you catch only short snatches of it. The music is less about the song
than about depth of feeling. For its form, it’s a long piece, and
yet the narrative is so tight that you get carried along. It confounds
your usual expectations of a concerto, since the soloist is really more "first
among equals" than a genuine star. Yet the part invests the music
with maturity, complication, and I believe wisdom. It's a marvelous score,
although it will probably never prove a popular one.
To me, Virgil Thomson stands alone among American composers between
the wars. Unlike almost everyone else, he eschews a Romantic outlook
music. He is the most French of Americans while remaining profoundly
American in spirit. Best known for his Dada pieces -- Capital,
Capitals and Four Saints in Three Acts, for example -- he nevertheless plows
a much wider furrow than those pieces suggest.
The cello concerto of 1950 stands out among his "Americana" works,
like Filling Station, The River, and Symphony on a Hymn
follows neither Copland nor Harris in his version of folk-based symphonic
music, again unlike almost everyone else mining that vein. Indeed, Copland
credited Thomson with showing him the general direction he would take
in works like Billy the Kid. Thomson began his concerto in 1945 and got
the cellist Luigi Silva as technical consultant. Columbia recorded it
not long after it appeared with Werner Jannsen leading Silva as soloist.
The concerto sounds bone-simple, like a lot of Thomson, and yet bristles
with difficulties. Double- and triple-stops are thrown in almost casually,
as the soloist is expected to maintain a singing line. The concerto falls
into three movements: "Rider on the Plains," "Variations
on a Southern Hymn," and "Children's Games."
Rider on the Plains" sounds less like cowboys than Oberon in the
forest -- an elfin atmosphere set off by muted trumpet. It seems to flow
so spontaneously and naturally, you might not notice its sonata form.
Thomson writes an extremely witty, sophisticated sonata to support the
naiveté of the themes. The transitions from first subjects to
second and back are both surprising and seamless. The second, slow movement
varies the shape-note hymn Tribulation, from William Walker's 1835 Southern
Harmony. The tune, melancholy and rather spare, shows the inflections
of modal Appalachian folk music. From the first variation, which harmonizes
the tune in two different simultaneous keys, Thomson takes it for a wild,
phantasmagorical ride, without losing its essential simplicity, and evokes
the sadness and heroism of a way of life. In the rondo finale, Thomson
indulges his wit and sense of fun. The rondo theme turns out to connect
to American folk songs, "Jesus Loves Me," Beethoven's piano
sonata op. 10, no. 2, and heaven knows what else. Each episodes surprises
and delights. The cello part becomes increasingly difficult, to the point
where the last few bars sound almost unplayable, and still the nature
of the music remains frisky and light-hearted.
The performers do well without doing spectacularly well. We've long
needed a modern recording of the Thomson, and this one improves over
Silva recording in every way: interpretation, playing, and sound. I'm
grateful that A Song of Orpheus has been restored to the catalogue
as well. Incidentally, as prelude to the Schuman, the actress Jane
reads Shakespeare's poem (for reasons I can't fathom), which takes
less than a minute and earns her an album credit. It's not a bad reading,
and it's short enough that it shouldn't annoy anyone.
S.G.S. (October 2008)