NEIL: Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra. BAKER: Concert Piece for Viola and Orchestra; Concerto for Cello and Chamber Orchestra.
Sharon Polifrone, violin; Paul Silverthorne, viola; Milos Jahoda, cello; Czech National Symphony Orchestra/Paul Freeman
Albany TROY 559 {DDD} TT: 75:38


Terrific performances of mainly okay works. While certainly true that a first encounter through a terrible account may temporarily turn you off to a great work (happened to me with Brahms's violin concerto), a really good performance of something at third or fourth level may influence you to credit a composer more than you should. There's nothing awful about any of the three works here. All of them are at least capably written, with a vein of real poetry through them besides. One might well ask the question, however, if the "aesthetic goodness" of a work isn't inherent in the music, how performers produce it.

Obviously, listener, performer, and composer collaborate in each musical experience. For me, movies serve as the model of collaborative art. A very good director like Milos Forman and very good actors like Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham can be sunk by a very bad script like Amadeus. A great movie like Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight needs a great audience. A very good movie like Shane succeeds in spite of a cliché-ridden script. However, we try to diagnose the weakness and assign credit and blame to those who deserve them.

Of the three concerti on the program, I liked William Neil's Rhapsody best. I've never heard anything by Neil before, but this piece makes me want to hear more. The composer has misnamed the work somewhat. Although it aims to convey the improvisatory singing of a Greek rhapsody, most evident in the opening, it is nevertheless tightly-written. Its best moments I find in the quicker portions, and they seem to derive from Benjamin Britten, with an extremely characteristic harmonic world. They make an intense, brilliant effect, reminiscent somewhat of Young Apollo. Nevertheless, it does go on for about twenty-five minutes, not all of it gold. The slower, "non-metered" portions strike me as predictable. I keep waiting for something else to happen and thus give thanks when the composer gives the music a pulse again.

Most listeners know David Baker as a composer who incorporates jazz elements into his concert work. The viola "concert piece" and cello concerto stand as exceptions to the general picture. Baker has built up a huge catalogue over the years (somewhere around twenty concerti alone). I think of him as a "messy" composer—that is, a lot of notes, many of which don't do much but litter up the texture. Again, these two pieces run counter to my preconception. Both owe more to mainstream concert music than to jazz, and both eschew florid textures. Hearing the viola concert piece (three movements—moderate, slow, fast—played without pause), an ambitious work of more than half an hour, I found that the phrase "Very Eastman" leapt to my mind, by which I mean full of craft and a genteel, almost faceless lyricism. Baker builds a symphonic argument—- impressively, across movements—but you have only to listen to, say, Walton's concerto or to Bloch's suite to see Baker's effort as a "nice" but not terrifically exciting or memorable work. I begin to long for Baker's old "mess"—evidence of a mind with so many ideas he can't find a place for them all.

The cello concerto improves things. The rhythms become more incisive, the cello and the orchestra generate real drama. The lyrical bits don't remind you of weak-tea pop from the Forties. The ideas themselves, as well as the instrumental textures, are more interesting. The concerto runs two-thirds of the concert-piece's length and is all the better for the concision. Some jazzy bits make their way into the finale, but overall this concerto, well-made and interesting as it is, doesn't really stand out from dozens of other cello concerti. One feels as though one looks at an expensive, solidly-built, but not aesthetically distinctive house.

The performances, on the other hand, give all these pieces a lot of help. Paul Silverthorne is simply the finest violist I've ever heard. Despite "big-shoulder" passages for the orchestra and what I regard as tacked-on cadenzas for display, the work's engine moves to a lyrical pulse. Silverthorne has a warm, rich tone, and he can sing like nobody's business. But it's a bit like Sinatra doing "L.A. is My Lady": one hears singing, but no real song. If Silverthorne can't make more out of Baker's Konzertstük, odds are nobody else can. Neither Silverthorne nor Freeman overcome the tendency of the work to fall apart into sections. Given their performances elsewhere, I again suspect the composer.

No such reservations about violinist Sharon Polifrone, but Neil has given her something to work with. Again, the music moves mainly lyrically, and Polifrone sings sweetly, with a slightly intense edge, and amazingly in tune. Furthermore, her intonation contributes to the intensity of the performance, lifting the piece over its few leaden parts. Even in the "muscle" passages, she gets power with only the slightest loss of lyricism. The cello soloist, Milos Jahoda, gets huge sounds out of his instrument ,or maybe they miked him close. But it's a big tone, at any rate. Jahoda plays far less suavely than either Silverthorne or Polifrone, but Baker's concerto can stand the rough. The Czech National Symphony does well, though not sensationally well, by these scores. Freeman, when given a crumb of something meaningful to do, contributes his own sparks. Most important, he in large part shapes the scores so that one gets a sense of the entire span, rather than bits and pieces. Baker's viola work stops him, but it also stops Silverthorne.

The recorded sound is a bit harsh and a little dead. You don't get a lot of lush here, which would work to Neil's advantage. On the other hand, it suits Baker's cello concerto. Soloists are a too forward in the balance. Though a quantum leap better in sound, it nevertheless reminded me of some of the old CRI concerto LPs.

S.G.S. (September 2003)