Music: Rest of the Best

The good news is that I cannot possibly get through the accumulation of wonderful CD releases from last year, as I promised I would try to do in my “Best of the Rest” column in January. There are too many. So, I am going to restrict myself to new releases of American music. I am particularly struck by new American chamber music, on which I need to expatiate for a moment. No one is more disposed to declare cultural doom and gloom than I am. The evidence is everywhere. (I recently had to stand in the lobby at a wedding reception because the music was so loud and offensive.) Yet, after listening to Jennifer Higdon’s compositions on a new Naxos CD release (8.559298), I am ready to declare a renaissance in American chamber music.

Higdon made a splash several years ago with her big orchestral pieces, like Blue Cathedral and City Scape. I was impressed then, but now am even more taken by her chamber music. Higdon’s Piano Trio, Voices, and Impressions—the latter two for string quartet—sound like they are spilling out from a source of irrepressible energy. The tremendous excitement often overflows itself. The “Fiery Red” movement of the Piano Trio is music with its finger in a light socket. It is exhilarating and exhausting.

Higdon uses descriptive subtitles for each movement of these works, an indication of her highly coloristic writing. The sheer sounds she creates are entrancing and harmonically fresh. The music is not only highly evocative and energetic, but can be mesmerizing in its lyrical stillness. The “Grace” movement from Voices marvelously depicts “the quiet presence that exists in a being’s soul.” The “Quiet Art” movement of Impressions is equally beguiling. Higdon’s salute to Debussy and Ravel in this four-movement work is exquisitely beautiful. I find this adventurous music irresistible.

To Higdon’s name, we may add those of composers Ken Fuchs, George Tsontakis, Daniel S. Godfrey, Anthony Iannaccone, and others recently reviewed here who are writing first-rate chamber music. This many people writing music that is this good must be a harbinger of something. And their work is not decadent or overripe, like the Viennese music at the beginning of the last century that clearly foretold the coming collapse of that society. It is fresh, energetic, wistful, and yearning. Those bemoaning the state of American culture need to listen, and take heart.

As if to prove the point, we also have the chamber music of Lowell Liebermann on an Albany Records CD (TROY 684), with which I only recently caught up. It contains Piano Trios Nos. 1 and 2; the Concerto for Violin, Piano, and String Quartet; and Two Pieces for Violin and Viola. Liebermann’s more conservative idiom, which also shows French influence, along with that of Shostakovich, is highly rhapsodic, gorgeously melodic, and dramatically charged. The appeal is undiminished by the fact that much of it could have been written a hundred years ago. Liebermann is clearly a Romantic. There is poignancy both in his music and in the fact that he would continue to write works like these.

Paul Moravec, another rising star, is featured on a Naxos CD (8.559267) with The Time Gallery, Protean Fantasy for violin and piano, and Ariel Fantasy for violin and piano. Scored for violin, piano, cello, flute, clarinet, and percussion, The Time Gallery is meant to express the paradox of time—the “creator and destroyer of all things,” according to Moravec. I braced myself for something pretentious, but instead discovered a delightful fantasy rather than a ponderous meditation. Moravec writes: “I try to make beautiful music, which, while acknowledging the tragic, ultimately celebrates the joyous and affirmative.” He does so with a light touch, sprinkling the work with the sounds of chimes, the ticking of clocks, and the human heartbeat. Like Higdon and Liebermann, Moravec employs traditional tonality with a lively imagination. The Time Gallery is very attractively performed by a group calling itself Eighth Blackbird.

Naxos has issued several other superb releases of American music. JoAnn Falletta conducts the Buffalo Philharmonic in bang-up performances of Aaron Copland’s music. The CD (8.559240) includes the classic Rodeo (Four Dance Episodes) and the suite from the great film score to the Red Pony, but also the far more rare Prairie Journal and the Letter from Home. The conductor and orchestra have the full measure of this immensely appealing music. Bargain releases like this illustrate why, Naxos has such a great reputation.

Copland is also featured on a Naxos CD of mainstream American choral music (8.559299). His In the Beginning, with its text drawn from Genesis, is a wonderful a cappela work. I have heard more high-energy performances of it, but the University of Texas Chamber Singers, under James Morrow, emphasize the piece’s loveliness, which works just as well. Also included are compositions by Vincent Persichetti, Charles Ives, Lukas Foss, and John Corigliano. The Corigliano work, Fern Hill, with text from a Dylan Thomas poem, is a real find. Squarely written in the tradition of Samuel Barber’s gorgeous Knoxville: Summer 1915, it is an endearing, highly appealing piece for mezzo-soprano (Susanne Mentzer), chorus, and orchestra. This is all attractive music, beautifully sung, that should win new converts to American choral music. (Alas, no texts are included, purportedly due to copyright problems.)

Naxos continues its series of recordings of William Schuman’s music with two of his best works, the indisputably great Symphony No. 3, Symphony No. 5 for strings, and Judith: Choreographic Poem for Orchestra, all played with verve by the Seattle Symphony, under Gerard Schwarz (8.559317). These two symphonies contain some of the most exciting contrapuntal writing in American orchestral music. They also reveal Schuman’s indebtedness to his teacher, Roy Harris, which has always been a plus for me.

If you have been following the resuscitation of George Antheil’s mu-sic over the past decade, you will be pleased with the New World Records release (80647-2) of three very appealing works from this purported bad boy of music, who got his radical reputation from the infamous Ballet Mecanique (which included airplane propellers). There is nothing at all shocking in Dreams, Piano Concerto No. 2, or Serenade No. 2, performed by the Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra, under Daniel Spalding, with pianist Guy Livingston. The ballet Dreams is steeped in Stravinsky; but, for all of its derivativeness, it is a lot of fun, has a marvelous sense of play, and evokes a kind of circus atmosphere, though it is about a ballerina’s dreams. Antheil is fully in command of a number of musical idioms (waltz, march, polka, folk song, etc.) and mixes them with aplomb. Playful high spirits infect the other works, as well. The Piano Concerto mixes Bach with its Stravinsky, and gives a good simulation of Bohuslav MartinU’s neo-Baroque music in its last movement. This release is a good supplement to the Naxos CDs of Antheil’s symphonies and the notorious, but now amusing, Ballet Micanique.

Back to Naxos for the last two selections, albeit with music from South America. Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) put 20th-century Latin American music on the map with his musical tsunami from Brazil, which mixed his love of Bach with infectious folk music. Extraordinarily, there has not been an integral modern recording of his famous Bachianas Brasileiras until now. These nine works, for all kinds of instrumental combinations (including the famous and seductive No. 5 for voice and eight cellos), were composed over a period of 15 years. On a three-CD set, Naxos (8.557460-62) gives us this delicious music as performed by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, under Kenneth Schermerhorn. This was Schermerhorn’s last recording before his death and serves as a marvelous tribute to what he achieved in Nashville.

Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) showed early promise of becoming an Argentinean version of Villa-Lobos. However, after giving that impres¬sion, he turned to the thorny side and delved into serial music. Before that happened, he wrote two marvelous, highly atmospheric ballets, Panambi and Estancia, that teem with life every bit as much as Villa-Lobos’s best and that also show Stravinsky’s pervasive influence. Listen, for instance, to the eleventh movement of Panambi, which sounds straight out of The Rite of Spring. Naxos has reissued a recording (8.557582), once on the Conifer label, with brilliant performances by the London Symphony Orchestra, under Uruguayan conductor Gisele Ben-Dor. This CD presents the complete ballets, rather than the better- known suites, the first to do so with Estancia. The sound is stunning and the level of excitement high. An amazing bargain from a label that is doing so much for American music, both north and south.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly has written for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Reader's Digest, The American Spectator, and National Review, and is the author or contributing author of over 20 books. His most recent book is America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (Ignatius Press).

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