> Elie Siegmeister [GH]: Classical Reviews- February 2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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Elie SIEGMEISTER (1909-1991)
Prelude, Blues and Finale (1984) - American Chamber Ensemble & Stanley Drucker
City Songs (1977) - Clinton Ingram, tenor with Alan Mandel , piano
Theme and Variations for solo piano (1932) - played by Alan Mandel
Songs of Innocence (1972 rev., 1985)
Elizabeth Kirkpatrick, soprano with Alan Mandel, piano
Studio recording 1986 - reissued from Gasparo LP GS-253 in 1999
GASPARO GSS 2008 [57.58]

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This is a slim and handily packaged CD of music by a composer little known in Britain but important in his native America. He was born in New York and, like Copland, raised in Brooklyn but there the similarity ends. In fact, to me, there is nothing particularly American about this music at all. He is described in the notes (written in c.1985) as a tireless protagonist of American Music and as "one of our four most distinguished creative musicians."

Alan Mandel who plays so eloquently and who appears to have masterminded this CD writes "His studies in theory and composition- including with Wallingford Riegger and Nadia Boulanger – led to a three year conducting fellowship at the Juilliard school." I would suggest that it was mainly the latter teacher that helped formulate his language. The early ‘Theme and Variations’ for solo piano is a remarkably assured and powerful work for a 23 year-old. Its antecedents seems to be more Prokofiev than anyone. It is dissonant and unrepentant. I suppose that it is the Copland, also a Boulanger pupil at this time, of the ‘Piano Variations’ of 1930 that may also be a model.

But it is nevertheless interesting that Siegmeister is one of those composers that, once he established his musical language at a young age, more or less stuck to it, rather like Ruggles. The notes comment that the music has "consistency and yet variety of style"(!); so much so in fact that when he comes to attempting what the booklet calls "a lighter work", the ‘Songs of Innocence' he signally fails to come to terms with the simplicity of the text and what is required in creating a vehicle for its expression. The melodic line remains angular and the harmonies resolutely refuse to gel into cadences and still, and the scansion of the poetry is lost. I have to say that I have never encountered such an insensitive setting of Blake. And its not the performers that are to blame, they do their best and are on top of the notes and sing with passion and belief. To me the composer in this piece makes little attempt to vary his harmony and melody which, in the end, sound not unlike ‘City Songs’. These constitute a set of eight settings of the poet Norman Rosten. The booklet contains all of the texts (no translations) and I can’t help but feel that the poetry is finer than the music, although the second song ‘Clouds’ has a suitably wispy accompaniment; the vocal line though lacks any distinguishing features.

The ‘Prelude, Blues and Finale’ is an interesting work, scored for two clarinets and piano, the opening of which for solo clarinet reminded me of Varèse. Perhaps one could describe the language as chromatic modality, however when the piano enters we are exposed to violent cluster chords. Don’t get too carried away with the title ‘Blues’ for its 2nd movement; it is only inflected with blues notes and rather languorous rhythms. It develops briefly on two occasions, into a rather unconvincing ‘jam session’; nevertheless it makes a nice foil to the opening movement. The lively Finale is marked by rather austere counterpoint on the clarinets at the beginning and virtuoso piano writing. On the whole this is a good piece as is the ‘Theme and Variations’ but the rest of the CD, for this listener was a disappointment.

Gary Higginson

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