Naxos continue to fill in the gaps in the catalogue
that other labels ignore. This disc is devoted to the American
composer, Sheila Silver. Silver studied at Berkeley before going
on to study with Erhard Karkoschka in Stuttgart and György
Ligeti in Berlin and Hamburg. She has worked in quite a wide range
of media from solo instrumental works to large orchestral works,
from opera to feature film scores. Her musical language is a synthesis
of the tonal and atonal worlds, coupled with rhythmic complexity.
She wrote the score for John Feldman's recent feature "Who the
Hell is Bobby Roos?" which won the 2002 New American Cinema Award
at the Seattle International Film Festival. Silver has had a number
of works recorded on American independent labels (Mode, Composers
Recordings, Leonarda) but this seems to be her first work to be
produced on a major label.
Commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra,
the Richmond Symphony Orchestra, the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra
and the Illinois Symphony Orchestra, the Piano Concerto was premiered
in 1996 at Carnegie Hall with Alexander Paley as the soloist.
It is a large work, lasting 45 minutes but Silver eschews the
traditional combative 19th century model for the work's
construction. Instead, she has composed a symphony with piano.
The substantial but unshowy piano part is in constant dialogue
with the orchestra. The piano part is complex and can be strenuous
but has few real virtuoso display sections. Alexander Paley plays
it brilliantly and has absorbed this long, complex work. He never
forces himself forward, so that the sections where the piano is
simply first amongst equals are beautifully balanced.
The work has a rather episodic structure, with
a feeling of constant underlying tension, as if the piano and
orchestra were engaged in a narrative that the listener can only
guess at. The composer has given a brief programmatic description
of the movements and it is worth quoting this, as it can be helpful
to coming to understand the work: "the Piano Concerto deals
with the theme of struggle and transcendence…The image of the
first movement is that of a young man marching off to meet his
fate, full of fear and courage, arrogance and naïveté
It concludes with a marching tune - the immigrant fleeing to a
better world with hope and determination. The second movement
evokes the intimacy of prayer and the image of being 'broken and
crying' …The third movement opens with a recitative-like dialogue
between piano and orchestra: 'Master of the Universe', the man
asks, 'What are you doing to me? What is happening? Where do I
go from here?' After this the 'dance of life…begins. It starts
as a simple melody… and grows until the entire orchestra is dancing
On first listening, I was quite surprised by
Silver's sound-world. Attributing national characteristics to
music, especially contemporary music, can be quite tricky. But
I felt that her music sounded very European. There were moments
in the opening movement especially, which called to mind English
music from the mid-20th century (Rawsthorne, early
Tippett). You obviously cannot take the analogy too far, especially
in view of the rather French sensibility that Silver shows in
the solo piano pieces. But I would hope that new listeners might
find such comparisons helpful when trying to decide whether to
listen to a piece. Though her style can be strenuous, there is
a strongly melodic vein which is offset by rather bitter sweet
I found the Piano Concerto an impressive and,
at times, powerful work. Silver's narrative structure can be rather
episodic and the last movement rambles a bit and out-stays its
welcome. The concerto, as a whole, might be a little too long
and some tightening up would be beneficial.
The conductor Gintaras Rinkevicius studied in
Vilnius and at the St Petersburg Conservatoire. In 1996 he was
appointed Music Director of the Latvian National Opera and he
founded the Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra. Both he and the
orchestra have a fine grasp on this work and the orchestral players
provide some lovely instrumental solos. This is a rich and complex
work and the orchestra are to be commended for their lucid performance.
The pianist, Alexander Paley was born in Moldavia.
He had his first musical training in his native town, giving his
first concert when he was thirteen. He later studied at the Moscow
Conservatory. In 1988 he emigrated to the United States and has
recorded a wide repertoire of music for Naxos including their
volumes of Weber piano music.
The disc is completed by a performance of Silver's
'Six preludes pour piano, d'après poèmes de Baudelaire',
which were written for Alexander Paley. Each prelude is inspired
by a few lines from a Baudelaire poem, though confusingly the
titles of the preludes do not correspond to the titles of the
poems. These are allusive, atmospheric pieces, redolent of the
atmosphere of the French countryside where they were written.
Each piece is a short, atmospheric, descriptive work and they
receive richly poetic performances. Regrettably, space was not
found in the notes for the Baudelaire to be printed.