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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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American Concertos
Benjamin LEES (b.1924) Violin Concerto (1958) [24.21]
Robert STARER (b.1924) Concerto for Viola, Strings and Percussion (1958) [24.26]
Meyer KUPFERMAN (b.1926) Concerto for Cello, Tape and Orchestra (1974) [26.43]
Michael COLGRASS (b.1932) Concertmasters for Three Violins and Orchestra (1977) [22.09]
Lou HARRISON (b.1917) Concerto for Violin and Percussion Orchestra (1940, 1959) [15.49]
Walter PISTON (1894-1976) Concertino for Piano and Chamber Orchestra (1937) [13.39]
William BERGSMA (b.1921) Violin Concerto (1965) [22.25]
Lees: Ruggiero Ricci (violin), American S.O./Kazuyoshi Akiyama (rec. 1976)
Starer: Melvin Berger (viola), English Chamber Orchestra/John Snashall (rec. 1965, first release on Pye LP)
Kupferman: Laszlo Varga (cello), Music for Westchester S.O./Siegfried Landau (rec. 1975)
Colgrass: Robert Rudie (violin), Masako Yanagita (violin), Ronald Oakland (violin), American S.O./Kazuyoshi Akiyama (rec. 1977)
Harrison: Carroll Glenn (violin), Members of Percussion Ensemble of Eastman School of Music/John Beck (rec. 1972)
Piston: Gary Steigerwalt (piano), Philharmonia Virtuosi of New York/Richard Kapp (rec. 1976)
Bergsma: Edward Statkiewicz (violin), Polish Radio and Television Orchestra/Zdzislav Szostak (rec. 1969)
VOXBOX CDX 5158 [2CDs: 76.11+74.17]


Bless Vox for breathing new life into these old LP catalogue fixtures. This represents a variegated spray of blooms and the spread has been usefully widened by Vox's negotiations with whoever owns the old Pye classical recordings to add the Starer Viola Concerto (once coupled on a Pye LP with the RVW suite for viola and orchestra). This conspectus of 20th century American concertos concentrates on the string instruments; I think we can include the piano in that family.

Benjamin Lees was born in China of Russian parentage. He has held various academic posts including at the Juilliard, Peabody Conservatory, Baltimore, Queen's College, New York and Manhattan School of Music. He has the reputation of delivering commissions on time (rather like Britten in that respect). That Ruggiero Ricci should record his Violin Concerto is a sure indication of the exalted regard in which he is held by the musical establishment in the USA. Mehta, Steinberg, Martinon, Levine, Szell, Ormandy and Leinsdorf have all conducted his works. Many of these have thankfully been recorded and are accessible to the listening public. Most recently his symphonies 2, 3 and 5 have been issued by Albany in a very fine twin CD recording. Almost four years ago Naxos issued his moving Symphony No. 4 Memorial Candles in its American Classics series.

The Violin Concerto was written by Lees in 1958 in France at about the same time Ned Rorem was there. It was premiered by Henryk Szeryng in Boston in 1963. The work is traditional, tonal, inventive and memorable. It is not as violent or scathing as the Schuman concerto which it occasionally emulates as in the emphatically punched out passage at 2.08 in the third movement. It is closer to the Bergsma concerto though it is more lyrical, less angular than that work. There are three movements of which the andante is full of intriguing rhythmic devices and figures. Its finely honed melodies and some of the treatments suggest that Lees reveres the Prokofiev First Violin Concerto. The adagio is characterised by a sweetly chanting figure encased in a mysterious Debussian setting part balm and part threat. If the finale has more action than substance it is an example of the perennial problem of how to write a finale.

The Starer is a three movement concerto for viola with strings and percussion. Starer was born in Vienna and during the Second World War served in the Royal Air Force. It was written in Spring 1958 in Vienna and premiered in Switzerland. The melody that bestrides the first movement is so succulent that it might almost have been by Korngold - in fact I am sure that Korngold would have coveted it. There is a busy central movement followed by a return to the not completely sweet song of the first movement ending in a capricious almost vituperative flurry.

The Kupferman concerto includes tape with the orchestra accompanying the cello. Kupferman is one of those apocalyptic atonalists where the landscape heaves with a belligerence like that encountered in the Pettersson symphonies. When this relents the cello sings caringly, glum yet speaking to the heart direct from the rich European late classical tradition. The music is extremely memorable not least for the inventive and well balanced solo harp role and the neo-Brahmsian duet between violin and cello at 20.07 is one of the concerto's crowning moments. Those whose blood curdles at the reference to 'tape' need have few fears. This is perhaps the most romantic of the concertos here and sufficient temptation to encourage further exploration with Kupferman's own Soundspell label. There are after all upwards of 15 volumes to examine some of which we expect to tackle in these pages.

Colgrass is a pupil of Riegger and Milhaud. His Concertmasters, a triple concerto, represents a fusion of the composer's celebration of the music of Vivaldi with Bergian dissonance. His commitment to equality is reflected in his avoidance of labelling the parts I, II and III instead denoting them as Red, Yellow and Blue. The music twists slowly in surreal slow motion or chugs in Tippett-like vitality. The hectic pizzicato counterpoint of the three soloists at 17.12 is notable. Essentially this is romantic music in long lines in an idiom welcoming dissonance.

The Lou Harrison Concerto is for solo violin with a percussion orchestra. Almost inevitably the 'orchestral' web suggests gamelan and does this very strongly - especially the outer two of the three movements. The solo line is attractive and resinous, not as Bergian as the Colgrass. Carroll Glenn studied with Galamian at the Juilliard. She makes a particularly vital and almost aggressive job of the solo line.

The Piston Concertino was a CBS commission premiered by Jésús María Sanromá on 20 June 1937. The CBS orchestra was conducted by the composer. For once the Hindemith parallel oft-quoted holds good. The music is in a single movement ranging through eager ebullience to cloudy sentimental reminiscence (4.34-8.09) and back.

As can be deduced from his music and his teachers (Bernard Rogers and Howard Hanson) Bergsma is a traditionalist inclined to melody without much interest in the atonal. His major work is the opera The Wife of Martin Guerre (a plot well known from various films) substantial extracts from which were on an old CRI LP. His strong melodic talent (perhaps comparable in that work to the present day Daniel Catán) is evident from that work. That talent flows in strength into the 1965 Violin Concerto. Accepting that the hyper-tense lyricism alludes somewhat to William Schuman's concerto (e.g. III 2.04) the overwhelming voice is one that can be compared with Frankel and Walton. There is nothing of Stravinsky or Hindemith. Bergsma's gift for song rises to one of several peaks at the start of the second movement. He carries with him none of the cloyingly heavy honey of the Barber concerto. This is a masterful movement and the work is well worth the investment for the Bergsma alone. I hope that in due course someone will record his viola concerto - Sweet Was the Song the Virgin Sang.

This set in a single width case offers a generous and extremely economical selection of twentieth century American concertos from the traditional (Piston and Bergsma) to the extreme outer rim (Colgrass, Kupferman).

Rob Barnett

 

 



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