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Marion BAUER (1882-1955)
A Lament on an African Theme op. 20a (1927) (orch. Martin Bernstein, c.1935) [5.21]
Concertino for Oboe, Clarinet and Strings Op.32b (1939-43) [9:28]
Trio Sonata No.1, for flute, cello and Piano Op.40 (1944) [8:11]
Symphonic Suite for Strings Op.33 (1940) [11:16]
Duo for Oboe and Clarinet Op.25 (1932) [8:30]
American Youth Concerto Op.36 (1943) [15:59]
Diana Ambache (piano), Gabrielle Lester (violin), Ruth Ehrlich (violin), Jonathan Barritt (viola), Judith Herbert (cello), Jonathan Snowden (flute), Jeremy Polmear (oboe), Eli Eban (clarinet), Ambache Chamber Orchestra and Ensemble
rec. St. Silas Church, Kentish Town, London 21st-22nd October 2004 DDD
NAXOS 8.559253 [58:45]


One of the virtues of the Naxos American Classics series is that it has not stuck to American "Classics", but has introduced a wider audience to composers otherwise difficult to encounter. This survey of works by Marion Bauer surely fits into that category. She occupies a distinguished place in American music history for her indefatigable championing of new music. She also holds that place because of her role as a pioneer of woman’s rights in co-founding such institutions as American Music Center and the American Music Guild – but especially for her music criticism and her seminal book, Twentieth Century Music (1933, revised in 1947). She taught at New York University and at the Juilliard.

Her own music was quite widely known in her lifetime – Stokowski premiered her Sun Splendor for orchestra in 1947 – but after her death seems to have been largely eclipsed from the collective American musical consciousness. Albany Records have recorded works by her on three CDs: a disk of piano and solo works (Albany TROY 465), a compilation of piano and chamber works by Bauer and Ruth Crawford Seeger (Albany TROY 297), and the inclusion of her Up the Ocklawaha, Op. 6 in a disk of American music for violin and piano (Albany TROY 297). CRI’s reissue of historic recordings by the Vienna Orchestra, mentioned in Grove, seems to have disappeared from the catalogue. But for most people all those CDs have to be specially ordered, and to have a sample of her music at a bargain price is welcome.

There is one very good historical reason to listen to her music. She was the very first American to study with Nadia Boulanger, thus starting that line of American Boulanger pupils who almost single-handedly created a genuinely American classical music. Bauer had gone to Paris in 1906 with the French pianist Raoul Pugno and his family, and she swapped music lessons with Boulanger for teaching Boulanger English.

So what, on the evidence of this CD, is her music like? For me, the most arresting works are the two for strings, A Lament on an African Theme (1927) and the Symphonic Suite for Strings, written thirteen years later. The composer who immediately comes to mind is her contemporary, the Welsh composer Grace Williams – there is a similar careful and lithe craftsmanship, the same post-Impressionist hue combined with neo-classical procedures, and a comparable rugged and angular melodic feel. The short Lament started out as the movement of a string quartet, while the three-movement Symphonic Suite, Diana Ambache suggests, reflects the loss of Jewish relations in Alsace, killed by the Nazis. There is an undercurrent of strong determination in this Suite, made all the more forceful by the rich string sonorities and lyrical flow. The work culminates in a vigorous fugue. The little Concertino for Oboe, Clarinet and Strings of 1943 is in a similar vein, but more harmonically unsettled, and augmented by a slightly grotesque dance to end a curious but affecting work.

The two chamber works have a much more Gallic feel. The little Trio for Flute, Cello and Piano, written in 1944 (the date is omitted in the Naxos documentation), is gently pleasant, and gently forgettable, lilting in the first movement, dolorous in the second, the third chatteringly bouncy. It is ideal, perhaps, for background music to a summer’s picnic. The more arresting Duo for Oboe and Clarinet opens happily tongue-in-cheek, waxes lyrical in two extended solos, and ends on a jaunty Gallic stroll. It must be fun to play, and with its unusual instrumental combination I could well see it becoming popular with university student wind players.

The longest work on this CD, the American Youth Concerto of 1943 belongs to that genre of American music I personally rather dread: works written for High Schools (here the High School of Music and Art in New York). They always seem to be bouncingly populist, and without any sense that children or young adults might have the capacity to both enjoy and play well music that is much more challenging. To be fair to Bauer, this is less writing-down than most. It might be described as Rachmaninov and Copland meeting the Warsaw Concerto hand-in-hand, with a half-lifting from the Russian composer fairly obvious, and a dreamy-Copland movement suitably followed by a cakewalk, a blues, and a hoe-down. This is fairly pedestrian if pleasant stuff, and I wish that Ambache and Naxos had given us something more substantial – perhaps some of her later ventures into twelve-tone music, or even better her Symphony - to round off this survey.

It must have been no mean feat to record all these works in two days flat, but there certainly isn’t any sign of haste; all the performances sound both committed and played with genuine affection. The recording location is perhaps a little too reverberant for the chamber pieces, but the recording itself is crisp and detailed.

Is there a strong individual voice in all this music? The answer must be no – it is hard to gain a sense of why a Marion Bauer work is particularly a Bauer work. But the impression of a strong and determined character does come across, and for those with an interest in the history of music in the USA, not to mention those interested in the history of women composers, this CD is well worth investigating. It has grown on me (apart from that Concerto) as I have re-listened to it, and I shall return to those string pieces.

Mark Morris

 



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