Robert Savage is a new name to me, and probably to you too. This
is a most satisfying sampling of his music and I am very impressed.
Savage died in 1993,
at the age of 42, of complications arising from AIDS. Sudden
Sunsets is, according to the very good notes, the only work
of Savage’s which stretched over several years. This is because
it covers the time from his first awareness of being HIV-positive
to his death. At first hearing I found this piece to be difficult,
but repeated hearings have shown me the beauty of the work.
Starting with an elusive funky dance for violin and piano,
bass clarinet and flute join in, obscuring the original music.
An animated section follows, filled with tunes. A cello cadenza
leads to a section of stasis and the work ends with a quasi-minimalist
piece culminating in the most beautiful coda. It is a perfect
I use the word beautiful
because this is beautiful music. Savage can write a good tune
and present it attractively and put it in the perfect context.
The Wallace Stevens
songs, Florida Poems, derive from a hiking trip to the
Florida Everglades and were written on the other side of the
country in Taos, New Mexico! These six songs are gratefully
laid out for the voice with a magnificent piano accompaniment.
This economy of means in song can only have been learned from
his teacher - Savage didn’t study with Ned Rorem for nothing.
Christine Schadeberg sings with a pure voice, vibrato held to
a minimum, and Sara Laimon’s accompaniments are discreet and
quite lovely. This is vocal music well written for the voice
with tunes to the fore.
The AIDS Ward
Scherzo was written whilst Savage was a patient at Lenox
Hill Hospital. Beginning with jazzy chords, but in a context
culled from Ruggles not Ornette Coleman, the music starts violently
and aggressively. The first trio brings respite, marked nostalgic,
it is languid and, dare I say it, laid-back. The scherzo reappears,
but seems less distracted, to be followed by another trio. The
ending has a single chord repeated in ever-increasing volume,
only to be snuffed out at its height. Is Savage here making
a reference to the fleeting nature of life and the imminent
end of his own, I wonder?
is a brief duo for clarinet and piano, playful and joyous, and
it’s a real winner!
is the earliest work here. The notes tell us that although its
surface alludes to a Chopin Nocturne the voice is obviously
American – the voice of the gay Cowboy(?). It’s a lovely piece
which ends, as the notes tell us, with “… a gesture unknown
in Chopin’s Paris but common in every cocktail bar of Savage’s
I have kept the
best for last – The Eye-Sky Symphony. The opening movement
builds from simple material into a climax of gigantic proportions.
The scherzo is wild and fantastic, ideas flying all over the
place, nothing really settling down - urgency is the name of
this music. An insistent timpani leads into the finale. A gorgeous
oboe solo gets things going, then it all changes and elements
of Ives from The "St Gauden's" in Boston Common
(Col Robert Gould Shaw and his Colored Regiment) (from
Three Places in New England) appear amid trumpet fanfares.
A lonely fanfare has the last word. It’s a very fine piece indeed.
I am always pleased
to discover a composer new to me who writes with an original
voice, knows how to develop and use his material to the full,
can orchestrate and say what he has to say without frills or
padding. In Robert Savage I have found one such composer. The
tragedy is that his life was too short and there isn’t a large
body of work left to us.
The performances are,
I am sure, totally authoritative and the recorded sound is excellent
with a wide dynamic range, allowing the climaxes to be very full.
This is a disk for everyone interested in music of our time. It
also serves as a fantastic introduction to anyone wanting to investigate
something new but who might be scared from modern music by the
likes of Harrison Birtwistle and Charles Ives.