I’ve never been quite sure what to make of Paul Schoenfield’s
music that has come my way. Some years ago I bought an Argo CD
(440 212-2) on which John Nelson conducted the New World Symphony
Orchestra in three of his works. These were Vaudeville,
which included an amazing part for piccolo trumpet, Klezmer
Rondos and Four Parables. I doubt that disc is available
now and I no longer have it but my recollection is of often very
busy, entertaining music but I couldn’t be sure how much substance
there was to it all. After listening to this disc I’m still unsure
of the degree of substance to Schoenfield’s music.
The first movement
of Four Parables, a piano concerto in all but name,
bears the title ‘Rambling Till The Butcher Cuts Us Down’.
It opens with an atmospheric, slow passage with a Jewish/Bluesy
feel but this is short-lived and there’s a sudden, abrupt
change to hyperactive, driving music. This is entertaining
and, on the surface, exciting but I’m not sure that it goes
much deeper than that. It certainly should since we are told
that it was a response to the release of an elderly quadriplegic
murderer from prison. However, on the evidence of what I hear,
I’m afraid I fail to grasp the connection. ‘Senility’s Ride’,
which follows was inspired by the composer meeting an elderly
man who was experiencing the onset of senility and reflecting
ruefully on his more vigorous previous life. There’s a touching
pathos to the blues-inflected material that occupies a quiet
stretch, which I find quite touching though it isn’t too long
before Schoenfield interjects more of his manic city music.
‘Elegy’ is much more serious and dissonant
in tone. This is fitting since it is the composer’s reaction
to the death of a young friend who refused medical treatment
on religious grounds. ‘Dog Heaven’ seems, from the booklet
notes, to be pure entertainment – and nothing wrong with that.
It’s a boisterous bit of virtuoso fun, scintillatingly performed
here. Andrew Russo writes that in Four Parables he
sees “a work which reflects harmonic and structural advances
since the Gershwin era in both the classical and vernacular
idioms, yet retains the ‘devil may care’ spirit that can be
associated equally with the Roaring Twenties and Generation
X.” Listeners will form their own judgement. How you respond
to Four Parables is bound to be a matter of personal
taste. I’m afraid I can’t discern its depths – others may
well be able to do so. Even so I find that it works just fine
as a piece of pure musical entertainment and suggests a composer
with quite a sense of humour.
The other two works on the disc are unashamedly
intended as entertainments. Four Souvenirs, receiving
its first recording here, was written for a violinist member
of the Cleveland Orchestra. The titles of its four movements
– ‘Samba’, ‘Tango’, ‘Tin Pan Alley’, ‘Square Dance’ – confirm
that this is music to be enjoyed. The ‘Tango’ sways gently
and irresistibly and if ‘Square Dance’ doesn’t get your feet
tapping then nothing will. ‘Tin Pan Alley’ actually has a
connection with one of the works that I encountered on the
previous Schoenfield disc, mentioned above. The violinist
Lev Polyakin, at whose request Four Souvenirs came
into being, had heard Vaudeville and requested an arrangement
of part of it for violin and piano. The result, a gently sentimental
little piece, has a real feel of the Thirties.
Schoenfield’s stated aim in writing Café
Music was to compose “a kind of high-class dinner music
– music which could be played at a restaurant, but might also
[just barely] find its way into a concert hall.” I’d say he
has succeeded and the result is a kind of hybrid. Any discerning
diner might well be tempted to forego the food and just enjoy
listening. On the other hand, depending on the rest of the
programme, I could well see Café Music providing a
very pleasing musical dessert in a chamber music programme.
All three movements are engaging and enjoyable though my personal
favourite is the sultry second.
The standard of performance on this disc
is uniformly high. I’d guess that Andrew Russo is the presiding
genius and he plays all three works with great gusto - Four
Parables sounds to be hugely demanding. James Ehnes and,
in Café Music, Edward Aaron, are no less committed
to the music. I wonder if the members of the Prague Philharmonia
had ever encountered music like this before. Perhaps not but
Joann Falletta gets them to play Four Parables with
real zest and snap.
This is entertaining and unusual music,
expertly performed. Excellent sound.