Aspen Concerto*, Rameau Remembered**, In Praise of
Elmar Oliveira (violin)*, Scott Goff (flute)**/Seattle Symphony/Gerard
Hugh Aitken is American and supplies his own notes. I wish I could tell you
his date of birth but I'll plump for around 1925 given he served in the Second
War from 1943 in the Army Air Corps. Composing since his early high school
days (when he also studied chemistry), Aitken has devoted himself to music,
not only as a composer but also as a professor at the William Paterson University
in New Jersey. There he met Gerard Schwarz, then a trumpet player, and wrote
him a Quintet for trumpet and string quartet. Their relationship continues
with this CD and Schwarz recently conducted the premiere of Aitken's Symphony
- which, on the evidence of his music on this CD, I'd very much like to hear.
Artek is a new label to me (distributed in the UK by DI Music). I wish it
well of course, but the front cover could be more arresting, the composer's
biographical notes should be fuller (a photo would have been nice to complement
those of conductor and soloists), recording dates and location should be
given, and the recording itself could be better. Despite Adam Stern, Schwarz's
regular producer, being at the helm, the Seattle Symphony's strings are presented
here as sounding rather parched - more bloom would have been welcome; the
bass is a tad indistinct - efforts to improve it only thicken textures to
no great advantage. Balance between the soloists and orchestra is pretty
good even if Oliveira's violin sounds rather edgy at times and is sometimes
a larger-than-life presence, especially when the orchestra is slightly too
recessed, which reduces its impact.
I make these points because Aitken's music is well worth hearing - it would
be a pity if presentational and auditory concerns precluded a recommendation
of the music itself. I hope though that Artek will note my comments.
The titles of two of Aitken's pieces obviously suggest influences from the
fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. Rameau Remembered is for solo flute with
an orchestra of strings (Schwarz remains faithful to antiphonal violins and
left-positioned double basses behind the cellos) and a few woodwind instruments,
which are sparingly used. 22 minutes of updated Rameau is I think a little
too much. Each of the five movements is charming though, Aitken faithful
to the originals but adds his signature through what he calls "unexpected
harmonic or rhythmic turns". There's nothing offensive in what Aitken does
- it's done with affection - and I found the whole very enjoyable, the
performance sympathetic and sensitive. In Praise of Ockeghem (for strings)
is a sonorous 12-minute piece that uses fragments of Ockeghem's Masses as
Hindemith might have arranged them - Mathis der Maler is a strong presence
in the meditative opening section.
Hindemith surfaces again at the start of the Aspen Concerto (Aitken's second
violin concerto) - British listeners might also think of Alan Rawsthorne.
The most recent music here (1989), Aitken's succinct concerto begins with
a purposeful, clearly structured opening movement, almost Baroque in its
concentration of form - something emphasised perhaps by Aitken again restricting
the orchestra to strings; rhythmic patterns and the use of solo orchestral
instruments owe something to Bartok's Divertimento
The slow movement is the concerto's heart - soulful, long-lined, it has an
emotional core that reminded me of the Passacaglia of Shostakovich's First
Violin Concerto. Perhaps the finale doesn't quite 'wrap' the concerto effectively
enough. It's a mixture of cadenza and lyrical invention to begin with in
which Aitken moves closer to his countryman Samuel Barber in its nostalgic
expression; then the rhythmic ingenuities of Aitken's 'twentieth century
Baroque' return with an interlude of quiet reminiscence.
I'm delighted to have heard this selection of Aitken's music - it's likeable,
well crafted and asks to be heard again. Perhaps Artek will now record Aitken's
First Violin Concerto and his new Symphony.