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
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).