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Sheila SILVER (b.1946)
Piano Concerto (1996)
Six preludes for piano on poems by Baudelaire

Alexander Paley (piano)
Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra/Gintaras Rinkevicius
Recorded 16th-20th January 2002, Vilnius Congress Hall, Lithuania
NAXOS 8.557015 [66.02]

Naxos continue to fill in the gaps in the catalogue that other labels ignore. This disc is devoted to the American composer, Sheila Silver. Silver studied at Berkeley before going on to study with Erhard Karkoschka in Stuttgart and György Ligeti in Berlin and Hamburg. She has worked in quite a wide range of media from solo instrumental works to large orchestral works, from opera to feature film scores. Her musical language is a synthesis of the tonal and atonal worlds, coupled with rhythmic complexity. She wrote the score for John Feldman's recent feature "Who the Hell is Bobby Roos?" which won the 2002 New American Cinema Award at the Seattle International Film Festival. Silver has had a number of works recorded on American independent labels (Mode, Composers Recordings, Leonarda) but this seems to be her first work to be produced on a major label.

Commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra, the Richmond Symphony Orchestra, the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra and the Illinois Symphony Orchestra, the Piano Concerto was premiered in 1996 at Carnegie Hall with Alexander Paley as the soloist. It is a large work, lasting 45 minutes but Silver eschews the traditional combative 19th century model for the work's construction. Instead, she has composed a symphony with piano. The substantial but unshowy piano part is in constant dialogue with the orchestra. The piano part is complex and can be strenuous but has few real virtuoso display sections. Alexander Paley plays it brilliantly and has absorbed this long, complex work. He never forces himself forward, so that the sections where the piano is simply first amongst equals are beautifully balanced.

The work has a rather episodic structure, with a feeling of constant underlying tension, as if the piano and orchestra were engaged in a narrative that the listener can only guess at. The composer has given a brief programmatic description of the movements and it is worth quoting this, as it can be helpful to coming to understand the work: "the Piano Concerto deals with the theme of struggle and transcendence…The image of the first movement is that of a young man marching off to meet his fate, full of fear and courage, arrogance and naïveté It concludes with a marching tune - the immigrant fleeing to a better world with hope and determination. The second movement evokes the intimacy of prayer and the image of being 'broken and crying' …The third movement opens with a recitative-like dialogue between piano and orchestra: 'Master of the Universe', the man asks, 'What are you doing to me? What is happening? Where do I go from here?' After this the 'dance of life…begins. It starts as a simple melody… and grows until the entire orchestra is dancing wildly.’

On first listening, I was quite surprised by Silver's sound-world. Attributing national characteristics to music, especially contemporary music, can be quite tricky. But I felt that her music sounded very European. There were moments in the opening movement especially, which called to mind English music from the mid-20th century (Rawsthorne, early Tippett). You obviously cannot take the analogy too far, especially in view of the rather French sensibility that Silver shows in the solo piano pieces. But I would hope that new listeners might find such comparisons helpful when trying to decide whether to listen to a piece. Though her style can be strenuous, there is a strongly melodic vein which is offset by rather bitter sweet harmony.

I found the Piano Concerto an impressive and, at times, powerful work. Silver's narrative structure can be rather episodic and the last movement rambles a bit and out-stays its welcome. The concerto, as a whole, might be a little too long and some tightening up would be beneficial.

The conductor Gintaras Rinkevicius studied in Vilnius and at the St Petersburg Conservatoire. In 1996 he was appointed Music Director of the Latvian National Opera and he founded the Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra. Both he and the orchestra have a fine grasp on this work and the orchestral players provide some lovely instrumental solos. This is a rich and complex work and the orchestra are to be commended for their lucid performance.

The pianist, Alexander Paley was born in Moldavia. He had his first musical training in his native town, giving his first concert when he was thirteen. He later studied at the Moscow Conservatory. In 1988 he emigrated to the United States and has recorded a wide repertoire of music for Naxos including their volumes of Weber piano music.

The disc is completed by a performance of Silver's 'Six preludes pour piano, d'après poèmes de Baudelaire', which were written for Alexander Paley. Each prelude is inspired by a few lines from a Baudelaire poem, though confusingly the titles of the preludes do not correspond to the titles of the poems. These are allusive, atmospheric pieces, redolent of the atmosphere of the French countryside where they were written. Each piece is a short, atmospheric, descriptive work and they receive richly poetic performances. Regrettably, space was not found in the notes for the Baudelaire to be printed.

Robert Hugill

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