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Harold SCHIFFMAN (b. 1928)
Alma (2002)a [32:20]
Prelude and Variations (1970)b [13:06]
Chamber Concerto No.2 (2000)c [17:28]
Mária Horváth (mezzo-soprano)a; Jane Perry-Camp (piano)c; Budafok Chamber Choira; Györ Philharmonic Orchestraa; Hungarian Philharmonicb; Accord Wind Quintetc; Akadémia String Quartetc; Mátyás Antal
Recorded: János Richter Hall, Györ, Hungary, October 2002 (Alma) and June 2003 (Chamber Concerto No.2); and MATAV Music House, Budapest, June 1999 (Prelude and Variations)


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The earliest work here, Prelude and Variations for chamber orchestra, was completed in 1970; and the music possesses some considerable harmonic tension when compared either to the other pieces recorded here or with those featured in an earlier North/South release that I reviewed some time ago (N/S R 1021). The variations often bring Alban Berg to mind, i.e. as far as the present writer is concerned. Do not forget that Schiffman studied with Roger Sessions. This is a concise, but fairly substantial work that deserves to be heard.

The Chamber Concerto No.2 for piano, wind quintet and string quartet, written at the request of Max Lifchitz and first performed by the North/South Consonance Chamber Orchestra, is exactly what its title is up to, i.e. a miniature piano concerto in which the piano is more a partner than an outsider battling against the ensemble. Though in one single movement, the piece falls into four neatly contrasted section, actually a slow introduction, a short Scherzo, a somewhat weightier set of variations and a lively Finale. The music breathes the same air as some of Schiffman’s late works that I have been able to hear, in that it clearly belongs to some 20th century mainstream, sometimes with modal inflections as in the variations section that is sometimes redolent of Vaughan Williams, and none the worse for that.

Alma for mezzo-soprano, chorus and orchestra, composed at the request of the present conductor Mátyás Antal, sets some poems from Kathryn Stripling Byer’s book Wildwood Flower that have obviously impressed the composer “with their fascinating blend of mystery and reality, and a strong feeling for nature” and words from The Book of Job and The Song of Solomon suggested by quotations that served as lead-ins in Byer’s book. The various settings are preceded by a prelude At Kanati Fork that opens with a ‘sighing’ motive over a long-held bass note that will also conclude the work bringing it thus full circle. Although the settings directly reflect the various moods suggested by the words, this ‘sighing’ motive sets the mood of the whole cantata, one of yearning and of nostalgia for what has been and what might have been. The score is also held together by another recurrent motive heard in the first part Alma and restated with some insistence in the final section Ivy, Sing Ivory that – to me at least – brings a phrase from Poulenc’s Concert Champętre to mind. This may be purely coincidental, of course; but I can not but wonder if this allusion may – or may not – imply some hidden purpose. Anyway, this may not be important. The music is what matters. Again, it displays some modal inflections imbuing these settings with some hints of folk tune. This is particularly clearly heard in the last section (after all, Ivy, Sing Ivory is a carol, if I am not mistaken). Moreover, Byer’s words also suggest some folk songs, e.g. in Weep-Willow [track 7] that contains the phrase some unquiet grave. Alma is a quite beautiful and attractive work that could – and should – appeal to good choral societies and to professional choirs as well.

In short, a very fine release that pays deserved tribute to a most distinguished composer whose well-crafted and communicative music repays repeated hearings. Fine performances recorded in the presence of the composer. A slight drawback, though, for the English pronunciation of these Hungarian singers is not faultless, but not seriously so to mar one’s enjoyment.

Hubert Culot



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