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Marion BAUER (1882-1955)
A Lament on an American Theme, Op. 20a (1927) [5:21]
Concertino for Oboe, Clarinet and Strings Op. 32b (1939-43) [9:28]
Trio Sonata No. 1 for Flute, Cello and Piano, Op. 40 (1944) [8:11]
Symphonic Suite for Strings, Op. 33 (1940) [11:16]
Duo for Oboe and Clarinet, Op. 25 (1932) [8:30]
American Youth Concerto, Op. 36 (1943) [15:59]
Ambache Chamber Orchestra and Ensemble
Diana Ambache (piano), Gabrielle Lester (violin), Ruth Ehrlich (violin), Jonathan Barritt (viola), Judith Herbert (cello), Jonathan Snowden (flute), Jeremy Polmear (oboe), Eli Eban (clarinet), Ambache Chamber Orchestra and Ensemble
rec. St. Silas Church, Kentish Town, London, 21-22 October 2004. DDD
NAXOS 8.559253 [58:45]
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More interesting repertoire from Naxos. I hadn’t heard of Marion Bauer and, looking her up in Norman Lebrecht’s ‘Complete Companion to 20th Century Music’, discovered that she was "Author of romantic piano pieces with flowery titles ...". Judging by the contents of this new CD there is more to Bauer than this. Appetite whetted, I read in the booklet notes that she was not only a composer, but was also a teacher, writer and critic. The word ‘indefatigable’ seems to sum her up; with initial studies with Nadia Boulanger, a substantial catalogue of music, wide authorship of books on music and executive functions on the boards of organisations supporting American music. The world always has a shortage of such figures, and whatever one’s opinion of her music, her position as a kingpin - or should that be ‘queenpin’ - in the development of American music in the first half of the 20th century must be recognised and respected.

After Lebrecht’s brief dismissal of her compositional oeuvre, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Marion Bauer’s work is often of a very high quality indeed. The opening of A Lament on an American Theme contains something of the Vaughan Williams pastoral feeling. Originally a movement for string quartet, its modal harmonies are supposed to ‘suggest the mist over the African plains’, but I was hard put to find the promised ‘primitive, elemental atmosphere.’ The title is a trifle misleading, but this is a remarkably effective and expressive piece in its own right. If the name ‘Bartók’ instead of ‘Bauer’ appeared on the score, we would all be nodding wisely over the artistic promise of an emotionally charged, possibly youthful work by the master.

The Concertino continues in the romantic idiom of the Lament, but with the solo instruments allowing the music to flow in a more lyrical fashion. The soloists serenade each other, intertwine in contrapuntal conversation and soar and dive over deceptively simple accompaniments in the strings. It’s a bit like Hindemith, but without the Teutonic heaviness.

The Trio Sonata introduces a Parisian, impressionistic style, ‘conversational chamber music’ as described in the booklet by Diana Ambache, the pianist on these recordings. It is approachable, pleasantly inoffensive music which imposes few intellectual demands. I appreciated less the flautist’s constant heavy vibrato, which clogs up the performance like the clammy dead hand of an insensitive singer.

The Symphonic Suite was the highlight on this disc for me. Bauer’s Jewish family, those that remained in Alsace after a number of her ancestors had moved to the U.S. in the nineteenth century, suffered cruelly under the Nazis. The first movement expresses her deep sense of loss, and there are chromatically underpinned and unsettling moments of angst and anguish. The rich sonorities of the string orchestra suit Bauer’s powerful message well, and at its best could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other dramatic wartime works by the likes of Martinů, Strauss or Schönberg.

The Duo for oboe and clarinet should be added to any self-respecting wind ensemble’s repertoire – if only so that the other members can pay a quick visit to the bar. Bauer plays with the apparently restrictive medium of two wind instruments as if it were a liberation: extended, expressive solos and completely idiomatic, lively writing creating a satisfying whole for listener and performer alike.

The American Youth Concerto is the least interesting piece for me here. It has an integrity and nobility which is superficially attractive, and it is of course written with younger players in mind. Meaning what? That young musicians will respond more to a sub-Dvořák, Schumann, Rachmaninoff idiom? Bauer will have known the kind of student - at the High School for Music and Art in New York - for whom she was writing, and judging by the piece’s subsequent popularity she must have hit the nail on the head. For some young players, the opportunity to perform a work which is substantial, effective, fun, and distinctly ‘American’ must be quite a buzz. For me, the whole thing is a bit lumpy and inane.

On the whole, this is another interesting addition to a relatively neglected area in composition, and I’ve enjoyed making this little foray into regions with which I would probably never have bothered, left to my own humanly frail and narrow devices. The sound quality is nicely clear, and the performances range from good to grandly excellent. At her best, Marion Bauer is a composer deserving of greater serious recognition, but like too many composers who have that one ‘hit’ she seems destined to be dragged down by her Op. 36; more than somewhat.

Dominy Clements

see also reviews from Adam Binks and Mark Morris

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