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Paul SCHOENFIELD (b.1947)
Four Parables for piano and orchestra (1982-3)* [26:52]
Four Souvenirs for violin and piano (1989) [11:10]
Café Music for piano trio (1986) [15:32]
Andrew Russo (piano); James Ehnes (violin); Edward Aaron (cello)
Prague Philharmonia/Joann Falletta*
rec. 8 January 2007, Setnor Hall, Syracuse, New York; 20-21 January 2007, Rudolfinum, Prague* DDD
BLACK BOX BBM1109 [53:46]


Experience Classicsonline

I’ve never been quite sure what to make of Paul Schoenfield’s music that has come my way. Some years ago I bought an Argo CD (440 212-2) on which John Nelson conducted the New World Symphony Orchestra in three of his works. These were Vaudeville, which included an amazing part for piccolo trumpet, Klezmer Rondos and Four Parables. I doubt that disc is available now and I no longer have it but my recollection is of often very busy, entertaining music but I couldn’t be sure how much substance there was to it all. After listening to this disc I’m still unsure of the degree of substance to Schoenfield’s music.

The first movement of Four Parables, a piano concerto in all but name, bears the title ‘Rambling Till The Butcher Cuts Us Down’. It opens with an atmospheric, slow passage with a Jewish/Bluesy feel but this is short-lived and there’s a sudden, abrupt change to hyperactive, driving music. This is entertaining and, on the surface, exciting but I’m not sure that it goes much deeper than that. It certainly should since we are told that it was a response to the release of an elderly quadriplegic murderer from prison. However, on the evidence of what I hear, I’m afraid I fail to grasp the connection. ‘Senility’s Ride’, which follows was inspired by the composer meeting an elderly man who was experiencing the onset of senility and reflecting ruefully on his more vigorous previous life. There’s a touching pathos to the blues-inflected material that occupies a quiet stretch, which I find quite touching though it isn’t too long before Schoenfield interjects more of his manic city music.

‘Elegy’ is much more serious and dissonant in tone. This is fitting since it is the composer’s reaction to the death of a young friend who refused medical treatment on religious grounds. ‘Dog Heaven’ seems, from the booklet notes, to be pure entertainment – and nothing wrong with that. It’s a boisterous bit of virtuoso fun, scintillatingly performed here. Andrew Russo writes that in Four Parables he sees “a work which reflects harmonic and structural advances since the Gershwin era in both the classical and vernacular idioms, yet retains the ‘devil may care’ spirit that can be associated equally with the Roaring Twenties and Generation X.” Listeners will form their own judgement. How you respond to Four Parables is bound to be a matter of personal taste. I’m afraid I can’t discern its depths – others may well be able to do so. Even so I find that it works just fine as a piece of pure musical entertainment and suggests a composer with quite a sense of humour.

The other two works on the disc are unashamedly intended as entertainments. Four Souvenirs, receiving its first recording here, was written for a violinist member of the Cleveland Orchestra. The titles of its four movements – ‘Samba’, ‘Tango’, ‘Tin Pan Alley’, ‘Square Dance’ – confirm that this is music to be enjoyed. The ‘Tango’ sways gently and irresistibly and if ‘Square Dance’ doesn’t get your feet tapping then nothing will. ‘Tin Pan Alley’ actually has a connection with one of the works that I encountered on the previous Schoenfield disc, mentioned above. The violinist Lev Polyakin, at whose request Four Souvenirs came into being, had heard Vaudeville and requested an arrangement of part of it for violin and piano. The result, a gently sentimental little piece, has a real feel of the Thirties. 

Schoenfield’s stated aim in writing Café Music was to compose “a kind of high-class dinner music – music which could be played at a restaurant, but might also [just barely] find its way into a concert hall.” I’d say he has succeeded and the result is a kind of hybrid. Any discerning diner might well be tempted to forego the food and just enjoy listening. On the other hand, depending on the rest of the programme, I could well see Café Music providing a very pleasing musical dessert in a chamber music programme. All three movements are engaging and enjoyable though my personal favourite is the sultry second.

The standard of performance on this disc is uniformly high. I’d guess that Andrew Russo is the presiding genius and he plays all three works with great gusto - Four Parables sounds to be hugely demanding. James Ehnes and, in Café Music, Edward Aaron, are no less committed to the music. I wonder if the members of the Prague Philharmonia had ever encountered music like this before. Perhaps not but Joann Falletta gets them to play Four Parables with real zest and snap.

This is entertaining and unusual music, expertly performed. Excellent sound.

John Quinn 



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