Paul FETLER (b.1920)
Three Poems by Walt Whitman1 (1976) [22:35]
Capriccio3 (1985) [11:41]
Violin Concerto No.22 (1980) [32:28]
Aaron Berofsky2 (violin); Thomas H. Blaske1 (narrator); Penelope Fischer3 (flute); Scott Graddy3 (piccolo)
Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra/Arie Lipsky
rec. live, Michigan Theater, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA, 20 September 2008 (Three Poems); 18 April 2008 (Capriccio); 20 October 2007 (Concerto)
NAXOS 8.559606 [66:43]
The Naxos ‘American Classics’: series continues apace. Here, the work of a composer quite unknown to me is presented in performances of compelling conviction. Paul Fetler was born in the USA in 1920 but for reasons unexplained in the liner-note spent much of his youth in Europe from Latvia to Sweden and Switzerland. Apparently this is the first CD to be dedicated to his work exclusively and I doubt there could be a finer calling card. Each of the three works presented here are strikingly different in style and artistic aim and yet even by this limited yardstick Fetler emerges as a distinctive, skilful, but above all musically convincing voice. One of the great subsidiary benefits of this Naxos series has been the growing awareness of the number of fine hitherto little known or appreciated orchestras in America. To that list must now be added the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra. Clearly they have a continuing commitment to Fetler’s work as evidenced by the fact that this entire CD consists of live performances given at three different concerts over a year. And what very fine performances they are – technically beyond reproach but also full of the fire and adrenalin that a good live performance can bring.
But back to the music. The earliest work presented here Three Poems by Walt Whitman opens the programme. This was a 1976 commission to mark the American Bicentennial so how apt that Fetler should choose texts by one of America’s favourite poets from his most famous work, Leaves of Grass (1855). Whitman has exercised a fascination for composers ever since his work was published. Delius, Bliss, Vaughan Williams and Holst are just four of many British composers to be drawn to his work. Vaughan Williams indeed set Beat! Beat! Drums! which constitutes the central panel of Fetler’s work as part of his powerful Dona Nobis Pacem of 1936. All of the composers mentioned above set these verses to be sung. Fetler grasps the much thornier challenge of using a narrator and orchestra. As I have said elsewhere in other reviews I think the format of narrator and orchestra is fraught with difficulties with perhaps only a handful of works succeeding. To that list I would now add this work without reservation. The essential problem as I see it is this – how to relate the text to the music. In a choral/sung setting clearly part of that problem is solved by the fact that the instrumental lines literally supports harmonically and thematically the sung line. In a narration does the composer try to be illustrative (which can result in a rather simplistic “words in music” effect) or does he create a mood, a bed of sound, on which the narration sits? Fetler chooses neither of these options, instead, and with enormous skill, he has created a musical parallel path – a kind of miniature tone poem, a contemporary reinterpretation of the text that sits alongside the poem as an equal partner. Of course there are moments when the paths cross and Fetler illustrates the moment but you never feel that either party is overly bound to the other. Another major benefit of this is that it frees the narrator from having to speak the text in a too-limiting rhythm. So often in narrated pieces the flow of the text when spoken seems inhibited – not here. In the second movement already mentioned (which describes a city girding itself for war) the tumult, the fear and excitement is quite brilliantly realised. This movement in particular is a virtuoso display for the orchestra, all tumbling brass reveilles and drum tattoos and it is superbly performed here – a piece that on first hearing is utterly convincing and compelling. The narrator is one Thomas H. Blaske. His biography in the liner-notes describes him as “a little-known, much loved raconteur about Ann Arbor”. Can you be much loved but little known?! Perhaps to know him is to love him. Apparently he is one of Michigan’s top trial attorneys AND writes poetry for the New Yorker. Add to that a photograph that makes him look a bit like a character from The Music Man and it all becomes a little bizarre. Obviously his voice was amplified at the live performance and my only technical quibble with the entire disc is that this results in a slightly synthetic quality to his voice as mixed into the orchestral texture. There is an avuncular charm to his narration - none of the po-faced, grey toned drone that so often seems to apply to poetic declamation - that works well. The central setting is a palpable hit; Blaske’s slightly breathless, not perfectly enunciated style fits the mood to a tee. I’m not quite so sure he has the measure of the other two movement’s poems, the simplicity of the imagery encouraging him to a slightly saccharine tone. But please do not for one single instant let that caveat stop you sampling this work. Yes, I can imagine the narration being more completely achieved but the work as a whole is superb. There are too many subtle and skilful moments to mention in the context of this review, but here are just a couple of highlights. Liner-note writer Ed Yazinsky rightly characterises the opening I am he that walks with the tender and growing night as having a nocturnal ambience. But I sense darker forces at work too. Surely the repeated use of a fragmented half of the Dies Irae chant is no accident. Perhaps this is another example where death, sleep and night merge. Fetler uses small motifs both harmonic and rhythmic to bind the entire work together. So we get string progressions anticipating the third movement and gentle trumpet fanfares presaging the second. The orchestra meditates alone for a good two and a half minutes before the poem starts. What immediately becomes clear is just how modern Whitman sounds. For works over 150 years old they have extraordinary contemporary resonance. And therein probably lies the enduring interest in his work. A word of praise too at this point for all of the solos taken within the orchestra. There is some beautiful work by the principal horn for one but particular mention should go to the concertmaster (the same Aaron Berofsky who features as the concerto soloist) of the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra. Sinuously lyrical high lying lines are played with total security and real beauty.
There is a wonderfully theatrical moment with the opening of the final movement. Out of the chaos and tumult of Beat! Beat! Drums! emerges a sequence of the most beautiful peaceful chords imaginable. Again the solo violin sings a carolling lark-like song high over the orchestral landscape. Little shudders from strings and a dulcimer-like toy piano (described as such in the liner) presage another two and a half minute prelude before the narrator enters again accompanied by the innocent chords of the opening. Solos are passed around the woodwind – again beautifully played – before in one of the few explicitly illustrative instrumental passages the orchestra imitate the wind through the corn, the falling rain and the twittering birds. Precisely because we have NOT had this literalism before it leaps out as wonderfully effective. The chords return in the brass choir and the violin resumes its song. It seems to me that the heart of this work lies in the final words the narrator says (a repetition of the poem’s opening lines); “Ah from a little child, Thou knowest soul how to me all sounds became music”. The liner notes tell us how Fetler’s first composition was a piano piece written when he was six – does the final lingering duet between the toy piano and ecstatic violin somehow represent this early inspiration when “all sounds became music”? Pure speculation on my part but the idea certainly fits the emotional landscape of the work. Credit too to the rapt audience whose presence you barely notice and who (thank goodness!) do not break the considerable spell of the work by diving in with applause – which when it does come is deservedly warm and generous. Hopefully it will be clear to readers that I consider this a work of great stature and beauty.
Not that the rest of the disc fails to measure up. Naxos wisely place the eleven minute Capriccio second. Fetler admits to writing this as an antidote to contemporary music he describes as “super-serious”. He quotes a dictionary definition of capriccio as “… an instrumental composition in more or less free form, often in a whimsical style.” And indeed this is exactly what we get – less obviously individual than either of the other two works it is a fun piece. Not so much in the harmonic language it uses, which is clearly of its time, I would liken the jaunty spirit of it to the many comedy overtures in the style of Alan Rawsthorne’s Street Corner Overture or William Alwyn’s Derby Day. Again Fetler makes considerable demands of the players but the performance here has all the wit and lightness of touch essential for a successful performance.
The disc concludes with another substantial and immediately appealing work – the Violin Concerto No.2. Sinuous lyricism is again a phrase that springs to mind. Fetler has the ability to write melodic lines that although they are widely spaced and range across the instrument’s entire spectrum cohere. I am always loath to say any new composer or work “sounds like” – that is usually down to my lack of deeper knowledge of the new work in question – but I heard strong echoes of the Syzmanowski Violin Concerto No.1. Not that Fetler is in any way copying the other work – simply they seem to share a similar aesthetic with aural images of birdsong and night common to both. I like the way he creates an atmosphere at once both tranquil yet tinged with foreboding. Berofsky plays with all assurance he showed in the Whitman settings. Praise here to the engineers who have him ideally placed within the orchestral sound picture. Berofsky matches his tone ideally to the rhapsodic mood of the work – this is not a work which would benefit from a muscular powerhouse approach. Although the work is cast in the traditional fast/slow/fast format Fetler has created a highly original work. The orchestration tends to be more sparing than in the Whitman, certainly in the opening two movements, but that is very much in keeping with the night-music mood. The central Adagio opens with a lyrically simple song without words over sustained chords and arpeggiated pizzicato figures. There are beautiful dialogues for the violin and oboe and then horn before the violin continues on its wistfully nostalgic way returning to the opening song. The tutti violins join and a very gentle climax is reached. The movement draws to its dream-filled conclusion with further rhapsodising from the solo violin and a final recalling of the opening material – this is a beautifully proportioned and deceptively innocent movement. Again, Fetler enjoys the theatricality of a jolting opening to the concerto’s finale – a fuller orchestra than we have heard elsewhere in the work. There is a Waltonian bustle and energy with orchestra and soloist chasing each other around a musical playground. A quasi-fugal passage allows the soloist some brief respite and when the violinist does re-enter it is with another lyrical passage although the orchestra seems intent on continuing its game of tag beneath him. As in the rest of the concerto the solo writing sounds eminently well conceived and practical. After one last reflective cadenza the scampering energy of the opening resumes (Fetler does like his temple-blocks, they add a distinctive timbre to his orchestral palette) and all involved dash to the finishing post. This is one of those lucky pieces that is immediately appealing on first listening but continues to impress the more one gets under the skin of the work. Conductor Arie Lipsky clearly has full measure of these works and Fetler is fortunate to have him and his orchestra as such enthusiastic advocates of his work. The engineering of this disc is not by any of the usual Naxos teams but as mentioned above, with the single exception of the spoken voice, it sounds exceptionally well.
In the past I have felt that not all of the releases in this series have merited the title “classics”. Interesting to quote here Fetler once more who says; “A work becomes a classic or it vanishes from the scene. At times it lingers on as a curiosity of the past. But above all, what once was modern is modern no more. All the issues vanish, only expression remains.” There are two works on this CD that deserve our most serious attention. A disc of moving, beautiful and very involving music.