American Reflections
Atlantic Legend (1983) for viola, cello and harpsichord [15:00]
Tribute to Kerouac (1998) for clarinet, tenor saxophone, piano, and string bass [16:30]
Returnings (1990) for harp and piano [9:31]
Elegy for a Friend (1997) for piano solo [8:37]
Songs of Transcendence (1997) for baritone and piano [21:00]
David Alpher (piano); Jonathan Cohler (clarinet); Maureen Gallagher (viola); Robert Honeysucker (baritone); Myron Lutzke (cello); Robert Lynam (string bass); Martha Moor (harp); Jean Newton (harpsichord); Kenneth Radnofsky (tenor saxophone)
rec. Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory of Music, Boston, Massachusetts, 31 July, 22 September, 6, 12 October 1998.
ONGAKU 024-112 [70:38]
The credo of US composer David Alpher centres on communication with his audience. There’s a frank engagement with emotion in his music and it comes as no surprise to learn that he and his wife, the singer Jenny Litt, are a cabaret duo “Interpreting the great American songbook and satirizing virtually everything else”. This disc is the first all-Alpher CD.
The instrumentation of his Atlantic Legend comes as a surprise. Viola and cello yes but that most ascetic of instruments, the harpsichord? Alpher is not abashed by the instrument which is put through the wringer as if it were a piano - in fact the writing is pianistic. No doubt that is the way he envisaged the piece. The music has an American pastoralist accent in the Introduction and Toccata and is also jazzily and excitingly syncopated with scorching writing for the two string instruments. There's just a touch of Bloch in here as well though the presence of that harpsichord with its overtones of antiquity also reminded me of Arnold Rosner’s music for the opera Chronicle of Nine. The harpsichord at the start of the second movement might almost be imitating the harp or the classical guitar and the Appalachian-sentimental melody is very touching. It has the poignancy of the music for Ken Burns’ TV Civil War epic documentary. a treasure with a salty tang. These are two very substantial movements together playing for approaching 15 minutes. This bipartite piece was written at the request of Jean Newton for her NY City debut at Merkin Hall in September 1983. The artists are Maureen Gallagher, viola; Myron Lutzke, cello; Jean Newton, harpsichord.
Then follows the seven movement Tribute to Kerouac - Alpher rates Kerouac highly. It is for clarinet, tenor sax, piano and string bass (Jonathan Cohler, clarinet; Kenneth Radnofsky, tenor saxophone; David Alpher, piano; Robert Lynam, string bass). American Nocturne suggests Jack Vettriano’s boulevard loneliness. That Nocturne turns jazz-sleazy and hip-slack. Movin' On has that tenor sax stride. The heat dissipates into uber-cool for Remembered for clarinet and piano; the pulse slows too. Intermezzo is not quite the relaxation I expected. The mood picture is ambivalent: morbid, moody and then irritable. a weird microcosm - a bad trip. Beat Scene is a cue for the return of that raspy sax and the clarinet throws off its sophistication to dance around (and with) the sax. Urgency takes us back to the scatty jazzy rush of Beat scene and Movin’ On. Epilogue is at first pensive and melancholy then the jazzy side floods up again and fades into reflection and inwardness.
Returnings is for harp and piano (Martha Moor, harp; David Alpher, piano) - a rare and far from naturally apt combination. This piece is in a single movement. The two instruments muse in contented, yet guarded, communion. The music is like the rest of Alpher: melodic and determinedly tonal. The pieces ends with sudden almost violent emphasis.
Elegy for a Friend (David Alpher, piano) was written in memory of Alpher's dog Neemu who died, aged seven. He writes of Neemu as a music-lover who surpassed her origins, explored, learned and communicated as we all hope to. This is a dark reflection rather than a celebration of a life or that’s how it communicates to me. It's also the most dissonant piece here and rises to great poignant heights at 7:02. This is powerful music – no room for tear-splashed sentimentality
Songs of Transcendence is for baritone and piano (Robert Honeysucker, baritone; David Alpher, piano). Alpher here sets Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, Jones Very and Margaret Fuller. Honeysucker is resonant and more bassy than baritonal though he is specially good at the high aspirational material. There's a statuesque quality to this music that reminded me of Alan Bush's often defiant songs as in the Whitman setting that is Earthsong. he has difficulty with the high-lying smoke by Thoreau. Some, such as Leaves in autumn, are very lyrical. The dizzying Dryad Song is redolent of Britten. The final Columbine is the last of two songs by Jones Very which have a Housman feel to them. Worth exploring, I think.
The words are printed in full in the well assembled liner booklet. That Alpher has attracted an introduction by the distinguished composer Gardner Read is remarkable for a start.
To date this is the only all-Alpher CD. I feel there will be more. There deserve to be more.
Rob Barnett
To date this is the only all-Alpher CD. I feel there will be more. There deserve to be more.