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New World Serenade
Byron ADAMS (b.1955)
Serenade for Nine Instruments (2011) [20:59]
Oliver CAPLAN (b.1982)
Lunastella Fuga
(2012) [6:53]
John CORIGLIANO (b.1938)
Snapshot: Circa 1909
(2003/2011) [5:49]
Walter PISTON (1894-1976)
Divertimento for Nine Instruments (1946) [14:34]
Ellen Taaffe ZWILICH (b.1939)
Prologue and Variations for string orchestra (1983) [13:45] Sinfonietta of Riverdale/Mark Mandarano
rec. Riverdale Temple, New York City, October 2011 (Corigliano); October 2012 (Caplan; Zwilich); June 2014 (Piston; Adams)
ALBANY TROY1623 [62:52]

This delightful and splendidly planned disc pulls together music from the younger (Caplan), middle (Adams) and older (Corigliano and Zwilich) generations of living US composers. It then adds an acknowledged 20th century American master who nonetheless seems somewhat in danger of disappearing between the cracks of history. When did you last hear a Walter Piston symphony in a concert by a major orchestra, in his homeland or anywhere else?

As indicated above, the disc arrangement is alphabetically by surname, and that works very well. There couldn’t be a more inviting curtain-raiser than Byron AdamsSerenade. The fact that the work occupies more than one-third of the total playing time gives it an additional primacy. The composer’s own note tells us that it was written as a 90th birthday homage to his teacher Karel Husa. I wonder if what sounds like a quote from Smetana’s Vysehrad at the end of the slow movement has special relevance? Adams writes that “… I sought to create a piece filled with lyricism, charm, and gentle wit but leavened by an occasional touch of melancholy”. Lest you be wary, having tripped in the past over “lyricism” referred to in programme notes but not perceptible in the actual music of some piece of rebarbative impenetrability, Adams delivers the real deal. You will have the opening clarinet tune lodged in your head within seconds, not to mention the RVW-like jauntily marching second subject. The tune is repeated straightaway with subtle variants by other solo instruments; for the record, the Serenade’s nine are two violins, viola, cello, double bass, flute, clarinet, bassoon and horn. Overall, the four movements follow the time-honoured arrangement: (I) medium-paced sonata-esque opener, (II) slow (containing the work’s emotional high-point in a long and eloquent horn solo, haloed in increasingly impassioned strings), (III) whimsically scherzo-ish, and (IV) fast finale. The latter neatly ties the knot thematically by being based on the opening melody of the first movement, kicking off with a much faster and more robust treatment of it by the horn.

Caplan’s Lunastella Fuga shows that the younger American generation, too, can go for 100% accessibility and unpretentiousness. Its raising-the-barn upward striving and earnest wide-open-spaces geniality might make an even greater impact with more players than the Sinfonietta of Riverdale can provide. I can imagine it delivering quite a punch with a full symphonic string section. On the other hand I am not sure that the 2011 string orchestra arrangement adds much to the 2003 string quartet original of Corigliano’s Snapshot: Circa 1909. Corigliano creates a delicate sepia sound-world around the persistence-of-memory corner from that of Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915. That said, the Greenwich Village location of the titular photo of the composer’s father and brother lies several state boundaries north and east.

If you’re playing the CD straight through, I recommend a pause after the Snapshot’s ending. Those final pages deliver a stratospheric thread of violin tone that fades out of earshot as ineffably as RVW’s Lark Ascending. Albany does insert a decent break before Piston’s decisive chugging begins.

The intrumental line-up for Piston's Divertimento is not quite the same as for Adams’ Serenade — Piston has an oboe instead of a horn. The very different tone colours of these two instruments define to a considerable extent the contrasting sound-worlds of the two works. This applies particularly to their respective slow movements, with the plaintive oboe predominant in weaving a complex atmosphere of unease. The mood here is variously regretful, dour and even approaching anger. The oboe contrasts with the horn’s inherently romantic/heroic colouring in the Adams. The bassoon-led busy-ness of the finale does not dispel the mood of this middle movement, the deepest music of the disc by some margin. This recording sent me off to listen again to a number of other Piston works, and repeatedly one finds a similar combination involving a slow movement that hardly ever either aspires to positive resolution, or explodes in rage, or dissolves into misery. His slow movements instead circle slowly and inconclusively around a kind of inquietude which is then brusquely dismissed by a busy finale that’s never a bar longer than it need be.

I am not familiar enough with Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s work as a whole to say much about where her Prologue and Variations might be seen as fitting into a large oeuvre now well into its fifth decade. Here the piece makes a thoughtful and strong end to the disc. Certainly among her later compositions the 1998 Violin Concerto is magnificently arresting, while her slightly earlier PeanutsŪ Gallery (Naxos 8.559656) is a hoot for anyone not allergic to Schulz’s famous strip cartoon. As with Caplan’s work, a larger string body would probably have been beneficial, specifically giving more of the designated misterioso mood to Zwilich’s meditative Prologue. Even so, the lithe playing and vivid sound serve well the succeeding short but highly varied set of Variations. Also, the final return to misterioso is hauntingly caught.

These are all live recordings, but there’s not much to worry about on that score. I heard a few background ticks in the slow movement of the Adams, and an unfortunate audience cough near the end of the Corigliano gives the game away there. Otherwise everything is admirably silent and focused, though the sound overall is a little tight and close. A lovely disc.

David J Brown



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