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Charles WUORINEN (b.1938)
Eighth Symphony (Theologoumena) (2005-2006) [32:09]
Fourth Piano Concerto (2003) [27:25]
Peter Serkin (piano)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/James Levine
rec. live, February 2007 (Symphony); March 2005 (Concerto), Symphony Hall, Boston, Massachusetts
BRIDGE 9474 [59:39]

James Levine has done much to champion the USA’s native musical talent, and was responsible for the commissioning of the two works here, each receiving its world premiere. In 2004 he commenced his Music Directorship of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. One of his first tasks was to commission several modernist composers to write works for the orchestra. Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt, Leon Kirchner, John Harbison and Charles Wuorinen were just some of the contenders. Wuorinen’s Fourth Piano Concerto, composed with Peter Serkin in mind, received its first performance in 2005, to be followed two years later by the Eighth Symphony (Theologoumena).

This is my first encounter with Wuorinen’s music. Born in New York, he’s forged a distinguished career, not only as one of America’s leading composers, but also as a conductor, pianist, author and educator. He is a winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. His prolific roster of compositions includes orchestral, opera, instrumental, chamber and vocal works.

Parallel to his Boston tenure, Levine had a smaller-scaled project on the go with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, for which Wuorinen had composed a single-movement orchestral work Theologoumenon. It had been commissioned by artist manager Ronald Wilford to celebrate Levine’s sixtieth birthday in 2003. It wasn’t premiered until 2007 in Carnegie Hall, by which time the conductor had taken up his Boston post. This became the source work for the Eighth Symphony which adopted the title. Although the two works are free-standing, they can be performed together as a four movement symphony, an option not taken up here. 'Theologoumenon' is defined by the composer as ‘a private non-dogmatic theological opinion’ and is a quote from the 2nd or 3rd century Neo-platonist commentator Maximus of Tyre. The text seeks to reconcile Classical beliefs systems with Christian monotheism.

The Symphony is cast as three independently-minded movements, related by thirds, and cast in the mould of the fast-slow-fast traditional structure. A declamatory clash heralds the opening movement, which is energetic, spiky and angular. The busy, scurrying pace is maintained throughout. I’m impressed by Wuorinen’s colourful, imaginative scoring. At 16 minutes, the slow movement is the longest of the three. Here the solo instruments are spotlighted to a large degree. It feels as if we are in the realm of chamber music, with everything intimate and restrained. Wuorinen’s diaphanous orchestral writing provides a welcome contrast to the outer movement’s denser textures. The final movement is fleet and mercurial. The percussion section are given a chance to shine, and the piano makes its presence felt in an obbligato-type role.

The Piano Concerto is in three Parts. It’s composition marks the return of the composer to writing for the piano as a solo instrument after some seventeen years. Serkin has done much to champion Wuorinen’s piano music, and was a source of inspiration for this work. Part I seems to germinate slowly from the first piano arpeggios. As the music becomes more animated, the scoring is increasingly colourful. The soloist is kept busy throughout. The ingeniously wrought orchestration certainly packs a punch. Towards the end of the movement bells are employed, as if echoing the bell-like sonorities of the piano. Part II is bold and self-confident, and the brass interjections appear brusque and bombastic. Again the piano is a constant presence. The orchestration becomes forceful and acerbic as the music builds to a thrilling climax. The lights are dimmed for Part III, yet despite a more tranquil and sedate character, there’s an underlying urgent rhythm with ‘fortissimo orchestral outbursts’ interrupting the flow from time to time.

There’s no doubt that Wuorinen’s rugged atonality is challenging, yet the more I listen to these splendid scores, the more I’m won over by the richness of the music. Levine’s inspirational conducting, achieving flawless ensemble and precision is a winning element. Peter Serkin’s committed performance and confident playing serves the music well.

Stephen Greenbank



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