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William KRAFT (b. 1923)
Timpani Concerto No 1 (1983) [23.09]
Timpani Concerto No 2 (2005) The Grand Encounter [23.03]
Octopus (2003) [2.02]
Thomas Atkins (timpani: No. 1), David Herbert (timpani: No. 2 & Octopus)Alabama Symphony Orchestra
(No. 1), Symphony Silicon Valley (No. 2)/Paul Polivnik
rec. University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, 10 October 1988
(No. 1); California Theatre, San Jose, 27 October 2013 (No. 2); Los Angeles, California, 2007
(Octopus) LAUREL RECORDS LR867 [48.14]
Many of the successful percussion concertos written in recent years – those by Schwantner and MacMillan the most prominent – have tended to feature the tuned percussion, especially the vibraphone, in the foreground. William Kraft, himself a timpanist, here has furnished two concertos which specifically feature the timpani, with the tuned percussion relegated to a relatively minor role. The introduction of the pedal timpani towards the end of the nineteenth century released the drums from the ‘tonic-dominant’ supportive roles to which they had generally been consigned; and Richard Strauss was one of the first composers to make use of the extended possibilities in his Burleske, officially a piece for piano and orchestra but one which also featured a prominent melodic role for the timpanist. The increased freedom was also welcomed by other composers such as Bartók, but when Kraft wrote his First Concerto in 1983 full-scale concertos for timpani remained a relative rarity.
Kraft himself describes his style as “neo-Impressionist” but I would hazard a guess that if Ravel or Debussy heard this music, they would find it hard to recognise any impressionist influences in these scores. The First Concerto is much more in the “neo-Classical” style, and particularly recalls the spiky works which Stravinsky wrote in this idiom. The outer movements are quite bouncy and well articulated, but the slow central movement written in memory of the composer’s mother has a more haunted and indeed eerie flavour which recalls Bartók’s similar writing in the Music for strings, percussion and celesta. The concerto itself seems to have received a rather lukewarm reception from the critics when it first appeared on a Harmonia Mundi recording in 1993, coupled with other concertos by Kraft; here that recording is reissued, rather than a new performance, which seems rather hard on David Herbert who commissioned the Second Concerto and has also performed the First many times. I enjoyed the music itself rather more than did some of the earlier critics of the recording, and although the thematic material is undistinguished (none of the symphonic motifs are really memorable) the driving motoric rhythms are effective and indeed exciting.
The increased range of the pedal timpani is further extended in the Second Concerto where Kraft writes for a set of no fewer than 15 drums (which necessitated some restrictions on the use of pedals if the instruments were to remain accessible for a single player), and these were specially constructed for use in this concerto. A photograph in the booklet shows the arrangement of the instruments required, with nine drums suspended in mid-air on a sort of gantry. Before writing the concerto, Kraft experimented with these new instruments in the brief piece Octopus which is given here in a solo performance by David Herbert. This gives the listener an opportunity to hear the expanded possibilities which the ‘kit’ makes available to the composer, which is just as well as in the concerto itself the upper ranges of the ‘tenor timpani’ (rising in pitch to the A above middle C) tend to be subsumed into the sound of the orchestra – rather unfortunately undermining the point of their presence. The percussion scoring is more exotic and adventurous than in the First Concerto, including no less than 27 tuned gongs and other novelties such as the flexatone, vibraslap and brake drum. It opens with a pounding timpani rhythm which the booklet notes liken (surprisingly but accurately) to the opening of Brahms’s First Symphony, and Herbert describes the music as “mind-expanding and a joy to play.” But on the other hand the thematic material is no more distinguished than in the First Concerto, and one does get the impression that the composer is treading much of the same ground. The symphony, we are told, was “substantially revised” following the first performance “adding new material”.
The playing of both soloists is impeccable, and the two orchestras involved deliver well for the conductor Paul Polivnik who directs both concertos. The booklet notes run to 13 pages, and are not only substantial but informative. The recorded sound has a very wide range, and listeners are warned that the very quiet opening of the First Concerto may fool them into raising their volume controls rather higher than may be wise later on. Another problem with this disc is the rather short playing time; the booklet notes describe the duration of the first performance of the Second Concerto as “lasting approximately a half hour” but this performance is fully seven minutes shorter than that, even with the added material from the revision. Nonetheless the new issue does have a real advantage in giving us a conspectus of both Kraft’s concertos for an instrument he clearly understands completely, together with a fascinating – and in some ways even more impressive – miniature for his expanded set of timpani which makes one anxious to hear other composers tackle the new ranges which are being provided for the instrument.