George PERLE (1915-2009)
Volume 4: Orchestral works 1965-1987
Dance Fantasy (1986) [12.12]
Six Bagatelles (1965) [6.41]
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1966) [18.10]
Sinfonietta 1 (1987) [15.35]
A Short Symphony (1980) [17.09]
Seattle Symphony/Ludovic Morlot
rec. 2016/17, S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, Washington
BRIDGE 9499 [69.56]
Until this CD appeared in my monthly batch I had not heard any music by George Perle, whom I thought was largely an academic, so it would be a good idea if I started this review with a perceptive quotation from his iconic book which I bought when an MA student back in the 80’s: ‘Serial Composition and Atonality - an introduction to the music of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern’ (California Press 1977). He gets to the nitty-gritty early on Page 9: “A central problem, that of defining the 'thematic’ material and differentiating it from secondary and transitional material without the benefit of the articulative procedures of tonality, is uniquely presented and solved in each atonal work”.
It’s important, then, to realise that each of these five works has a somewhat different musical landscape to be explored, although each may be atonal or even serial, which, it seems to me, means that they may sometimes be successful or sometimes a let-down.
Let’s take a quick overview of these five works.
The earliest is Six Bagatelles - miniatures, and even aphoristic, Webernian-type statements. Then the three movements of the Concerto for Cello and Orchestra - quite a tough nut to crack and, I feel, the least successful and most brittle of these works. Moving on twenty years, we encounter in the Dance Fantasy and the Sinfonietta music which is warmer and more mature but still recognisably in his voice; it is bracing and athletic but draws you in. Finally, A Short Symphony, in three movements, in which expression marks have been removed in favoured of simple metronome marks just as Stravinsky had done. Indeed, post-war Stravinsky, mostly the 1950’s, may be the aural link you will discover here and also, unsurprisingly, Roger Sessions and even Ernst Krenek. In addition, there is Perle’s most favoured composer Alban Berg, whose ‘Lyric Suite’, which he first heard when he was twenty-two, made such a deep impression on him.
These, then, are the basic outlines, influences and sounds you can expect from this series of little-known works by America’s rather overlooked George Perle. Now to fill in the gaps a little.
The piece that has most resonated with me is the Sinfonietta; I think that is because its tight structure contrasts with the somewhat wayward ideas to create a unique and invigorating experience but with the addition of an expressive and memorable middle movement. The detailed booklet essay by Christopher Hailey calls the opening movement “incessantly monochrome” and then remarks on its “dark, hard driving lower strings”. This should not be taken as a negative, as the same comments could arguably be made of Stravinsky’s ‘Symphony in Three movements’, for example. But Bartok also is referenced in the finale, which is wisely described as “invigorating”. The Dance Fantasy has these characteristics but also has a lighter more lyrical touch. Its single movement span is balletic and one is reminded that Perle was fascinated from an early age by ballet and his Third Serenade is dedicated to George Balanchine.
We are reminded in the booklet essay that we should not think of George Perle as having been ‘influenced’ by Alban Berg, despite the fact that especially in the first two movements of the Short Symphony, he seems to quote from ‘Lulu’ and the ‘Lyric Suite’, analysis of which occupied Perle extensively at the time. No; we should really say that Perle and this symphony in particular shares ‘an affinity’ with Berg. His aforementioned book, by the way, has over thirty Berg musical quotations within its text.
Anyway, the third movement of this symphony is quite un-Berg like (although I did think sometimes of his ‘Three Pieces for orchestra’). Its complexity is caused by the fact that its five opening ideas are each given a different tempo marking as well as contrasting textures. It feels to me hopelessly disjointed and alien to the earlier movements despite their clear recapitulation.
But perhaps the most remarkable track on the entire CD is the fourth movement of the Six Bagatelles in which an ethereal string discord, played on harmonics, is held in complete suspense for over two minutes, a quite unique effect.
The recordings are out of the top drawer, the booklet essay is excellent and accompanied by black and white photos of Perle with Leonard Bernstein, other well-known American composers and a very young Ludovic Morlot. He clearly knew the composer and has the complete measure of the style and passion of the music; the orchestra also ever puts a foot wrong. Jay Campbell copes superbly with the severe demands of the Cello Concerto but for me, as indicated above, this work never fully hangs together, is at times harsh and unremitting and ends unsatisfactorily.
Previous volumes of Perle’s music were devoted to his String Quartets, Piano Music and a double album mixture of works; I would say that despite my various caveats this Volume 4 of the composer’s work is well worth exploring.