Elizabeth R. AUSTIN (b. 1938)
'Wilderness' (Symphony No.1) (1987) [19:03]
Lighthouse' (Symphony No.2) (1993) [21:09]
An American Triptych (2001) [8:41]
Sonnets from the Portuguese (1988) [12:46]
Puzzle Preludes (1994-2008) [9:00]
Three Rilke Lieder (1958) [7:12]
NAVONA RECORDS NV6304 [77:51]
This is my first encounter with the music of American composer Elizabeth R. Austin. The disc brings together a diverse range of Austin's work using different performers, locations and dates over a near thirty year period. I imagine that the music has been chosen as significant or representative of Austin's art. The final work is the early Three Rilke Lieder - it was this piece that prompted Nadia Boulanger to offer Austin a scholarship to study in Fontainebleu.
This disc is given the title "Window Panes" which Austin in her liner note explains thus; "Most of the music on this album uses a stylistic trait, inspired by imagining the mind's eye peering through an aural window pane (or porthole) to a musical landscape, a 'remembrance of things past'..... what engages me is to [create] an associative web of aural memories, threads of musical nostalgia [which] appear with startling recognition before departing with ease." In simplistic terms this means that Austin inserts musical quotations of other composer's works into her music. Some of these quotes are clear and unadorned - Petroushka appears briefly in the Symphony No.1 'Wilderness' and there is an obvious passage from Debussy's La Mer in the Symphony No.2 'Lighthouse'. This is a far from uncommon structural or musical device which can often carry significant emotional weight think the Berg Violin Concerto or Strauss' Metamorphosen. The only "risk" I find with it as a listener is that you start listening for the quotes in some form of musical hide-and-seek and in the process lose sight of the original work of which they form just a secondary part.
Austin's musical language is quite densely effective in both its use of harmony and instrumentation [in the symphonies] with her melodic lines angular. So when a passage suddenly resolves into a more obviously tonal/lyrical form I find myself scrabbling around my memory trying to see if its a pre-existing quote or not. Referencing the piano Puzzle Preludes included on this disc the liner quotes author Michael Slayton; ".. the zenith illustration of the windowpane method, offers quotations as musical puzzles for the player and capable [my italics] audience members..." I must admit to not being very comfortable with that sense of deliberate musical exclusivity or perhaps simply my incapacity to recognise the quotes embedded in the work is a failing.
As to the performances here, in the absence of any others to compare, they all sound very committed and technically accomplished. The two symphonies are well played and given the density of the musical argument well recorded too. The Wilderness Symphony is written with male and female narrators reciting the text of Carl Sandburg's [published] 1918 poem of the same name. The spoken style is a kind of heightened speech verging on proclamation which I found not especially engaging although it does permit the text [English only in the liner] to be heard clearly. The notion is that we humans are a mix of bestial impulses and actions hence in turn the narrators state; "there is a wolf in me...." or "there is a fish in me....". Throughout the orchestra supports the poetic imagery without ever specifically illustrating it. This is one of those works you end up respecting more than you enjoy and I must admit I found the performing style of the text off-putting well though it is done here.
Whereas the Wilderness Symphony plays in a single continuous movement, Austin's Symphony No.2 'Lighthouse' is written in three distinct, widely differing sections. The first movement in turn carries a three-part title; Lighthouse/Water tower Mannheim/Watch Hill. The window-paning technique is evident throughout. The opening of the work seems consciously programmatic with the music evoking a surly mist-laden seascape most effectively. Repeated listenings do reveal how buried quotations skilfully recur with greater clarity - almost emerging from the musical mist - as fragments coalesce and textures thin around them. Austin also employs a collage-like technique where, for example, a solo piano will suddenly play a quote [I assume but one which I do not recognise] in a near salon/cocktail lounge style quite independent of the music that surrounds it. Then for no reason that I can glean either from listening or reading Austin's own liner note, this movement ends with a few bars of the opening of Mozart's Requiem. Another curiosity in this first movement is that the liner includes a couple of lines of text which are "recited in the first movement". In this performance they are wholly absent, again the booklet offers no explanation. After the twelve and a half minute atmospheric opening movement the remainder of the symphony is much shorter. There follows a Burlesque on a theme by Johann Stamitz of some 5:45 and a closing Elegia. In the Burlesque¸Stamitz's jaunty descending theme undergoes dissection rather than variation in a rather impressive way. The closing Elegia is consciously less colourful than the preceding movements and as such makes a good contrast. In the opening movement Austin creates a "lighthouse" theme which her website describes as being a metaphoric beacon. The recurrence of the theme towards the end of the Elegia provides the work with binding structural coherence.
The two symphonies are the most obviously 'big' works in this compendium. The rest of the disc comprises two sets of piano works and two sets of songs. German pianist Ulrich Urban plays the piano works; An American Triptych and the afore-mentioned Puzzle Preludes and as with the other performers on the disc, plays them with considerable skill and clear conviction. The Puzzle Preludes are marred by the recording quality. This sounds more like an archive recording of a live performance rather than a top-notch commercial production. The piano starts left of centre in the sound stage but very oddly brief phrases suddenly jump to the middle of the picture and then back. Likewise the piano sound captured in this recording is noticeably more clangy and harsh than that for the An American Triptych. Both works are engaging and interesting although again, I did begin to tire of the sense of having my musical IQ tested at every turn... "do you know what the tune is yet....?" the composer seems to ask. Although this is not completely clear from the liner, Austin wrote seven of the preludes and only five are given here.
The setting of five of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese for soprano and piano are effective. Clearly demanding of the singer they again receive impressively convincing and secure performances from soprano Melinda Liebermann accompanied by Cornelius Witthoft. The final song in the cycle is the famous How do I love thee? which is beautifully set by Austin. The disc is completed by the Three Rilke Lieder that helped launch Austin's career. The three songs are shared between a soprano - Amanda Kohl and a baritone - the ardent but wide-vibratoing Christopher Grundy. The two singers join for the closing Lovesong which is actually the least impressive song in the set. Austin, who also provided her own translations of these poems, acts as accompanist.
Without doubt this is a valuable and wide-ranging introduction to Austin's
art. The Navona presentation is rather frustrating. The track contents
and listing on the backs of the CD case and liner are minutely printed
in an annoyingly light orange and pale brown on a dark brown background.
I literally cannot read what it says. Navona also miss out any dates
of composition (I found these at www.elisabethaustinmusic.com) or even
Austin's own birth year. The liner note, written by Austin obviously
carries authority but lacks analytical detail which would really help
with unfamiliar music which is crammed with other references. Too much
of the note is concerned with quoting other authors commenting
on the wider musical aesthetic of Austin. Full texts in English only
are provided - and are legible(!) however there are no artist biographies.
Szymon Kawalla conducting Krakow Radio & Symphony Orchestra (Symphony No.1), Joel Eric Suben conducting The Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra (Symphony No.2), Ulrich Urban - piano (Triptych & Puzzle Preludes), Melinda Liebermann - soprano (narrator Symphony No.1 & singer - Sonnets), Anthony King - narrator (Symphony No.1), Cornelius Witthoft - piano (Sonnets), Amanda Kohl - soprano, Christopher Grundy - baritone, Elizabeth R. Austin - piano (Rilke Lieder)
Concert Hall of Krakow Poland June 1991 (Wilderness Symphony), Staatliche Musikhochschule Heidelberg/Mannheim Germany 1992 Sonnets), Leipzig, Germany 2004 (Triptych), Concert Hall of Olomouc, Czech Republic 24 May 2005 (Lighthouse Symphony), Paliesiaus Manor, Mielegenu, Lithuania 19 October 2019 (Puzzle Preludes), Hartt School of Music Recording Studio, University of Hartford, USA 12 November 2019 (Rilke Lieder)