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Walter PISTON (1894-1976)
Variations on a Theme by Edward Burlingame Hill (1963) [9:31]
Divertimento for Nine Instruments (1946) [13:07]
Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra (1967) [12:46]
Concerto for Orchestra (1933) [14:12]
Michael Norsworthy (clarinet)
Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose
rec. 30 June 2015, Jordan Hall, Boston (Variations, Concerto for Orchestra), 11 August 2014, Fraser Hall, WGBH Studios, Boston (Divertimento) and 6 March 2011, Mechanics Hall, Worcester, USA (Clarinet Concerto)
Reviewed as downloaded from press preview
First recordings: Variations, Concerto for orchestra
BMOP/SOUND 1080 SACD [49:41]

For non-specialist classical listeners, American neoclassicism begins and ends with Copland and Barber. Walter Piston, slightly older than his aforementioned colleagues, was at least their equal as composer and educator. Nevertheless, despite being a two-time Pulitzer winner and a longtime faculty member at Harvard University, his music today barely registers a flicker of recognition outside of professional musical circles. Piston’s music—with its neat textures, piquant harmonies, and splashes of dry wit—was practically the textbook example of the post-Stravinskian/Hindemithian neoclassicism that dominated the American academic musical establishment of the 20th century. It also remained more or less stylistically constant, as this handsomely recorded and played selection issued by BMOP Sound attests. From the Great Depression to the Great Society, Piston spent his career not developing so much as honing his distinctive musical voice, similar to how Chopin and Bruckner had done with their own music.

The zippy Concerto for Orchestra from 1933 is the earliest work, as well as the last one on this disc. In three movements, its terseness and intimate scoring give the impression of chamber music rather than symphonic music. Winking references to Bach and Hindemith can be heard in the first movement; the playful second, with its skittering moto perpetuo-like violins and sassy brass interjections, at times sounds like a Paul Whiteman or Nathaniel Shilkret number run amok. After the good humor of the preceding movements, the comparatively severe passacaglia which comprises the finale comes as a bit of a surprise, although the tangy rhythms and harmonies which grow from it help to impart some brightness.

Following twelve years later is the Divertimento for Nine Instruments, another three-part work in a similar mood, with a lyrical and introspective slow movement bookended by breezier fast ones.

The sombre Variations on a Theme by Edward Burlingame Hill, which opens this program, composed in 1963, was a double memorial to two important figures in Piston’s life who had died in 1960. Hill had been Piston’s former teacher and later colleague; it was his theme from an unpublished work for solo flute that the latter chose as the basis for his variations. The score was dedicated to the memory of Herbert V. Kibrick, a Bostonian insurance agent, amateur flautist, and former pupil of both Hill and Piston. Unsurprisingly, the flute plays an important role in this superbly crafted score; at times leading the music forward, at others floating above it all. Even in mourning Piston never relaxes his craftsmanship. Each variation, each texture is immaculately sculpted. This is pensive music, but also resilient and dignified amidst grief. Its coda, with flute trailing off into the void, is all the more moving for its gentleness and subtlety.

The Clarinet Concerto from 1967, a compact score melding four movements into one, is the latest work on this disc. It is a further distillation of Piston’s art, whose basic elements are still recognizable, but over time have become sharpened. His humor takes on a more acerbic tone here, the overall mood tense. When echoes of jazz do appear, they carry a whiff of sulphur which recall the “swing” trio in Vaughan Williams’ saturnine Sixth Symphony. By a cosmic coincidence Piston’s score also bears a striking resemblance to another concerto for clarinet composed the year before by the Bulgarian composer Lyubomir Pipkov, a name and work Piston was unlikely to have known, much less heard. Clarinettists looking to give the concertos by Nielsen and Finzi a rest would be rewarded by exploring this masterly score.

Boston Modern Orchestra Project play with great conviction and feeling for Piston’s angular language. Its chamber-like transparency and clean textures are ideal in these works and Michael Norsworthy’s lean clarinet sound is a fine fit for Piston’s wiry concerto. Fine liner notes by Mark DeVoto round out this treasurable release. One hopes that BMOP will turn their attentions to more Piston in the future. Maybe his Ricercare, Concerto for String Quartet, Winds, and Percussion, or the Eighth Symphony?

NÚstor Castiglione

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