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John Alden CARPENTER (1876-1951)
Violin Sonata (1912) [26:28]
String Quartet (1927) [22:29]
Piano Quintet (1937) [25:23]
Paul Posnak (piano), Sergiu Schwartz (violin), Vega Quartet
rec. 2001, University of Miami School of Music

This review of a disc dating from 2001 traces itself to an intense spell of reading earlier this year. The books included Jonathan Carr’s The Wagner Clan, those on Stravinsky and Britten (Phaidon Press) by composer, broadcaster and writer, Stephen Oliver (1950-1992) and, crucially, Howard Pollack’s Skyscraper Lullaby - The Life and Music of John Alden Carpenter (Smithsonian Studies in American Musicians, 1994). The Pollack book very nicely blends life-story with accessible musical exposition in much the same way as is achieved in Lewis Foreman’s Bax volume; surely time for a fourth edition of the Bax?

From MusicWeb International’s earliest days I have taken a strong interest in Illinois-born John Alden Carpenter, very much a Chicago figure as Pollack’s biography attests. Like Charles Ives he kept one foot in business and the other in his heart’s desire, music. A student at Harvard, he studied with John Knowles Paine but also in later years with Elgar (briefly in Rome) and with Bernhard Ziehn (in Chicago).

Carpenter’s signature work (multiply recorded in the days of LP) was the ballet Adventures in a Perambulator (1914). There is a respectable catalogue of work including piano pieces, two symphonies, Krazy Kat (1921), based on a comic character and the ballet Skyscrapers (1924). Let’s not forget the orchestral tone poem Sea Drift which, like Delius’s work of the same name, drew its inspiration from Walt Whitman. There is a host of music yet to be recorded. I would single out the orchestral version of the Gitanjali songs (Rabindranath Tagore - a poet set by Zemlinsky, Langgaard, Szymanowski, Dett and Bridge) and the Violin Concerto.

The Violin Sonata is the longest work here and across four movements (Larghetto; Allegro; Largo mistico; Presto giocoso) speaks of a style floating between early Fauré and mature Delius. The music moves forward purposefully at all times. Sergiu Schwartz - closely and sympathetically supported by Paul Posnak - does not disappoint; far from it. He always promised well given his lushly projected, pioneering broadcast on the Coleridge-Taylor Violin Concerto in the early 1980s with Brian Wright and the Guildhall School Symphony Orchestra.

Delius and Ravel come to mind in the three movement Quartet (Allegro; Adagio; Moderato) written some fifteen years later. The music yearns and charms. The note-writer says that it recalls the quartet music of Arnold Bax or Frank Bridge. Certainly, there are moments when it bubbles with beguiling melody in much the same way as Bax’s First Quartet without the complex weave of Bax’s last two quartets. A tender Adagio precedes a gawkily fascinating final Moderato.

A decade later the three-movement Piano Quintet (Moderato; Andante; Allegro non troppo) is starker, yet its mien is heavily nostalgic and almost regretful. The first two movements are languid but the glinting and triumphant finale strides purposefully forward. It would make a companionable partner to the almost contemporary piano quintets by Leroy Robertson and Vittorio Giannini.

The sound secured by the Naxos engineering team has a straight-speaking gripping clarity which speaks up well for these three substantial works. The supportive notes, by Richard Whitehouse, are only to be faulted in their lack of historical background specifically on the three works. Speaking of which, this is a well-filled disc answering handsomely to unvoiced needs of the Carpenter heritage.

Rob Barnett

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