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Francis Poulenc: Music for Piano (1918-1959). Aleck Karis, piano.

Pierre Boulez: Complete Music for Solo Piano. Marc Ponthus, piano.

Yes, both composers are French, but they couldn’t occupy more contrasting places on the aesthetic spectrum. What’s consistent across these two albums is the high quality of the piano playing. Ponthus commands the extremes of Boulez’s piano writing with dazzling and heroic virtuosity. No heroism is called for by Poulenc, but the many short movements of these pieces do require deft characterization, only possible with Karis’s command of subtle and varied nuances.

Almost all of the 8 pieces on the Poulenc album were new to me, the one exception being the Trois Mouvements Perpétuels. The big pieces here were the most intriguing – a set of Fifteen Improvisations dating form 1933-59 and a Thème Varié from 1951. There’s more variety and weight to this music than just the charming cocktail piano of the Mouvements Perpétuels. (I used to play those as part of my piano bar repertoire.)

I’m afraid the astounding brilliance of Marc Ponthus’s playing did not change me into a big Boulez fan. I find the relatively late Incises (in its 2001 version) and the very early Douze Notations (1945) to be more attractive than the three sonatas. The shattered narrative of the Third Sonata – like handfuls of multi-colored glass shards – simply doesn’t sustain my interest. The Second Sonata has become something of a repertoire piece, but if you are looking to program a big mid-century atonal piano sonata I would suggest the Sessions 3rd, Rochberg’s Sonata-Fantasia, Wolpe’s Battle Piece (a sonata in all but name), or, dating from a little later, the Wuorinen 2nd, or the two sonatas of Richard Wernick (only the First seems to be on YouTube), all much less widely played works that appeal to me more than the Boulez sonatas.


You may have noticed the link at the end of the recent NY Times review of the Tanglewood performance of my Dark the Star – it takes you to a YouTube posting of a track from the Bridge recording of the piece. The recording is by William Sharp, baritone, the 21st Century Consort, and Christopher Kendall, conductor. You really should pick up a copy of the disc (there are links to do that at the Bridge website), but if you disdain physical media (and paying artists for their work!) and want to hear the piece from the beginning, go here. Dark the Star consists of nine movements played without pause, which means the separate videos for each track of the piece interrupt the flow in disconcerting ways, sometimes in mid-phrase – another reason to spring for the physical disc. The pieces from the Sacred Songs cd featuring soprano Susan Narucki are also on YouTube – here’s the first track from the cycle Holy the Firm.

Another way of listening to my work is to visit the audio excerpts link above. I’ve just posted two items:

– under solo voice, you can find the recent premiere of Shadow Memory, with soprano Lisa Williamson and pianist Rami Sarieddine, recorded at SongFest this past June. The piece is on a text by Susan Orlean.

– under instrumental, you’ll find the Oboe Quartet I wrote for Peggy Pearson and the Apple Hill Quartet, this taken from their performance at St. Paul’s in Brookline, MA this past spring.

And, yes, I was thinking of this title when I titled this post, though not of the book’s content.

perleI’ve been greatly enjoying Michael Brown’s recent disc of George Perle’s piano music released by Bridge. Brown has the facility to handle Perle’s characteristic rapidly chattering textures, and the precision to project the music’s subtle rhythmic distinctions. I especially admired Brown’s command of the quickly shifting dynamics demanded in these scores, distinctly marking out musical strata. The piano sound is clear but warm. (Dare I say it? I prefer the sound of the piano on this disc to the brighter sounding instrument on Leon Fleisher’s otherwise magisterial recent album also on Bridge, an album that also includes music by Perle.)

Perle composed prolifically for the piano. The listing at georgeperle.net includes 20 solo pieces, in addition to concerted works.* Perhaps we don’t think of him as a piano composer the way we should because he eschewed the heroic and preferred smaller forms. Many of the pieces are comprised of multiple short movements – the eight pieces on Brown’s disc amount to 38 tracks. There’s nothing in his catalog like the Wolpe Battle Piece, Sessions’ Third Sonata, Shapey’s 21 Variations, Martino’s Pianississimo, etc. I don’t mean to suggest Perle’s achievement is slight – this is an important body of substantive music. But the music tends to be succinct, not rhapsodic. The preference is for lean writing rather than great washes of sound. Yet there is also considerable variety here. In addition to the fleet toccata textures that are Perle’s most typical voice, Brown’s album offers the introspective mood of the five movements that make up Lyric Intermezzo (1987), the biggest set on the album, and the expressionistic Short Sonata (1964), fierce of gesture and alert in its juxtapositions. The album encompasses nearly six decades of composing, so it’s natural that there are stylistic changes represented. The earliest piece, a Classic Suite from 1938 actually hints at Ravel in a few spots.

Perle’s piano music has been decently represented on disc with much of the catalog available in fine performances. Among other albums, there is an all-Perle disc by Michael Boriskin on New World; several solo piano pieces are included on a 2-disc Perle retrospective on Bridge (this album also includes the Serenade No. 3 for piano and chamber orchestra and the Piano Concerto No. 2 **), the recent Fleisher disc includes Musical Offerings, composed for the pianist in 1997/1998; and Russell Sherman’s take on the Six Celebratory Inventions is on a disc from Gunther Schuller’s GM Recordings.

Perle placed scores with a variety of publishers over the years, but it seems that Schott holds most of the catalog now, including some pieces formerly with other firms. (Presser and Peters still have important works as well.)

*) There is a Soliloquy recorded by Michael Borisken that does not appear on the Perle website list.

**) The Serenade is apparently the same recording that was issued on a Nonesuch disc that is still available as a download at Amazon. The Nonesuch album includes Richard Goode’s performance of the Ballade, the work’s only recording.

A review by Joshua Rosenblum of my Sacred Songs album has appeared on the Opera News website. It’s only available for subscribers, so I’ll just offer a few quotes here:

“Primosch’s text-setting instincts are seemingly unerring: his vocal lines always convey the words authentically and honestly, while the instrumental accompaniment provides added depth and drama…”

“Soprano Susan Narucki, who sings three out of the four cycles, has musical intelligence to spare, as well as a clear, ingratiating delivery and sure intonation…”

“Baritone William Sharp uses his resonant, authoritative voice to provide a gripping, inexorable build…” [in the song cycle Dark the Star]

Corde Natus Ex Parentis” from the cycle Four Sacred Songs, has a straightforward, attractively contoured, plainchant-style melody, but the composer adorns it with imaginatively layered instrumental counterpoint in subsequent verses. “Christus Factus Est” has another clearly tonal melody, but the subtly dissonant leanings of the accompaniment form a painfully apt depiction of Christ on the cross.  Narucki’s performance of this quietly devastating number is a delicate marvel.”

“These songs are unfailingly compelling, whether the musical language is complex or seemingly simple… Christopher Kendall skillfully and sensitively leads the 21st Century Consort, which provides superb accompaniment.”

CD coverThis recent CD is devoted to my music for voice and ensemble, and has been released by Bridge Records. Susan Narucki and William Sharp are the soloists; Christopher Kendall conducts the 21st Century Consort. It’s available at Amazon and at Arkiv Music. Scroll down for several more posts about the album. A review by Christian B. Carey on the Musical America website is here; another is at Audiophile Audition, by Steven Ritter. Composer Daniel Asia discusses the album at the Huffington Post here.

Here are the program notes for the other two pieces on my new CD on Bridge. (The first installment is here). The pictures below are of the Grammy winning soloists on the disc, Bill Sharp and Susan Narucki.

Dark the Star

Unknown-3Composing this cycle of songs began with my discovery of three poems in Susan Stewart’s collection Columbarium that I knew I must set to music. The deep, dreamlike wisdom of these poems haunted me, just as I had experienced with Susan’s poem “Cinder” that had served as the fulcrum of my song cycle Holy the Firm. Eventually, texts by Rilke and an earlier setting I had done of a psalm verse were drawn into the gravitational orbit of Susan’s poems. I ordered the texts in a nearly symmetrical pattern, with two poems set a second time in versions that shadow their first readings. This is partly for the sake of the formal design, but, more importantly, to re-examine the poems in the penumbra of what comes before. Rounding the cycle in this way reflects not only the circles and repetitions in Susan Stewart’s texts, but also the way in which, as Rilke writes, the things we have let go yet encircle us.

William Sharp and the 21st Century Consort premiered this cycle in 2008.

Holy the Firm

Unknown-2The little anthology of texts dealing with praise and mystery that I have assembled for this song cycle draws upon writings of three twentieth-century American women and a monk of the seventh century Sinai desert. It may be helpful to know that the fifth text is excerpted from a found poem based upon phrases culled from the Dictionary of Last Words edited by Edward S. Le Comte.  The wide-ranging affects of the texts called forth a similar range of musical languages but there are many recurrences, both musical and textual, that bind the songs together.

The cycle’s title is borrowed from that of a book by Annie Dillard that also provided the words for the second song. In that book, Dillard writes: “Esoteric Christianity, I read, posits a substance. It is a created substance, lower than metals and minerals on a ‘spiritual scale’, and lower than salts and earths, occurring beneath salts and earths in the waxy deepness of planets, but never on the surface of planets where men could discern it; and it is in touch with the Absolute at base. In touch with the Absolute! At base. The name of this substance is: Holy the Firm.”

Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish gave the first performance of the original piano and voice version of Holy the Firm in 1999. I subsequently made this chamber version for Susan Narucki and the 21st Century Consort; those artists gave the premiere in 2002.

My new CD, Sacred Songs, is coming out on Bridge Records this Tuesday. Here are program notes for two of the pieces on the disc – notes on the other two pieces in tomorrow’s post. John Harbison’s  booklet essay for the disc is here. That’s the soloist for these pieces, Susan Narucki, pictured below.

From a Book of Hours 

UnknownThis cycle of songs sets four poems from an early collection by Rilke entitled Das Stundenbuch, or in English, Book of Hours. Although the title refers to a medieval book of prayers for the various times of day and seasons of the liturgical year, Rilke’s texts occupy a position some distance from conventional piety.  There is a melancholy to the spirituality expressed here, which speaks of an experience of God that is fragmentary, imperfect, and unattainable. The solitude evoked in the second song (as layers of busy activity are gradually peeled away) offers some solace, but the third song is very dark and fierce, filled with a desperate, even manic desire for God. The last song returns to the mood of the first, but now in a global rather than individual context. This song, like the set as a whole, speaks of our world’s brokenness, yet strives to stammer fragments of God’s name.

Originally composed in an orchestral version on a commission from the Chicago Symphony, this chamber ensemble version was prepared for Susan Narucki and the 21st Century Consort, with Christopher Kendall conductor, who gave the first performance in 2007.

Four Sacred Songs

When soprano Christine Schadeberg asked me to compose a new work for her 1989 Town Hall recital, she asked for something lighter in tone than my usual style, suggesting that I consider writing some folk song arrangements.  I agreed to the idea of arrangements, but rather than folk songs, I chose three old sacred melodies; the idea of sharing with a concert audience a few of the musical riches that I had encountered in my work as a liturgical musician was particularly attractive. In 1990 I orchestrated these piano and voice songs, adding the second movement which exists only in the chamber ensemble version. The first performance was given by Christine Schadeberg with the ensemble Voices of Change.

The first song, “Jesu Dulcis Memoria”, is a strophic chant hymn with a text by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the great Cistercian monk and preacher.

I have set “Corde Natus Ex Parentis” using a somewhat free version of the medieval technique known as a mensuration canon: except for a few freely imitative phrases, all the parts have the same melody, but played at different speeds.  For example, the low cello and harp notes mark out the tune at a pace six times slower than the voice.

The chant “Christus Factus Est” appears in the Liber Usualis  as part of the Holy Week liturgy; the melody is unusually wide-ranging and highly melismatic.  The text is part of St. Paul’s famous “Philippians Hymn”, and speaks of the mystery of Christ’s suffering and exaltation.

The origins of the tune for “O Filli et Filliae” are obscure, and may be secular in nature.  The words somewhat discontinuously narrate the Easter story, closing with a call to give praise and thanks to God.

CD coverWith the imminent release of my  “Sacred Songs” cd on Bridge records, I want to share with you the essay John Harbison graciously contributed for the CD booklet:

Vocal Music in the 21st Century: Is Anything Sacred?

John Harbison

A point of view, an address to both mind and heart, a passionate conviction – isn’t that what we hope for in a piece of music?

What we often get in these times is sophistication, attitude, polish, aggression.  But recently, from an unexpected underground, outlier source, Sacred Music, we are starting to get a reinfusion of meaning, in which the composer and listener inhabit worlds both seen and unseen, in a vocabulary reaching from the oldest to the newest.

The music of James Primosch –– immediate and urgent, private and other-worldly –– invites us to travel with him into dangerous and beautiful territory, no less than a cosmic conversation –– dispute and reconciliation and doubt and accommodation –– with our Maker.

Even if we are holding out hope no Maker ever existed, we can’t help noticing the appearance, in these pieces, of major issues we can’t avoid.

Sacred music. Lord save us! What a scary sounding category.  Orphaned, abandoned, archaic.  Once music’s principal domain, the composer’s main livelihood: think of Josquin and Palestrina saturating their patrons and listeners with sound, while the painters filled the walls of the Sistine Chapel.

Bach was one of the last composers to write sacred music with confidence that it represented majority opinion.  The Matthew Passion breathes that confidence, in and out.  But while Bach was still alive, a secular culture was rendering his aesthetic obsolete.  The Mozart Great Mass in C minor, Beethoven Missa Solemnis , Verdi Requiem, Fauré Requiem increasingly require shadings, demurrals, and edits to describe the composer’s relationships to the text.

The 20th century arrived with confidence that religious art had become an archaism, with occasional rear-guard exceptions –– Roualt, Kollwitz, Flannery O’Connor, the later Eliot –– only proving the case.  But let’s pause for a moment to ponder Symphony of Psalms, Moses and Aaron, St. Francis.   Devout, orthodox, inspired masterpieces by composers rooted in their religious traditions.  And other great pieces by composers less anchored in that way –– Dallapiccola’s Concerto per la Notte di Natale, Poulenc’s Gloria, Martin’s Mass for Double Choir.  And within the last few years, Passions of a widely disparate content by Adams, Golijov, MacMillan, music by Jonathan Harvey illuminated by his Buddhist faith, programs of music for the Synagogue by Wyner and Adler.

In James Primosch’s music you hear sacred music’s welcome to listeners of every imaginable stamp.  He embraces age-old advantages: The composer of sacred music is not on the applause meter.  He converses with God, with himself, and with listeners whose mind-set (at least in church) is not evaluative or critical.  The envious colleague, the nagging teacher –– both have stayed home.  The “professionals” are elsewhere.

Who is there?  In Primosch’s experience it is people who wish to be reached, touched, persuaded, or given a space to meditate and reflect.  At performances of the many motets he has composed for Boston’s Emmanuel Church I have heard members of the congregation tell him that the piece has comforted or calmed or excited or occasioned new thoughts.  This is a pastoral function, not something that happens in a tuxedo or tails.

Primosch’s mature style bears the marks of a composer who has learned to come to the point, to speak clearly, thanks to a necessary encounter with his subject matter.  Like Jacob, he wrestled with the Angel, lost, and has been made strong.  His harmonic palette has been culled to make its signifiers more vivid.  He builds it from old acoustic principles–– open fifths in the bass register, piled or intersected triads above, ancient modes linked together at chromatic crossing points.  The fluent melodies sometimes harken back to plainchant. Grounded though he is in all the latest and most current, the surface of his music has become less “modern,” less local.  This makes possible a more radical, pointed kind of emphasis.  The music sounds like it intends to be remembered. Motives are felt, rather than just being useful.  Quiet static moments are driven home, not just waiting for something to happen.

Because of its vivid, fervent expression, Primosch’s music has been taken up by some of our best performers, like the ones on this CD.  They bring a set of four vocal-instrumental pieces (each of which exists also in voice and piano versions).

The first,  From a Book of Hours, is the closest of these pieces to a song cycle.  It is four balanced movements, each carrying forward a dialogue which is also a monologue.

Four Sacred Songs is a set of variations on given tunes, plainchant and folksong, very revealing of Primosch’s melodic sources as a whole.

Dark the Star is a through-composed cantata, the alternation between English and German never interrupting a continuous flow of verbal and musical discourse.

Holy the Firm is an unusual juxtaposition of disparate music and text, from contemplative ritual (Susan Stewart’s “Cinder,” a lapidary piece already in high favor as a separate recital piece) to dramatic-operatic scene (Dillard’s  “Deathbeds”).

Somewhere along the line the composer of sacred music is asked a question, by a fan, a critic, a historian.  It is a question nowadays asked inadvertently with impertinence, a rough paraphrase being, “Do you really believe this stuff?”

The force of the question reinforces something that the composer already knew, that he is a cultural maverick.  The answer, “Yes, as much as that is permitted to me on a given day.”  At the very least, the composer is suggesting that he chooses to spend his day with such companions as Annie Dillard and John Climacus, and wishes to include us in that sojourn.


A word about the author: the catalog of distinguished American composer John Harbison includes numerous sacred works, including a Requiem, the motet Abraham, which was commissioned for the Papal Concert of Reconciliation, and the cantata The Flight Into Egypt, for which he received the 1987 Pulitzer prize. He has conducted Bach cantatas, worked as a jazz pianist, and taught at Tanglewood and MIT.