I’m presently quite absorbed by the new Harvey Sachs biography of Toscanini, but also in progress or waiting to be opened are Leonard Slatkin’s Leading Tones (which includes amusing anecdotes and astonishing stats on the premieres that man has given – what a contribution to the field!) and Fred Hersch’s Good Things Happen Slowly. Then there is the reading in prep for the grad course I will be doing next semester: George Perle, Douglas Jarman and Dave Headlam on Berg, and David Schiff’s unique The Ellington Century. I’ve been reading and re-reading Perle since I studied with him decades ago, always with pleasure and profit and not a little awe at his command of the material; but there is also much to learn from Jarman and Headlam.
BBC Music Magazine recently posted a list of “Forgotten Piano Concertos”, and most of them are news to me. But I want to supplement the list with some concertos by American composers that very much deserve greater attention.
Richard Wernick’s Piano Concerto was written for Lambert Orkis and recorded for Bridge with the composer conducting Symphony II, an ensemble originated by musicians from the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s orchestra. There are exceedingly few American composers who are not underappreciated, but Wernick’s tautly constructed and passionately heartfelt music truly should be more widely recognized. Lambert Orkis is best known as a superb chamber musician, but acquits himself brilliantly as a concerto soloist, and Symphony II is highly impressive. The piece is not on YouTube, but the following offers a sample of a recent Wernick chamber work.
Richard Goode is one of our most distinguished pianists in the standard repertoire, but earlier in his career he played and recorded several pieces by the late George Perle, including his Concertino for Piano, Winds and Timpani, and the Serenade Nr. 3 for piano and orchestra. Along with Perle’s solo Ballade, these pieces were recorded by Goode for Nonesuch, with Gerard Schwarz conducting his Music Today Ensemble. That album is available through Arkiv Music, but the Serenade performance was re-issued on a two-disc Bridge compendium of Perle’s music, along with a recording of the Concerto No. 2 with Michael Boriskin and the Utah Symphony under Joseph Silverstein that was originally released on Harmonia Mundi. Perle was a leading music theorist, explicating a variety of 20th century musics, with special emphasis on the Second Viennese School, but he should be no less renowned for his compositions. His piano writing is always attractive, with plenty of lyricism, but, most characteristically, fleet toccata-like textures. (Previously I wrote about Perle’ piano music here.) I nominate the Serenade No. 3 for revival. Here is the first movement:
Melinda Wagner’s Extremity of Sky is a piano concerto that was written for Emmanuel Ax. This is a grandly-scaled four-movement work by a master of the orchestral medium. The piano writing is no less eloquent, idiomatic but fresh, and harmonically rich, with perhaps some Messiaen influence. The slow movement, contemplative and dramatic by turns, is deeply touching. The piece is not yet commercially recorded, but as an example of her music, here is the opening movement of her Trombone Concerto:
Pianist Robert Miller died much too young, cutting short a career devoted to new music of many varieties, from Babbitt to Crumb, and including a 1978 Piano Concerto by the then 40-year old John Harbison. The piece was recorded for CRI with Miller, and the American Composers Orchestra, with Gunther Schuller conducting. Re-issued on CD by CRI as part of a disc of several early Harbison pieces, the album is now available through New World Records. Harbison’s concerto is one of the pieces that marked his turn toward a more direct and open idiom, sometimes characterized as neo-romantic, though jazz, Bach, and Stravinsky are perhaps more fundamental to his musical interests. The Concerto is not on YouTube, but as a sample of his orchestral writing, here is a later work, the Symphony No. 2.
I’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.
OK, so this is a little late for the first day of autumn, but it is still miscellaneous:
– season brochures are coming in over the transom thickly now. Boston’s Collage is offering Feldman, Saariaho, Corey Dargel, Yehudi Wyner, and the late George Edwards. They are also presenting Christopher Taylor doing the complete Vingt Regards of Messiaen.
In DC, the 21st Century Consort’s year includes music by David Froom, Stephen Albert (my favorite piece of his, a Joyce setting called To Wake the Dead), Donald Crockett and Derek Bermel. Here’s how the Albert begins:
– go here for the sound of Wallace Stevens reading.
– and go here for George Perle, Paul Lansky, and Virgil Moorefield on three generations of composition teachers.
The late George Perle will be the focus of a concert by the Da Capo Chamber Players at Merkin Concert Hall in NYC on January 26. Four Perle works will be heard, along with music by Paul Lansky (who worked with Perle on formalizing his theory of twelve-tone tonality), Leo Kraft (a colleague of Perle at Queens College) and Scriabin. Why Scriabin? Perle’s best known theoretical writing is on the Second Viennese School, especially Berg; Bartok; and to a lesser extent, Varese and Stravinsky. But Scriabin also drew his attention because the symmetrical structures in Scriabin’s music point toward the patterns that so fascinated him in those later composers.
If you don’t know Perle’s music, try Michael Boriskin’s disc of the piano music, or the two-disc retrospective on Bridge. Richard Goode’s recording for Nonesuch is still available as a download. (Would that Richard Goode was still playing new music!)
Update: Allan Kozinn’s review in the Times is here.