Robert Starer: Cello Concerto (1988) (Janos Starker), Richard Wernick: Viola Concerto “Do not go gentle…” (1986) (Walter Trampler), Richard Wilson: Piano Concerto (1991) (Blanca Uribe). Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston, Leon Botstein. CRI CD 618 (1992) 090438061827
Starer recorded 17 February 1991
Wernick recorded 7 October 1989
Wilson recorded 16 February 1992
Three American Concertos, honest works, but nothing to lay claim on one’s memory
Originally posted on Amazon.com, 12 September 2010
Is it because he wrote his Cello Concerto for Janos Starker that Robert Starer wrote such a (relatively) undemanding (stylistically, not technically) work? Probably. Most composers (not all) also mellow with age; they start firebrand, then decide they have nothing (any more) to prove – or decide it is time to strive for more public success. I heard recently Starer’s Viola Concerto from 1958 (on a valuable VoxBox 2-CD set with more contemporary American Concertos, VoxBox CDX 5158 – link will open new tab to my review), and though it too didn’t display too much of a uniquely recognizable compositional personality, it was more demanding and, ultimately, interesting, I find. Don’t get me wrong: the 1988 Cello Concerto is appealing and enjoyable, not difficult-listening for someone attuned to contemporary music, but it is also ultimately very anonymous. It is couched in one continuous movement with succeeding sections and moods, so you get a questing solo introduction followed by a brooding-meditative section turning anguished and dramatic, then the dynamic, syncopated and/or scurrying dance-passages framing a wistful and rather sentimental slow movement. The most interesting passage I found (because the less predictable) was after this slow section and before the scurrying finale, a hushed and often enigmatic dialogue between cello and various sections of the orchestra, from 12:14 to 14:25. But overall, it’s like when you listen to the lesser 18th Century composers: enjoyable, but nothing you haven’t heard before in Haydn and Mozart, better expressed. You keep it in your music library for further reference, and hardly ever refer to it again.
Richard Wernick‘s Viola Concerto was also written for a formidable soloist, Walter Trampler, who premiered it with Leon Botstein conducting in 1987, two years before this recording was made. Though I can’t say that it shows a unique personality either – it is written in a reasonably 20th century modernist style, not avant-garde, twelve-tone but still grim and dramatic -, I find it more interesting than Starer’s Concerto, because its “dramaturgy”, its unfolding – in the liner notes the composer uses the expression “musical narrative”- is less predictable and hackneyed; couched in two movements, the second slow but the first that can’t be easily termed “fast” (it alternates), it proceeds seemingly in an almost “pointillistic” manner, with the orchestra responding to the viola not as a single block, but, in quasi twelve-tone style, in a sectionalized manner, engaging in small dialogues, either explosive or meditative/plangent, as if the soloist addressed each section or instrument in turn. That said, except for the beginning of the second movement with its enigmatic, softly tolling ostinato of harp, delicate string tremolos, soft punctuations of vibraphone (I think that’s what it is), the orchestration is rather grim and grey, and despite the wealth of instrumental events, there are none that strike you as really novel, unheard, surprising, or extremely inventive. Inspired by Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do not go gentle into that good night” (famously set to music by Stravinsky in his chamber cantata “In Memoriam Dylan Thomas”), the composition has autobiographical roots which Wernick mentions but doesn’t explain, and which do not need to be known to appreciate the composition.
I find it hard to come to terms with Richard Wilson‘s Piano Concerto, composed in 1991 for pianist Blanca Uribe, who premiered it under the direction of the same Leon Boststein who conducts it here. Heard minute by minute, it is interesting, full of events, with a rich, variagated and subtle orchestration that evokes the best twelve-tone compositions (although I doubt that it is serial) and a whimsical and busy piano part. It rises to great dramatic impact at times, very romantic in feeling yet atonal in melodic contour, but I don’t find that it coalesces as a whole. Strange thing, really, that leaves me quite puzzled – and I’ve listened a number of times, each time with more attention. It is as if the structure and gestures of a fine Concerto were there, only the melodies, and/or the interplay between piano and orchestra, didn’t “work” – and obviously they don’t for me. And it is NOT that I am adverse to modern music and can’t hear the melodies in atonal or twelve-tone music, on the contrary. There is, in the slow movement, hushed orchestral support (brooding trombone, soft brushed cymbals, violin tremolos or pianissimo sustained notes in the upper reaches, woodwind “nature calls”, vibraphone punctuations) and busy but dreamy piano work, recalling almost Ravel’s Jeux d’eau in technique (repeated notes, tremolos in the upper registers), that ought to be fascinating but leaves me untouched. The finale is animated and boisterous, it ebbs and flows with apparently a good sense of dramatic architecture, both the piano and orchestra are constantly busy with a lot on offer to the ear; it should be uplifiting as the same kind of movement is in, say, the Piano Concerto of Peter Mennin, but it leaves me cold. I don’t know if it is Wilson’s melodies (but whether melodies have an appeal on you or not is, I recognize, a very subjective and personal matter, independent even of whatever knowledge and experience are brought to bear, so Wilson’s melodies might have an appeal on another listener or his cat or grandmother), or if it is that he is so intent at piling material that he doesn’t let his melodies, however stern and atonal they may be, truly unfold (but while that may be the case in the first movement, I wouldn’t say so of the two others), or the fact that his piano is so busy that it becomes very “decorative” rather than songful or percussive; anyway, while there is much to hear, I find little appeal in his concerto.
Ultimately nothing is essential on this disc: three recent American concertos among thousands, none infamous, honest compositions, but none with any special claim on one’s memory.