I consider myself to have an ear well-trained in contemporary music, I listen with much pleasure and excitement to Xenakis, the radical Penderecki of the 1960s and early 1970s, Ligeti, Nono, Crumb and the likes – and sure, I can whistle the tunes of Schoenberg as if they were by Beethoven, and not just those from Transfigured Night. Yet some composers from the serial coterie leave me behind, I find no appeal in their music and it’s often been an ordeal to listen to their CDs to the end, and consequently I usually try to avoid them like the smallpox. Along with Milton Babbitt, Charles Wuorinen, and even the music of Elliott Carter oftentimes, past his early, Schoenberg-indebted period of the Orchestral Variations and Piano Sonata, Stefan Wolpe is one of those composers.
That said, every rule has its exceptions, and there are some pieces by all these composers that I’ve enjoyed. Wolpe’s Quartet for trumpet, tenor saxophone, percussion & piano, on Spectrum: New American Music. Works of Stefan Wolpe, Seymour Shifrin, George Rochberg, Milton Babbitt, Richard Wernick. The Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, Arthur Weisberg. Elektra Nonesuch 9 79222-2 (1990), with its reminiscences of and references to cabaret music, jazz, and the spoofs on military music composed in the 1920s by Schoenberg, Hindemith or Weill, is one of those pieces.
On the other hand his 1969 String Quartet, as performed by the Juilliard Quartet in 1990 on CRI CD 587 (with Quartets of Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt), sounds like “furious Webern, a cliché of serialist contemporary music made of disjointed, jagged and thorny phrases”. There’s an earlier recording, by the Concord String Quartet from 1972, reissued on one of those invaluable VoxBox sets, CDX 5143, “American String Quartets, 1950-1970”, barcode 047163514326, which is much better played – but the music is NOT made more enjoyable. I haven’t yet reviewed the set, which contains a magnificent, haunting and terrifying performance of George Crumb’s string quartet “Black Angels”, among other great stuff.
I’ve also reviewed Wolpe’s Symphony from 1955, played by the Orchestra of the 20th-century under Arthur Weisberg (a recording from 1975) on CRI CD 676, a CD a cherish for its discmate, Roger Session’s superb Violin Concerto from 1935.