Walter Piston et al: Native Genius

The name of Walter Piston (1894-1976) isn't frequently encountered after leaving college, where his textbooks on harmony and orchestration are among the student's indispensable guides. Piston's compositions are accordingly tarred as academic, as if writing texts and teaching at a university--Piston was the bulwark of the Harvard composition faculty for three decades--were synonymous with lack of creative imagination.

Piston was not only an inspiration to his students, a glittering, heterogenous assemblage that included Elliott Carter, Irving Fine, Harold Shapero and Leonard Bernstein, but was himself an important creative force, as the current recorded examination (live performances remain rare) of his sizable output indicates.

As part of their ongoing American music recording project--still, at this writing, handsomely supported by the National Endowment for the Arts--Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony are turning their attention to Piston's eight symphonies, with Nos. 2 (1943) and 6 (1955) and the 1941 Sinfonietta making up the initial release (Delos 3074).

The Second is a terrific piece, emotionally spare, yet full of lively rhythms and some ear-sticking tunes. The brilliant orchestration and all that contrapuntal activity may be textbook stuff in certain respects, but Piston wears his erudition lightly--and he did, after all, write the book.

The Sixth is more self-consciously grand and showily orchestrated, but with a gregarious, sharp-witted scherzo/second movement to balance the rhetorical tone of the outer movements.

Both symphonies are projected with optimum clarity, affection and skill by Schwarz and his responsive Seattle musicians, while the third work on the program, the tough, dark Sinfonietta (1941) has Schwarz leading the New York Chamber Symphony.

Samuel Barber, like Piston, spent a period of time studying with Nadia Boulanger in Paris during the '20s, but, unlike the clear-eyed Piston, he became fully immersed in the spirit of European Romanticism while there.

That Romanticism comes to full flower in the 1948 "Knoxville, Summer of 1915" settings of deep-South nostalgic texts by James Agee. "Knoxville"--is there a more lushly lyrical vocal work in all of American music?--is for the first time recorded by non-native forces: British soprano Jill Gomez, in a performance of gorgeous, relaxed sensuality, with the City of London Sinfonia under Richard Hickox (Virgin Classics 90766).

The title of Leonard Bernstein's 1988 "Arias and Barcarolles" originated much earlier, in an approving comment made about Gershwin by President Eisenhower after Bernstein had played that composer's music at the White House: "I like music with a theme, not all of them arias and barcarolles." (One assumes he meant tune rather than theme.)

Bernstein's appealing composition has both tunes and a theme, that of love (which sounds thin when so blandly stated), projected largely in dialogue form, to (mainly) his own texts.

Its first recording (Koch 7000) is a smashing success. The star of the event is Judy Kaye, whose fearless characterizations and the ability to vary vocal delivery from laceratingly acidulous to comfortingly mellifluous make her perhaps the one soprano in captivity equally at home in musical comedy and on the recital stage. Her skilled, dedicated colleagues in the enterprise are baritone William Sharp and the piano duo of Michael Barrett and Steven Blier.

Koch's coupling is a collection of the wry best of the Bernstein of "On the Town," "Wonderful Town" and "Songfest," with the same performers. Not a dud in the lot, and there's a revelation: the wrenchingly lovely "Dream with Me," dropped from Bernstein's 1949 "Peter Pan" score and never before recorded. Kaye sings it with the textual sensitivity and vocal control of a lieder singer, the naturalness of a mistress of pop.

Not content with the limited exposure likely for the chamber original, Bernstein commissioned from composer Bright Sheng an orchestration of "Aria and Barcarolles" which has been recorded by the Schwarz-Seattle team (Delos 3078). The expansion succeeds only in diminishing the score.

The rueful, person-to-person quality of the original slips into theatrical posturing when Bernstein's intimacies are pitched against an ensemble of strings and percussion. Furthermore, Delos' female protagonist, Jane Bunnell, is too contained and neutral in expression to offer even token competition to Kaye.

And, while Dale Duesing, with his gleaming, cultivated baritone, is potentially more communicative than Koch's Sharp, the orchestration is against him.

Delos' program further includes Barber's "School for Scandal" Overture and a first recording of Gershwin's "An American in Paris" in an edition that restores, to minimal effect, some measures the composer deleted from the score after its premiere.

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