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Alan Shulman: Works For Cello / Baldwin, Class, Reis, Hot Springs Music Festival Orchestra

Shulman / Baldwin / Hot Spring Festival / Reis
Release Date: 05/11/2010 
Label:  Albany Records   Catalog #: 1187   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Alan Shulman
Performer:  Wesley BaldwinKevin Class
Conductor:  Jean Reis
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Hot Springs Music Festival Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

SHULMAN Suite for Solo Cello. Homage to Erik Satie 1. Suite for the Young Cellist 1. Lament. Serenade 1. Lament II 1. Kol Nidre 1. Cello Concerto 2 Wesley Baldwin (vc); 1 Kevin Class (pn); Read more 2 Jean Reis, cond; 2 Hot Springs Fest O ALBANY TROY 1187 (63:54) Live: 2 Hot Springs Music Festival 6/10/2009

As regular readers know, I’m not a big fan of the hardcore in modern music. But not wanting to hold the execution before the trial, I felt I owed it to Alan Shulman (1915–2002), a composer with whom I was totally unfamiliar, to arm myself with the facts and to acquaint myself with his music. Thanks to the booklet notes by the album’s cellist, Wesley Baldwin, and Shulman’s son, Jay, as well as to Google, I learned that Alan Shulman was a Baltimore-born virtuoso cellist and composer who wrote a considerable volume of music in a variety of media, forms, and styles. His 1948 Cello Concerto, heard on this disc, was regarded as important enough a work to be premiered by Leonard Rose and the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Dmitri Mitropoulos, and Heifetz and jazz clarinetist Artie Shaw are among the eminent musicians who have performed and recorded Shulman’s works. In 1932 he entered Juilliard, where he studied under cellist Felix Salmond and composers Albert Stoessel and Bernard Wagenaar. Upon graduating in 1937, he pursued further cello training with Emanuel Feuermann and further composition studies with Paul Hindemith. Best known among his concert works is the Theme and Variations for Viola and Orchestra, premiered in 1941 by Emanuel Vardi and the NBC Symphony Orchestra.

The works on this disc were written over a period of 45 years, from 1938 ( Homage to Erik Satie ) to 1983 ( Lament II ). There is not, however, as one might expect, a linear progression in terms of the difficulties presented to the listener. In fact, the last-composed Lament II is by far more accessible than is the 1951 Suite for Solo Cello. I’d even go so far as to say that with the exception of the suite, all of the pieces here are of a quite romantic cast. If you failed to listen beyond the suite, which opens the disc, not only would you come away with a serious misperception of Alan Shulman’s work but you would be missing out on some very beautiful music.

So let me start there and work my way back to the suite. The Homage to Satie , at under two minutes’ duration, was written to conform to radio broadcasts of the day, which meant it had to fit on one side of a 10- or 12-inch 78-rpm record. The piece is a virtual dead ringer for the style of the eccentric Frenchman—a slow, wistful waltz with an oh-so-sad and slightly soured melody carried by the cello in its high register over a chordal counterpoint in the piano.

Lament II lasts just under five minutes and was written as an in memoriam to Shulman’s wife, who had died the year before. The program note describes it best as dark, bleak, and pessimistic, yet hauntingly beautiful. The style is similar to, but more complex and more elaborately developed than, the “Satie” piece.

The Serenade , dating from 1941, is not a serenade in the formal sense. It’s a single-movement, stand-alone piece of approximately the same duration as Lament II . The opening strains reminded me of Fauré with its rippling piano accompaniment and sudden, unexpected twist in the harmony just 10 seconds in. But soon enough the music morphs into a kind of soft-shoe, moderate tempo foxtrot reminiscent of the popular ballroom style of the 1940s.

Listen carefully to the lengthy solo piano introduction to Shulman’s 1970 Kol Nidre and you will hear the fragmented, subliminally suggested outlines of the traditional Hebrew melody. When the cello finally makes its entrance, it’s with the familiar tune undisguised, but in a harmonic setting provided by the piano that would probably have made Bruch’s moustache twitch. Shulman’s setting actually underscores the austerity of the prayer in a way that Bruch’s doesn’t, tinting the music with a Bloch-like gloss of desert nomads wandering the dunes in ancient times. But then Bloch and Shulman were Jewish and witnesses, from a geographical distance, to the Holocaust. Bruch wasn’t Jewish and didn’t live to see that dark period. He didn’t know the deep cry of pain and anguish that comes from the heart. Also scored for cello and orchestra, as is the Bruch, Shulman’s Kol Nidre , unlike the Bruch, was in fact commissioned for use during High Holiday services by New York’s Metropolitan Synagogue.

The Bloch influence is even stronger in Shulman’s 1948 Cello Concerto, dedicated to the people of Israel at the time of Israel’s founding as a modern state. As the program note tells us, “the concerto is infused with Jewish musical tradition, drawing on the musical heritage of Bloch’s Schelomo .” Undoubtedly, the Cello Concerto, a gorgeous work, is Shulman’s magnum opus.

The Suite for the Young Cellist was written for Shulman’s son, Jay. Its purpose was didactic, but then so were Bach’s trio sonatas for organ and many other pieces he wrote for his immediate family and students. Such works may still possess much musical value and provide much listening pleasure. Shulman’s three-movement suite—“Raindrops,” “Latin Serenade,” and “Country Dance”—is a sheer delight.

Finally I come to the Suite for Solo Cello, saving for last what I personally find to be the least of the best. As mentioned earlier, this three-movement work is programmed at the beginning of the disc, and had I listened no further, you would not be reading this review because I would have declined to write it. Formally speaking, the piece is rather more a sonata than it is a suite, but form in this instance would seem to matter less than content. I’m sure this is difficult music to play—and brilliantly played it is by cellist Wesley Baldwin, of whom I’ll have more to say in a moment—but it’s also difficult music to listen to. It’s hard for me to imagine that the composer who wrote this is the same composer who wrote the rest of the truly beautiful and appealing pieces on the disc. This solo cello suite is abrasive, dissonant, rhythmically irregular and at times frenzied, and atonal in any sort of melodic context throughout, just the kind of thing I love to hate.

This review would not be complete without comment on its primary artist, Wesley Baldwin. As a member and principal cellist of the New World Symphony, Baldwin has performed with many of the world’s great conductors, and has toured Japan, Scotland, England, Argentina, and Brazil. His orchestral colleagues voted him recipient of the New World Symphony’s Community Board Award for artistic integrity and leadership. Baldwin performs throughout the United States and Europe as cello soloist and chamber musician, and currently serves as associate professor of cello at the University of Tennessee. He also occupies the cello chair in the James Piano Quartet, the resident ensemble at Sweet Briar College, with which he concertizes regularly throughout the Northeast.

If I had to sum up Baldwin’s playing in a single word, it would have to be phenomenal. His technique seemingly knows no bounds, for much of this music is very difficult, and a good deal of it lies very high in the cello’s register. Yet there is no sense of stress or strain as Baldwin’s tone pours forth from his instrument like liquid gold. It’s as challenging to make the cello sound beautiful high up on its A string as it is to make the violin sound beautiful high up on its G string. But Baldwin manages to draw the purest and sweetest sounds with his bow, and hits every note with pitch-perfect intonation. Much as I don’t care for the solo cello suite, I admire Baldwin’s tenacity in tackling it, and for being able to make as much of it as he does. As for the more approachable fare on the disc, I express my gratitude to Baldwin for devoting his exceptional talent to a composer whose music I would almost certainly never have come to know if not for his effort.

Not to be slighted are pianist Kevin Class, who makes an inestimable contribution to this program with exceptionally refined and sensitive playing, and Jean Reis, who leads the Hot Springs Festival Orchestra in a superb performance of the concerto. Urgently recommended.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Suite for Solo Cello by Alan Shulman
Performer:  Wesley Baldwin (Cello)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
Homage to Erik Satie by Alan Shulman
Performer:  Wesley Baldwin (Cello), Kevin Class (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
Suite for the Young Cellist by Alan Shulman
Performer:  Wesley Baldwin (Cello), Kevin Class (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
Lament by Alan Shulman
Performer:  Wesley Baldwin (Cello), Kevin Class (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
Serenade by Alan Shulman
Performer:  Wesley Baldwin (Cello), Kevin Class (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
Lament II by Alan Shulman
Performer:  Wesley Baldwin (Cello), Kevin Class (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
Kol Nidre by Alan Shulman
Performer:  Wesley Baldwin (Cello), Kevin Class (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
Concerto for Cello by Alan Shulman
Performer:  Wesley Baldwin (Cello)
Conductor:  Jean Reis
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Hot Springs Music Festival Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 

Sound Samples

Cello Suite: I. Allegro con spirito
Cello Suite: II. Lento ma non troppo
Cello Suite: III. Allegretto giocoso
Homage to Erik Satie
Suite for the Young Cellist: I. Raindrops
Suite for the Young Cellist: II. Latin Serenade
Suite for the Young Cellist: III. Country Dance
Lament I
Lament II
Kol Nidre
Cello Concerto: I. Con affetto
Cello Concerto: II. Vivace
Cello Concerto: III. Moderato

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