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Schiffman: Symphony No 2, Ninnerella Variata, Etc / Antal, Koltai, Gyor Philharmonic

Release Date: 06/30/2009 
Label:  North/South Recordings   Catalog #: 1050   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Harold Schiffman
Performer:  Katalin Koltai
Conductor:  Mátyás Antal
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Györ Philharmonic Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 13 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Shiffman’s Symphony No. 2, "Music for Gyór"...clothes itself in Hungarian dress...but going further afield, one can also hear Dvo?ák, Smetana, and even Brahms. In any case, this is a tuneful piece, amiably lyrical, sprightly, or soulful by turns...Definitely worth hearing.


SHIFFMAN Duo Concertante 4,5. Fantasy-Suite 3. Blood Mountain 1,2. Read more class="ARIAL12b">7 Bagatelles 6,7. Piano Sonata No. 1 8 1 Gayle Seaton (sop); 2 Jane Perry-Camp (pn); 3 Ah Ling Neu (va); 4 Aaron Boyd (vn); 5 Richard Goldsmith (cl); 6 Lisa Hansen (fl); 7 Gary Hamme (ob); 8 Max Lifchitz (pn) NORTH/SOUTH R 1053 (73:54)

SHIFFMAN Symphony No. 2, “Music for Gyór.” Ninnerella Variata. Variations on Branchwater 1. Blood Mountain Suite. Overture to a Comedy Matyas Antal, cond; 1 Katalin Koltai (gtr); Gyór PO NORTH/SOUTH R 1050 (72:43)

While Harold Shiffman loves and plays the banjo—the cover photo of the first of these two CDs catches him enthusiastically pickin’ and grinnin’ on his North Carolina mountain home’s porch—he’s not a naive, even if gifted, musical hillbilly but a sophisticated composer. A student of Roger Sessions, Shiffman at times sounds like a mid 20th-century American modern and at others like a composer steeped in folk music; often the two strains intermingle convincingly.

Blood Mountain: A Song Cycle, whose title seems to cry out for epic poetry, tells a dramatic, even cruel story—remember, not all folk songs are chirpy, cheerful ditties. This ballad in seven sections, whether atmospheric, bustling, or starkly chilling, speaks with the uncontrived honesty of the best folk music. Blood Mountain Suite , an orchestral transcription of the same material, substitutes various solo instruments—trumpet, flute, oboe, and clarinet—for the vocal part. Like Copland’s Appalachian Spring it would make a fine ballet score. I find the instrumental version “softer” than the sometimes stark, minimal (in the sense of being performed by only two musicians) vocal and piano original. Writing of his Variations on “Branchwater” for guitar and orchestra, Shiffman humorously confesses that “Rather than send musicologists and folklorists on a wild goose chase, I have decided to admit that “Branchwater” is not a folk song at all, but a tune I composed specifically for this piece. I chose the name because, as all good Southerners know, the best way to enjoy the delights of bourbon whiskey is with a little plain water commonly called, in the American South, ‘branchwater’ (or sometimes simply ‘branch’), as if it came from a creek.” The piece begins with a guitar solo that’s reminiscent of English Renaissance settings of famous tunes of the day. Eventually the prevailing “nationality” drifts southeast to Spain (think Rodrigo) and one of the most enjoyable variations is a light-hearted Latin dance (mambo?) with a prominent muted trumpet. The music is gracefully scored for a light orchestra and melodically ingratiating.

Shiffman’s tongue-in-cheek sense of humor can be heard in the brief quotation of Paganini’s famous theme (you know the one) that he injects into the second movement of the Fantasy-Suite for viola, a primarily serious work whose moods range from mournful or passionate to sarcastic and darkly energetic. The third movement, a dolorous arioso (my term for Shiffman’s Largo), sounds rather Baroque—although not without 20th-century touches—exhibiting a stylistic affinity not so pronounced in the other movements. In the Duo Concertante and the Seven Bagatelles Shiffman develops his themes at length in absorbing dialogues between the pairs of instruments: violin and clarinet in the duo, flute and oboe in the bagatelles. The bagatelles also include several solo movements. The music is direct, consonant, deeply moving, or scampering by turns, and never seems to strain after effect, unfolding in a natural, easy way that seems the inevitable outgrowth of the thematic potential. All sounds easy in the hands of the musicians, so one can assume an idiomatic felicity in the parts that enables the players to concentrate on the music’s beauty.

The piano sonata might be thought of as a distant relation to the Barber sonata. There’s a similar granitic insistence on close intervals in the first movement, intermixed with delicate, scurrying passages, along with a romantic/modernist expression that proclaims “20th century.” To continue the parallel, the first movement is followed by a scherzo, but one that is more angular in line and periodically more dynamically assertive than Barber’s. The slow third movement is primarily solemn and dramatic, in a style somewhat akin to Schoenberg’s piano writing but with more melodic appeal. Unlike the Barber slow movement, Shiffman’s includes some faster passages. The final movement is aggressive, closer in impulse or attack to Prokofiev than to Barber’s intricately constructed subject (the fourth movement of the Barber sonata is an exciting and masterfully executed fugue).

Overture to a Comedy is a witty prologue to an opera that Shiffman wasn’t able to complete. More’s the pity as the tunes are very winning, with rhythmically pert themes alternating with truly lovely, dreamlike episodes. Much like Leonard Bernstein, Shiffman has the knack of combining artistic quality with popular appeal. Shiffman’s Symphony No. 2, “Music for Gyór” is, in the composer’s words, “a paean commemorating my 10-year love affair with the city of Gyór, Hungary, and its glorious philharmonic orchestra.” Accordingly, the music clothes itself in Hungarian dress, although, in a wider sense—in other words, not limiting the inspiration to Hungarian music, but going further afield—one can also hear Dvo?ák, Smetana, and even Brahms (this last “echo” is more rhythmic and instrumental than thematic). I’m not saying that Shiffman purposely imitates any particular composer; probably any music written in a presumably Hungarian, conservative style would evoke the same associations. In any case, this is a tuneful piece, amiably lyrical, sprightly, or soulful by turns. Summing up, Shiffman is a versatile composer whose talent is apparent in whatever idiom he chooses to express his very musical personality. Definitely worth hearing.

FANFARE: Robert Schulslaper
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Works on This Recording

Ninnerella Variata by Harold Schiffman
Conductor:  Mátyás Antal
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Györ Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1956 
Variations for Guitar and Orchestra on "Branchwater" by Harold Schiffman
Performer:  Katalin Koltai (Guitar)
Conductor:  Mátyás Antal
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Györ Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1987 
Overture to a Comedy by Harold Schiffman
Conductor:  Mátyás Antal
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Györ Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1983 
Symphony no 2 "Music for Gyor" by Harold Schiffman
Conductor:  Mátyás Antal
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Györ Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 21st Century 
Written: 2008; USA 
Blood Mountain by Harold Schiffman
Conductor:  Mátyás Antal
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Györ Philharmonic Orchestra
Notes: Suite for orchestra based on the composer's song cycle. 

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