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Sisler: Milestones, Shakespeare Sonnets

Sisler / Kharchenko / Nat'l So Of Ukraine
Release Date: 08/14/2012 
Label:  Msr   Catalog #: 1414   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Hampson Sisler
Conductor:  Arkady Leytush
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bulgarian National Radio Symphony OrchestraUkraine National Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 2 
Length: 1 Hours 40 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

SISLER Milestones 1 (orch. Leytush) . Five Shakespeare Sonnets 2 (orch. Leytush) Arkady Leytush, cond; 2 Ian Greenlaw (bar); 2 Michelle Trovato (sop); 1 National SO of Ukraine; 1 Bulgarian National Radio SO; Read more class="SUPER12">2 Crimean St PSO; 1 Irina Kharchenko (org); 1 Velin Iliev (org) MSR 1414 (2 CDs: 100:11 Text and Translation)

Hampson Sisler received his early musical training from his mother, and by age five was already composing music and playing piano and reed organ. As his training was fostered at the hands of others, he chose organ as his primary instrument, and with more than 100 published works, it would seem that this instrument has also been the focus of his compositional activities. Even though the present disc features two major orchestral works by Sisler, both were actually orchestrated—and skillfully so—by Arkady Leytush, the conductor of the forces herein recorded.

Milestones is a major 14-movement work, taking up about three quarters of the duration of these two CDs, and equivalent in length to Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony. It is cast in three books, and each book is devoted to a period of life. Consequently, the first book covers the subjects of birth, coming of age, nuptials, and baccalaureate, while the second contains sections titled “New Horizon,” “Stepping Up,” “Accolades,” “Progeny,” and “Trophy,” all oriented towards career and family. Book III looks at the latter part of life with movements “Anniversary,” “Reunion,” “Bowing Out,” “Golden Age,” and “Promenade for Departed Life.” Each of the movements incorporates music by other composers. Fairly obvious is the inclusion of lullabies by Brahms, Arthur Sullivan, and Goddard, but much less so in the movement called “Stepping Up,” which quotes Mendelssohn’s Confidence (a work, incidentally, unknown to me, despite my having had—so I thought—virtually every note of this composer in my erstwhile collection). Other composers whose music is quoted include Grieg, Schumann, Handel, Verdi, Haydn, Saint-Saëns, as well as that of a number of lesser-knowns. Sisler’s instrument, the organ, is given a prominent part throughout the proceedings, too.

Lest the reader think on the basis of my comments to this point that this work is merely a pastiche cobbled together from various composers’ music, I hasten to state that Sisler’s magnum opus is anything but. The quoted pieces are usually handled adroitly, and skillfully interwoven into the fabric of his own music. There are a few cases where the quotations are done in a fairly trite and obvious manner, but these are in the distinct minority. Where I believe the work is less successful is in its integration as a whole. I don’t sense a lot of development from one movement to the next for a work that seems to be conceived to be listened to in its entirety. It has many interesting and even glorious moments, but at times, it just seems to go on and on. It’s not because any of the music is poorly written, but there is no manifest structure in the piece to hang one’s hat on. Consequently, this work as a whole doesn’t demand my coming back to it repeatedly. Given that the program notes address this work only in brief descriptions of its individual movements, there is no guidance from the composer or annotator as to what his driving force in creating this lengthy piece of music was, so the listener can only go on the basis of what meets the ear in the hearing.

The caveats I express concerning Milestones I do not make in regard to the 15-minute Five Shakespeare Sonnets, a song cycle that sets five of the master’s unnamed 154 extant works in the medium. Sisler has given these titles (“Time’s Legacy,” “Should Beauty Die,” “Winter,” “Truant Muse,” and “Be Thou Joined in One”). I did listen to this work a second time, not only for the beautiful music and orchestrations, but for the superb singing by baritone Ian Greenlaw and soprano Michelle Trovato. Each of the singers evinces rich and warm tone, and supple phrasing of these essentially lyrical texts. The first and third of the settings utilize the baritone, the second and fourth the soprano, and the two combine in a duet for the last sonnet. This cycle does cohere convincingly, and I am hopeful that it will be heard in other contexts.

If this CD set is being sold for the price of a single disc, I can recommend it quite heartily, for the listener can simply program his player to play the highlights of Milestones (more than half of the work is well worth hearing) and the entire sonnet cycle. If MSR is charging for two discs, then my recommendation would be muted. There is a lot of finely wrought music in this set, but whether there’s enough to warrant a higher price is a matter upon which the reader can ruminate.

FANFARE: David DeBoor Canfield
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Works on This Recording

Milestones by Hampson Sisler
Conductor:  Arkady Leytush
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bulgarian National Radio Symphony Orchestra
Shakespeare Sonnets (5) by Hampson Sisler
Conductor:  Arkady Leytush
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ukraine National Symphony Orchestra

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