Much ink has been spilled over the return of tonality, triumphant over the dry and forbidding orthodoxies of the modernist party line that once intimidated American music from on high. The beneficiaries of this popular revolt have included tonal composers of our own time, of course, but also those of earlier generations, many of whom created fine works that fit in no particular stylistic camp. The revival of these older independents is unsurprising, since they include some of the great musical talents of our century and are, to be frank, a more inspiring lot than most of our “new tonalists“ of today. The earlier masters had a profound, if partially hidden, effect on the course of our musical life. There was a considerable amount ofRead more intellectual exchange and mutual regard between certain strict modernists and some of these sole practitioners, with figures like Roger Sessions serving as bridges or intermediaries. Ernest Bloch and Quincy Porter, the two composers on this excellent new disc, are exemplars of the rich tradition of twentieth-century tonality. Both were respected teachers (Porter actually studied with Bloch, as well as with dTndy), and both earned the esteem of their colleagues, despite (or because of) their refusal to take sides.
Of the two, Bloch maintained much the higher profile, and continues to today. This is due in part to the excellence of his chamber music and a fine violin concerto, but more to his authorship of moving works on Jewish themes, several of which have become standard repertoire pieces. Bloch's non-Hebraic compositions tend to alternate between neo-classical and post-Romantic lush-ness, sometimes combining such elements in winning and unusual ways. The two Concerti Grossi on this disc lean strongly toward the neo-classical end of the scale, as one might expect. But this is not the astringent style of middle-period Stravinsky, and it is moderated in any case with a dollop or two of schmaltz. Neither, for that matter, is the schmaltz that of fin-de-siècle Vienna: there is nothing Slavic or Eastern European about the more emotional passages penned by Bloch, who, after all, was Swiss. Parts of these works sound typically American, an American style, using plaintive open chords, that came into its own in the 1930s and 1940s. Its roots are tangled and seem to lead everywhere.
There is a remarkable stylistic similarity between the two Concerti Grossi of Bloch, one written in 1924—25, the other in 1952. In fact the later piece, written during his highly productive last period following retirement from teaching, is even more conservative than the earlier one. Neither takes its Baroque form too literally, although in the 1952 piece there are passages of real solo-ensemble exchange in the first movement. In Concerto Grosso No. 1 the string group is joined by a piano, which alternates between solo and accompanimental (sometimes literally basso continuo) functions. Both pieces contain ingenious fugues, the one in the first movement of Concerto Grosso No. 2 paling only by comparison with the extraordinary closing movement of the earlier piece. Both also contain lush Romanticism, in the second movement (Dirge) from the Concerto Grosso No. 1 (something akin to movie music here), and in the last movement of Concerto Grosso No. 2. There are moments reminiscent of Vaughan Williams in the Pastorale section of the third movement of Concerto Grosso No. 1, and in the string sonorities of the first movement of Concerto Grosso No. 2. Both are notably well crafted and reward repeated listening. Bloch wrote music that really works.
Not surprisingly, these pieces have found favor with musicians and audiences alike and have often been recorded. The oldest available version, with Howard Hanson conducting the Eastman-Rochester Symphony, long ago set a high standard by which all others must be measured: it is muscular and direct, with great rhythmic incisiveness. Among the other older recordings, David Epstein and the Czech Radio Orchestra on Everest (Concerto Grosso No. 1 only) was pretty drab. Two out-of-print versions from the 1970s, by Rafael Kubelik and Neville Marriner, were considerably better. There are currently good recordings of both works on separate discs, with Yoav Talmi and the Israel Chamber Orchestra offering Concerto Grosso No. 1, and David Amos and the London Symphony Orchestra in the later piece. Of these, I prefer the former, with its truly Romantic reading of the 1925 score featuring a terrific version of the closing fugue. But on the new disc Donald Barra and the San Diego Chamber Orchestra give the best performances of the two works that have come along since Hanson's, and in some ways I like the new ones even more. Barra and his musicians really bring out the salient details in these pieces. In the Pastorale section of Concerto Grosso No. 1, the cinematic “misterioso“ passages have a faded aura of 1920s hootchy-kootchy about them, while the Rustic Dances that follow are brisk and vigorous. Pianist Susan DeWitt Smith is heard to good advantage in the same piece, the recording favoring the piano more than on some other discs. So while I still wouldn't want to be without the Hanson version, this new one takes pride of place on my shelf next to that great touchstone.
But actually the Bloch pieces aren't even the best reason to recommend this disc. That honor must go instead to the work sandwiched rather inconspicuously between them, Quincy Porter's Ukrainian Suite (1925). Porter (1897-1966) led an illustrious but quiet career as a composer, teacher, and violist. His name tends to get lost today when one speaks of the great generation of Americans born around 1900. So many of the others were more flamboyant and better at self-publicizing, and Porter seems to have had an air of knowing what he wanted and being able to take care of himself. He won many honors, including the Pulitzer Prize, but was never famous like Copland or Thomson. Porter was stylistically conservative without being dogmatic, and excelled at instrumental music. He held a deep reverence for musical tradition, caring enough about Orlando di Lasso to write a book about him, and he greatly admired Haydn. Like Bloch, he was a practical composer, more interested in solving formal problems than in striking ideological poses.
Porter's Ukrainian Suite dates from the beginning of his career and it's a wonderful piece, remarkably assured for such a young man. There is surprisingly little Ukrainian color in most of its six short movements, especially the slow ones. Instead, one again hears the pastoral strains reminiscent of Vaughan Williams's old England, as well as related open and mysterious chords that we associate with the mid-twentieth-century American tonalists. The influence of Porter's teacher Bloch seems pretty unmistakable here. Judging from this piece I would say that we are missing out on a very fine composer if Porter is allowed to slip through the cracks. The depth of feeling and mastery of technique in this composition are immediately apparent, and its charms do not fade.
I hate to quibble with the producers of this admirable disc but theirs is not the premiere recording of the Porter. The 1982 Crystal LP by David Amos and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra is simply out of print. Their Ukrainian Suite was pretty satisfying, but Barra and the San Diego give it a deeper, richer interpretation. Solo and ensemble playing are excellent throughout, and in the Porter the great sweeping string passages sometimes resemble an organ in their wonderful unanimity of ensemble. Cellos and basses are prominent, perhaps overly so. But they make a great effect in these dramatic climaxes, and a slight bottom-heaviness is a small price to pay for an interpretation of such eloquence. So I can recommend this disc and recommend it highly, for the excellence of all three compositions and performances, and I feel lucky to find out how good Quincy Porter is. This is one of those rare discs I will return to from time to time simply for the pleasure of it.
-- Elliott S. Hurwitt, FANFARE [11/1994] Read less
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