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Quintet for Flute & String Quartet (1942)
String Sextet (1964)
Piano Quartet (1964)
Piano Quintet (1949)
James Boswell, Michele Walsh, Dimity Hall, Anthony Gault (violins); Theodore Kuchar, Randolph Kelly (violas); Judith Glyde, Carol Ou (cellos); Michael Gurt, Ian Monro (pianos); and Olga Shylayeva (flute)
Recorded at Sir George Kneipp Auditorium, Townsville, Queensland, in July 1999
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Though his music is not particularly well-known on this side of the Atlantic, Walter Piston (1895-1976) is one of the most highly regarded American composers of the twentieth century; he was also a distinguished teacher, his studies on such matters as orchestration and counterpoint becoming standard works of reference. It appears that he was an unusually methodical composer who rarely found it necessary to revise anything he had written.

The pieces on this disc - presenting a substantial overview of his chamber music - were featured at the ninth Annual Townsville Festival of Chamber Music in Australia, at which time they were recorded. From them Piston emerges as a composer with a very strong identity. His language is sometimes pushed to the very edges of tonality, but overall stays within the bounds of conventional key-signatures yet without ever lapsing into blandness. Another striking feature of his music is that it has the sort of contrapuntal logic and inevitability we associate with that of J S Bach; and he was clearly a master of the intimate instrumental dialogues which characterise the greatest chamber music.

The Flute Quintet is a particularly attractive work. The first movement fully lives up to its grazioso marking and the quicksilver third movement vivace e leggiero which features a wide-ranging flute solo accompanied by pizzicato strings is pure magic. The energetic finale is a kind of moto perpetuo (a device Piston clearly relished - it figures in all his finales). In the long opening adagio of the String Sextet the mood is much more sombre and the harmonic language more complex: melancholy solo lines alternate with dense and sometimes anguished textures. The ensuing leggierissimo e vivace assai is a complete contrast - a joyous affair similar in character to the third movement of the Flute Quintet. In the finale Piston achieves a reconciliation of these contrasts, bringing the work to an end in an affirmative C major.

The Piano Quartet and Piano Quintet confirm Piston's mastery of form and reveal further aspects of his ability to convey a wide range of moods. The finale of the Quintet is unusual: Piston rejected the idea that an American composer should embrace a distinctive American identity, but here he unbuttoned himself in an uncharacteristically folksy and jazzy romp firmly based in G major.

All four works are splendidly performed and recorded, and the disc is strongly recommended to anyone who wishes to explore the highways and byways of American music.

Adrian Smith

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