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George PERLE (1915-2009)
Orchestral Music (1965-1987)
Dance Fantasy (1986) [12:12]
Six Bagatelles (1965) [6:41]
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1966) [18:10]
Sinfonietta I (1987) [15:35]
A Short Symphony (1980) [17:09]
Jay Campbell (cello), Seattle Symphony / Ludovic Morlot
rec. 2016/17, Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, USA
BRIDGE 9499 [69:47]

The American composer, George Perle (1915 - 2009) also occupies an important position in contemporary musicology, thanks chiefly to his own adaptation of Serialism; Perle was an early admirer of the Second Viennese School. In compositions employing or based on his ‘twelve-tone tonality’ system, a hierarchy of notes in the chromatic scale is created such that they relate to one or two pitches, which then function as a tonic or chord does in diatonic harmony.

Here is Volume Four in a cycle of Perle’s music from the ever-enterprising label Bridge, covering the composer’s orchestral music over the two decades from 1965. Five quite disparate pieces are included. Each is played with obvious enthusiasm and equally evident technical ability by the Seattle Symphony under their French conductor, Ludovic Morlot, who was born in 1973… listen, for instance, to the way in which he gives the fifth of the Six Bagatelles (composed in 1965) ample time to breathe; to find and make its own way as it develops. Although it’s marked ♩= 56, it takes courage to let it relax (luxuriate almost) for as long as Morlot does; particularly when the final bagatelle is marked ♩= 252 and lasts but 24 seconds. This approach is indicative of a respect for and appreciation of Perle’s aesthetic. The music must be seen neither as derivative (there are passages in the Dance Fantasy from 1986 which are distinctly redolent of Berg), nor spuriously novel. And indeed, listeners need to be aware of that integrity with which the music is played - particularly those who know Perle primarily as a theorist.

The Cello Concerto (1966), in which Jay Campbell joins the Orchestra, is the longest work here. It has lyricism and languorousness as well as punch and stridency, to which contrasts the soloist adapts admirably. Campbell’s playing is authoritative without being in any way (over) insistent. He too works to illuminate Perle’s writing, not to impose virtuosity on it.

Perle’s Sinfonietta (1987) (the first of two he wrote) is in some ways perhaps the most ‘conventional’ of the works to be found on the CD. It is both ‘urgent’, breathless, full of momentum, anxiety almost; yet cleanly classical… neo-classical. This is not a balance which is always easy to achieve. Yet Morlot does so – very well. Again, by not letting undue attention to style or the presence or absence of novelty trip him up or deflect him and his instrumentalists, we hear every phrase projected with clarity and incisiveness.

This insistence on transparency is one more example of the approach to performance taken here: it pays maximum attention to orchestral colour and the instruments’ textures in ensemble. This was important to Perle. Such unassuming yet trenchantly close attention is given not only to individual instruments’ timbres, the way they relate within their families (listen to the interplay in the woodwinds towards the end of the andante, for example), but also across the whole orchestra. In the end, though, Morlot and the Seattle Symphony decidedly present one with the music, and not its notes or textures. This is important for a world in which many people may well arrive who are more aware of Perle’s credentials as a theorist than as a composer. If you need convincing, though, listen to the way in which the Orchestra maintains purposeful tension to the end in the same work’s vivace: but neither for its own sake, nor as an exercise. We are waiting for something almost tangible.

A Short Symphony (1980) is perhaps this collection’s most Bergian work. Yet you won’t hear that in structure or harmony, although there are moments which remind you of the tempered bleakness of the earlier composer, whom Perle so much admired. Indeed Perle had worked closely on the Lyric Suite at this point in his career. Rather, there are gestures, brief as well as extended, which clearly originate in Berg’s world. But the Short Symphony is its own piece. You are struck by hesitancy, tentativeness, a certain quizzicality even (about half way through the second movement, for instance) which are Perle’s own. Again, for Morlot and the Orchestra to bring out what is distinctive to Perle yet reflect his homage is a triumph.

The acoustic - that of the Seattle Symphony’s home in the Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium, Benaroya Hall in Seattle, Washington, is pleasantly responsive, with no sense of undue reverberation. Nevertheless, there is a subtle resonance which gives the music a more relaxed space in which to be savoured. The actual recording and production are excellent: aural clarity adds approachability to music which is unlikely to be familiar to most listeners (every piece is recorded here for the first time) without compromising it.

The apposite written notes that come with the CD offer useful context, especially for those new to Perle. Their writer, Christopher Hailey, is particularly good at picking out and exploring commonalities and cross-references throughout the five pieces, both thematically and in the music’s underlying purposes. If Perle is new to you, or you are just curious, this CD is an excellent place to start. If you already know of the contribution which Perle made to contemporary music, you will not want to miss this set of uniformly excellent performances.

Mark Sealey

Previous review: Gary Higginson




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