Charles Martin LOEFFLER (1861–1935)
La Mort de Tintageles, Op. 6 (1897) [25:48]
Carl RUGGLES (1876–1971)
Evocations (orchestral version, 1943) [10:13]
Howard HANSON (1896–1991)
Before the Dawn, Op. 17 (1920) [6:44]
Henry COWELL (1897–1965)
Variations for Orchestra (1956) [19:21]
Dauphine Dupuy (viola d’amore) (Loeffler)
Basque National Orchestra/Robert Treviño
rec. 15–19 September 2020; Miramón, Donostia-San Sebastián, Spain
ONDINE ODE1396-2 [63:06]
From the moment this Ondine CD entitled Americascapes, the latest album from Robert Treviño and the Basque National Orchestra, arrived at my doorstep a few weeks ago, it has never been far from my reach, whether at home or in my car. It is rare to find such daring and risk—in terms of the programming as well as to the collective efforts of the performers on this disc; rarer still that the results should be so satisfying. It provokes one to ask a lot of questions, some of them pointed, but first the music.
Even among those who ought to know better, there is a persistent and widespread notion that "American classical music" was a single bloc of faceless epigones of Copland's art deco neoclassical nationalism (with Ives as a kooky outlier). If ever there was a country where lazy ideas of "national schools" were less true, it surely is the United States. This compilation of four orchestral works, each composed by a different American composer as stylistically divergent as possible from the other, is an eloquent and vivid testimonial of that.
Fittingly, the CD opens with music by an immigrant, Charles Martin Loeffler, who after a youth moving from place to place in Central Europe, eventually settled in the United States. At the age of 26, Loeffler became a naturalized citizen, thereafter becoming one of the pillars of musical life in Boston. His lush La Mort de Tintagiles is as cosmopolitan as his biography would suggest. More than anything it strongly recalls the distinctively Gallic passion of Chausson and Rabaud, not surprising for an artist who claimed the region of Alsace as his homeland, despite being born in the environs of Berlin. Loeffler's tone poem is based on the eponymous puppet play by Maurice Maeterlinck, with a solo viola d'amore standing in for the title character. Listening to its lyric sweep, grand gestures, and swooning romance, it is practically ready-made for the roguish capering of Errol Flynn. It is a superbly crafted and immaculately bejeweled orchestral gem that would be a very welcome swap-out for any of the tone poem warhorses played to death by orchestras today.
Better known (by reputation, if not by actual live performances) is Carl Ruggles, whose awesome (in the literary, not colloquial sense of that word) Evocations follows. It often happens that a composer's music can be very unlike the person they are in real life. Not Ruggles’, whose heartbreakingly slim musical output is every bit the reflection of its pugnacious creator. The product of a born loner, Evocations defies stylistic dogma, inhabiting a harmonic realm beyond the binary of tonal/atonal, pouring forth like the awestruck revelation of an apocalyptic prophet.
Listeners are given a chance to cool off with Howard Hanson's Before the Dawn. Its appearance on this CD is doubly special, being the debut recording of this early work. Why this score, recipient of the first-ever Rome Prize awarded by the American Academy, has been unperformed until now is a mystery. It is a solid and attractive exemplar of the brawny, unfussy, post-Sibelian musical conservatism typical of Hanson's mature work.
But as happens often, the best is saved for last. The Variations for Orchestra by Henry Cowell is the reason you need to hear this CD. Interest in Cowell tends to focus on the modernism of his youth, with his later career usually viewed as a sorry footnote. Whether or not the circumstances of his personal life subsequently tempered his desire to live on the musical edge, the works of his later years evince no drop in quality. If anything, Cowell’s fondness for ear-tickling weirdness continues in his later works, albeit with a subtlety of touch that makes them all the more startling. The Variations begin with a somber and emphatic unison statement of the work’s modal theme, with Cowell quickly getting to work by shattering it into mosaic pieces that he shuffles along to winds, celesta, followed by strings. The mood is uneasy yet somehow good-natured, conjuring a bit of musical campiness that would not be out of place accompanying the doings of Herman Munster. One of the most remarkable variations begins with pounding bass notes on the piano, timpani glissandi, and a descending figure on vibraphone, as if proclaiming the ominous arrival of a tribal shaman. Instrument after instrument piles on, the music gathering ever more momentum. Then Cowell breaks out the bongos that anchor a wild din of sound presided by xylophone and piano, sounding like a mephistophelian jam session between Arthur Lyman and Colin McPhee in the tiki lounge of Hell. Cowell’s ingenuity for developing variations and timbral color, made all the more delightful for its rarity on records, and its flawless execution by the Basque National Orchestra compel this disc's purchase.
This brings me to those “questions” mentioned earlier. For starters, why are any of these composers not regularly programmed, much less recorded by any major American symphony orchestra today? Why has one of this country’s best emerging podium talents not been appointed to lead any of its leading orchestras? Why do American orchestras constantly pander to imagined notions of “vibrancy” and “diversity,” which naturally flatters their own conceits, but do almost nothing to address these matters in any meaningful way? When vibrancy and diversity are a very part of the cultural patrimony of America, why do these orchestras continue to ignore them?
While I hold my breath and turn blue awaiting a reply, I will continue to enjoy this superb CD. Robert Treviño and the Basque National Orchestra deserve the highest praise for the verve and polish of their playing, replete with enviable transparency and nuance. Tim Page’s liner notes are as reliably glib as ever, but the reflection by Treviño which follows them is worth reading.
Simply one of the best and most unique classical CDs of 2021.
Previous review: Jim Westhead