ALBERT: Symphony No. 1 'RiverRun'. Symphony No. 2.
Russian Philharmonic Orchestra/Paul Polivnick.
Naxos 8.559257 (B) (DDD) TT: 64:24

Mahler and Bartók. The composer Stephen Albert had just broken through to recognition as one of the most promising new American composers when he died, at 51, in an auto accident. Albert signaled a new kind of American composer: not avant-garde, not exactly conservative, highly Romantic in sensibility and eclectic in means. He knew and at one time practiced all the postwar trends, from electronic music to dodecaphony to minimalism, but he did so with a difference. He used none of these techniques as polemics. Indeed, the Fate or Progress of Music didn't seem a topic that interested him. He used all of these things to serve the expression of his own musical thought. To a large extent, he stood apart from schools and trends. In this, he prefigures or stands alongside such composers as Kernis, Hersch, and Higdon.

RiverRun (1985), which won the Pulitzer, raised Albert to the notice of high-profile commissioning bodies and arts organizations. He became Composer-in-Residence in Seattle. Yo-Yo Ma premiered his cello concerto. The Philadelphia got his clarinet concerto. Juilliard hired him to teach composition, although he discovered he didn't enjoy academia and left to become a stamp dealer.

Albert's characteristic mode of musical expression is epic. It takes big breaths and proceeds in long phrases. It is full of "parody quotes" -- that is, things that you can easily trace to another composer but not note-for-note. For example, the opening of RiverRun comes right out of the opening to Beethoven's "Pathétique." The first part of the movement is one of those "awakenings" such as you find in Mahler's First and which go back at least to the opening of Beethoven's Ninth. RiverRun makes use of minimalist ostinatos, though it's not minimalist in overall effect. Instead, Albert likes to take small musical bits and push them around in different combinations, all the while building up tension and musical texture. However, one feels the importance of forward motion and inexorability to the composer. He's not going to sit on a chord or a texture just to see how long he can do it.

RiverRun, of course, comes from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, which inspired other Albert compositions as well. I myself find parallels between Albert's symphony and Joyce's narrative methods. More importantly, I experience a similar "narrative" movement, like a river "unwinding," in both. Composers strike me as particularly sensitive to the rhythm of narration, since they deal with that almost all the time when they build a composition. Yet, the symphony doesn't really grab me, although I can certainly see why so many admire it. For me, Albert's strategy of building up layers of activity combined with his penchant for low sonorities yields something one step up from mud. I want to be able to hear the separate strata, as in Hindemith's Mathis der Maler Symphony, for example, or Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. Perhaps a different performance would yield a clearer result.

The Second Symphony differs somewhat from the first in means, and I like it better. Albert resorts to ostinatos less and concentrates on counterpoint more. At least, I believe so. Albert died before completing the score. He wrote to his publisher, G. Schirmer, that he all he had to do was orchestrate. In reality, he did what a lot of composers do: write the piece in a combination of real notes and reminders to himself. According to the man who took on the job of completion, Sebastian Currier, all -- or nearly all -- the measures were there, but the measures themselves may not have been complete. He had to make plenty of decisions, the most important of them about the nature of the ending, which runs counter to Albert's normal practice of fading away. The composer, notably close-lipped about his work while he was writing, happened to mention to his wife that the ending this time would be full. Suddenly, the wisps of themes at the end of the manuscript transformed from their literal sense to a solid orchestral build. The symphony runs tighter than its sibling, with an increase of power, as well as clearer, with a corresponding jump in tension.

Paul Polivnick and the Russians give a professional account. I've just heard the Cleveland Orchestra live and have tried not to let that influence me. Nevertheless, the brass tone is excessively nasal, and, as I say, the First Symphony could do with a more face-scrubbing account. Still, all hail Naxos for their enterprise. If you like Higdon or even the "Romantic" John Adams, Albert's a composer it might be worth your while to know.

S.G.S. (August 2007)