MORAVEC: Tempest Fantasy (2002)*. Mood Swings (1999). B.A.S.S. Variations (1999). Scherzo (2002).
Trio Solisti, David Krakauer (clarinet)*
Naxos 8.559323 (B) (DDD) TT: 60:40

Damned nice, but a little less nice and a little more damned, please. The Tempest Fantasy, inspired by Shakespeare's play, won for Paul Moravec the 2004 Pulitzer Prize. As far as I'm concerned, it deserved to win, even without me knowing the other nominees that year. In other words, it ain't dreck.

On the other hand, "Pulitzer-Prize-winning composer" conjures up a certain level of achievement in my mind. Is Moravec really as good as Barber, Ives, Copland, Carter, Sessions, Adams, Thomson, Menotti, Gould, Piston, and so on, let alone composers like Gershwin, Ellington, Lees, or Rosner who never won the Pulitzer (at least, not in their lifetime)? As Ives himself once said (and I believe it was of the Pulitzer), "Prizes are for boys," and the prize honors its givers at least as much as its recipients. I've heard Moravec before. He strikes me as a very fine craftsman, with a touch of the poet, but ultimately he writes a "faceless" music. I can think of a lot of composers who could have written Moravec's music. Nothing singles it out. Furthermore, when I hear a piece, I ideally want it to ravish me, to sing so beautifully that it moves me to awe or tears, to dance so joyfully or powerfully that it takes a week to wipe the grin off my face. I suspect I'm like many other listeners in that way.

The Tempest Fantasy, for piano trio and clarinet, is a very good piece. You very likely will enjoy it when you hear it. But it's not something special, something that you will make a place for in your listening life. Nevertheless, its five movements, inspired by characters and incidents in Moravec's favorite play, don't do the expected things. "Ariel," for example, moves fleetly, but not particularly lightly. We don't get gossamer fairy wings, but something a lot more substantial and with a hint of menace. "Prospero" reminds me of a stately Elizabethan pavane, noble and sad at the same time (this may be my favorite movement). Still it deflates quicker than a popped balloon when you compare it to Vaughan Williams's "The cloud-capp'd towers." "Caliban" -- with a bass clarinet often in its lowest register -- captures the self-pity and moon-calfery of the model. "Sweet Airs" tries for a moonlit mood. The piece winds up with a manically energetic "Fantasia," with a beautifully worked-out ending.

The rest of the program belongs to piano trio alone. Mood Swings, described by the composer as a portrait of "the central nervous system," grabs me not at all, and the B.A.S.S. Variations holds my interest only fitfully. The Scherzo is, according to Moravec a "compact, energetic, encore-type work," and it fills its purpose with wit. I will say, however, that many of these works pull from the same small bag of tricks, without giving us any new perspective on them. Still, Moravec is relatively young. He may yet surprise me before I die.

David Krakauer and violinist Maria Bachmann are, of course, known, welcome -- even brilliant presences. Moravec can't complain of these performances, penetrating and sensitive. The recorded acoustic comes very close to that of a real recital hall.

S.G.S. (November 2007)