PERRY: Jamestown Concerto. SCHUMAN: A Song of Orpheus. THOMSON: Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra.
Yehuda Hanani (cello); RTE National Symphony Orchestra (Ireland)/William Eddins.
Naxos 8.559344 (B) (DDD) TT: 72:11

Two masterpieces and a painting of Elvis on black velvet. Three conservative modern American cello concerti -- a nice idea, imperfectly carried out. It all comes down to repertoire.

William Perry studied with Hindemith. Although a great composer, Hindemith had less luck as a teacher. He trained a boatload of composers, few of whom had anything special to say. However, all received a first-class technique, and many became professional craftsman. Mitch Leigh, for example, wrote the off-Broadway musical Man of La Mancha -- not exactly a world-beater, but competently done. Perry, in addition to his concert work, produces TV and writes movie soundtracks. His Jamestown Concerto sounds like it -- a Max Steiner score (although written decades after Steiner's death) which tells a story of the early Jamestown Colony. In all, a nicely-orchestrated bore. Professional musicians could play this music in their sleep, and it wouldn't surprise me to learn that they did.

The output of symphonist William Schuman, at one time considered in the same breath as Aaron Copland, has fallen into a lamentable state of neglect. Although highly regarded and even successful, he seldom had a "hit." Presently, I can think of only two works that achieved any sort of popularity: his Third Symphony, a favorite of Bernstein's, and his New England Triptych, based on the music of the Revolutionary War composer William Billings. Song of Orpheus, written for the prominent cellist Leonard Rose, appeared in the early Sixties. Columbia duly recorded it and released it as an LP, with Rose as soloist, on the B side of the premiere recording of the Barber Piano Concerto, with Browning and Szell. That Barber performance, one of the best, has made it to CD; Rose's Schuman never has.

Schuman based the piece on his early setting of Shakespeare's "Orpheus with his lute" (available, believe it or not, on three separate labels -- Vox, Albany, and Hyperion). He fashioned not so much a set of variations as a fantasia on the song, a kind of vocal sarabande. The work, in one movement, nevertheless falls into several large sections: the cello sings the song almost all by itself; the orchestra, led by the oboe, repeats the song with cello commentary; a cadenza for cello; a quick section; another cadenza; the cello taking the lead against mainly pizzicato accompaniment from the strings; a final section led by the english horn singing the song, with cello commentary, to a soft close. For the most part, the song flits through the score in such a way that you catch only short snatches of it. The music is less about the song than about depth of feeling. For its form, it’s a long piece, and yet the narrative is so tight that you get carried along. It confounds your usual expectations of a concerto, since the soloist is really more "first among equals" than a genuine star. Yet the part invests the music with maturity, complication, and I believe wisdom. It's a marvelous score, although it will probably never prove a popular one.

To me, Virgil Thomson stands alone among American composers between the wars. Unlike almost everyone else, he eschews a Romantic outlook in his music. He is the most French of Americans while remaining profoundly American in spirit. Best known for his Dada pieces -- Capital, Capitals and Four Saints in Three Acts, for example -- he nevertheless plows a much wider furrow than those pieces suggest.

The cello concerto of 1950 stands out among his "Americana" works, like Filling Station, The River, and Symphony on a Hymn Tune. Thomson follows neither Copland nor Harris in his version of folk-based symphonic music, again unlike almost everyone else mining that vein. Indeed, Copland credited Thomson with showing him the general direction he would take in works like Billy the Kid. Thomson began his concerto in 1945 and got the cellist Luigi Silva as technical consultant. Columbia recorded it not long after it appeared with Werner Jannsen leading Silva as soloist. The concerto sounds bone-simple, like a lot of Thomson, and yet bristles with difficulties. Double- and triple-stops are thrown in almost casually, as the soloist is expected to maintain a singing line. The concerto falls into three movements: "Rider on the Plains," "Variations on a Southern Hymn," and "Children's Games."

" Rider on the Plains" sounds less like cowboys than Oberon in the forest -- an elfin atmosphere set off by muted trumpet. It seems to flow so spontaneously and naturally, you might not notice its sonata form. Thomson writes an extremely witty, sophisticated sonata to support the naiveté of the themes. The transitions from first subjects to second and back are both surprising and seamless. The second, slow movement varies the shape-note hymn Tribulation, from William Walker's 1835 Southern Harmony. The tune, melancholy and rather spare, shows the inflections of modal Appalachian folk music. From the first variation, which harmonizes the tune in two different simultaneous keys, Thomson takes it for a wild, phantasmagorical ride, without losing its essential simplicity, and evokes the sadness and heroism of a way of life. In the rondo finale, Thomson indulges his wit and sense of fun. The rondo theme turns out to connect to American folk songs, "Jesus Loves Me," Beethoven's piano sonata op. 10, no. 2, and heaven knows what else. Each episodes surprises and delights. The cello part becomes increasingly difficult, to the point where the last few bars sound almost unplayable, and still the nature of the music remains frisky and light-hearted.

The performers do well without doing spectacularly well. We've long needed a modern recording of the Thomson, and this one improves over the old Silva recording in every way: interpretation, playing, and sound. I'm grateful that A Song of Orpheus has been restored to the catalogue as well. Incidentally, as prelude to the Schuman, the actress Jane Alexander reads Shakespeare's poem (for reasons I can't fathom), which takes less than a minute and earns her an album credit. It's not a bad reading, and it's short enough that it shouldn't annoy anyone.

S.G.S. (October 2008)