WALDEN: Maquettes for 2 Pianos (2001). Sh'mah: Duo for Violin and Cello (2002). 5 Similes for Piano (1989). Trio for Horn, Violin, and Piano (2003).
Spectrum Concerts Berlin.
Naxos 8.559355 (B) (DDD) TT: 53:52

What's new? Stanley Walden claims a small, but devoted circle of performer friends. A musical jack-of-all-trades, Walden has played clarinet in both the Met Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, conducted, acted, directed, and taught, as well as composed.

Walden studied with lyrical American atonalist Ben Weber, and traces of that remain. The music tends to drama, and there's also an occasional engagement with popular sources. Most of the time, however, Walden gives us very little that's new. Much of this music could have appeared eighty years ago, and by itself there's not always anything individual about it. The same problem has faced many conservative composers in the wake of the heroic generation of interwar composers. Walden hits more than he misses, but some of what he writes could have come from a lot of people.

Maquettes consists of five studies that take on the cast of character pieces and dances. "Timbre" asks the players to strum piano strings and rap various parts of the instrument as well as play on the keyboards. I like the last two movements, "Air" and "Por Chucho," the best —the first a bluesy serenade, the second an evocation of Latin jazz.

Sh'mah is based on the theologically-central hymn of Judaism, the ”Sh'mah Yisrael" (hear, O Israel). The traditional tune itself was all by itself enough to drive me from temple. It reminded me of something you'd sing in a rathskeller while waving a stein in your hand. However, Walden transforms it into a powerful dialogue, so insistent that you wonder whom it exhorts to listen—the congregation or God himself?

Walden wrote his 5 Similes to commemorate the deaths of friends. I wish the music were more interesting, particularly since he dedicates the last to Jan DeGaetani, a singer of great warmth and intelligence. None of these miniatures has much shape.

I never read liner notes before hearing a piece at least once. I don't want the writer to influence me, and I don't want to pre-judge a work unfavorably simply because the writer annoyed me for some reason or other. A good thing, too. I found the piano trio the best music on the program, certainly the most compelling. Its four movements —"Dolente," "Passamezzo," "Salsa and Trio," and "Battaglia" — inhabit some very dark emotional territory. The first two struck me as two types of lament: the first, raw keening; the second, a more formal mourning. The "Salsa and Trio," in which I hear strains of the Cuban danzón, provides some respite, but also some dark undercurrents. "Battaglia" does not depict so much a literal battle as internal pressure. Walden doesn't especially impress me as a builder of argument, but he does construct gripping narrative, aided by an uncanny talent for discovering and exploiting new, beautiful sonorities from the trio combination. After I finished my preliminary audition, I read the notes and found that Walden wrote the trio as he thought of the September 11th massacre. The music doesn't bear that symbolic weight, but I don't hold that against it. It succeeds as pure music.

The performers include pianists Robert Levin and Yu-Fei Chuang, who do fine in the Maquettes. Levin unfortunately can't bring the Similes to life, but Chuang proves a fine partner in the Horn Trio. The string players take the difficult score of the Sh'mah and find its drama. Their impeccable double- and triple-stopping doesn't hurt.

S.G.S. (November 2008)