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
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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
Sh'mah is based on the theologically-central hymn of Judaism,
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
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
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)