AITKEN: Aspen Concerto for Violin and
Remembered for Flute and Orchestra. In Praise of Ockeghem for String
I'm always searching for music by composers new to me and looked forward to this new CD of music by American composer Hugh Aitken (b. 1924). He studied at Juilliard with Bernard Wagenaar, Vincent Persichetti and Robert Ward, graduating in 1950 after which he taught for two decades at Juilliard where he met Gerard Schwarz who was there studying trumpet. The two have had a long-time association. Their first collaboration was a quintet for trumpet and string quartet premiered by Schwarz. Now that Schwarz is a prominent figure on the conducting scene he has championed Aitken's orchestral music extensively, conducting the first violin concerto, and the premiere of Symphony in 1999 (not 1998 as indicated in CD notes). Now we have this CD conducted by Schwarz devoted exclusively to music of Aitken.
The 23-minute second violin concerto was requested by Joseph Anton Swensen who gave the premiere in 1989 at the Aspen Music Festival. Rameau Remembered, a suite of short dances and interludes based on "the delicious music of Rameau," was requested by Schwarz for the opening concert of the White Mountains Festival in August 1980 in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, apparently for performance by Julius Baker. In Praise of Ockeghem, commissioned by the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation for the renaissance band Calliope, was first performed in 1977. It quotes a few themes by Ockeghem and originally was written for varied period instruments. A later version (heard on this recording) was made for strings and premiered by Schwarz and the New York Chamber Symphony 1982.
Seldom in my many years of writing about recordings have I encountered a disk as boring as this. Aitken's writing seems devoid of melody as well as imagination, page after page of meandering note-spinning. The Rameau suite is charmless, the Ockeghem a turgid 12:39 that hardly suggests "praise." Of the violin concerto the composer states in the CD notes, "I will let the music speak for itself." For these ears, it has nothing to say.
Aitken has been highly successful in getting commissions from various foundations. As mentioned above, the Walter W. Naumberg Foundation commissioned In Praise of Ockeghem, and Rameau Remembered by David S. Dana, who also gave "substantial support toward the production of this recording, as well as to Dr. Fernando Tapia," who, apparently, is a relative of his wife.
Elmar Oliveira and Scott Goff do what can be done as soloists in this uningratiating music. Sound on this CD is not of the quality heard on Seattle Symphony recordings on the Delos label. Schwann/Opus lists two other CDs of music of Aitken, music for voice and piano, on CRI. I have no desire to listen to them. Of far greater interest are recent Naxos budget-priced CDs of music of other American composers including Henry Kimball Hadley, George Frederick McKay, Victor Herbert, Morton Gould, John Alden Carpenter, Charles Ives and George Antheil.
R.E.B. (Aug. 2001)