BAZELON:  Symphony No. One.  Early American Suite (for wind quintet and harpsichord).  Suite from Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor.
The Orchestra of Sofia; Harold Farberman, cond.
ALBANY TROY 508 (F) (DDD) TT:  61:56

Irwin Bazelon survives more as a character than as a composer. One hears the stories about Bazelon rather than the scores he wrote. Imagine Damon Runyon recreating Arnold Schoenberg as a Broadway tout. That dichotomy attaches to the music itself. Bazelon made a living as a composer of commercial scores as well as of High Art. He can charm and demand.

Symphony No. One (Bazelon's own title) definitely belongs to the demand side of things. Honest, I tried hard to dislike it. The musically faint of art might consider giving it a miss. It has two modes of expression: very intense and very intenser. It almost never relaxes. It will not stay in the background. In his liner notes, Farberman cites jazz elements in the score, but they are so sublimated and so abstract I doubt most listeners would pick up on such things unassisted. Certainly I needed Farberman. Otherwise, it's like most American composers: they write a certain way because they've grown up around and absorbed certain sounds and rhythms. Aaron Copland, outside of his specific "jazz" period, nevertheless generates rhythms and sounds that probably wouldn't have occurred to him if he hadn't come into contact with jazz. Bazelon, to me, is the same way. The symphony leads a listener along a very taut argumentative thread. Farberman provides a general overview of the symphony with CD timings for the pieces, but you might not need it. Bazelon makes himself quite clear. Rhetorically, the music is a bit bipolar - what I've sometimes called "brood and explode." The brooding parts - usually a single "melody" line punctuated by irregular stabs from other instruments - hang around like surly wasps about their nest. During the explosions, the wasps ratchet up to "angry" and attack. My one reservation about the work is that Bazelon never seems to relax, and this one-movement symphony lasts close to half an hour. It's an awfully long time to have to grit your teeth. On the other hand, if you can stand it, this is one exciting piece and -- even though full of massed brass and percussion -- so well scored that its ideas retain their very hard edge.

Originally written for a documentary on colonial times, the Early American Suite for wind quintet and harpsichord, on the other hand, burbles with neoclassic charm. But, even here, one can identify certain Bazelon stylistic fingerprints, notably solo melody punctuated by little rhythmic nudges from other players. One also finds a quirky humor. The "Overture," for example, ends with the harpsichord ticking away on one note, like a clock's innards that refuse to run down, long after the dial is smashed. "Fun and Games" tosses mainly a single musical line around like a ball. One instrument sends it off, another picks it up and relays it to the next. It reminds me a little of Prokofiev's pawky humor without resorting to Prokofiev's idiom. My favorite movement, "Winter," opens with a wonderfully meditative horn solo and leads to wind duets of various combinations. At the end, the solo horn returns. It evokes the starkness of winter by quite economical means.

Bazelon composed music for a production of The Merry Wives of Windsor at John Houseman's American Shakespeare Festival in Stanford, Connecticut, and culled this suite. I would love to have seen the production, for the suite sounds very much tied to the stage action. Again, one encounters the predilection for solo lines, here usually turned to comic, even zany purposes. But, as befits a romantic comedy, the score has romance as well as humor, and romance (surprising, considering Bazelon's prickly symphony) of a very tender sort. The humor, however, predominates the suite. "Ballet for a Postman" for me is a classic of light music - a bouncy little march. "Transformation Music" opens with a horn solo (Herne the Hunter?) which leads to arabesques in the high winds, imitating the pipes of fa‘ry. Foiling expectations, "Dance of the Fairies" comes off like a discarded sketch for Le Sacre du printemps, rather than anything fey or pixie-ish. These sprites mean business.

Farberman, who's never shied away from the hard, does superbly in the light stuff and well enough in the symphony. The Sofia plays a bit raw and not as precisely as some, but the works are there in essential outline. The sound, though several steps below spectacular, is nevertheless good enough.

S.G.S. (January 2003)