THOMSON: Synthetic Waltzes. Four Songs to Poems of Thomas Campion. Sonata for Violin and Piano. Two by Marianne Moore. Praises and Prayers.
Ellen Lang, mezzo-soprano; Mia Wu, violin; Cheryl Seltzer, Joel Sachs, pianos, David Krakauer, clarinet; Rachel Evans, viola;Alyssa Reit, harp; Continum/Cheryl Seltzer and Joel Sachs, directors
NAXOS 8.559198 (B) (DDD) TT: 50:53

ROCHBERG: Symphony No. 2. Imago Mundi.
Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orch/Christopher Lyndon-Gee, cond.
NAXOS 8.559182 (B) (DDD) TT: 55:34

BERNSTEIN: Symphony No. 3 "Kaddish." Chichester Psalms.
Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Choir; Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral Choir; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra/Gerard Schwarz, cond.
NAXOS 8.559456 (B) (DDD) TT: 55:47

The eldest of three Americans on these latest Naxos discs was Virgil Thomson (1896-1989), but also the longest-lived. Although his composing tapered off in the last two decades, not so his prose. One of the last VT books was a definitive primer on writing for the voice and setting English texts to music, which include several of the most beautiful art songs in our language. If the best was his cycle of Five Blake Songs for baritone and orchestra (later, puzzlingly, reduced to Four), close behind were Four Songs on Poems of Thomas Campion, composed in 1951 while Thomson was still chief critic of the New York Herald Tribune (d.1964). The latter are very movingly sung by Ellen Lang in this collection of Thomsoniana that Continuum recorded in 1988-89 for the Musical Heritage Society. Thomson’s response to the poetry of Shakespeare’s contemporary is almost reincarnational. At 18:35 the longest work on this disc, five Praises and Prayers that Betty Allen commissioned in 1963 are suited to a deeper voice than Ms. Lang’s putative mezzo, but their neo-romantic style, influenced by the church music of Thomson’s Kansas City youth, reflects both feeling and fastidiousness. The Two by Marianne Moore, also composed in 1963, show Thomson’s wit as well as his mastery, although bagatelles compared to the best on this disc. The other two works are instrumental: Synthetic Waltzes for two pianos, dating from 1925 and even more fun than Samuel Barber’s Souvenirs some 30 years later, while the 1930 Sonata for Violin and Piano is a virtual 13-minute cantilena that very subtly conceals its structural seams. Mia Wu and Cheryl Seltzer are the artists, and like their Continuum colleagues altogether expert. The recorded sound belies two different venues (Tennessee and New York City), yet sounds as fresh as yesterday. Texts for the songs are included, happy to report.

Texts are also included in the Bernstein pairing, sponsored by the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music, along with learned essays on both works, especially on the evolution of kaddish and its place in rabbinical liturgy. While the word in Aramaic means “sanctification,” it changed – probably in the 13th Century – from “a specific role in the liturgical order” to a memorial recitation for parents and siblings. But in the 18th Century it also became adversarial, a questioning of God’s willingness to allow the sufferings visited historically upon Jewry. This is the form it takes in Bernstein’s third of three symphonies (each with a “subject” rather than pure music per se). It was completed in 1963, just after the assassination of JKF in Dallas, and dedicated to the slain president’s memory. Over the years Bernstein shortened the work from its original 43+ minutes, adding to and subtracting from the spoken text, until the final revision in 1977 lasts just under 38 minutes, which he recorded, and which Gerard Schwarz uses in his pairing. Bernstein himself recorded both the Kaddish Symphony and 1965 Chichester Psalms twice. Last year Chandos issued versions of them by Leonard Slatkin and the BBC Orchestra and Chorus, to which Slatkin added the Missa Brevis. Bernstein’s original CBS/Sony recording, featuring the New York Philharmonic and Camerata Singers, assigned the text (in English, Hebrew and Aramaic) to his wife, Felicia Montealegre, and a second movement lullaby to Jennie Tourel. Fourteen years later he remade Kaddish in Berlin for DGG with the Israel Philharmonic and two Viennese Boys’ Choirs, with Michael Wager as speaker and Monserrat Caballé as soloist in the slow movement. Slatkin’s version has the composer’s daughter Jamie as speaker, with her own additions to Daddy’s final version, which runs to 41:46. Schwarz’s new Naxos version, recorded in May 2004 at Liverpool, has Willard White as speaker, incomparably on discs, and veteran Yvonne Kenny as mezzo soloist (touching but no Caballé), with a superbly rehearsed Merseyside Choir. His timing is 37:48, just 20 seconds slower than Bernstein’s 1977 remake. It is a serious, somber, deliberately more “symphonic” performance than Bernstein’s jazzy 1963 version and very well, if not outstandingly, recorded.

In the musically simpler and more direct Chichester Psalms (sung here in their original Hebrew) Michael Small was Schwarz’s treble soloist when they recorded it at Liverpool in May 2002, although one guesses his voice by now has changed. Again this is more reverential than Bernstein’s New York original version for CBS/Sony, although John-Paul Bogart remains nonpareil as boy-soprano soloist. LB’s timing back then was 18:19; by 1977 it had become 19:04. Slatkin is quickest at 17:34; Schwarz takes three seconds longer (17:37). Interestingly, this is Naxos’ second version in two years: Marin Alsop did it in Bournemouth along with a suite from On the Waterfront and Three Dance Episodes from On the Town. Her Chichester timing matched Bernstein’s 1965 original to the second (18:19). The Schwarz/Milken disc has the advantage of two respectful as well as probingly musical performances along with a program book that runs to 28 pages to include all the annotation and complete texts – a vast improvement over Naxos’ usual six (but then Milken was footing the bill). Conclusion: You pays your money and takes your choice, but Schwarz/Naxos is the biggest bargain by far dollar-wise.

The recently deceased George Rochberg (1918-2005) was born the same year as Bernstein but outlived his colleague by 15 years. If Bernstein considered Kaddish his 12-tone piece, it may seem harsh-sounding in the first and third-fourth movements but nothing compared to the postwar anger of Rochberg’s Second Symphony (1955-56), in a modified 12-tone style (Bergian in that sense rather than Webernian). It is the boldest work of its kind by an American composer, and gripping whether or not the musical vocabulary is to everyone’s taste. Five continuous movements lasting 31:28 are named Declamando, Allegro scherzoso, Adagio, Quasi tempo primo, and Coda (which ends as the work began, and dies slowly away without emotional resolution). Rochberg called the style of Symphony No. 2 “hard romanticism. Making the world a better place is not a project for the artist. His project is to express the fire in the mind....” – the abiding ugliness and horror of WW2, during which he served three years as a captain with Allied forces in Europe. “At the Battle of the Bulge,” conductor Lyndon-Gee writes in his note, “Rochberg was severely wounded, spending close to a year in recovery and rehabilitation.” His mind was scarred as well, but another tragedy later on in life, the death of his son, tenderized the “hardness” and he renounced 12-tone composition (you can hear this in Naxos’ recordings of the Fifth Symphony as well as the original version of the Violin Concerto, written for trim-minded Isaac Stern, both conducted by Lyndon-Gee on Naxos). Again with the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony, whose principal conductor L-Gee became three seasons ago, the Second Symphony smites you in way that the companion work, Imago Mundi from 1973, following a three-week visit to Japan, does not. The latter is a contemplative piece by and large that endeavors to replicate the sound and musical styles of Japanese instruments but leaves one wishing for more substance. Perhaps, though, it will grow with further listening, but my Japonoiserie is pledged to the music of Takemitsu – the real thing. Imago Mundi is closer to Ibert’s Escales than anybody’s Osaka or Mount Fuji, and I say that as a Rochberg fan. But if you’ve the guts, give yourself the experience of Symphony No. 2. The recorded sound belies its origin in December 2000 (Imago followed a month later): it could blow out your speakers if you are not cautious about control settings.

R.D. (September 2005)