LOPATNIKOFF: Festival Overture. HELPS: Concerto No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra. THOMSON: Filling Station. KURKA: Symphony No. 2, Op. 24.
Alan Feinberg, pianist; Albany Symphony Orch/David Alan Miller, cond.
ALBANY TROY 591 (F) (DDD) TT: 64:33

ROCHBERG: Symphony No. 5 (1984-85). Black Sounds (1965). Transcendental Variations (1975).
Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orch/Christopher Lydon-Gee, cond.
NAXOS 8.559115 (B) (DDD) TT: 61:03

In the halcyon years of Grammy Awards, both of these releases would be neck and neck nominees for first-place trophies. But the Grammys had already become a travesty when the Classical Music Industry encouraged egomaniacal artists, managements and publicitors to glut the market with duplications and hyperbole. Remember the bunco-artists based in Atlanta who enrolled the entire orchestra as members of the voting committee, resulting in several years of Grammys going to the Atlanta Symphony for “Best Orchestral Recordings”?

Atlanta’s still in the business, thanks to Telarc and its superior technical product. So, of course, is Yo-Yo Ma, who could get a Grammy in these spavined times with a karaoke collection because he continues to be hot merchandise. Meanwhile, by sheer volume and business savvy, Naxos has built the biggest active catalog worldwide, whereas Albany has thrown down the gauntlet with a painstaking mixture of the right persons performing carefully chosen repertoire in a superb acoustic environment—the concert hall in a bank at Troy, NY, as congenial for orchestras as it is for solo artists and chamber ensembles. More’s the pity, in this newest Troy Series issue, that neither the producer nor engineers are identified, although the cover art (an Edward Hopper painting) is named along with a design-firm and sponsors individually and collectively. The technicians’ work is magnificent in this hybrid SACD confection sent for review, with a bass response in particular that equals those “Living Stereo” remasterings from Japan by JVC. But not only is bass impressive: the clarity of wind and brass playing in hair-trigger balance would be collectable even were the music (OK, most of it) of less merit and character than the works by Robert Kurka and Virgil Thomson in particular. Only the Albany Symphony strings lack the weight and sonorous polish of our nation’s front-ranking six (or seven, depending on who’s counting where).

David Alan Miller is still a young conductor as podium figures go, but he’s able to finesse the challenges of Robert Helps’ angularly motivic (rather than thematic) 13-minute Piano Concerto No. 2, still arcane after three hearings, with Alan Feinberg as his Messianic soloist. Lopatnikoff’s Festival Overture is a good deal more ingratiating and generically propulsive than the Hindemith- spinoff Concertino on a Sony/Lenny-B mono collection reissued on CD in Y2K. But Thomson’s 1937 ballet score (complete here for the first time, rather than the suite Thomson made from it) is choice V.T. to a libretto by Lincoln Kirstein, originally choreographed by Lew Christensen—by turns sassy, nostalgic, laced with familiar folk-tunes, altogether the first ballet ever with an American subject. I have the nagging recollection that the concert suite was recorded by Vox when the New York City Ballet revived Filling Station in 1953 (could Leon Barzin have been the conductor?), but it made little impression at the time because David Alan Miller and the Albany Symphony were not its champions. They do for Filling Station what James Sedares and the NZSO did for Thomson’s three symphonies on a classic, Grammy-caliber Naxos disc. Certainly the Louisville Orchestra (guessing again) made quasi-Prokofiev of Kurka’s Second Symphony from 1957, just months before the composer’s cruelly premature death from leukemia at the age of 35. Miller and his Empire State Albanians play it with verve and muscle, plentifully spiced and resoundingly recorded. My Rotel 1070 HDCD player handled it proudly, meaning that more than the suite from his opera The Good Soldier Schweik now represents Kurka on discs.

Leaving George Rochberg’s music for last is no reflection on its beauty, grit, imagination or—for a couple of decades—his courage in disavowing the international avant garde. The Chicago Symphony commissioned Symphony No. 5 in 1983 for that city’s forthcoming sesquicentennial, where Georg Solti conducted the world premiere in January 1986 (a year early; Chicago’s official birthdate was March 4, 1837). But it was never played again—anywhere—until this recording at Saarbrücken in March of 2002 with Christopher Lyndon-Gee in charge! He was auditioning to be Solti’s assistant at premiere time, and finally was able to conduct and record this 29-minute work in a single movement—a masterpiece in my judgment, on a near-par with Lutoslawski’s Third Symphony, also commissioned by the Chicago Symphony (for its diamond jubilee season, but so slowly composed that its debut was seven years late). Rochberg cast his single movement in seven sections: an assertive, brass-dominated “Opening Statement,” followed by “Episode I,” then “Development I,” “Episode 2,” “Development 2,” and a “Finale” that brings forward music from “Episode I” that lifts a dark curtain on much “bleak reality,” in the conductor’s words. The “Episodes” are “contemplative, even dreamlike in character” (again C.L-G), but their developments rise to mighty outpourings of personal anquish combined with anger. Like the Albany Orchestra, the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony is not the Chicago Symphony, but they play at the top of their capacity for Lyndon-Gee, who deserves a medal for his perseverance as well as his conducting chops.

Black Sounds was commissioned by Lincoln Center in 1965 as a ballet score for Anna Sokolow, who performed it as The Act. It comes from the same chrysalis as Symphony No. 5, but from an earlier time of shattering familial tragedy. Rochberg reworked it from his 1964 Apocalyptica for wind ensemble, piano and lots of percussion (originally untuned but in Black Sounds given pitches). It acts here as a powerfully dramatic, almost demonic entr’acte before the beatific Transcendental Variations for string orchestra, derived from the Third String Quartet of 1971-72, in which the composer returned to tonality. Again there are seven sections that rise to a Mahlerian apotheosis without direct quotation or enfeebled imitation. It and the Fifth Symphony are first recordings of the 85-year-old composer’s timeless creations. Not to hear them, learn them, and be deeply moved on return visits would be musical masochism. The German recording team(s) have produced a distinguished DDD soundstage for these acts of dedication by everyone who participated. Welcome them all. Please.

R.D. (August 2003)