C’mon, There’s at Least Twenty Saints in There: A fine new recording of the Virgil Thomson opera, Four Saints in Three Acts


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BMOP/sound 1049

This recording is a fine example why I have come to love the work of Gil Rose and his Boston Modern Orchestra Project.  The scope of his musical choices ranges from intelligently selected new music projects by living composers and a fabulous survey of music by older composers that he considers worthy of attention again (and sometimes for the first time).  All BMOP recordings (even those on other labels) are consistently of the highest quality and the performances are definitive.  This series now on the orchestra’s own label is rapidly becoming a sort of canon defining modern music, or at least one vital vision of it.

There appear to be only two other recordings of this masterwork.  The first is a cobbled together mono version released on RCA with the composer conducting most of it and Leopold Stokowski conducting some numbers in this abridged performance.  The second is the very fine 1981 version by the Orchestra of Our Time under the able direction of Joel Thome.

The differences between these recordings is far less important than the fact that we now have three versions of this American operatic masterpiece for our listening enjoyment.  The BMOP recording is up to their usual high standards with wonderful sound and fine interpretation and musicianship.  

This 1934 opera premiered in Hartford, Connecticut and then opened on Broadway (yes, in New York) with an all black cast and ran for a record 48 performances.  Black music pioneer Eva Jessye conducted her choir and the production was directed by a young John Houseman who had just begun to turn his talents to the theater.

The libretto is by Gertrude Stein who later collaborated with Thomson on The Mother of Us All.  Her word play is more about sound than grammar (or mathematics for that matter).  It is in four acts and features more than four saints.  The music is classic Americana with the essences of folk musics and spirituals.

This is a gorgeous and fun piece which deserves to be in the canon of great American operas.  Want to make America great and celebrate Black History Month?  Then grab this recording and sit back for a wonderful listening experience.

 

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Filling Vital Gaps in the Recorded Repertoire: The Walden Chamber Players Do America


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The only name that might not be familiar to fans of early to mid-twentieth century American music feature in this recording is that of Marion Bauer (1882-1955).  The rest of these composers are clearly established in both recordings and the performing repertoire.  One of the great things about this recording is that the collector runs practically no risk of duplication.  While the Rorem, Barber and Bowles have been recorded before I am not aware of any currently available recordings of the Thomson, Copland and Bauer pieces.

I don’t know how profoundly significant all these works are, only time (and more performances/recordings) will tell.  But these are attractive pieces that fill historical gaps and that is apparently the goal of this clever ensemble.  Even if these are not first order masterpieces they do speak to the historical evolution of the American sound in the twentieth century.

Marion Bauer is herself in need of a reassessment.  This woman, 20 years older than Aaron Copland was essential in the establishment of the foundational institutions of American music.  Few of her works have been recorded and even fewer given good or great recordings.  So this 1944 Trio Sonata No. 1 recording is a very good start.  This, like the other works on the album do not stray far from basic romantic tonality but were the “modern” idiom for the works of their day.  The sound of mid-century neo-romanticism is clearly in evidence in this lovely and lyrical three movement sonata.

Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) is now better known for his excellent music criticism but he was also one of the finest examples of the American neo-romantic tradition (and the only composer to win a Pulitzer Prize for a film score) and his work is sadly under-appreciated. The five brief movements are infused with the composer’s folk and hymn references like much of his work.  I do not think this lovely little Serenade for Flute and Violin (1941) has been recorded before and, hearing it now, I can’t imagine why not.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is represented here by two late works from 1971 and 1973, both entitled Threnody.  The first is dedicated to Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and the second to Copland’s friend Beatrice Cunningham.

As far as I know this is the first recording of these two works.  They are short and intense pieces whose apparent simplicity most likely belies some complexity but these are very approachable works.  It is a great service to have them available for listening.

Samuel Barber (1910-1981) is probably the foremost representative of American romanticism.  The brief Canzone for Flute and Piano (1961) was originally written for a friend.  The melody made its way into Barber’s Piano Concerto Op. 38 (1962) and has been given the opus number 38a.

Ned Rorem (1923- ), composer and diarist is also a strong contender for the romantic crown in American music.  He is the youngest of the composers represented on this recording (though this reviewer would like to make the case to perhaps include David Del Tredici 1937- for inclusion in this survey of mid-century American romantics).  Best known for his songs, Rorem’s orchestral and chamber music have only recently begun to get the attention they deserve.

His Trio for Flute, Cello and Piano (1960) is very strong example of the quality of his chamber music.  The four movement trio has been recorded before but this performance is about as fine and definitive as one could imagine.

Paul Bowles (1910-1999) is far better known for his literary endeavors and is connected to the beat writers.  His novel, The Sheltering Sky (1949) secured his literary fame.  Bowles spent much less time on composition after 1956 but his music has (though painfully slowly) been going through some reckoning in recent years.  And so it should.  This contemporary of Aaron Copland  has written a fair amount of music, much of that in the form of incidental music for various plays.  This Sonata for Flute and Piano (1932) has been recorded before but it is good to see it made available in a competent recent version.

Ned Rorem, the only composer here still living, gets the final word in The Unquestioned Answer (2002).  It is essentially a reflection on Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question (1908, rev. 1930-5) and provides a fitting conclusion to this wonderful survey.

I very favorably reviewed a previous release by the Walden Chamber Players (Marianne Gedigian, flute; Curtis Macomber, violin; Tatiana Dimitraes, violin; Christof Huebner, viola; Ashima Scripp, cello and Jonathan Bass, piano).  And they continue their intelligent and very personal survey of chamber music.

This is a very satisfying album which achieves its goal of displaying music which clearly contributes to the collective voice of American music as it developed in the early to mid- twentieth century.  This intelligent selection of music, well-performed, fills gaps in the recorded repertoire and, one hope, will encourage others to bring more of this work to recordings and performances.