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CLASSICAL  August 2005

CLASSICAL August 2005

Subject:

Weisgall

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 9 Aug 2005 13:06:31 -0500

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      Hugo Weisgall

*  T'kiatot: Rituals for Rosh Hashana
*  Psalm of the Distant Dove
*  4 Choral Etudes
*  A Garden Eastward

Steven A. Ovitsky, shofar; Ana Maria Martinez, soprano; Kristen Okerlund,
piano; Phyllis Bryn-Julson, soprano; BBC Singers/Avner Itai; Seattle
Symphony/Gerard Schwarz; Barcelona Symphony/National Orchestra of
Catalonia/Jorge Mester.
Naxos 8.559425 Total time: 68:03

Summary for the Busy Executive: Intellectually (though not always
emotionally) gripping.

Hugo Weisgall, probably best known for his chamber opera The Stronger,
was born in Czechoslovakia.  His family emigrated to the United States
in 1920.  He missed most of the Third Reich, at least as a victim, but
as an aide to General Patton saw the horrors of the concentration camps.

Fluent in several languages, Weisgall was a polymath.  He earned a
doctorate not, interestingly enough, in music, but in medieval German
literature.  He studied conducting with Fritz Reiner and composition
with Rosario Scalero (the teacher of both Barber and Menotti).  Before
World War II, he tried to study with Bartok, but the composer turned
him down, supposedly pleading a full student load.  I say "supposedly,"
because I always understood that Bartok, believing that composers were
born, never took composition students.  It didn't seem to hurt Weisgall,
nor did the study with the arch-conservative Scalero.  Weisgall went his
own way, mostly along the path laid down by Berg, although he could do
just about anything he wanted to as a composer.  No technique or style
seemed beyond him.

This mastery comes out in T'kiatot, a three-part orchestral work.
There are no breaks between movements, but movement joins movement
through links in passages for an offstage shofar, a ceremonial instrument
made from ram's horn, used in the Jewish New Year service (Rosh Hashana).
Shofar players -- and shofars for that matter -- don't come along every
day, and the instrument is often fitted with a trumpet mouthpiece and
played by a trumpeter.  I wonder whether Schwarz did this in his younger,
trumpet-playing days.  Weisgall writes a serial, dodecaphonic piece
but constructs his basic series in such a way that he can incorporate
traditional, triadic material.  He handles the techniques with such
grace, it really doesn't matter on what side of the tonal-atonal divide
the piece falls on.  Quite frankly, a lot of it reminds me of Honegger's
Pacific 231.  Weisgall handles the shofar and the traditional shofar
calls really well, with rhetorical elan.  Each of the three movements
portrays some theological point -- God's rule, God as recorder of our
thoughts and deeds, and the heralding of the Messianic age -- but the
work trots along just fine without a listener knowing any of this or
even agreeing that Weisgall has aptly described these concepts.  The
first movement I would characterize as grim, but vigorous.  The second
is scherzo-like, wittily rhythmic.  The third is martial -- no surprise
there -- with lots of fanfares and the traditional shofar calls most
apparent.  One feels both intellect and passion in the work.  For me,
it awakens near-atavistic memories.

Weisgall composed the song cycle Psalm of the Distant Dove in 1992,
five years before his death.  Again, he demonstrates a "hard" eclecticism.
One hears the Copland of the Emily Dickinson songs, for example, and an
architectural approach that owes much to Schoenberg.  Nevertheless, the
songs don't feel stylistically scattered.  Instead, one senses Weisgall
moving along a spectrum of dissonance, toward more or toward less.
The poems come from the Bible and from Sephardic (Mediterranean Jewish,
mostly Spanish) poetry, all translated to English.  The dove, because
it mates for life, often symbolizes true love.  In juxtaposition, the
songs tell of God's distance from the Jews and grapple with the difficult
question of why the Jews, steadfast in their devotion, suffer.  The songs
are all beautifully and leanly built, with an almost fanatic concern for
finding the right note at any moment, rather than a wash of mood.  That
concentration, more than anything else, reminded me of Copland.  Weisgall
expresses his texts very well indeed.  Despite an angular vocal line,
the songs are all "doable." Unfortunately, not one motive or gesture
sticks, with the exception of the "odd man out" of the piece: a solo
piano elegy for William Schuman, beautiful and, in its quiet way, just
as uncompromising as its mates.

The Four Choral Etudes come from a roughly twenty-year period, beginning
in 1935.  All of them set well-known (comparatively speaking) Hebrew
texts: Psalms 19, 118, 114, and a Passover song.  All of them are eminently
tonal, though with expanded tonality, not particularly dissonant, gorgeous,
and difficult as sin.  It surprised me that the most elaborate of the
bunch was Weisgall's version of the Passover hymn "Ki lo na'e." He uses
the traditional melody (or *a* traditional melody, anyway), but as Bach
uses something like the chorale tune "Christ lag in Todesbanden" in his
Cantata No. 4.  All sorts of stretching and altering goes on, while
Weisgall constructs complex, yet clear contrapuntal textures.

The composer apparently conceived of A Garden Eastward as a vocal
symphony (with movement headings of "Fantasia," "Scherzo," and "Free
Variations").  For the premiere, he had titled it Three Symphonic Songs,
indicating an orchestral song cycle.  He then changed the title to its
present one, adding Cantata for High Voice and Orchestra.  "Cantata," I
suppose, will do as well as anything.  The work sets English translations
of three poems by the medieval Spanish Sephardic poet Moses ibn Ezra.
I think it worth mentioning that Weisgall always picks his texts with
intelligence and taste.  He is also a very canny vocal writer.  His
interest in opera shouldn't surprise anybody.  The lines, again, are
fairly angular and work the extremes of the soloist's range, but they're
not beyond reach.  This is also a completely tonal, at times even diatonic
and bitonal, work, and I must say the final measures are gorgeous.  At
one point, the composer considered this his most beautiful piece.  However,
beauty lies in the eye (or ear) of the beholder.  I don't agree with
Weisgall, pretty though the work may be in places.  Even on this CD, I
much prefer the T'kiatot and the Four Choral Etudes.  The problem lies
again in the comparative facelessness of the material.  The only people
in the lobby humming the tunes after it was all over would probably have
been the composer and the soloist.

None of these pieces are easy, and the performances achieve more than
mere run-throughs.  Schwarz and the Seattle give handsome shape to the
T'kiatot.  Martinez and Okerlund deliver the Psalm with a nice heaping
helping of drama and to a great extent overcome a rather thankless score.
The BBC Singers stand among the finest vocal ensembles in the world.
They and Itai unknot the knotty Four Choral Etudes to reveal their beauty
and "inevitability," to steal from Leonard Bernstein.  Mester and the
Barcelona Symphony provide a capable accompaniment to the amazing Phyllis
Bryn-Julson.  She has to have perfect pitch, she's so dead on, even when
Weisgall is doing his damndest to throw her off with orchestral lines
that almost, but not quite match her.

Overall, the CD represents a bit of a gamble.  Like Sessions, Weisgall
has always had a small, but loyal fan base.  Still, the Naxos price might
tempt a few to take the risk.

Steve Schwartz

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