* Concerto for Piano (1996)
* 6 preludes pour piano, d'apres poemes de Baudelaire (1991)
Alexander Paley, piano
Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra/Gintaras Rinkevicius
Naxos 8.557015 Total time: 66:02
Summary for the Busy Executive: Struggle music.
In an otherwise blameless tribute to his teacher Nadia Boulanger, one
reads a passage, rather quaint today, in which Aaron Copland wonders why
there hasn't been a woman composer at the level of great men. He must
have known the work of Louise Talma and Ruth Crawford Seeger, neither
of whom has anything to apologize for. Why not at least mention them,
as he did a number of middling males? Even today, we tend to pat women
composers on the head, as we might ooh and ah over toddlers playing
Especially since the Seventies, a number of women have written as well
or better than very good men: Larsen, Gubaidulina, Ustvolskaya, Zaimont,
Le Fanu, and many others. I've only recently discovered Sheila Silver's
music, a string symphony called Shirat Sara (song of Sarah), on Naxos's
series of American Jewish music from the Milken Archives (Naxos 8.559426).
Now, I have no reliable masterpiece detector. To me, a masterpiece is
something decided by a lot of people over time, and the game of Find the
Masterpiece has never particularly interested me. But that work made
me ask: if not, why not? A student of Ligeti among others, Silver has
a big voice, a superb technique allied to a complicated mind with something
necessary to say. Despite the dissonant (though tonal) idiom, I suspect
she's highly accessible to an audience not thrown by, say, Le Sacre du
printemps. The emotional payoff of her music is fundamentally Romantic.
Silver herself thinks of her piano concerto as a symphony with piano
soloist. I think of it as a concerto. I'll try to explain. Brahms's
first piano concerto is obviously a concerto, despite its symphonic
scale. A Martinu symphony, despite the distinctive color of the piano,
remains pretty solidly a symphony. In less-obvious cases, Leonard
Bernstein's Age of Anxiety symphony, with its extensive piano solos,
still strikes me as a symphony, while much of Brahms's second concerto
fits Silver's label. It comes down to emphasis. Who initiates things?
Who has more of the strong material? Who make the strong rhetorical
points? What's the soloist's position in the texture? Silver's concerto
requires a virtuoso, but often that virtuoso merely accompanies.
Nevertheless, she has given the soloist too dramatic a part for it
to serve as a mere character player.
According to what I've read in and around the Internet, Silver
strikes me as a composer caught between the proverbial rock and a
hard place. She's too wild for the genteel and too tame for the
no-real-music-before-1980 crowd. Even among her fans, one finds
disagreements about individual works. I take heart from this. It
indicates that the value of the music is something that can't be
Silver is a classic Modernist, with a traditional sense of time. The
concerto proves as ambitious and as "big" as I had expected. It runs
close to three-quarters of an hour, with a third movement slightly less
than half the total length. More important, it speaks with what I'd
call a depth of discourse. Though emotionally rewarding, it bursts with
intellectual abundance. Though complex, complexity isn't its main point.
At its best, it bespeaks a maturity of mind and culture found in few
The work begins with a chant idea, which will reappear at several
important points in the score. It both takes part in thematic
development and also acts as a musical icon, functioning almost symbolically,
like the crashing dissonance that opens the last movement of Beethoven's
Ninth. A longish introduction a=80' about a third of the movement a=80'
ensues, with elaborations of the chant, in growing levels of intensity,
from piano and orchestra. Out of the last notes of the intro comes an
allegro, portraying crisis. The composer describes it as the hero
buffeted by fate. Despite its considerable fury, it doesn't seem a
personal crisis, but one from without, like a hurricane. The crisis
dissipates, leading to yet another section based on the chant, which
this time introduces another angry section, with Bernsteinian, jazzy
overtones. Out of this rises a lengthy cadenza, based mainly on the
crisis music. As the cadenza proceeds, again the crisis winds down,
and the chant returns. With a minute to go, the music turns optimistic.
Silver compares the mood to an immigrant reaching the shores of the new
The slow movement, an update of Bloch rhapsody, begins with an
evocation of Jewish cantorial chant by the soloist against quiet,
very moving chords in the orchestra. The composer professes that the
image in her mind is of a prayer, "broken and crying." I get other images,
but only because that I have years of experience with that kind of prayer
in other contexts. This leads to fanfares and march-like fragments,
bright and epic, until the return of the rhapsody. This time, the piano
accompanies, and wind solos take the role of cantor. Occasionally, a
fanfare or two breaks in, but not enough to interrupt the flow of the
prayer. Toward the end, Silver creates one of the most expressive moments
in the concerto, as hints of the first-movement chant and crisis play
against the cantorial melismata.
The third movement, unfortunately, is the weakest of the three. The
composer has supplied a program I won't go into here. Basically, it
outstays its welcome by at least six minutes. It begins with a largo
introduction (six minutes long) which would have better been cut, full
of nothing but empty rhetoric and second-hand gestures, that became
second-hand even before Liszt. Furthermore, the rest of the movement
could use some occasional nips and tucks. Too bad, she was doing so
well up to that point. However, once the intro gives way, she pretty
much finds her feet again. A spare melody begins in the right hand over
long notes in the orchestral basement. After a couple of minutes, I
realized the latter was the first-movement chant, but Silver emphasizes
the new melody. The piano builds it up until it grows into an ecstatic
hora (is there any other kind?). The orchestra joins in, with echoes
of Bernstein again, Ginastera, and Bartok. The dance comes across as
the "crisis" music in a more positive light. The music shifts to a lower
gear with a languorous "oriental" dance. This eventually winds down as
the hora revs up, but the hora never fully gets going again. It flares
and flickers, and the concerto comes to a quiet, radiant conclusion.
In 1990, Silver found herself on a grant in the south of France, and she
composed her Six Preludes there. It should surprise no one how much of
France the preludes have soaked up. In essence, Silver has turned her
own idiom to Impressionistic character-pieces, in the vein of Debussy's
preludes. For the most part, she gets inspiration from lines of Baudelaire.
The exception, the fourth prelude, takes off from the composer's personal
experience a=80' walks through a forest half-devastated by fire. This
and the one that follows (based on the line "There, all is perfection
and beauty, Luxury, calm and delight") count as my favorites of the set.
However, while each prelude is fairly strong in itself, this doesn't
necessarily make for a strong set. Indeed, compared to the Debussy books
of preludes, Silver's score lacks variety. Her idiom seems narrow here,
as opposed to richness of the concerto. Nevertheless, no one says you
have to listen to all the preludes at once.
The performances very good without crossing over into great. They let
you know the ambitions and the success of each piece, but you can imagine
someone coming along who'll do better. Alexander Paley is the star here,
and his performance demonstrates a long-term intimacy with the music.
Silver writes dangerous music. If the pianist doesn't have the thread,
the whole thing will fall apart. Particularly in the concerto's third
movement, the pianist plays music dangerously close to marking time.
It's a tribute to Paley that he keeps so much of it out of deadening
stasis. The orchestra plays with passion.
Naxos continues to explore a wide range of music. It may be the most
doughty label around. Can it last?