* Robert Russell Bennett: Hexapoda: 5 Studies in Jitteroptera (1940)
* Lukas Foss: 3 American Pieces (1944)
* Leonard Bernstein: Violin Sonata (1939)
* Aaron Copland: Nocturne (1926)
* Henry Thacker Burleigh: Southland Sketches (1916)
* Victor Steinhardt: Tango (1996)
* Lincoln Mayorga: Bluefields, A West Hollywood Rumba for Arnold (1998)*
* Dave Grusin: 3 Latin American Dances (2000)+
Arnold Steinhardt, violin
Victor Steinhardt, piano
Lincoln Mayorga, piano*
Dave Grusin, piano^
Amanda Forsyth, cello^
Naxos 8.559235 Total time: 77:56
Summary for the Busy Executive: Pretty toys and more.
A collection of mostly light American miniatures, all of it from the
Twentieth Century. Robert Russell Bennett's Hexapoda, taken up by Heifetz
among others, has little to do with the jitterbugs of its subtitle. It's
as enjoyable as cotton candy, and about as memorable. I would have loved
to have seen a recording of his violin concerto instead.
Lukas Foss, born in Germany, had to flee during the Thirties and wound
up studying with Hindemith in the United States. Foss has always struck
me as one of the most lavishly-gifted composers since Mozart. Like
Mozart, he can make something breathtakingly complicated sound like the
most natural thing in the world. He also sucks in the musical climate
around him like a sponge. He quickly absorbed the influence of Copland
and Stravinsky in the late Thirties and early Forties, and the 3 American
Pieces, written at the bright young age of 22 and still among his most
attractive works, shows the confluence of all these musical sources.
The works here began life as 3 Pieces, for violin and piano. When Foss
arranged them for flute, they became 3 Early Pieces, and when he
orchestrated them for solo violin or solo flute, they acquired the present
title. Apparently, he liked them enough to return to them and tinker.
They sparkle, they glitter, they wear their considerable art lightly,
like Mozart, as a matter of fact.
H. T. Burleigh, one of the most important composers of art-settings
of spirituals, is still probably best-known as the Dvorak student who
convinced the older man to look at Black folk music as worthy of serious
expression. Southland Sketches, a suite in the tradition of MacDowell,
shows a composer who in turn learned from his teacher. These are
superbly-crafted things. Indeed, you hear moments that you could easily
imagine penned by Dvorak himself. The difference comes down to the
general effect. Burleigh's sketches have the modesty of most sketches.
Dvorak's miniatures - say, the Slavonic Dances or Cypresses - imply
Copland's "Nocturne" is the first of his 2 Pieces for violin and piano
of 1926. It's a kind of blues meditation, from the composer's brief
jazz period, similar in idiom to his piano concerto, written the same
year. In many ways, it foretells the mood of the better-known Quiet
City from many years later. Copland quickly gave up explicit references
to jazz, for some reason considering jazz "limited" in expression. This,
of course, meant only that he wasn't that interested in it in the first
place to actually seek it out. Jazz was for Copland as it was for most
European composers, mainly a veneer of exotica. The fact that it comes
from so early in Copland's career and yet shows such maturity and depth
even in a small space gives rise to a regret that Copland didn't try to
extend and deepen this jazz line of thought.
The real find, as far as I'm concerned, is the two-movement Bernstein
sonata, almost never done. An early work, although not juvenilia, it
shows Bernstein on the road to finding his own voice. The first movement
reveals Hindemith's influence as well as a basic layer of "hard" Modernism.
The more interesting second movement, a set of riffs on ideas in the
first, still doesn't sound like the Bernstein we all know, but it does
show, even at this stage, traits that he carries along with him - notably,
a fondness for speaking in the "prophet's voice." Nevertheless, the small
frame of each variation doesn't allow him to go over the top, and the
piece comes across as both lively and seriously engaged, if not as
startlingly individual as the composer's mature music. Even minor
Bernstein improves on major lots-of-others.
The chief interest of Victor Steinhardt's tango lies in the disconnect
in tonality between violin and piano (he may even have written it in two
different simultaneous keys, for all I know). However, the piece really
doesn't go anywhere. Lincoln Mayorga, a very successful studio musician
in L.A., contributes a rumba which suffers from the same problem. Pleasant
enough, neither of these pieces will harm you.
However, things quickly pick up with Dave Grusin's 3 Latin American
Dances. Grusin, a successful jazz arranger and pop producer as well
as a composer, claims nothing more for these pieces than "a good time,"
but he sells himself short. They have more invention in them than many
works twice their length and five times as "serious." The interplay among
violin, piano, and cello knocked my socks off, particularly the duet for
the solo strings at the beginning of the third dance, "Joropo Peligroso."
We also get a tango "de Parque Central" (a sturdy homage to Piazzolla)
and a delicate danzon.
The Steinhardts do best in the better pieces. I always prefer Arnold
Steinhardt as a chamber player than as a soloist. In the latter case,
he seems to lack a personality, despite the technical perfection of his
playing. When he finally begins chamber conversation with cellist Amanda
Forsyth, sparks fly. Each player seems to inspire the other. Pianist
Grusin does better than Victor Steinhardt as an accompanist. When
accompanying only his brother, Victor does little more than stay out of
his way. In the trio, Grusin proves it doesn't have to be that way.
Perhaps Amanda Forsyth is the magic ingredient. Nevertheless, a generally
strong program, well-played.
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