* Symphony No. 1 'RiverRun'
* Symphony No. 2
Russian Philharmonic Orchestra/Paul Polivnick.
Naxos 8.559257 Total time: 64:24
Summary for the Busy Executive: Mahler and Bartok.
The composer Stephen Albert had just broken through to recognition as
one of the most promising new American composers when he died, at 51,
in an auto accident. Albert signaled a new kind of American composer:
not avant-garde, not exactly conservative, highly Romantic in sensibility
and eclectic in means. He knew and at one time practiced all the postwar
trends, from electronic music to dodecaphony to minimalism, but he did
so with a difference. He used none of these techniques as polemics.
Indeed, the Fate or Progress of Music didn't seem a topic that interested
him. He used all of these things to serve the expression of his own
musical thought. To a large extent, he stood apart from schools and
trends. In this, he prefigures or stands alongside such composers as
Kernis, Hersch, and Higdon.
RiverRun (1985), which won the Pulitzer, raised Albert to the notice
of high-profile commissioning bodies and arts organizations. He became
Composer-in-Residence in Seattle. Yo-Yo Ma premiered his cello concerto.
The Philadelphia got his clarinet concerto. Juilliard hired him to teach
composition, although he discovered he didn't enjoy academia and left
to become a stamp dealer.
Albert's characteristic mode of musical expression is epic. It takes
big breaths and proceeds in long phrases. It is full of "parody quotes"
-- that is, things that you can easily trace to another composer but not
note-for-note. For example, the opening of RiverRun comes right out of
the opening to Beethoven's "Pathetique." The first part of the movement
is one of those "awakenings" such as you find in Mahler's First and which
go back at least to the opening of Beethoven's Ninth. RiverRun makes
use of minimalist ostinatos, though it's not minimalist in overall effect.
Instead, Albert likes to take small musical bits and push them around
in different combinations, all the while building up tension and musical
texture. However, one feels the importance of forward motion and
inexorability to the composer. He's not going to sit on a chord or a
texture just to see how long he can do it.
RiverRun, of course, comes from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, which
inspired other Albert compositions as well. I myself find parallels
between Albert's symphony and Joyce's narrative methods. More importantly,
I experience a similar "narrative" movement, like a river "unwinding,"
in both. Composers strike me as particularly sensitive to the rhythm
of narration, since they deal with that almost all the time when they
build a composition. Yet, the symphony doesn't really grab me, although
I can certainly see why so many admire it. For me, Albert's strategy
of building up layers of activity combined with his penchant for low
sonorities yields something one step up from mud. I want to be able to
hear the separate strata, as in Hindemith's Mathis der Maler Symphony,
for example, or Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta.
Perhaps a different performance would yield a clearer result.
The Second Symphony differs somewhat from the first in means, and I
like it better. Albert resorts to ostinatos less and concentrates on
counterpoint more. At least, I believe so. Albert died before completing
the score. He wrote to his publisher, G. Schirmer, that he all he had
to do was orchestrate. In reality, he did what a lot of composers do:
write the piece in a combination of real notes and reminders to himself.
According to the man who took on the job of completion, Sebastian Currier,
all -- or nearly all -- the measures were there, but the measures
themselves may not have been complete. He had to make plenty of decisions,
the most important of them about the nature of the ending, which runs
counter to Albert's normal practice of fading away. The composer, notably
close-lipped about his work while he was writing, happened to mention
to his wife that the ending this time would be full. Suddenly, the wisps
of themes at the end of the manuscript transformed from their literal
sense to a solid orchestral build. The symphony runs tighter than its
sibling, with an increase of power, as well as clearer, with a corresponding
jump in tension.
Paul Polivnick and the Russians give a professional account. I've just
heard the Cleveland Orchestra live and have tried not to let that influence
me. Nevertheless, the brass tone is excessively nasal, and, as I say,
the First Symphony could do with a more face-scrubbing account. Still,
all hail Naxos for their enterprise. If you like Higdon or even the
"Romantic" John Adams, Albert's a composer it might be worth your while
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