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CLASSICAL  November 2008

CLASSICAL November 2008

Subject:

Mennin on Louisville

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 5 Nov 2008 15:13:36 -0800

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text/plain

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Peter Mennin
Louisville Premieres

*  Symphony #5 (1950)^
*  Concerto for Cello & Orchestra (1956)*
*  Symphony #6 (1953)^

*Janos Starker, cello
The Louisville Orchestra/^Robert Whitney, *Jorge Mester
First Edition Music FECD-0013 (^MONO) Total Time: 65:54

Summary for the Busy Executive: More recording premieres from the
Louisville Orchestra archives, the repository of one of the most
ambitious recording projects of Modern American music.

At one time, many regarded Peter Mennin (1923-83) as the most promising
of younger American symphonists.  Prestigious organizations commissioned
him.  Writers undertaking surveys of the modern symphony said nice things
about him.  Unfortunately he came to prominence in the Forties and
Fifties.  He rose quickly, in fact just out of school, taught composition
at Juilliard and Peabody, and wound up head of Juilliard.  Unfortunately,
Mennin's work came at the end of the era of the heroic American symphony,
and he continued to write.  The title of Young Man of Promise it turns
out wasn't worth having: after a certain point, few who mattered cared
about his kind of symphony.  Furthermore, his administrative duties
seriously cut into his composing time, so that not only did he write
very little from the Sixties to his death in 1983, but the late music
isn't very well known.

Despite study with the American Stravinskian Normand Lockwood and
with Hanson and Rogers at Eastman in the Forties, Mennin largely taught
himself.  He wrote his first symphony in 1942 at the age of 19.  His
slow music is characterized by long lines and bristly dissonance; his
fast, by a bubbling, vigorously rhythmic counterpoint.

Mennin had completed five of his nine symphonies by the age of 27,
and the first five are more or less of a piece.  Written for the Dallas
Symphony and premiered on LP by the Louisville, the Fifth Symphony falls
into three movements - fast, slow, fast.  All three movements show roughly
the same procedure.  Mennin doesn't rely on sonata form but prefers to
follow an "organic" line of argument.  This does not mean, however, that
the movements go slack in any way.  Indeed, they tersely and compactly
spin a line of steel.  There are few "themes" as such.  Mennin takes an
arresting musical gesture, and from that flowers different ideas.  It's
like watching a good mix-em-up pitcher going into the same windup and
releasing something different every time.  The counterpoint, dense and
fierce, I believe shows the influence of the fast sections of Vaughan
Williams's Fourth Symphony, without the curse of imitation, and indeed
has much of that same power to compel.

The concerto and the Sixth Symphony work a bit differently and act
as paths toward Mennin's final style - less ingratiating, darker, more
complex.  In the liner notes, Frank J.  Oteri compares this concerto
to recent ones by Elliott Carter, and I can see his point, despite the
dissimilarity of idiom.  Mennin's concerto embraces both virtuosity and
symphonic argument, but to me it misses something as a concerto.  Mennin's
style is so contrapuntal - so many lines busily scurry about - that the
soloist becomes just one more line, perhaps first among equals, but not
sharply distinguished from the mass.  That aside, the concerto excites
me as music, in Mennin's usual way of vigorous rhythm and full brass.
My favorite movement is the slow movement, not coincidentally the one
which makes the best use of the soloist.  Normally, the fast rather than
the slow attracts me, but the music, grave and beautiful, takes a risk
which pays off - essentially varying throughout one idea, which all by
itself gets inside you.  The shaping of the movement, an emotional arch,
shows the hand of a master. The finale, similar to a rondo, takes a
typical Mennin fanfare (based on an idea in the first movement, incidentally)
and a toccata idea through their paces and builds to a conclusion that
leaves you breathless (once you leap to your feet, of course).

Variation rather than sonata drew Mennin, and we see in his music
at this point the increasing adaptation of continual variation, which
culminates in his Seventh Symphony (1963).  But it already peeks out in
his Sixth Symphony ten years earlier.  Commissioned by Louisville, it's
already denser than the Fifth.  Indeed, it brims so full of independent
lines that the composer doesn't always escape the charge of thickness.
It follows its predecessor's pattern of fast-slow-fast, but it differs
significantly in the way Mennin generates themes.  Instead of the
windup-release, Mennin essentially gives us just the release and keeps
working changes on it.  Different movements get different starting points,
however.  He doesn't take it quite so far as the Seventh, where one idea
forms the basis of the entire symphony.  One also finds in the Sixth the
same galvanic rhythmic spark that characterizes the Fifth.  I like the
finale the best.  It presents ideas from the previous movements in new
contexts without indulging in cyclic construction.  The counterpoint
dazzles so, you may miss them anyway, as they beetle beneath and in-between
the orchestral fabric.

Almost all these works come in versions with better sound: David Miller
on Albany TROY260 leading an all-Mennin program.  You get the bonus of
the early Fantasia for String Orchestra, but you miss the cello concerto
with Starker - I believe the only commercial recording ever of this
piece.  Furthermore, Starker always breathed the air of legend, and I
consider this one of his finest performances.  It is, thank goodness,
stereo.  Nevertheless, in the symphonies, the MONO sound from Louisville
is boxy and dull.  It's your call.

Steve Schwartz

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