Classical Reissue Reviews
STEPHEN ALBERT: In Concordium; TreeStone – Ilkka Talvi, violin/Lucy Shelton, sop./David Gordon, tenor/ Seattle Sym./New York Ch. Sym./ Gerard Schwarz – Naxos
Published on May 2, 2012
STEPHEN ALBERT: In Concordium; TreeStone – Ilkka Talvi, violin/Lucy Shelton, sop./David Gordon, tenor/ Seattle Sym./New York Ch. Sym./ Gerard Schwarz – Naxos “American Classics” Naxos 8.559708, 55:47 ****:
Stephen Albert was one of America’s greatest and most original voices in composition and – but for a very unfortunate early death, at the age of 51 – would be a more familiar and well-loved name to more than, perhaps, he is. He certainly deserves to be and this recording of two of finest later works makes a great place to start.
Albert studied very early on with Elie Siegmeister and graduated from the Eastman School of Music, the Philadelphia Academy and the University of Pennsylvania. His music has been played by every major symphony in the country including those in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago. His style was one of the first that became coined – by some – as the “New Romanticism”. Albert and the many subsequent others who seem to fit this category were writing music that sought to “revive” the art of melody and lush, concordant harmonies. Stephen Albert also did study for a time with Karl-Birger Blomdahl in Sweden and Albert’s music, therefore, shows some elements of “modernism” as well.
His In Concordium for violin and orchestra, heard here in a wonderful performance by violinist Ilkka Talvi and the Seattle Symphony, is a perfectly satisfying example. The title implies an alliance between elements of the orchestra that serves as a primary compositional structure. Some fairly strident trumpet calls announce the opening of the piece followed by strangely beautiful chordal passages for the strings and various permutations of a five-note motive throughout the work. The solo violin, whose lines are mostly lush and tonal, occasionally angular, serves as a bit of an arbiter or mediator between itself and the rest of the orchestra. There is a wonderful interplay between the solo violin and the ensemble that eventually spin the work forward, with high energy after the cadenza, into what will clearly resolve as a radiant, obvious A-major conclusion. The title which translates from Latin as “into harmony”, is a very accurate description of what transpires and how. This is a very engaging work with a simply wonderful solo part. Albert had served as a composer in residence with the Seattle Symphony during the late 1980’s; this work being one written just before.
Albert had a fascination with the works of Irish poet and novelist James Joyce, having written several pieces on themes inspired by Joyce. I was best familiar with Albert’s music, in fact, through his Symphony River Run (inspired by Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake”). Albert’s song cycle TreeStone, heard here, is scored for soprano, tenor and small orchestra. These songs, taken from Joyce’s final novel, are a reflection – as was the Joyce source material – on the Tristan and Isolde legend (in its Celtic original; “Tristan and Iseult”). The familiar themes of the ill-fated lovers whose true feelings for each other are impeded by circumstances and prevented by death permeates the writing of Joyce. Albert commented, relative to his song cycle, that Joyce had provided an “irreverent and often deranged” version of the medieval legend that the composer felt provided ample material. Indeed, the songs often convey a nervous, scattered and somewhat paranoid tone as the lovers struggle with awareness. The writing is excellent and this work, as a whole, is a very unusual but fascinating song cycle. In particular, the sheer contrast between the skittish nature of the second song, A Grand Funferall, and the fifth, Fallen Griefs, is dramatic. The closing song, Anna Livia Plurabelle, is elegiac. In the text, two elderly women complain that they feel as “old as…elm”, as “heavy as…stone” and eventually become the objects of their metaphors – a simile for death itself.
This is a really fine work that carries raw emotion as well as some very heady food for thought. Soprano Lucy Shelton has an international reputation as an interpreter of contemporary vocal music and tenor David Gordon is best known for Baroque music and conveys the tone of this score wonderfully. The New York Chamber Symphony performs with conviction and Gerard Schwarz is a gifted interpreter of modern music, clearly familiar with that of Stephen Albert. This is a really nice disc and I do strongly recommend it to anyone. In particular, this would make a very satisfying introduction to Stephen Albert’s music – which deserves more attention.