WORKS: Suite im Hexachord; Quintet with Voice; Piece in Three Parts
PERFORMER: Peter Serkin (piano), Jan Opalach (bass-baritone), Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Speculum Musicae/Oliver Knussen, William Purvis (conductors)
CATALOGUE NO: BCD 9043 DDD
If any composer deserves to be regarded as the true heir to the aesthetic of Anton Webern it is Stefan Wolpe (1902-72), whose music has very slowly but surely begun to establish itself in the 20 years since his death. From 1938 onwards the German-born Wolpe lived in the USA, and it is as an American composer that he is now celebrated, for he fits nicely into that category of independent-spirited composers, fiercely uncompromising, who seem to define the history of music in the New World.
For Wolpe’s music is uncompromising; it remained absolutely committed to extending a musical language that had forsaken its reliance on traditional notions of tonality and harmony and looked for other means of generating continuity and coherence. He had grown up among the modernists in music and the visual arts, and studied briefly in Vienna with Webern; early pieces like the Suite im Hexachord show that austere serial working elaborated within a scheme of constant rhythmic surprise.
The great music, though, came later, after Wolpe had established himself in the USA. The 1957 Quintet with Voice, which is the main work on the Bridge disc, as well as the 1955 Quartet on the Koch compilation, belong to the years when Wolpe taught at Black Mountain College, where his colleagues included John Cage. Sometimes the music seems to reflect something of the anarchic spirit of that time, but the argument is always a thoroughly musical one, conducted in abstract terms with clarity and rigour.
The Violin Sonata and the Trio show the extremes of Wolpe’s later music; the 1949 Sonata is relatively discursive, the 1964 Trio much terser and more economical with its material. All of the performances on both discs, from musicians who have consistently championed and promoted Wolpe’s cause, are outstanding, true labours of love. Andrew Clements