Barber, Copland, Golson, Harris, Rzewski, Ives, Thompson & Suesse

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Barber,Copland,Golson,Harris,Ives,Rzewski,Thompson & Suesse
LABELS: Postcards
ALBUM TITLE: Collection: American Ballads
WORKS: Works
PERFORMER: Lara Downes (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 77 2002 2 (distr.+1 212 533 0007; www.arkadiarecords.com)
Both American Ballads and American Grab Bag lay claim to what Logan Skelton calls ‘the kaleidoscopic and zany richness of 20th-century American piano music’. These claims seem a little misplaced given that most of the works on these CDs are by white, male, classical composers. But what the discs do explore, to good effect, are attempts by several such composers to incorporate various popular styles within their music. Examples on Grab Bag include Skelton’s own variations on ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’, charming modern rags by William Bolcom and William Albright and Morton Gould’s 1935 miniatures Americana.

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It was the impact of popular front politics in the Thirties that prompted ‘serious’ composers like Gould to investigate pop and folk forms. American Ballads includes similar ‘vernacular’ pieces by Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, Roy Harris and Virgil Thomson, plus Frederic Rzewski’s ‘Down by the Riverside’, a recent, more dynamic example of the same political impulse. Jazzman Benny Golson’s ‘On Gossamer Wings’ (a world premiere recording) crosses in the other direction, though its chief attribute remains Golson’s gift for melody.

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While both Grab Bag and Ballads are well-played, enjoyable sets, as celebrations of American diversity they leave too much out – not least the kind of challenging experimentalism embraced by Marilyn Nonken on American Spiritual, which is also a vital part of American music’s ‘zany richness’. The four pieces on Nonken’s impressive CD, each written for her between 1996 and 1999, include Milton Babbitt’s tersely brilliant Allegro penseroso and Jason Eckardt’s Echoes’ White Veil, with its dazzling outbursts of quasi-improvisatory energy. The centrepiece is Michael Finnissy’s North American Spirituals, the Englishman accorded honorary American status here for a work that pays elaborate homage both to African American tradition and, in its references to William Billings and Charles Ives, to the long and gloriously cussed history of the American avant-garde. Graham Lock