Greenberg: Symphony No. 5; String Quintet

COMPOSERS: Greenberg
LABELS: Sony
PERFORMER: Juilliard String Quartet; London SO/José Serebrier

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The booklet photographs portray a gangling, bespectacled American schoolboy. To have his works played by the LSO and the Juilliard Quartet betokens something unusual, and Jay Greenberg, now just 15 years of age, is certainly that.

Although from a non-musical background, he has been composing copiously since the age of six: now on a scholarship at New York’s Juilliard school, he has been hailed as a prodigy on a level with Mozart or Mendelssohn.

Certainly Greenberg is a phenomenon: his confidence and sure command of form and forces are truly astonishing. But those other Wunderkinder (add Korngold), even in their early works, could be counted progressive, while Greenberg’s music seems nostalgic for a not-so-recent past.

Korngold’s Sinfonietta, completed at 14, was firmly in the modern mainstream of its time; Greenberg’s 35-minute Fifth (!) Symphony, completed at the same age, reminds us of an era when American composers went to Yale or Harvard to study with the likes of Hindemith or Walter Piston.

Greenberg has an omnivorously eclectic ear: his music bursts with ideas and is plainly infused with everything he loves – but the busy counterpoint and a tendency to start a fugue at the drop of a hat reveals a curiously academic streak in what is clearly a phenomenal natural talent.

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The cross-rhythms and general sound of the String Quintet (2004) are more reminiscent of Tippett (of Double Concerto vintage). Both pieces are invigorating, enlivening, enjoyable, the symphony hugely so, but one suspects Greenberg the composer is inevitably still growing up.