For a generation after World War II, much of the warmth, ease and intensity of emotional communication went out of new music. But the eclipse was never total -- the spirit of romanticism was kept alive by such composers as Samuel Barber in the United States and Benjamin Britten in England, and it has again become the prevailing ideal. Composers have reestablished the broken contacts with tradition and with audiences; music lovers are dropping their suspicious attitudes toward contemporary works, and the composers are rewarding them, in concert and on records, with music written for enjoyment rather than clinical analysis.
The neo-romantic composers are not going all the way back to Tchaikovsky or Mahler for inspiration; romanticism's vocabulary has been expanded by the musical experiments of the century now nearing its end -- its learning experiences and its traumatic experiences. But one detects in their work the impulse that Beethoven embodied in the dedicatory inscription of his "Missa Solemnis," an impulse that summarizes the best instincts of romanticism: "From the heart; may it go to the heart."
One composer who typifies the way the new romanticism has assimilated the best discoveries of modernism is the Czech-born American Karel Husa. A good sample of his work (both as a composer and as a conductor) can be heard on a Composers Recordings disc (CRI 592), with four works ranging in date from his Symphony No. 1 (1953) to his "Landscapes" for brass quintet (1977). He is at home not only in traditional tonal styles but in polytonal, microtonal and serial techniques. But whatever musical tool he picks up is used with exemplary skill and a firm dedication to romantic ideals.
As conductor of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Washington-born Hugh Wolff has commissioned and recorded (on New World 80404-2) two works by major living American composers that exemplify well the neo-romantic ideal: John Harbison's Concerto for Viola and Orchestra (with Jaime Laredo as soloist) and Ezra Laderman's Concerto for double orchestra, titled "A Play Within a Play" because its five movements actually contain a second concerto; the three middle movements, scored for chamber orchestra, can be played as a separate piece. But the five movements also work well together, running through a kaleidoscopic array of forms and emotions but forming a coherent, arch-shaped unit with a central movement that approaches the "double" motif from another direction, featuring a series of instrumental duets. Formal cleverness does not exclude emotional communication; the last movement rises to near-Tchaikovskian levels of intensity. Wolff conducts with an expertise that will be remembered from his years with the National Symphony.
Other recordings of emotionally rich new music:
John Tavener: The Protecting Veil (Virgin VC7 91474-2). Tavener, an English composer who joined the Russian Orthodox Church 15 years ago, conveys his special, austerely ecstatic mysticism into a deeply evocative concerto for cello and strings, beautifully played by cellist Steven Isserlis with Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. Isserlis also plays, unaccompanied, Britten's brilliant Third Suite and Tavener's pensive "Thrinos" ("Lament"). Isserlis is a very impressive performer in traditional music too -- for example, a Russian program on Virgin VC 7 90811-2 and a Boccherini collection on Virgin VC 7 90805-2.
Shostakovich: Sonata, Op. 147, for viola and piano (ECM 847 538-2). This is Shostakovich's last work, finished on his deathbed, and notable for its austere depth. It is powerfully performed by violist Kim Kashkashian on a disc that opens with two works for viola and percussion: "Pourtinade" by Linda Bouchard and "Redwood" by Paul Chihara. Neither matches the stature of the Shostakovich, but both are absorbing and they lead up to it surprisingly well -- a tribute to Kashkashian's uncommon skill in devising and performing an unusual program.
John Anthony Lennon: "Voices" and other works (CRI 599). Lennon too has assimilated the techniques of modernism but uses them for musical goals rooted in the traditional mainstream. Besides "Voices," played by the Kronos Quartet, the disc includes other musicians playing "Ballade Belliss" for violin and piano; "Echolalia" for unaccompanied flute; "Distances Within Me" for saxophone and piano; and "Seven Translations," Japanese and medieval Latin poems for soprano and chamber ensemble.
George Tsontakis: String Quartets No. 3 ("Coraggio") and 4 ("Beneath Thy Tenderness of Heart") (New World 80414-2). The Second Quartet of Tsontakis (1983) was, in the composer's own words, "severely introverted" and "submerged in the seemingly inescapable malaise of our time." The Third and Fourth (1985 and 1988) represent his acceptance of and immersion in the classical tradition. He finds in his new style "a certain exuberance and brightness, an optimism" that can be heard and richly enjoyed in the adept playing of the American String Quartet. Golden Oldies
When you see a series of CD reissues labeled "Legendary Performers," you have a right to take a skeptical attitude. But that description is soberly accurate on four discs newly issued by RCA. It is possible to prefer another harpsichordist to Wanda Landowska in Bach's "Goldberg" Variations, Two- and Three-Part Inventions and other works (09026-60919-2, two CDs), but you have to admit that if there is one legendary performer on that instrument, she is the one. The same is true of Ignace Jan Paderewski playing a varied program of piano music (09026-60923-2), Leopold Stokowski conducting his own Bach transcriptions (09026-60922-2) and perhaps even of the incandescent Tchaikovsky "Pathetique" and "Romeo and Juliet" of Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (09026-60920-2). If you restrict your collection to one recording of each of these artists, these would probably be the ones to get -- though, for Koussevitzky, I would like to have the Sibelius Second Symphony too. Now Playing
English cellist Alexander Baillie, who will play Friday night in the Terrace Theater, has the technique and versatility for music of any style or period, and his program will include Beethoven and Bach works that are part of the basic cello repertoire. But he is best known as a specialist in modern English and Russian music, with excellent CDs in both categories available on the Pearl and Unicorn-Kanchana labels. He rises to the full, melancholy eloquence and the considerable technical demands of Frank Bridge's "Oration" for cello and orchestra (a protest against war also called "Concerto Elegiaco") on Pearl SHE CD 9601, with John Carewe conducting the Cologne Radio Symphony. Bridge, who seems to be experiencing a deserved revival, is also represented on this disc in a sensitive performance of his colorful and vigorous tone poem for orchestra, "Enter Spring."
With pianist Piers Lane, Baillie luxuriates in the warm harmonies and romantic cadences of Rachmaninoff's Sonata in G Minor and the enigmas, veiled allusions and ambiguities of Alfred Schnittke's intriguing 1978 Sonata (Unicorn-Kanchana DKP 9083). One of his best recorded performances (also with Lane) is in Shostakovich's Cello Sonata, Op. 40, which will be on his Terrace Theater program. On Unicorn-Kanchana DKP 9069, it can be heard with Prokofiev's Sonata, Op. 119 and several shorter works