March 13, 2008


Charles Wuorinen: The Dante Trilogy (chamber version)—The Mission of Virgil; The Great Procession; The River of Light. The Group for Contemporary Music conducted by Oliver Knussen. Naxos. $8.99.

Kenneth Fuchs: United Artists; Quiet in the Land; Fire, Ice, and Summer Bronze; Autumn Rhythm; Canticle to the Sun. London Symphony Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $8.99.

      Charles Wuorinen has become one of the grand old men of American classical composition, with composers such as Kenneth Fuchs a generation (or most of a generation) behind. Wuorinen will be 70 this year; Fuchs will be 52. Both have been active as composers since around the time they turned 17. And both continue to produce vibrant works with distinctive personal stamps, although their methods and the sound of their compositions could not be more different.

      Wuorinen, long an unreconstructed serialist, has allowed tonality to seep into some of his more recent works, but is scarcely a tonal composer in any significant sense. Nor does he write program music, despite the title The Dante Trilogy. This three-part ballet, composed as three separate works in 1993, 1995 and 1996, gets its world première complete recording from members of The Group for Contemporary Music, which Wuorinen co-founded and which seems particularly adept at handling his pieces. The Dante Trilogy exists in both chamber and orchestral versions. The chamber one, heard here, requires varying instruments in the three parts: two pianos only in The Mission of Virgil; celesta, oboe, viola, double bass and harp only in The River of Light; and so on. Each section of this hour-and-a-quarter work corresponds – but in outline only – to one of the three part’s of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Each of the first two portions is in seven parts. In the case of The Mission of Virgil, the parts correspond to stages of the journey that Dante and Virgil take through Hell, but there is no narrative here and not even much of horror. This is at least as much a sarcastic Inferno, filled with ridicule, as a place of everlasting torment. Wuorinen’s meeting of Dante and Virgil with Paolo and Francesca, for example, will never supplant Tchaikovsky’s magnificent Francesca da Rimini in scale and scope, but it is effectively wry in its own way. In The Great Procession, the seven movements are a bit like stanzas of a poem, interrupted four times by a short refrain. The title refers to the grand cortège at the end of the poem; but again, Wuorinen is not engaged here in musical painting but in expressing, in his own sonic language, his response to elements of Dante’s Purgatorio. As for The River of Light, it is the most impressionistic work of the three, without the seven-movement underlying structure of the earlier ballets and with rather less apparent reference to what happens in Dante’s Paradiso than the other works have toward their respective poems. There is real beauty in The River of Light, and indeed throughout Wuorinen’s Dante Trilogy, but it is beauty communicated through his own language – one that makes no attempt directly to reflect Dante’s use of words and images.

      Kenneth Fuchs’ music is in some ways more accessible than Wuorinen’s. It tends to be quiet, is more comfortable at slow tempos than fast ones, and has no problem with tonality, although the tonal structure tends to drift. Fuchs is fond of calling works “idylls” – Quiet in the Land is an “Idyll for mixed quintet”; Fire, Ice, and Summer Bronze is an “Idyll for brass quintet after two works by Helen Frankenthaler,” an artist whose works also inspired Fuchs’ Out of the Dark; and Autumn Rhythm is an “Idyll for woodwind quintet after a painting by Jackson Pollock.” Fuchs is inspired not only by painters but also by poets (e.g., Richard Wilbur, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost). But his work connects no more directly to the sources of its inspiration than does Wuorinen’s to Dante. Fuchs’ music is by and large gentle, even when it moves at a faster pace. There is virtuosity in his compositions – for example, Canticle to the Sun is a horn concerto, and is very well played by Timothy Jones, for whom it was composed. Fuchs is quite capable of writing for full orchestra and giving all the players a workout, as in United Artists, which was written specifically for the London Symphony. The orchestra plays this work very well indeed, and various of its members handle the chamber pieces with sensitivity and fine attention to detail. JoAnn Falletta is a fine conductor if not an especially stimulating one: she keeps things together and makes sure the music moves well, and if there is anything missing, it is a sense that she is in intimate rapport with the composer’s intentions. But Falletta certainly cares enough about the music to be a fine advocate of it – and listeners will find themselves engaged in and caring about Fuchs’ works as well.

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