November 29, 2007


Bolcom: Complete Works for Cello—Capriccio; Cello Suite No. 1 in C Minor; Décalage; Dark Music; Cello Sonata. Norman Fischer, cello; Jeanne Kierman, piano; Andrea Moore, timpani (in Dark Music). Naxos. $8.99.

Thomson: The Plow that Broke the Plains; The River. Post-Classical Ensemble conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóňez. Naxos. $8.99.

      There’s no easy way to explain what “American classical music” is. Any definition has to encompass everything from Ives to Cage to Copland – and, more to the point here, has to include William Bolcom, whose multiplicity of styles is such that he is practically a musical nation unto himself. One would be, in fact, almost as hard-pressed to identify a “Bolcom style” as to choose a single description for “American style.” Like the nation, he is all over the place. Bolcom has written only five works for cello – although his decision to call his Cello Suite “No. 1” indicates that he expects there to be more – and all are played with fervor and enthusiasm by Norman Fischer on this new Naxos CD, ably abetted by Jeanne Kierman in the pieces requiring piano. Fischer adapts, seemingly without effort, to the wide variety of styles here. Capriccio (1988) is a pleasant work containing aspects, according to Bolcom himself, of Milhaud and Brahms; yet it sounds like neither. A bit like a suite, a bit like a four-movement sonata, Capriccio has an especially attractive finale in “Brazilian Tango Tempo.” The fact that the Cello Suite No. 1 (1996) bears an actual key signature invites comparison, at least structurally, with the solo suites of Bach, but there is nothing of the Baroque about it. This is a mostly dark work, fully exploiting the lower reaches and emotional depths of the cello. It is based on the stage music for Arthur Miller’s tragic play, Broken Glass, but has little theatricality about it – although it does require considerable virtuosity. Décalage (1961-1962) comes from an entirely different sonic world – that of Pierre Boulez (again according to Bolcom). It is spare if not quite minimalist music, although not, in truth, among Bolcom’s more memorable works. Dark Music, however, is memorable, and quite unusual. Written in 1970, it combines the sonic worlds of cello and timpani; is played softly almost throughout; and has a darkly distinctive sound that is quite unmistakable – and quite unlike anything else by Bolcom. As for the Cello Sonata (1989), it is in some ways the most traditionally “classical” of all these pieces, laid out in three-movement form and being distinctly reminiscent of Brahms. The central “Adagio semplice” is especially lovely and thoroughly Romantic, although the work as a whole does not come across as sounding like anything from the 19th century. But neither does it, or anything else on this CD, have a “Bolcom sound” – each work here has one of the Bolcom sounds.

      Virgil Thomson’s sound is somewhat easier to identify, particularly in his scores to the two New Deal propaganda films, The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1937). Forthright, easy to follow, gently witty and ironic, Thomson’s music could be called proto-Copland: it in fact influenced Copland’s later use of folk motifs and simple, approachable harmonies. It is unfair to judge Thomson, whose opera Four Saints in Three Acts is deliciously anarchistic, by these establishmentarian scores for movies designed specifically to promote Franklin D. Roosevelt’s plans and policies. There are a few interesting pieces here: “Cattle” and “The Homesteader” from Plow are especially good, and that film’s finale, a sad habanera that accompanies the exodus of settlers from farms devastated by the huge dust storms of the Depression, is effective. But in the absence of visuals, the majority of the music for Plow, and practically everything in River, falls rather flat. Plow is the story of the transformation of the Great Plains from grasslands to huge wheat fields, of the hopes tied to farming, and of the environmental destruction that resulted from misuse of the land – problems that the New Deal promised to correct. The River is essentially an argument for taming the Mississippi – it advocates dam building and flood management that have proved, decades later, to be disastrous. Naxos has made the films, with these same well-crafted performances by the Post-Classical Ensemble under Angel Gil-Ordóňez, available on DVD, and that would probably be a better choice for anyone interested in seeing the context within which Thomson created this music. On its own, the CD gets a (+++) rating, as much for its historical interest and the implicit warning about government hubris that it contains as for any significant value of the music itself.

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