Sounds Heard: Harold Meltzer—Brion; Sinbad; Exiles

Sounds Heard: Harold Meltzer—Brion; Sinbad; Exiles

“The Beaux-Arts Ball” from Sinbad by Harold Meltzer

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Harold Meltzer—Brion; Sinbad; Exiles
(Naxos American Classics 8.559660)

Cygnus Ensemble
The Peabody Trio with John Shirley Quirk

Although Harold Meltzer has garnered quite a few accolades over the past decade—a Guggenheim Fellowship, an American Academy in Rome residency, and the Barlow Prize, plus he was a finalist for last year’s Pulitzer—his music has been surprisingly underrepresented on commercial recordings up until now. Patti Monson recorded the four movements of his powerhouse extended-technique driven solo flute workout, Rumors, both for CRI and subsequently for Albany, and his surreal 2002 harpsichord concerto Virginal appeared on another Albany disc collecting four concertos performed by the ensemble Sequitur, for which Meltzer serves as co-artistic director. But the present disc on Naxos American Classics is the first recording devoted exclusively to his music. It’s great to finally have an extended encounter with his compositional output.

The immediate attraction for me of Rumors and Virginal was Meltzer’s love for unusual timbres and his ability to seamlessly weave variants of short motives around them. So it has been particularly gratifying to become familiar with this collection’s opener, Brion, a 2008 work that garnered Meltzer the Pulitzer nod in 2009. Scored for the unusual “broken consort” Cygnus Ensemble, which combines flute (piccolo and alto), oboe, violin and cello with plucked strings (herein guitar and mandolin), Brion very cleverly plays off the differences between the instrumentation by passing a short pensive motive, which can be heard at the very opening in the piccolo, throughout the ensemble. When the flute plays it, it almost sounds like a slowed-down bird song, but when it finally appears in the mandolin (in the extremely brief final third movement) it sounds like it is emanating from the subconscious of a lost gondolier. As luck would have it, according to composer Andrew Waggoner’s accompanying program notes for the CD, Meltzer composed Brion after visiting the Brion-Vega cemetery in the countryside east of Venice.

The Two Songs from Silas Marner, composed in 2000, are spare settings from George Eliot’s famous novel, scored for just a solo soprano and cello. Yet they are remarkably full and frequently gorgeous. The much more expansive Exiles, from the following year, ups the ante, accompanying a baritone with four instruments—flute, clarinet (doubling on bass clarinet), violin, and cello. The text for Exiles is taken from two poems, both titled “Exile,” which offer very different perspectives. The first, by Conrad Aiken, is quite bleak and intense, and Meltzer’s music is the perfect match. This mostly ascetic music is a far cry from the freneticism of Brion, Rumors, and Virginal. The second, Hart Crane’s adaptation of a classical Chinese poem, is even more austere with frequent solo instruments exposed against the vocal line. It is deeply haunting in its introspection.

And then there’s Sinbad for piano trio and narrator, completed in 2005. I must confess that pieces of music featuring narration have always been something of a disconnect for me, so it was with some trepidation that I approached listening to this piece the first time around, even though the text is from a short story by the late Donald Barthelme, one of my all-time favorite writers. In-depth listening to a musical composition and paying close attention to a spoken text seem to require different brain functions, or at least they seem to for me. However, an extremely persuasive cast has been assembled here who make a very compelling case for such a work— The Peabody Trio, for whom the work was written, and the legendary English baritone John Shirley-Quirk. The other thing that makes Sinbad so effective is that throughout its ten continuous movements Meltzer is always careful to let the text breathe and for the text and music never to get in each other’s way. During the third movement, the text is completely unaccompanied, and in the seventh the music doesn’t begin until the end of the narration. In one of the strangest twists I’ve ever heard in a musical composition with narration, the final movement ends with the narrator once again completely alone! At other times the music cleverly reinforces the natural spoken rhythms of Barthelme’s quirky tale, a device which is particularly poignant in a hysterical passage in which the narrator describes being asked to leave the Beaux-Arts Ball by a young woman wearing only men’s underwear who claims to be Lady Macbeth. Admittedly, I probably will not go back to Sinbad as frequently as I will go back to Brion, or Barthelme’s collections of short stories for that matter, but it has continued to grow on me each time I’ve listened thus far and I imagine it will continue to do so with each subsequent exposure. And the same holds true for all the music on this disc.

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