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Kurka/Mennin/Piston: Orchestral Works
Robert Kurka, Peter Mennin, Walter Piston
Kurka/Mennin/Piston: Orchestral Works
Genre: Classical
  •  Track Listings (13) - Disc #1


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CD Reviews

Unexpected Masterpiece | Melbourne, Australia | 05/07/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)

"The key work on this disc is the Mennin 'cello concerto. Quite simply it is one of the greatest of its genre and a total mystery why it is not in the mainstream repertoire of all the great living 'cellists. Starker gives an inspired and masterly performance of what sounds to be a work of considerable difficulty. Listeners who like the Shostakovitch no. 1 and the Walton 'cello concertos will find the Mennin work instantly compelling and exciting. The Louisville orchestra under Mester (who is well known to Australians) gives powerful support.The work by Kurka proved an unexpected pleasure. The music is snappy has depth of feeling and genuine musical worth. Maestro Whitney conducts with great flair.The sound quality of the recording is very good with a rich and well balanced sound. A compelling issue that should be in every collection"
Mennin and Piston, two important 20th-Century American symph
Discophage | France | 05/30/2007
(4 out of 5 stars)

"When Robert Kurka died of leukaemia in 1957, at the untimely age of 36, it was considered by many as a great loss, that of "a composer at the threshold of a career of real distinction", as an award given him shortly before his death had put it. Yet I find the Orchestral Suite from "The Good soldier Schweik" disappointing. Paradoxically and contrary to expectation, the suite was not derived from the opera (Kurka's last work,see The Good Soldier Schweik: Complete Opera by Robert Kurka (1921-1957)) but pre-dated it, though all the numbers from the suite are used in the opera. To my ears it is descriptive and occasional music that doesn't rise above its occasion and descriptions. Much of it sounds like the kind of sardonic music Shostakovich wrote for his ballets - which also means that it lacks any depth. The finale sounds like Broadway Jazz the kind of which Bernstein might have written - and probably has. Does Kurka deserve the high hopes that had been pinned on him in those days? Maybe his 2nd Symphony, which I haven't heard, is better (Robert Kurka Symphony No.2 .Albany Symphony or Robert Kurka: Symphony No. 2; Julius Caesar; Music for Orchestra; Serenade for Small Orchestra.

Though with a mere thirty works his output is relatively small, Peter Mennin (1923-1983) is regarded as one of the major American symphonists of the 20th Century. Between 1942 and 1981 he wrote nine Symphonies, to which one can add a string of other orchestral works and three concertos, the one featured on this disc for cello (1956), a piano concerto from 1958 (see Mennin: Symphony No.3/Piano Concerto/Symphony No.7) and a later flute concerto (1983), his last composition. The Cello Concerto comes between the 6th and the 7th Symphony. A ten-year span separates these two (1953-1963), in which Mennin's compositional style matured, basically retaining his favored architecture of motoric-fast / slow / motoric fast but adding on a richness and depth of orchestration and a more subtle approach to symphonic form. In the Cello Concerto though, given the sonic limitations of the instrument, Mennin couldn't entirely resort to the usual the customary architecture, and though the first movement has plenty of powerful and dramatic orchestral outbursts, Mennin entrusts the cello with surprisingly serious, brooding, stern but passionate melodic lines, including a magnificent final cadenza of Bach-to-Britten meditative weight. The middle, slow movement follows in the same mood, and only in the Finale does Mennin go back to his motoric, toccata self, placing highly virtuosic demands on the soloist. The Concerto may not have the immediately recognizable stylistic personality of Hindemith, Shostakovich or Britten, but it is a fine work nonetheless, imbued with a sense of seriousness and not immediately seductive on the surface, but paying strong rewards on closer hearing.

Like Brahms, Walter Piston waited to be in his forties to compose his first Symphony (1937) and, though it may not be a masterpiece of the stature of Brahms' First, it is an effective work in its own right. In the first movement a slow, brooding introduction in pensive mood with an undercurrent of anxiety accelerates to a robust, brassy allegro in jagged rhythms, full of angry dissonances, interrupted by short woodwind-led passages of neo-classical mold (3:55) and more lushly romantic and lyrically appeased moments (4:27). The middle movement has the pastoral pensive woodwinds rising to anguished climaxes so typical of American symphonic writing in those years, and the finale is fast, agitated, triumphant, and makes use of the typical hindemithian device of agitated activity over chorale-like, slow moving bass lines. Not all of the Symphony is entirely personal then but it is daring enough in its dissonant anger to stand apart from the average American symphony written in the 1930s and `40s.

The Kurka and the Mennin were recorded before 1970 and were first released on LP as S-656 (Kurka) with Carlos Surinach' Melorhythmic Dramas and S-693 (Mennin) with Arthur Honegger's Prelude to Aglavaine et Sélysette. Piston's Symphony was recorded in 1976 and came on S-766 with Roy Harris' Orchestral variations "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" (available on CD as The Louisville Orchestra-First Edition Encores with the outstanding 3rd Symphony of John Becker) and John Weinzweig's Symphonic Ode. The sound of the recordings is excellent. However, the music lover is now faced with the vexing issue of duplication, as Louisville's successor, First Edition Encores, has reissued Mennin's Cello Concerto on a coherent, all-Mennin CD with his Symphonies #5 & 6 (Peter Mennin: Syms 5 & 6 / Cello Cto); this is the only available recording of Symphony # 6 (the 5th is also CD-available by the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra under Howard Hanson: Hanson Conducts Ives, Schuman & Mennin) and the only way to get the both Symphonies in the Louisville Orchestra recordings. These factors would make it an indispensable acquisition for the admirer of Mennin and of 20th Century American symphonic music (although I personally think that Mennin really "came of age" in his symphonic writing with Symphony # 7). But then, as far as I know the Piston Symphony is available only on the present CD, and while I can do easily without the Kurka Suite, I think the Piston belongs as much to any serious collection of American 20th century music. Another factor to the decision is that, in the all-Mennin reissue, the sound of the Cello Concerto is inexplicably deteriorated, as if, the label's claim that it is been remastered from the original mastertapes notwithstanding, it had been transfered from a worn-out tape or LP (see my review). I have both discs but, all things considered, faced with a choice, I'd stick with the present collection.