Orchestral Music by Harold Shapero [BMOP]

Harold Shapero: Orchestral Works
4 of 5 stars

Sinfonia in C-minor
Credo for Orchestra
Partita in C for Piano and Small Orchestra
On Green Mountain for Jazz Ensemble
Serenade in D for String Orchestra

Vivian Choi (piano)
Boston Modern Orchestra Project
Gil Rose

Recorded at: Jordan Hall Boston on May 16, 2014 (Serenade in D), July 1, 2014 (Sinfonia in C-minor) and September 24, 2014(Credo);
Distler Hall, Tufts University, Somerville, MA on January 26, 2015 (On Green Mountain);
Fraser Hall at WGBH studios, Boston on October 5, 2016 (Partita in C)

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: September 2020
CD No: BMOP sound 1072 [SACD]
Duration: 84 minutes



First some background. Harold Shapero (1920-2013), one of the lost greats of American music, was part of a mainly East Coast Jewish set of composers complementing the literary talents of Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, and E. L. Doctorow. Did Shapero’s muse yield to the blandishments of academic life or was there more to it than that? Might the composer have suffered some form of psychological block with the death of Irving Fine in 1962, arguably the most brilliant of the bunch? His own idiom was already considered passé given the eclipse of Stravinskian neoclassicism. Long before his own serial phase Shapero’s friend Aaron Copland expressed bafflement at a “brilliant (but erratic) mind” – querying above all that obstinate reliance on pre-existing models. When as close a colleague as Leonard Bernstein stopped programming Shapero’s scores, the result was a compositional withdrawal lasting until after André Previn’s belated re-introduction of the 1947 Symphony for Classical Orchestra in the 1980s. Previn brought that magnum opus to London and recorded it live in Los Angeles (New World Records), yet this too proved something of a false dawn.

As far as I am aware, Shapero’s orchestral oeuvre has not otherwise been revisited on disc until the present, very generous collection marking the 100th-anniversary of his birth. It would be churlish not to welcome it with enthusiasm. As Shapero’s Waltonish (or more properly Pistonish) Nine-Minute Overture (1940) was also taped by Previn, you won’t find that here. Instead the focus is on a diverse spread of work previously unrecorded or neglected since the 1950s.  Each one of these compositions conducts some kind of dialogue with the past. All remain audibly difficult to bring off. Which is perhaps the real problem.

The biggest work in the new anthology is cut from the same cloth as the Symphony and admirers of that masterpiece need not hesitate. The substantial Serenade in D (1945) has not appeared on disc since Arthur Winograd, founding cellist of the Juilliard String Quartet, directed a forthright version released on the MGM label in 1957. The composer’s much later reduction for string quintet was recorded by the Lydian String Quartet with Edwin Barker (double bass) for New World, but the invention exhibits a more varied and consequential character in its original form. It is plainly in thrall to Baroque Stravinsky and none the worse for that. Indeed there are times when it outsmarts the slightly tired work the Russian master was capable of turning out in this vein, subtly alluding to other styles before passing urbanely on. The ‘Intermezzo’ throws in Viennese references, some with a distinctly Schoenbergian cast. More generally the mix of ebullience and un-playability suggests parallels with Tippett. The Boston players are placed in a more resonant acoustic than Winograd’s eponymous band and their elegant conviviality is appealing even if something tauter might have dispelled the suspicion of garrulousness. There are five movements over thirty-five minutes. Bernstein gave the premiere with the Rochester Symphony at the Carnegie Hall in 1946 and one wonders whether even they could achieve the appropriate precision and security of line. A dream performance would have featured Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields!

One rendition which undoubtedly trumps its predecessor is that of the antic, not always tonal Partita in C (1960). Now that this palindrome-filled exploration of classical and serial tropes emerges as entertaining rather than dutiful, its switches of manner and syntax can seem to anticipate Schnittke. The Louisville Orchestra’s vintage recording is comprehensively outclassed and Vivian Choi proves a dedicated pianist, far wittier and more pointed than her predecessor. On Green Mountain (1957) is another linguistic and compositional game, reimagining a Monteverdi chaconne for jazz ensemble, a contribution to Gunther Schuller’s “Third Stream” vision. 

The realisation of the Credo (1955) proves less successful. An apparently affirmative Coplandish idea is severally rendered in spare, three-part counterpoint, undercut by pregnant pauses and curious voicings. Part of a presumably never-completed Concerto for Orchestra the music stops as if in mid-flow. Is there a tape somewhere of Bernstein and the New York Phil? The piece is marked Lento but feels a little soggy and directionless here. Robert Whitney’s haunting Louisville recording, also heard in the award-winning documentary Music Makes a City, is not necessarily bettered.

The one work completely new, to me at any rate, is the Sinfonia in C minor (1948), unveiled by Efrem Kurtz and the Houston Symphony Orchestra as The Travellers, a title alluding to the company name of the insurers who commissioned it. Indebted to Haydn and Beethoven, the material and structure nonetheless provoke. The argument is laid out in oddly detached blocks, the trajectory at once pre-ordained yet held at one remove. Alongside what sound like off-cuts from the Symphony and unashamedly Stravinskian bassoon writing, Shapero’s habitual brightness takes on a shrill and piercing edge, conceivably designed to wake up those Texan insurance men and/or their wives.You may not respond equally to everything on this disc. All the more reason to go back and explore. There are copious booklet notes and attractive artwork.

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