Paul Schoenfield: Four Parables/Four Souvenirs/Café Music

Prague Philharmonia/Joann Falletta (Black Box CD BBM1109)

17 February 2008 3.5 stars

Paul SchoenfieldThe playing on this new disc of old works by the sixty-year-old American composer Paul Schoenfield is fresh, excited, and full of rhythmic propulsion.

Joann Falletta and the Prague Philharmonia articulate the mischievous scoring and undulating lines of the first piece, the Four Parables for piano and orchestra, with strong clarity and force.

Matching them in commitment is the commanding young pianist Andrew Russo, who handles the frenzied Swing idiom that defines much of the material with vigour and brilliance. Russo tackles the precipitous octaves and busy passagework that recur throughout the work with aplomb and precision, especially in the vertiginous shapes he has to describe in the opening and closing movements.

His enthusiasm, in fact, does much to make up for the lack of nuance that the composer creates in the relationship between the piano and the ensemble in this quasi-concerto.

Schoenfield's music derives much of its interest and tension from the interplay between 'high' and 'low' materials and forms, and our expectations of each. Though the writing can veer into pastiche at times (Gershwin is clearly an important model), he manages to compose and maintain a delicate balance between recycled and hackneyed popular forms and rhythms, and new touches of grace, elision and originality. The second movement of the Four Parables, whilst less dynamic than the first, bears this idea out in its tendency towards both repetition and expansion of the material. The third movement, entitled Elegy (all four have loosely programmatic titles such as this), provides a respite from the surrounding fervour. Sounding like a meeker Oscar Peterson, Russo brings out the lyricism and regret of this section well. He employs a restrained rubato and instils a subtle and becalmed expression into his playing whilst always ensuring that a sense of progress is maintained. The music of this section interestingly incorporates nods to Messiaen-like whole tone harmonies, with echoes in the voicing and rhythms of the solo piano writing of the jazz ballad form. The movement presents a unique and gently ambiguous musical sensibility.   

Continuing this plural style, the effervescent finale of the work is powerfully suggestive of a deconstructed and more violently dissonant Broadway dance number. Here, as elsewhere in the performance, the unkempt Dixieland ensemble passages are handled extremely effectively by the conductor, who confidently achieves the reconciliation of disorganisation and direction that is required of such music. Though the composer's idiom is unashamedly derivative here, it never quite manages to stray into the tedium that is common in music of this nature. Schoenfield resolutely denies himself any self-aggrandisement, preferring caprice and rascality to the po-faced ruminations he might have entertained were his palette less buoyant. The performers understand, and cultivate, this tendency in the music.

Andrew RussoThe next piece on the disc, the Four Souvenirs for violin and piano (recorded here for the first time), pairs Andrew Russo with the violinist James Ehnes, who recently won a Grammy for his recording of the violin concertos of Barber, Korngold and Walton on the Onyx label. Smaller in scale than the Four Parables, these four duets provide the two musicians with ample opportunity to let their hair down (were it not shorn so politely). They duly take this with glee. The performance is a romp, with both players successfully showing awareness of the need for flexibility and looseness in the sound. Ehnes, sounding variously like Stéphane Grappelli, Fritz Kreisler and, in the Tin Pan Alley stylings of the slow third movement, like a chorus girl singing lead, achieves a convincing pitch of abandon throughout. His rich double and triple stopping in the Habanera Tango of the second movement push the performance into a more focused intensity and verve, whilst his use of portamento (particularly at phrase endings) and vibrato is always finely judged. For his part Russo again impresses here, complementing his partner's wild playing with a focused and confident performance.

As in the Parables, Schoenfield entertains here with music of great vitality. He unashamedly incorporates toe-tapping rhythms and colourful, gently chromatic melodies, whilst nevertheless keeping a hold on some sense of ambiguity and tension. The notion of the Dance is also very important, both in terms of specific rhythmic profiles and forms employed by the composer, and in terms of the necessity of sprung and elastic phrasing in the performance. The spirit and force of the expression of this music in fact owe a lot to its catalysing momentum. And though we might wish for something more substantial of these Four Souvenirs, the successful cultivation of this momentum means the performers, and the composer, do just about enough to hold our attention throughout.  
The communication between high and low codes of meaning that I identified in the Four Parables is present again in the last piece on the disc, Café Music for piano trio (the cellist Edward Arron joins Russo and Ehnes for this work). Schoenfield here attempts, in his own words, to write 'high-class dinner music' that could at the same time 'find its way into the Concert Hall'. Whilst we are aesthetically far away from the radical parody along the same lines offered by Mauricio Kagel in his Die Stücke Der Windrose, Café Music is nevertheless beguiling enough in its own way.  Though it is less successful than the other pieces on the disc in so far as it strives unconvincingly to shoehorn popular material into a more clearly defined and cultivated (I use the word sensitively) three-movement framework, it doesn't have to try to hard to please. Like the earlier pieces this work is performed well, even if the balance between the instruments is sometimes skewed in favour of the strings, with Arron making a fine contribution to the already fascinating rhythmic interplay of the musicians.

In sum, the three performances on this disc amount to a convincing, if somewhat lightweight, programme. Though the more politicised wing of the new music environment would be hard pushed to accept the release, and the choice of repertoire, with anything other than a studied disinterest, others will gain much delight from the spirited writing and the energetic performances. No one takes anything too seriously on this recording, and the music making is all the more convincing because of that.

By Stephen Graham