Harold Meltzer’s Songs and Structures

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MELTZER: Bride of the Island. Beautiful Ohio / Paul Appleby, ten; Natalia Katyukova, pno / Aqua / Avalon String Qrt / Kreisleriana / Miranda Cuckson, vln; Blair McMillen, pno / Bridge 9513

Harold Meltzer (b. 1966) is an American composer who is influenced by a wide range of things from architecture to “postmodern fairy tales” (perhaps even Steve Allen’s Bop Fables from the mid-1950s?) to “messages inscribed in fortune cookies” (this from his Wikipedia page). All I know is that I liked what I heard, so I decided to review this CD.

Meltzer’s song cycle Bride of the Island is written in a modern style but with considerable lyricism in the vocal line, sung exceptionally well by the light but sweet-voiced tenor Paul Appleby. These songs are based on poems by Ted Hughes: the first about the serpent in the Garden of Eden, the second about a pool of water in the woods, the third about thistles and the fourth about hay. My sole complaint was that Appleby’s diction is more approximate than exact; consonants are often rounded like vowels so that he can produce a lovelier tone. Without the lyrics in the booklet, I wouldn’t have had a clue what he was singing. Yet the music itself is very fine. In fact, these songs put me in mind of some of Samuel Barber’s best work, which I like very much. “Thistles” is the most dramatic song of the group, with strong, roiling piano chords at the beginning whose harmonies are a bit reminiscent of Bartók.

This cycle is followed by Aqua, a piece commissioned by three different string quartets: the Avalon, Lydian and Pacifica. It was, however, premiered by the Avalon Quartet which plays it here. Since two of the three quartets played most often in Chicago, Meltzer chose a local piece of architecture, Jeanne Gang’s Aqua Tower in downtown Chicago, as his inspiration for the music. According to the booklet notes,

The piece begins by describing the building’s undulating balconies of white concrete that wrap around the structure. Harold’s writing for the strings immediately describes the seemingly liquid movement on the surface of the skyscraper, and its overlapping churning, by employing bariolage bowing technique and a dynamics layering of voices to create a whiling evocation of both water and the vertiginous heights of the building.

It’s fascinating music, and although the quartet is not divided into movements on the CD it is clearly divided into discrete sections. The second is less “flowing” more rhythmic. In this purely instrumental piece, Meltzer wrote in a starker and more abstract manner, avoiding lyricism in favor of describing what he saw in musical terms. Nonetheless it is quite good, well-developed and fascinating to hear on its own terms, even if one were not aware of the physical building used as its inspiration. Interestingly, where Bride of the Island was recorded in an ambient acoustic, Aqua seemed to have been recorded with very tight sound, which allows for fewer overtones in the quartet’s playing, yet in a way this helps one focus on the intricacies of the music. One section almost had a sort of bluegrass beat to it, though the music itself is anything but bluegrass, and in another the rhythms are jagged and rough. An excellent and highly original piece!

Beautiful Ohio is a song cycle based on poems of James Wright: “Small Frogs Killed on the Highway,” “Little Marble Boy,” “Beautiful Ohio,” “Caprice” and “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio,” the last celebrating the beginning of football season. (I can tell you from personal experience that, to Ohioans, football is a form of religion.) This cycle is more atonal than the first despite some occasionally lovely lyric lines for the tenor. Again, Appleby sings with a fine tone but so-so diction. “Beautiful Ohio,” in which the poet, as a boy, finds “a way to sit on a railroad tie above the sewer main,” has a sort of rolling rhythm in the piano part that I found intriguing.

Kreisleriana for violin and piano, like the strung quartet, is written in a more angular manner. This piece was commissioned by the Library of Congress to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Fritz Kreisler’s death. Meltzer chose to write a modern piece of the sort that Kreisler would never have played, but it was premiered by Miranda Cuckson on Kreisler’s Guarneri violin which is owned by the Library. It is not specified in the booklet whether or not Cuckson is playing that instrument on the recording, although it sounds something like it to me. It is, however, a very imaginative piece, the title referring not so much to the violinist as to Schumann’s piano cycle, which inspired the design and form of the work. There is, however, one a cappella passage that sounds very much like something Kreisler might have played (at least, it was technically accessible to him) had he developed a taste for somewhat more modern music. Unlike the quartet, this work is divided into separate movements (six of them) on the CD.

A fascinating look at an interesting composer whose work is varied in style and form.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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