AUSTIN: Symphony No. 1, “Wilderness” / Melinda Liebermann, Anthony King, reciters; Krakow Radio & Symphony Orch.; Szymon Kawalla, cond / Symphony No. 2, “Lighthouse” / Moravian Philharmonic Orch.; Joel Eric Suben, cond / An American Triptych. Puzzle Preludes / Ulrich Urban, pno / Sonnets from the Portuguese / Melinda Liebermann, sop; Cornelius Withöft, pno / 3 Rilke Lieder / Amanda Kohl, sop; Christopher Grundy, bar; Elizabeth R. Austin, pno / Navona NV6304
Elizabeth R. Austin is an organist and composer born in Baltimore in 1938. She studied at the Peabody Conservatory as well as with Nadia Boulanger at the Conservatoire Fountainebleau after the famed pedagogue heard her 3 Rilke Lieder.
Her first symphony, subtitled “Wilderness,” opens with a startling chord before progressing into atonal territory. This one-movement work presents a rather stark and menacing wilderness indeed; Austin uses sparse orchestration using biting brass and string tremolos to make her points. It’s certainly a fascinating piece, with themes somewhat juxtaposed and some quite short, resembling much of the avant-garde of the 1950s and early ‘60s (i.e., the music of Easley Blackwood and others). A male voice provides a narration from a poem by Carl Sandburg: “There is a wolf in me / fangs pointing for tearing gashes / a red tongue for raw meat…” Then a female voice picks up the narration: “There is a fox in me / a silver gray fox / I sniff and guess / I pick things out of the wind and air…” The alternating narrators dominate much of the work’s progression. It’s a very interesting piece though I personally wondered at her titling it a symphony; it struck me more as a tone poem with narration. At the 14:40 mark, there’s a brief quote from Stravinsky’s Petrouchka in the winds—an interesting but strange allusion which returns later. In toto, this is a strange and very original piece.
Austin’s second symphony, subtitled “Lighthouse,” is in three movements which, according to the composer, “contains many quotes, all related through pitch,” among them Debussy’s La Mer, although identifying the quotes (including Wolf’s Mondnacht) isn’t half as interesting as hearing what Austin has done with them. In fact, most of them are not as obvious as the Petrouchka references in the first symphony. Although the inspiration for this work was a quote from Wolfgang Borchert’s poem of the same name, the poem is never narrated in this work.
An American Triptych is a piano piece using, as Austin puts it, “the Bach family’s party amusement with musical quotations called a ‘quodlibet’. Their musical high spirits produced a rowdy juxtaposition of familiar tunes in patchwork style.” But by this time, folks, I was getting tired of her using musical quotations from others. This is the kind of head game that Alfred Schnittke played for 30 years, and to be honest this was a piano piece that didn’t go anywhere.
Sonnets from the Portuguese are, of course, based on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poems, and are sung by Melinda Liebermann who was one of the narrators in the first symphony. Liebermann has a pretty tone but a very strong flutter in the voice, her highest notes are rather strained, and her diction is unclear. I’ve certainly heard worse singers but also much better, and to be honest, this music, too, really goes nowhere. It just sort of stays in one place and ruminates for a period of time, then stops.
The concept behind the Puzzle Preludes is that they are based on (you guessed it) more musical quotes, “cited either verbatim or intentionally ‘bent.’” As in the American Triptych, the music ruminates a bit too much, causing listener fatigue before each of these sort pieces are over. The only one I kind of liked was No. 4.
We end with the Rilke Lieder that caught Nadia Boulanger’s ear. These are sung by baritone Christopher Grundy, who has a grundy kind of voice (number 1 and in duet on 3), and soprano Amanda Kohl, who has a very pretty voice. These are better music than much of the preceding, though Grundy’s unsteady, muddy-sounding voice is an impediment.
A rather mixed bag. Much of the music in the symphonies and the Rilke Lieder is quite good, but the other pieces are not.
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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