George Perle’s Chamber Music


PERLE: Violin Sonata No. 1 / Alexi Kenney, vln / 3 Solos for Clarinet. Sonata quasi una fantasia# / Charles Neidich, cl; #Michael Brown, pno / Cello Sonata.* Hebrew Melodies. Solo Cello Sonata. Lyric Piece for Cello & Piano+ / Jay Campbell, cel; *Conor Hanick, +Shirley Perle, pno / Monody II / Edwin Barker, bs / Bassoon Music. 3 Inventions for Solo Bassoon / Steven Dibner, bsn / 9 Bagatelles / Horacio Gutierrez, pno / Musical Offerings / Leon Fleisher, pno / Sarabande from Solo Partita / Curtis Macomber, vln / Ballade / Richard Goode, pno / Bridge 9546 A/B

This excellent two-disc compilation of the music of George Perle (1915-2009) is a reissue of several earlier Bridge recordings, though 73 minutes’ worth (a little over half) are 2017 recordings released here for the first time. The one outlier is the Ballade, played by Richard Goode, which was recorded for Nonesuch in 1984 and was licensed by Bridge for this release.

Although he made it into his 94th year, dying a few months before his birthday, Perle was never very high on most classical listeners’ radar. His music was too thorny harmonically and too edgy melodically, and for whatever reason he never achieved the fame (or notoriety, take your pick) that Elliott Carter did. He was an admirer of the 12-tone school but, like his model Alban Berg, never fully adopted dodecaphonic writing. Rather, according to his pupil Paul Lansky, he believed in “a hierarchy among the notes of the chromatic scale so that they are all referentially related to one or two pitches which then function as a tonic note or chord in tonality. The system similarly creates a hierarchy among intervals and finally, among larger collections of notes, ‘chords.’ The main debt of this system to the 12-tone system lies in its use of an ordered linear succession in the same way that a 12-tone set does (ref: Wikipedia).”

Perle was basically an educator who worked at Queens College, thus his music grew its roots in the world of academia, which is probably another reason why it wasn’t too well known, but in recent years, according to Wikipedia, “A growing number of younger artists have come to express their appreciation for Perle. In the run-up to his 100th birthday celebrations the composer-pianist Michael Brown released a well received CD of a sampling of Perle’s work for piano.”

Basically, Perle’s music was intellectually fascinating but, although there were clearly some lyrical moments in it (e.g., the 3 Solos for Clarinet, the Cello Sonata and, of course, the Hebrew Melodies), it remains somewhat thorny for the average listener; yet some of it sounds pretty “nice” to modern ears used to being assaulted with the edgy-shock style so much in vogue today. Thus this collection is especially welcome, giving the listener a cross-section of some of his finest work. Rare moments of lightness in his music come in the 9 Bagatelles for solo piano.

Each and every performer in this set comes to the music with a feeling of total commitment, both musically and emotionally, trying their best to make it sound as attractive as they possibly can. Even so, prolonged listening to Perle’s music can wear on one since it demands so much in the way of concentration on how each piece is constructed. I would recommend listening to a few pieces at a time, then taking a break before resuming.

An interesting collection, then, and although not all of these pieces are appealing, none of them are bad or poorly written. A fine collection, then, of Perle’s work in the chamber field.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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