American music of the twentieth century, at least that variety that styles itself “serious” music, is inhabited by a range of highly independent composers. One of its most notable aspects, in fact, is its resistance to “schools” outside of the broadest categorizations. The only designation I can think of that encompasses the such composers as Ives, Thomson, Barber, Feldman, Cage, Bernstein, Partch and Riley is “American.”
There is somewhat more coherence in this selection of American works for the piano by Copland, Sessions, Kirchner and Rorem, as performed by Leon Fleisher. I wasn’t convinced of the commentator’s insistence that these composers reflect a romantic sensibility, a product of their urban milieu; these selections strike me as owing a great debt to the vocabulary of modernism. Frankly, when you have a context that includes Stravinsky on the West Coast and Bartók on the East, as happened during one of the great periods of artistic ferment in the United States, also a key period in the careers of most of the composers represented here, that’s hard to avoid.
I think, however, I can subscribe to the “romantic” take on this music, but not in terms of any sort of rusticity or yearning for the unspoiled: it’s a much more fundamental and more philosophical take on my part, going back to the idea of the work as “Ding an sich,” self-contained, self-referential, existing in its own universe, and by that means reaching a kind of purity that earlier examples sought through the invocation of Nature.
This is particularly evident in Aaron Copland’s Piano Sonata, a work with a highly angular profile that nevertheless slips from mood to mood, but does so on its own terms. It doesn’t seem to care, really, whether we follow along or not. It’s rather like spending time with a cat: humbling, but ultimately rewarding.
Konrad Wolff, in his comments on Roger Sessions’ From My Diary, states point blank that the composer followed no system of composing, which throws this suite even more into the “self-contained” category. But again, we find a range of moods arrived at through unusual means: dissonance plays against expected tonal relationships until we get our bearings and realize that there is, indeed, a strong melodic line in each section, which has the effect of casting this inarguably twentieth-century modernist work into the romantic tradition of Beethoven, Chopin, and Schumann (from whose Albumblätter the original title — “Pages from My Diary” — was taken).
Leon Kirchner’s Piano Sonata is much more comfortably modernist than either the Copland or the Sessions. In this piece, Kirchner plays with silence as a way to shape the sounds, a process in which dynamics add the finishing touches. Once again, we run through a variety of moods, all seeming to originate from a core within the work itself, with no acknowledgement of anything outside.
Ned Rorem is the youngest composer represented here, and also the most “romantic” in the commonly accepted sense, although there’s no mistaking his Three Barcarolles for anything but twentieth-century works. These, too, are like taking a walk with a cat: Rorem once commented that he prefers to write “open-ended” melodies, with no patterns, and these pieces wander along finding their own points of interest, with little concern for our expectations, until finally they reach a resolution that may or may not have been the one we were waiting for.
A comment of Fleisher’s interpretation: he has this stuff cold. He catches it, from the bold, almost expressionistic strokes of Copland to the subtle pastels of Rorem, and every shade of nuance in between — and he manages to find the subtleties in Copland and the boldness in Rorem to boot. There are passages in the Sessions that take on a brooding intensity, and in the Kirchner where the tension becomes almost unbearable, and Fleisher does it all with an air of being in complete command, never any strain, never reaching. This is a superb example of how to approach modern music.
(Sony BMG Music Entertainment, 2008 [orig. released 1963])