Charles Wuorinen: Eighth Symphony (Theologoumena), Fourth Piano Concerto
Distributed by Bridge Records, Inc., 200 Clinton Ave., New Rochelle, NY 10801
Produced by David Starobin
Audio CD, 59 min. 34 sec.
American Music, 21st Century Composers, Piano Concertos, Symphonies
Reviewed by Vincent J. Novara, Curator, Special Collections in Performing Arts, University of Maryland
Date Entered: 10/18/2016
American composer Charles Wuorinen is of greater consequence in terms of distinguished awards and professional recognition than in those of commercial popularity. Winner of a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Fellowship (“Genius Grant”), his long and successful career in music also features work as conductor, pianist, author, and educator. Once published by the American Composers Alliance, Wuorinen’s works are now exclusively published by C.F. Peters. It is fair to say that he composes challenging music for both the performer and the listener. Although favoring techniques more common with academic composers, such as twelve-tone processes, Wuorinen’s deeply expressive works in all mediums are melodic and with deliberate harmonic movement. This is certainly the case with the works presented here, his Eighth Symphony (Theologoumena) and Fourth Piano Concerto.
Recorded by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conductor James Levine is a champion of contemporary American music, especially Wuorinen’s. The orchestra commissioned both works, with the Eighth Symphony to mark their 125th anniversary. The BSO perform the two compositions with remarkable clarity and impressive precision. For such rhythmically ambitious work rife with dissonance and complex melodic gestures, it is no small feat to execute such a compelling performance. For the piano concerto, pianist Peter Serkin’s performance displays a sensitivity to the composition in dynamic shading and an ideal balance with the orchestra, when appropriate. Overall, the performances are recorded effectively, with no balance issues to speak of, apart from the occasional illusion of distance in capturing keyboard percussion instruments.
Fourteen pages of liner notes address the works and the careers of the composer, conductor, and soloist. The content is quite informative without belaboring the topics or putting off the reader with impenetrable academic prose. Descriptive and technical information on the two works and their recording sessions are easily accessible in the package.
This release by Bridge Records is recommended for academic music libraries supporting programs specializing in contemporary music and American music. While Wuorinen’s compositions are available in the current online subscription music databases for libraries, multiple recordings for his works are not as common as some of his more commercially viable peers. For other recordings devoted entirely to his works, Albany Record’s Charles Wuorinen Series and the Naxos label offer several worth acquiring to complement this release. Yet, Bridge’s earlier Violin and Piano Works, 1969-1983 from 1988 might prove best for that role. Charles Wuorinen: Eighth Symphony (Theologoumena), Fourth Piano Concerto well represents both the composer and Levine’s intention for the BSO to bolster contemporary American music.