This is, obviously, a big chunk of music from a big bunch of composers. This review is an attempt to give a sense for the comprehensive nature of the project, as opposed to a track-by-track review. The American Academy in Rome was founded in 1894, and established the music component in 1921. It has been an immensely important incubator of American music, with virtually every well-known American composer having spent some time there, as is suggested by the sampling of music presented on this set. The Rome Prize, awarded to fellows of the Academy, is a cherished symbol of recognition for aspiring artists.
This hugely rewarding set is the love child of pianist Donald Berman, the current artistic director of the American Academy in Rome. This is a commemoration of a series of recitals that took place at Carnegie Hall¹s Weill Recital Hall in 2002, with the tireless Berman on piano throughout, accompanied by the cream of the crop of New York¹s chamber music and vocal scene (their names too numerous to list here, but all enumerated at www.bridgerecords.com). The actual recordings on this set were made subsequently in a number of different venues, with unfailingly high quality sound. The style of the music created here neatly follows the arc of development in American music since 1921, from conservative European imitation, through homegrown experimentalism, to current day eclecticism and approachability. Much of the material is being presented for the first time, from scores discovered by Berman in the Rome archives. The four discs are devoted to, respectively, vocal music, music for strings and piano, solo piano music, and music for winds and piano. The disc of vocal music contains the largest of roster of composers, owing to the relative brevity of the art song. This is a format that does not tend to engender especially adventuresome material, with such modernists as Ezra Laderman staying within a comfortably lyric context. Even the most recent work, Robert Beaser¹s setting of four Dickinson poems, hews to tradition. The prickly music of Roger Sessions stands out in this company, as does, in a more refined way, the two songs of a relatively young Elliott Carter (age 31).
There is more stylistic variety on the balance of the program, beginning with the disc of music for strings and piano, although both Aaron Jay Kernis and Paul Moravec write in a tonal and very accessible manner. A real prize here is the 1929 Violin Sonata of Alexander Lang Steinert, also conservative in nature, but extremely well executed, full of beauty and elegance. The last two works on this disc highlight the innovative and intriguing work of two of the current scene¹s most fascinating composers, Martin Bresnick, writing in a daring manner for solo cello, and Stephen Hartke, with a hauntingly contemporary take on music by Thomas Tallis.
The solo piano music selection seems to invite the composers to display a more personal, intimate side. Here, we get a blast of American serialism, from Billy Jim Layton and the pre-tonal George Rochberg, both evincing a masterly grasp of the language, with music of refreshing rigor and concision. Mark Wingate¹s pieces carefully incorporate digital effects. Two other composers are inspired by historical sources. Tamar Diesendruck¹s 1990 work references music from classical and jazz greats in a musical metaphor for the tower of Babel. The Susanna in Oh, Susanna from Loren Rush is not an homage to the Stephen Foster song of the same name, but rather, our brave young friend from Mozart¹s Marriage of Figaro. The thematic kernel in the music is the wedding march from the opera, which is deconstructed by Rush and then spun out in a lovely, highly chromatic and essentially dreamlike manner.
The music for winds and piano includes the material with the most contemporary bent, with a delectable Pastorale for Oboe and Piano from Howard Hanson and a neo-Classical wind quintet by Harold Shapero, penned in 1995, offering any sense of nostalgia. The rest of this disc includes fairly wooly and invigorating stuff, none of it less than fascinating, and much of it quite witty. The title of the disc is misleading, as there is no piano for four of the compositions.
This release is, on a number of levels, highly significant. The production seems to reflect this intention, with superb performances in excellent recordings, and a dense, very well-written set of program notes. I cannot think of another set of recordings that so deftly and thoughtfully attempts an overview of the evolution of American art music, in all of its range and great energy. Are there gaps? Of course, you cannot fully represent such a huge subject in four CDs, let alone 40 (notably, there is an almost complete absence of West Coast composers). This is a snapshot album, but a very smartly edited one. Perhaps there is more to come; how about a series of orchestral music? Keep going, Bridge, and for now, molto bravo.