Classical Music Review: New Releases

Walter Piston - Chamber Music.  Quintet for Flute and String Quartet; String Sextet; Piano Quartet; Piano Quintet.  James Buswell, Michele Walsh, Dimity Hall, Anthony Gault, violins; Theodore Kuchar, Randolph Kelly, violas; Judith Glyde, Carol Ou, cellos; Michael Gurt, Ian Munro, pianos; Olga Shylaveva, flute. Recorded in conjunction with the 1999 Australian Festival of Chamber Music.  Naxos 8.559071 (69'44).

The music of Walter Piston (1894-1976) inhabits the same world as the novels of John Updike or the poems of Robert Lowell: genteel, mannered, restrained and technically proficient.  It is, perhaps, a New England quality.  More surprising is that those very qualities are so well conveyed in these performances from an international group of players at a music festival in Queensland, Australia, literally the other end of the world.

Two of the works, the Quintet for Flute and String Quartet (1942) and the Piano Quintet (1949), date from the period when Piston was engaged in writing his classic textbooks Harmony (1944) and Counterpoint (1947), both of which remain in print.  The Flute Quintet shows Piston at his finest.  The flute is integrated into the string quartet's textures, yet Piston allows the instrument's contrasting tone to highlight occasional passages and allow them to rise above the polyphony.  Lyrical, without being melodic, the music has a serenity that only partially masks its complexity.  Its appeal is to the mind and not the heart.  The Piano Quintet is a more aggressive, rhythmic work.  The opening movement is built around two strongly contrasting themes, often played in unison on the strings.  The middle Adagio is chromatic and harmonically opaque with an arch-like structure.  The concluding Allegro vivo has a looser, more adventurous feel.  The various episodes, including a 6/8 scherzo, are linked by a driving pattern on the strings and piano.

Both the String Sextet and the Piano Quartet date from 1964.  The refinement of the earlier compositions is still in evidence; however, there is an increasing edginess to these later works.  The Sextet comes across as a more experimental work.  The opening movement has a static effect similar to Richard Strauss's Metamorphosen (1945); however, an atonal passage, which comes to dominate the latter half of the movement, alters but fails to break the sombre mood.  A skittish, brisk Scherzo follows, then a busy sonata-form Finale marked "Energico."  The Piano Quartet, while darker than the pieces from the 1940s, is more in line with their neo-classical flavor.  Piston handles the notorious difficulties of the format with ease.  The piano and strings are masterfully balanced.

The performers catch Piston's idiom to perfection.  An interesting release, here's hoping that up-to-date recordings of the core of Piston's work -- the symphonies and string quartets -- are soon available.

Tony Gualtieri
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