, April 2006
Not much of Frank Ezra Levy’s musical output has been committed to disc — in looking at what is currently available on various web sites, I have found a cello concerto (his first) and his fourth symphony. Here, then, is a special contribution towards the wider distribution of this composer’s music. A Summer Overture manages to sound like an American overture without also sounding like Copland or Bernstein, which, by other examples out there, is no mean feat. It has moments both exciting and sinister. The work is based on the tune "Sumer is icumen in," which is reduced to fragments that are treated contrapuntally. This is an easily accessible piece that will appeal both to early music enthusiasts as well as to those that enjoy dynamic, extrovert music.
The Second Cello Concerto, a work of 2002 performed by its dedicatee, begins on the same note A Summer Overture returned to so insistently in its coda. In his notes, the composer refers to a process of "kaleidoscopic variation" as the basis for this composition. Indeed, the movements focus on broad variations that change guise. The first movement ends seemingly in mid-sentence, with the contrasting narrative of the second movement as a sudden change of heart. Reminiscent of Shostakovich, this movement has the solo instrument and orchestral forces trading the narrative line and, rather often, in conflict with each other for dominance. The Allegro is a manic, driving force in the orchestra, with the solo instrument acting almost as a retarding agent, tempering the outbursts of the collected ensemble. Though Shostakovich comes to mind, this is a work that has none of the mind-spinning Shostakovich cadenzas; instead it seems to focus on pitting the orchestra against the solo instrument.
Rondo Tarantella of 2003 begins ominously with low winds, then transfers its unease, its syncopated jig-like theme, to the strings and upper woodwinds. This work has been incorporated into the opera Mother’s Day as the finale to Act 2, where, in an effort to gain entry to a women’s political movement, the President’s husband disguises himself as a woman to infiltrate a demonstration. It is a piece of tension and anticipation.
The Third Symphony of 1977 is a much earlier work than the others presented here. It is a weightier example of the basic method employed by Levy, which consists of an initial basic narration of a theme from which variations arise. Some of the mutations are more radical than others before the original statement returns. Odd elements and figures at the end foreshadow the second movement, which continues from the first without a break; a steady building of the material that has been presented. With a restrained gong blow, the movement is driven back to a taut quiet section before the ensemble takes courage behind the horn’s restatement. From there, the orchestral forces gather finally to a military force that ends abruptly with a flurry of woodwinds. The side-drum motif that heralds this last movement and takes us through to the end is a recurrence of the same figure that reminds one of Shostakovich in the cello concerto.
The sound quality of this disc fits in well with the overall quality of the Naxos releases. In the cello concerto, the solo instrument is warmly presented, well-balanced with the orchestra, and exceedingly well-played by Ballantyne.