Living Music Journal
, May 2007
Without doubt, American composer Stephen Albert (1941-1992) is one of the greatest musical losses of the 20th century. Killed in a car accident in the prime of his career, he was in the midst of a producing works of profound significance to American music. A life-long New Yorker, Albert studied at the Eastman School of Music and the University of Pennsylvania; he taught at Stanford University and Smith College, before becoming professor of composition at The Juilliard School in New York City. He served as composer-in-residence with the Seattle Symphony in the 1980’s and fulfilled commissions from many major American orchestras and organizations.
Thankfully, most of Albert’s major works have now been recorded, although a number of those releases are unfortunately already out of print. This superb new disc on Naxos nearly completes the recording of his mature orchestral works. Albert’s next-to-last composition, the astounding clarinet concerto Wind Canticle (1991), was finally released two years ago on Albany Records in a strong performance by the Steven Schempf and the Bowling Green Philharmonia. I cannot recommend that recording highly enough. Wind Canticle would be one of my “desert island” compositions, as it sums up everything Albert does best in one compact, wonderful work. Thankfully, Naxos has decided to include music of Albert in their admirable “American Classics” series. This widely distributed new release should provide some much needed visibility for these important pieces.
Albert’s first symphony, RiverRun, was first released on Delos in an excellent performance by its commissioners, the National Symphony Orchestra under Mstislav Rostropovich. Well more than half of Albert’s compositions are inspired by the writings of James Joyce, in particular Joyce’s last major work, the fantastical novel Finnegan’s Wake. Given the depth of allusions and endless wordplay that fill the novel, it is not surprising that it could provide fertile ground for ongoing musical inspiration. In some of his “Joyce” works, Albert sets the actual texts to music. The symphony, by contrast, is a purely musical piece. However, it does share much of its musical material with the extended song cycle TreeStone (1983) for soprano, tenor, and twelve players (also recorded on an out of print Delos CD by the New York Chamber Symphony). Thus, if one knows TreeStone, one knows all sorts of words for the melodies that appear within RiverRun.
Structurally, the work overtly resembles a typical four movement symphony – Rain Music, Leafy Speafing, Beside the Rivering Waters, and River’s End – each movement with a title from Finnegan’s Wake. The use of myriad ostinati throughout the piece portrays the ever-present running river.
The opening movement sets up the thematic material of the entire work and establishes the driving pulse of the river. The second movement is quieter and slower, with no brass or percussion. In this movement, ostinato textures feature prominently as backdrops for solos, duos, and trios.
The third movement is perhaps the most striking; it is formally structured as a scherzo and trio (actually more of a “march and scherzo” as described by Albert). The most wild and fun music in the work appears within this movement. A tune is quoted that was adapted by James Joyce from an Irish folk song and was originally notated within the text of Finnegan’s Wake. Albert combines Joyce’s tune with his own material, often deliberately set up to be off-kilter in rhythmic alignment. The movement depicts an Irish wake as seen through a hazy nightmare. The piano and orchestral saxophone feature prominently and add to the drunken, reeling atmosphere. The “scherzo” material, by contrast, is whirling and child-like, bringing back material from the earlier movements. The march theme returns to end the movement in a stupor, before it all fades away to nothing.
The final movement builds in intensity throughout; it is cast in three primary sections, each separated by contrasting interludes. The movement draws together music from all the previous three movements, developing it dramatically before finally disappearing in a water-filled coda.
The work, which was awarded the 1985 Pulitzer Prize in Music, is one of Albert’s most distinctive compositions. This is one of the most important American symphonies of the second half of the 20th century and is a work of fascinating shapes, colors, and ideas – holding the interest of the listener for every moment.
Albert’s Symphony No. 2 was his last composition. He wrote it on commission from the New York Philharmonic and left it unfinished at his death. His friend, composer Sebastian Currier, was asked by G. Schirmer (Albert’s publisher) and the Albert family to complete the work. In his excellent liner note to this release, Currier describes his process – which involved primarily fleshing out already detailed orchestration notes and adding some other minor additions based on Albert’s sketches and general style. What Currier makes very clear, however, is that the work was truly already “done” at the point of Albert’s death, and we are thus hearing the piece probably almost exactly as he intended it. Albert’s orchestration style throughout his entire career is very recognizable and consistent, which was also helpful to Currier in making any decisions about matters left unclear in the manuscript. Currier states his opinion that Symphony No. 2 represents a full flowering of romantic symphonic impulses in Albert’s language that had always been present, but kept somewhat “in check” in previous works.
Unlike the fantastical world of RiverRun, the second symphony is audibly a more “conventional” piece in many regards. The myriad ostinati that featured so prominently in RiverRun are not a part of the second symphony. Rather, rich melody runs throughout, constantly developing, and awash in Albert’s very characteristic orchestration and colors. During the late 80’s and 90’s (after the composition of RiverRun) Albert composed three concerti – violin (1986), cello (1990), and clarinet (1991). It is very possible that the composition of these concerti, with the focus on a solo voice with orchestra influenced Albert’s thinking towards the sort of instrumental melody that flowers throughout this symphony. This is the first recording of the second symphony, and we can be very thankful that this magnificent work is finally available on recording.
The thirteen minute first movement is deep in register and seriousness in purpose. A carefully delineated development trajectory drives the movement. The shorter (five minute) second movement, by contrast, is a scherzo, reminiscent of the musical world explored in RiverRun. The third movement (also about thirteen minutes) returns to the expressive world of the first movement, with rich, beautiful textures building to glorious climaxes. Unlike most of Albert’s other works, the symphony ends in a full-orchestra blaze. It is a deeply passionate piece, containing many beautiful melodies and employing a thoroughly affirmative and valedictory tone.
About Albert’s style, Currier writes:
When discussing musical form and structure, he liked to make the distinction between predictability and inevitability. To be predictable was simply boring. For him, the most intense, the most memorable points in a piece were those that were unpredictable, but nonetheless felt totally inevitable. Looking back, a life can seem that way too. Although one could endlessly wonder what his “Third Symphony” might be like, in the end it is great to have these two thoughtful, finely crafted and expressive pieces.
Despite being prematurely silenced, Albert left an output that contains some of the most significant American music of the century. Its lack of visibility in performance schedules of orchestras