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Robert R. Reilly, January 2011

It is for allowing us to hear the “non-classic” American composers, however, that we should be particularly grateful to Naxos. Some of these are older folks like Paul Fetler (b. 1920), who were simply overlooked in the din caused by the army of noise. The Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra, under Arie Lipsky, gives Fetler the first recording dedicated solely to his music (Naxos 8.559606). From what I hear on this disc, it is way overdue. The CD begins with Three Poems by Walt Whitman. I abhor music with narration, which is what this is, but the quality of Fetler’s settings is so brilliant that I endured Thomas Blaske’s amateur readings. I was enraptured by the evocative nocturnal tone poem Fetler was developing in the first poem for nearly three minutes before the narration began. The impressionistic music is so beautiful that I wish Fetler had set these texts as songs instead.

The Capriccio that follows is a delightful piece full of, in Fetler’s words, “whimsy and playfulness.” It reminds me of Prokofiev in his lighter vein. The major work on this CD is the Violin Concerto No. 2, with violinist Aaron Berofsky. This full-throated, highly lyrical music, composed in 1980, is directly in the lineage of Barber’s great romantic Violin Concerto. This may be old-fashioned music, but it is so enchanting that it vindicates Fetler’s statement that “what was modern is modern no more. All the issues vanish, only expression remains.” The Ann Arbor performances were recorded live, with completely silent audiences who obviously were as taken with this music as you will be. Buy this CD so that Naxos gives us more of Fetler’s music.

Herman Trotter
American Record Guide, May 2010

The works of Paul Fetler (b. 1920) constitute one of the best-kept secrets in American music. He was born in Philadelphia but raised by his peripatetic parents in Latvia, Holland, Switzerland, and Sweden. After studies with Hindemith, Blacher, and others he spent most of his life as a professor at the University of Minnesota. This background left him with a style that is believably American, but with many cosmopolitan accents in an easily digested manner of musical speech.

Fetler’s music has long been highly respected in Minnesota’s twin cities and well represented on small local record labels, but his national reputation has been puzzlingly slight. One of the reasons may be that his tenure at the University of Minnesota ran almost exactly parallel to Dominick Argento’s. There was apparently no competitiveness between the composers, but under those conditions the spotlight fell less often on Fetler than on Argento.

Until this new Naxos release, his only work to achieve national distribution has been Contrasts for Orchestra, an 18-minute “non-traditional symphony” (Fetler’s words) performed by Dorati and the then-Minneapolis Symphony in 1960 on Mercury. It was reissued on CD in 1994. The new Naxos will allow discerning listeners to judge Fetler’s creative muse on its own.

I was exposed to a lot of Fetler’s works in the 1980s when Semyon Bychkov mounted a mini-Fetler-Fest with the Buffalo Philharmonic, and came away with the conviction that his Three Poems by Walt Whitman for narrator and orchestra, written in 1976 for the American Bicentenary, may be his masterpiece. Among American works in this idiom, only Copland’s Lincoln Portrait is its equal.

Ann Arbor music director Arie Lipsky was principal cellist of the Buffalo Philharmonic in the 1980s, and the new Naxos recording is the result of a great fondness for Fetler’s music that must come from the 1980s. His performance reveals a fine sounding Ann Arbor Symphony and an excellent grasp of Fetler’s masterly translation of Whitman’s emotions into music. The first poem, ‘I am he that walks with the tender and growing night’, is an ardent supplication in praise of nature and the magical passion of nocturnal quietude. It opens with evocative bassoons that Fetler always employs to great effect in his orchestration, and weaves its way through sensitive supporting passages in horns and a sustained orchestral partnership flowing naturally between mystery and guarded ecstasy.

The second poem, ‘Beat! Beat! Drums!’, is Whitman’s passionate diatribe against mankind’s seemingly uncontrollable warlike mentality. The music is a torrent of convulsive brass and percussion exclamations peaking in a coda of frenetic cross-rhythms and wild, heavenward-flung trumpets that generate an almost unbearable excitement. The contrast of this tumult with the tenderness of the finale constitutes one of the most exquisite moments in 20th Century American music.

The concluding poem, ‘Ah from a little child thou knowest, Soul, that all sounds to me became music’, is expressed in a recurring chorale-like prayer in strings, then low brass, garnished with a beautiful floating violin solo and in its final moments by the distant sound of a child’s toy piano, like an echo, so tender and poignant as to make applause seem not only irrelevant, but intrusive.

That said, there is a problem with the narration. The otherwise excellent liner notes do not include texts and describe narrator Thomas Blaske as a lifelong Whitman scholar. But knowledge is no substitute for a sense of drama. Whitman’s poetry is often declamatory, and even in contemplative moments still needs firm vocal support. Except in ‘Beat! Beat! Drums!’ Blaske tends to understate Whitman’s emotional content. Fetler’s music always nails it. Blaske’s soft tonal quality, insensitive phrasing, willowy rather than firm line, and often simplistic, sing-song delivery can sound more like a bedtime story than a seminal poet’s inspired words. Although the analogy is not exact, the way Blaske often gets stylistically off base reminds me of a countertenor trying to sing ‘Nessun Dorma’. This is serious criticism and is offered only after comparing the new recording with my private tapes of the 1976 premiere by the Minnesota Orchestra and the 1987 Buffalo Philharmonic performance.

Although the toy piano might have been a bit closer miked to advantage, Lipsky carves the emotional line through these superb orchestral pictures with great fidelity to Whitman’s incomparably expressive poetry.

Fetler’s sprightly 1985 Capriccio makes a fine centerpiece for the recording, with its chamber orchestra scoring, its delightfully playful interweaving of flute and piccolo lines, its spiky, Stravinskian textures, and its many unexpected dashes of wit and offhand whimsy.

Although the concluding 1980 Violin Concerto No. 2 is by no means a wispy and retiring work, its first and second movements (Allegro non troppo and Adagio) do contain a lot of musical language that is rhapsodic and captivatingly lyrical but nonetheless more allusory than declamatory. And through both of them Fetler adds a unique touch in the form of descending chromatic two-note motifs, periodically repeated, but in the background and seeming to function something like road signs directing the tonal course of the music. Used sparingly in the horns in the first movement, and more persistently in the Adagio but with softer instrumentation or pizzicato, this unifying device links these essentially lyrical movements and contrasts them effectively with the bustling finale (Allegro molto). Here the music’s deliberate progression is interrupted only by an engaging fugato for strings and a contemplative solo cadenza, with an engaging conversational return to the a tempo coda.

Lipsky directs fine performances of both of these purely orchestral works, and violinist Berofsky’s understanding and projection of the solo lines is exemplary. Overall, this is a very penetrating view of Fetler’s orchestral style and is strongly recommended to anyone who revels in discovering under-appreciated composers.

Nick Barnard
MusicWeb International, March 2010

The Naxos ‘American Classics’: series continues apace. Here, the work of a composer quite unknown to me is presented in performances of compelling conviction. Paul Fetler was born in the USA in 1920 but for reasons unexplained in the liner-note spent much of his youth in Europe from Latvia to Sweden and Switzerland. Apparently this is the first CD to be dedicated to his work exclusively and I doubt there could be a finer calling card. Each of the three works presented here are strikingly different in style and artistic aim and yet even by this limited yardstick Fetler emerges as a distinctive, skilful, but above all musically convincing voice. One of the great subsidiary benefits of this Naxos series has been the growing awareness of the number of fine hitherto little known or appreciated orchestras in America. To that list must now be added the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra. Clearly they have a continuing commitment to Fetler’s work as evidenced by the fact that this entire CD consists of live performances given at three different concerts over a year. And what very fine performances they are—technically beyond reproach but also full of the fire and adrenalin that a good live performance can bring.

But back to the music. The earliest work presented here Three Poems by Walt Whitman opens the programme. This was a 1976 commission to mark the American Bicentennial so how apt that Fetler should choose texts by one of America’s favourite poets from his most famous work, Leaves of Grass (1855). Whitman has exercised a fascination for composers ever since his work was published. Delius, Bliss, Vaughan Williams and Holst are just four of many British composers to be drawn to his work. Vaughan Williams indeed set Beat! Beat! Drums! which constitutes the central panel of Fetler’s work as part of his powerful Dona Nobis Pacem of 1936. All of the composers mentioned above set these verses to be sung. Fetler grasps the much thornier challenge of using a narrator and orchestra. As I have said elsewhere in other reviews I think the format of narrator and orchestra is fraught with difficulties with perhaps only a handful of works succeeding. To that list I would now add this work without reservation. The essential problem as I see it is this—how to relate the text to the music. In a choral/sung setting clearly part of that problem is solved by the fact that the instrumental lines literally supports harmonically and thematically the sung line. In a narration does the composer try to be illustrative (which can result in a rather simplistic “words in music” effect) or does he create a mood, a bed of sound, on which the narration sits? Fetler chooses neither of these options, instead, and with enormous skill, he has created a musical parallel path—a kind of miniature tone poem, a contemporary reinterpretation of the text that sits alongside the poem as an equal partner. Of course there are moments when the paths cross and Fetler illustrates the moment but you never feel that either party is overly bound to the other. Another major benefit of this is that it frees the narrator from having to speak the text in a too-limiting rhythm. So often in narrated pieces the flow of the text when spoken seems inhibited—not here. In the second movement already mentioned (which describes a city girding itself for war) the tumult, the fear and excitement is quite brilliantly realised. This movement in particular is a virtuoso display for the orchestra, all tumbling brass reveilles and drum tattoos and it is superbly performed here—a piece that on first hearing is utterly convincing and compelling. The narrator is one Thomas H. Blaske. His biography in the liner-notes describes him as “a little-known, much loved raconteur about Ann Arbor”. Can you be much loved but little known?! Perhaps to know him is to love him. Apparently he is one of Michigan’s top trial attorneys AND writes poetry for the New Yorker. Add to that a photograph that makes him look a bit like a character from The Music Man and it all becomes a little bizarre. Obviously his voice was amplified at the live performance and my only technical quibble with the entire disc is that this results in a slightly synthetic quality to his voice as mixed into the orchestral texture. There is an avuncular charm to his narration - none of the po-faced, grey toned drone that so often seems to apply to poetic declamation - that works well. The central setting is a palpable hit; Blaske’s slightly breathless, not perfectly enunciated style fits the mood to a tee. I’m not quite so sure he has the measure of the other two movement’s poems, the simplicity of the imagery encouraging him to a slightly saccharine tone. But please do not for one single instant let that caveat stop you sampling this work. Yes, I can imagine the narration being more completely achieved but the work as a whole is superb. There are too many subtle and skilful moments to mention in the context of this review, but here are just a couple of highlights. Liner-note writer Ed Yazinsky rightly characterises the opening I am he that walks with the tender and growing night as having a nocturnal ambience. But I sense darker forces at work too. Surely the repeated use of a fragmented half of the Dies Irae chant is no accident. Perhaps this is another example where death, sleep and night merge. Fetler uses small motifs both harmonic and rhythmic to bind the entire work together. So we get string progressions anticipating the third movement and gentle trumpet fanfares presaging the second. The orchestra meditates alone for a good two and a half minutes before the poem starts. What immediately becomes clear is just how modern Whitman sounds. For works over 150 years old they have extraordinary contemporary resonance. And therein probably lies the enduring interest in his work. A word of praise too at this point for all of the solos taken within the orchestra. There is some beautiful work by the principal horn for one but particular mention should go to the concertmaster (the same Aaron Berofsky who features as the concerto soloist) of the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra. Sinuously lyrical high lying lines are played with total security and real beauty.

There is a wonderfully theatrical moment with the opening of the final movement. Out of the chaos and tumult of Beat! Beat! Drums! emerges a sequence of the most beautiful peaceful chords imaginable. Again the solo violin sings a carolling lark-like song high over the orchestral landscape. Little shudders from strings and a dulcimer-like toy piano (described as such in the liner) presage another two and a half minute prelude before the narrator enters again accompanied by the innocent chords of the opening. Solos are passed around the woodwind—again beautifully played—before in one of the few explicitly illustrative instrumental passages the orchestra imitate the wind through the corn, the falling rain and the twittering birds. Precisely because we have NOT had this literalism before it leaps out as wonderfully effective. The chords return in the brass choir and the violin resumes its song. It seems to me that the heart of this work lies in the final words the narrator says (a repetition of the poem’s opening lines); “Ah from a little child, Thou knowest soul how to me all sounds became music”. The liner notes tell us how Fetler’s first composition was a piano piece written when he was six—does the final lingering duet between the toy piano and ecstatic violin somehow represent this early inspiration when “all sounds became music”? Pure speculation on my part but the idea certainly fits the emotional landscape of the work. Credit too to the rapt audience whose presence you barely notice and who (thank goodness!) do not break the considerable spell of the work by diving in with applause—which when it does come is deservedly warm and generous. Hopefully it will be clear to readers that I consider this a work of great stature and beauty.

Not that the rest of the disc fails to measure up. Naxos wisely place the eleven minute Capriccio second. Fetler admits to writing this as an antidote to contemporary music he describes as “super-serious”. He quotes a dictionary definition of capriccio as “… an instrumental composition in more or less free form, often in a whimsical style.” And indeed this is exactly what we get—less obviously individual than either of the other two works it is a fun piece. Not so much in the harmonic language it uses, which is clearly of its time, I would liken the jaunty spirit of it to the many comedy overtures in the style of Alan Rawsthorne’s Street Corner Overture or William Alwyn’s Derby Day. Again Fetler makes considerable demands of the players but the performance here has all the wit and lightness of touch essential for a successful performance.

The disc concludes with another substantial and immediately appealing work—the Violin Concerto No.2. Sinuous lyricism is again a phrase that springs to mind. Fetler has the ability to write melodic lines that although they are widely spaced and range across the instrument’s entire spectrum cohere. I am always loath to say any new composer or work “sounds like”—that is usually down to my lack of deeper knowledge of the new work in question—but I heard strong echoes of the Syzmanowski Violin Concerto No.1. Not that Fetler is in any way copying the other work—simply they seem to share a similar aesthetic with aural images of birdsong and night common to both. I like the way he creates an atmosphere at once both tranquil yet tinged with foreboding. Berofsky plays with all assurance he showed in the Whitman settings. Praise here to the engineers who have him ideally placed within the orchestral sound picture. Berofsky matches his tone ideally to the rhapsodic mood of the work—this is not a work which would benefit from a muscular powerhouse approach. Although the work is cast in the traditional fast/slow/fast format Fetler has created a highly original work. The orchestration tends to be more sparing than in the Whitman, certainly in the opening two movements, but that is very much in keeping with the night-music mood. The central Adagio opens with a lyrically simple song without words over sustained chords and arpeggiated pizzicato figures. There are beautiful dialogues for the violin and oboe and then horn before the violin continues on its wistfully nostalgic way returning to the opening song. The tutti violins join and a very gentle climax is reached. The movement draws to its dream-filled conclusion with further rhapsodising from the solo violin and a final recalling of the opening material—this is a beautifully proportioned and deceptively innocent movement. Again, Fetler enjoys the theatricality of a jolting opening to the concerto’s finale—a fuller orchestra than we have heard elsewhere in the work. There is a Waltonian bustle and energy with orchestra and soloist chasing each other around a musical playground. A quasi-fugal passage allows the soloist some brief respite and when the violinist does re-enter it is with another lyrical passage although the orchestra seems intent on continuing its game of tag beneath him. As in the rest of the concerto the solo writing sounds eminently well conceived and practical. After one last reflective cadenza the scampering energy of the opening resumes (Fetler does like his temple-blocks, they add a distinctive timbre to his orchestral palette) and all involved dash to the finishing post. This is one of those lucky pieces that is immediately appealing on first listening but continues to impress the more one gets under the skin of the work. Conductor Arie Lipsky clearly has full measure of these works and Fetler is fortunate to have him and his orchestra as such enthusiastic advocates of his work. The engineering of this disc is not by any of the usual Naxos teams but as mentioned above, with the single exception of the spoken voice, it sounds exceptionally well…a disc of moving, beautiful and very involving music.

Gapplegate Music Review, January 2010

Paul Fetler (b. 1920) only now enjoys a CD exclusively devoted to his music (Naxos 8.559606). Arie Lipsky conducts the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra in a program of three works that seemingly give you a good idea of this relatively unknown American composer. His composition teachers are one place to start to give you an idea of his musical style; they are David Van Vactor, Quincy Porter and Paul Hindemith. While Fetler is in no way a clone of these masters, he does share with them a kind of modernist, tonal lyricism. The “Three Poems by Walt Whitman (1976),” “Capriccio (1985),” and “Violin Concerto No. 2 (1980)” share a skillful use of orchestral color, atmospheric evocativeness and the long-phrased quality of late romantic tone poem exposition.

Violinist Aaron Berofsky does a fine job with the solo role in the Poems and the Concerto, and a vivid sound stage on this recording brings Felter’s music to life. He may not be one of the prime movers of his musical age, but his music has charm. Hindemith he isn’t. He is Fetler.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, January 2010

Soon to be celebrating his 90th birthday, Paul Felter spent his younger years in Eastern Europe before returning to his birthplace in the United States where he has divided his time between teaching and composing. Though not a name often encountered outside of his homeland, he has a portfolio of over 150 compositions whose roots you can trace back to European music in the classical era. Three Poems by Walt Whitman certainly follow the American love of mixing words and music, three highly emotive poems narrated over a backdrop of pictorial music. You could hardly fail to be stirred by the impact of Beat! Beat! Drums!, the voice of Thomas Blaske—who in life is an attorney—adding to the feel of the terror of war. In the quiet surrounding movements his voice perfectly complements the music, and I strongly commend the work to you. Composed for the American Bicentennial in 1976, it came four years before the attractive Second Violin Concerto. From a whispered orchestral opening the score falls into line with the tonal scores of the 20th century, Walton, Barber and Szymanowsky springing to mind. Though the opening movement is an Allegro it is not overly dramatic, the relaxed nature carrying through into the central Adagio. Only in the finale does the work become really animated, the solo orchestral instruments, particularly percussion, dancing around the more static accompaniment. Five years later came Capriccio, which, as the title suggests, is capricious, full of fun, and with solo parts for flute and piccolo. All are derived from ‘live’ concerts given over the past three years by an excellent Michigan-based orchestra. The much travelled Aaron Berofsky is the exemplary violin soloist, and the engineers require much praise for a naturally balanced orchestral sound. Do please make your acquaintance with the composer.

Susan Isaacs Nisbett, December 2009

There’s something wonderful and not a little startling about holding a CD in your hand emblazoned with both the name of a major record company—Naxos—and a local institution—the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra.

Let me tell you, it’s equally wonderful and not a little startling to listen to such a CD. Inside, on tracks that offer three works from American composer Paul Fetler, is a fine reminder of the sort of major-league playing the orchestra has been doing under conductor Arie Lipsky. In a blind taste test, local symphony or regional orchestra would not be your first picks. The playing is vital, alive and utterly polished…Paul Fetler counts himself delighted with this first recording devoted entirely to his work. And Lipsky, in typical fashion, counts the CD important not just for highlighting the orchestra’s work but for highlighting Fetler’s contributions to American music.

Those contributions should draw listeners in to this CD, the newest addition to Naxos’ “American Classics” series. Fetler’s evocative lyricism is a luscious underpinning in music that is itself protean in color, style and mood.

“Three Poems by Walt Whitman” celebrates a quintessential American poet in a three-movement tone poem for orchestra and narrator that was a a Bicentennial commission. Unlike most such “pieces d’occasion,” this one is a keeper, rapturous, potent and atmospheric in its evocations of Whitman’s poems of nature, war and childhood…but the orchestra, under Lipsky’s direction, shines throughout. If you loved the concerts—or missed them—you’ll love this CD…

Herman Trotter
The Buffalo News, December 2009

Paul Fetler, Three Poems of Walt Whitman, Capriccio, Violin Concerto No. 2; Ann Arbor Symphony conducted by Arie Lipsky, with narrator Thomas Blaske and violinist Aaron Berofsky (Naxos) Back in the 1980s, the Buffalo Philharmonic offered excellent performances of then-Minnesota-based composer Paul Fetler, including the Whitman Poems and Violin Concerto listed above. Former BPO principal cellist Arie Lipsky now heads the Ann Arbor Symphony and has expressed his fondness for Fetler’s works in this new Naxos CD. It’s a significant addition to recordings of under-recognized, listener-friendly American composers. Fetler fits in that category, with superbly inventive orchestration, such as the bassoons that open the “Three Poems of Whitman.” The recorded performance is very good, marred only by the narrator’s emotionless traversal of the opening “I Am He That Walks.” The following “Beat! Beat! Drums!” and the surpassingly tender “Ah, From a Little Child” capture the spirit of poetry and music very well…

John J. Puccio
Classical Candor, December 2009

Who’s Paul Fetler? I hear some of you asking. It’s hard to keep up with all the modern composers who dot the musical landscape these days, even though Mr Fetler (b. 1920) has been around for quite a long time and gained a sizable following. He’s one of those contemporary composers who isn’t afraid to reach out and touch an audience rather than bludgeon them with heavy-handed, often experimental noise. As such, his music is easily accessible and highly enjoyable.

Fetler, a Professor Emeritus at the University of Minnesota teaching music composition describes his compositional approach as “progressive lyricism” or expressively flowing melodies. Certainly, the three works on this 2009 Naxos disc reflect his lyrical style.

The program begins with Three Poems by Walt Whitman (written to commemorate the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976), musical settings for some of the great American poet’s words, with a narration by lifelong Whitman scholar and Ann Arbor attorney, Thomas H. Blaske. The three selected pieces represent the tranquil as well as the outgoing sides of the poet, from “I am he who walks with the tender and growing night” to “Beat! Beat! Drums!” to “Ah, from a little child.” If you like Whitman, Fetler does his lines justice.

Next is the single-movement but infinitely varied Capriccio (commissioned as a dedicatory work for the opening concert of the Minneapolis Chamber Symphony in 1985), a wonderfully light, playfully upbeat little set of ditties that make an appropriate contrast to the more-serious tempers of Whitman.

Things conclude with the showpiece of the album, the Violin Concerto No. 2 (1980), which the composer characterizes as a “labor of love,” meaning it was not a commission and he was under no deadline to complete it. The opening movement has a vaguely dark, foreboding, Eastern-European cast to it, which quickly opens up to a sunnier, more-inviting mood. It is poetically graceful, reminiscent of the more-placid elements of Enesco. Aaron Berofsky’s violin passages dart nimbly amongst a whole bevy of attractive tunes, becoming quite dramatic by the close. In the second movement Adagio the tone turns more to Debussy in its atmospheric reverie. Then, the final movement takes the work out with a bang, Berofsky keeping his violin in constant motion.

The performers seem to be enjoying themselves immensely, and it’s all quite agreeable, as is Naxos’s sound. It’s the kind of sound that my late dear friend Nate Garfinkle might surely have characterized as “sweet”…pleasantly realistic, with a natural sense of orchestral depth and presence…the overall sonic impression is velvety smooth and pleasing.

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