Oct/Nov 2003

m a k i n g   t i m e


with Don Mager

National Treasures

Wallingford Riegger. Symphony No.4, Op.63 (1956).
Variations for Piano and Orchestra, Op.54 (1953). Benjamin Owen.
Variations for Violin and Orchestra, Op.63. Sidney Harth, violin.
The Louisville Orchestra. Robert S. Whitney, conductor (1904-1986)
First Edition Music. FECD-0007 (first recorded 1954, 1060 and 1064;
remastered and reissued 2002)


With the recent deaths of Peck, Hepburn, Hope and Hines [and Cash—ed.], the term "national treasure" has readily come to lips and pens. A treasury that might have passed almost into oblivion is the archive of over 400 performances beginning in 1948 of works commissioned, performed and recorded by the Louisville Orchestra under Robert Whitney. Along with Howard Hanson's recordings on Mercury with the Eastman Rochester Orchestra, Whitney's project did more to promote and create audiences for 20th orchestral music in the United States than all other recordings and commissions combined. The difference is that Hanson limited his wonderful recordings to American composers and usually works already written, whereas the Louisville project was international and almost everything was freshly commissioned.

Around 2000, the Santa Fe Music Group under the label First Edition began to reissue several Louisville CDs per year of carefully chosen works, not always with the works matched on the CD as they had been on records. The Riegger Symphony No.4 is the seventh of the reissues, and by any measure it is a deserving choice.

Readers of this column may wonder why I am writing about a work written almost 60 years ago by a composer who died in 1961. Two reasons: to acknowledge and inspire music listeners to seek out the First Edition reissues, and to honor one of the colossal figures of American orchestral music.

Santa Fe's remastering is first rate. I have heard about half of the reissues, and each of them has a presence and clarity and sonic richness that makes the work seem as if it were live performance in one of the acoustically best halls in the country today. Whitney and his orchestra of 50 musicians (small then, small now) had a luxury of rehearsal time that contemporary professional orchestras with their tight budgets and demanding schedules would envy. Whitney worked up each new work with a sense of conviction about its musical merits and coaxed from the orchestra exquisite attention to detail and balance. Often the composers were present for the rehearsals and/or premiers. The best of them wrote specifically for the Louisville ensemble and its limited size. Santa Fe, so far, seems committed to creating digital remasters that reflect the original Whitney/Louisville dedication and care. Give yourself an audio treat and listen to one of these treasures!

Now to Riegger. Wallingford Riegger is one of the colossal figures of American orchestral music. The few works of his in the recorded catalog have riveted me since at least 1960. Why his Symphony No.3 (the original recording of which has been in the Schwann listing ever since its first release on one label or another) is not a concert hall staple is for me one of the quirkiest mysteries of programming and performance. To my ear it is one of the half dozen greatest American symphonies written. Of his early first two symphonies, I know nothing. A few chamber works have been recorded from time to time, and some of the scores he wrote for Martha Graham to dance. Otherwise, he is a composer one reads about in music history books but rarely hears.

Unlike the majority of mid-century American symphonists who honed their techniques under Nadia Boulenger in Paris, Riegger studied in Germany in the 30s, but before that he had worked loosely with a group that has after the fact been dubbed the "American Five." This group includes John J. Becker, Henry Cowell, Charles Ives and Carl Ruggles. Unlike the New Englanders who dominate this group, Riegger came from Albany, Georgia; like them, he initially sought to forge a style that is "American," iconoclastic, anti-academic and yet responsive to the symphonic and chamber genres of the European inheritance.

From his German training, especially exposure to the work of Schoenberg and Bartok, he returned with a stronger interest in large structures worked out through counterpoint than did most of the Paris-trained composers. In this respect he might be linked to Robert Sessions, but always he had a more ruggedly iconoclastic streak than Sessions, and to my ear seems to be Elliott Carter's most direct precursor.

Enough music history. What about the music on this disk? First, Riegger wrote with exacting attention to the Louisville orchestra's modest resources (50 musicians) and notably did not place the burden of the works texture in terms of themes or orchestration on the limited string section. Instead he conceived a work for the orchestra as an ensemble of equals—if any music is conceptually "democratic," this is! The two sets of solo-orchestra variations are splendid and substantial virtuoso vehicles that spin through unexpected byways as they exfoliate their variations with moments of jazzy brashness alternating with complex but always lucid counterpointed textures. The orchestra, like Bartok's, is treated like a kaleidoscopic palate inviting endlessly fresh combinations of sounds, as opposed to the traditional Germanic dialoguing between timbreal choirs (strings, winds, brass, percussion). However, Riegger does enjoy brief bursts of brassy fanfare, often at unexpected moments. The Symphony No.4, nevertheless, is what makes this disc such a revelation.

At less than half an hour, like his third symphony, it is a jam-packed aural journal propelled forward by crepuscular motifs and percussive nuggets that combine and recombine, sometimes shaping large fugal patches of development, other times linked into ephemeral melodies. Unlike Copland, Harris or Ives (and therefore more like Sessions and Carter), Riegger's foremost interest seems always to be in the immediate engagement of interesting, even riveting, sound. He writes for attentive, intelligent and engaged ears. In fact, he seems almost bent against soaring and lifting melodies that might point to extra-musical emotions or transcendental ideas. His extraordinary ability to generate musical movement through quirky little rhythmic bits, instrumental distinctness and counterpoint, has seduced me to return to listen again and again. Now with the release of the Simon Rattle cycle of Beethoven symphonies and its many revelations, I think I can get away with this comparison; like Beethoven, Riegger is the kind of composer, who on repeated listening, I hear myself thinking "I never heard that before!"

Well within the symphony tradition, the first movement deploys the most complex and strenuous materials. As with much of Riegger, the mood is upbeat and optimistic, and the motivic character stymies any opportunity for the music to bubble forward with simplistic ebullience. There is neither a tragic nor brooding streak to anything I've heard from Riegger, but his attention to the display of engaging sound creates a sense that his optimism is authentic, reflective and psychologically central to his artistic personality—an American Haydn. The first movement is a fine example.

The second and third movements pursue simpler less ponderous approaches. So that by the third (final) movement, a kind of jaunty march seems to move the entire work to an easy-going and comfortable conclusion, but always with a touch of restraint. As a result, the work moves from the more strenuous to the more easygoing, but never loses attention on the aural pallet. In terms of instrumentation, this could easily pass as a concerto for orchestra, since every instrument group is allotted shinning moments, and surprising sonic partners. Bartok's major American work, the Concerto for Orchestra was less than a decade old at the time Riegger wrote this, so for him to call it a symphony and not a concerto must speak to how he wants us to approach it.

And this is just right. Symphony No.4 is a feisty and gritty, compact work that covers the argumentative ground that more expansive works twice its length attempt. It is fully symphonic in concept, but with the delights of concerto features. Why not place it on the first half of concert programs following a medium-length symphony by Mozart, or better, Haydn? It would fit neatly and complement elegantly! Such programming would bring this genuine treasure out of the Santa Fe archive into a larger world of listener experience.


Previous Piece Next Piece