PISTON: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 6

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Walter Piston (1894-1976): Symphony No. 2 Symphony No. 6

Walter Piston continues to be virtually damned with faintpraise more than a quarter-century after his death. While acknowledging hisextraordinary ear for orchestra timbre, his consummate contrapuntal skills andhis overall lifelong employment of classical forms, commentators have for toolong dismissed him as an academic, as if intellectual rigor and the acceptanceof historical models was a bad thing. Even his remarkably clear notation ofscores and his early background in engineering reinforces the notion of afastidious craftsman, which he certainly was in the best sense, rather than acreative artist. An even casual reflection on music history shows that thepantheon of truly great composers is peopled by such conservatives as Bach,Mendelssohn and Brahms, all three content to build upon and find vitality inmusical structures created by their forebears. Likewise, Walter Piston combinesan uncommon rigor with a tone-poet's sensitivity. Well-meaning admirers referto him as a \composer's composer," an intended compliment that can imply a lackof touch with the public audience. In truth, his music commands respect andadmiration from his composer colleagues, including Stravinsky, Krenek,Sessions, Hanson, Thomson and Carter, as well as by his lay enthusiasts whohave simply given him a close and open listen.

Piston was a New Englander, born in Rockland, Maine, in1894, of English and Italian ancestry. (His paternal grandfather, AntonioPistone, was a Genoan seaman.) From the age of ten, Piston was raised inBoston, enlisted in 1916 and spent three years in the Navy, where he playedsaxophone in the Navy band, and was educated primarily at Harvard (summa cumlaude, 1924) where he joined the faculty in 1926 following two years in Parisfor lessons with Paul Dukas and the legendary Nadia Boulanger. He remained atHarvard until 1960 when he was named professor emeritus. An excellent teacher,his students included Elliott Carter, Irving Fine, Harold Shapero and LeonardBernstein. Among many honors he received were a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1934and Pulitzer Prizes for his third (1948) and seventh (1960) symphonies. In1951, he became the first recipient of the Walter W. Naumberg Chair of Music.

In 1943, when the tide of World War II began to turn infavor of the Allies, Walter Piston composed his Symphony No. 2, a work with apalpable American feel that nonetheless avoided the hot blood of patriotic warfever. The new score received the New York Music Critics' Circle Award andenjoyed performances by the Boston Symphony, New York Philharmonic and theCleveland Orchestra, yet fell into relative obscurity until revived in 1970when Michael Tilson Thomas recorded it in 1970.

The opening Moderato begins with a long-spun theme in thestrings, darkly hued and somewhat anxious. Winds add a dash of color to theotherwise basic string sonority. Piston raises the temperature throughincreases in pacing, animation and dynamics. A wind- and percussion-dominatedsection follows. Jaunty and syncopated, this paragraph sounds conspicuouslyAmerican, reflecting the composer's youthful years playing in bands. Quietstrings return with distant wind commentary and reticent timpani. Piston treatsthe primary theme in canonic imitation, though the music remains utterly freeof academic note-spinning. Periodic brass chorales add an effective somber mienthat balances the rowdier moments.

The rapt Adagio, quiet and sadly nostalgic, evokes a senseof American homespun innocence and provides a lovely solo for the firstclarinet before handing over the lead to the principal flute. This is Piston athis most achingly beautiful and utterly belies facile and unfounded latercharges of academicism. Orchestral strings lead the orchestra into a section ofelevated dynamics and an intensification of warm feeling before allowing theclarinet quietly to assert itself, with an occasional "blue" note that furthersthe American backdrop.

The final Allegro surges forward, propelled by percussivethwacks and emphatically barking brass. Three separate themes, one dance-like,another poignantly sung by English horn and clarinet, and a third brassilyassertive tune, course through the Rondo-like movement.

The Symphony No. 6 dates from 1955, composed to celebratethe 75th season of the Boston Symphony and first performed by them underCharles Munch. Piston dedicated the new work to the ensemble's previous musicdirector, Serge Koussevitzky, and his wife Natalie. Piston's intimateassociation with the BSO began when he settled in Boston in 1926. Over the nextfour and a half decades, the orchestra performed nearly two-dozen works byPiston, including many written expressly for them. In this vein, the composerwrote, "While writing my Sixth Symphony, I came to realize that this was arather special situation in that I was writing for one designated orchestra,one that I had grown up with, and that I knew intimately. Each note set downsounded in the mind with extraordinary clarity, as though played immediately bythose who were to perform the work. On several occasions it seemed as thoughthe melodies were being written by the instruments themselves as I followedalong. I refrained from playing even a single note of this symphony on thepiano."

From that statement one might rightly infer that the SixthSymphony drew more than typically upon Piston's consummate skill as anorchestral painter: the work abounds in delicious contrasts of timbre andcoruscating bursts of color. In the opening movement, marked unusually Fluendoespressivo, the long opening theme is attractively though modestly scored forstrings and winds. Eventually, descending scales from the harp add a splash ofgolden tone before yielding to a second long-flowing tune, this one richlyorchestrated and as highly varied in its unfolding as the initial theme wasunchanging.

The ensuing Scherzo brews up its own contrast of sonorityand mood. Galvanized by percussion, a whirlwind of activity from the rest ofthe orchestra creates a high-jinx atmosphere tinged with subliminal anxiety.This movement provides a perfect foil for the ravishing Adagio that follows.Low strings provide a sonic "wash" (to use the term from painting) from whichemerges a solo cello enunciating an especially attractive melody that informsthe entire movement even when transferred to other instruments. Though keysignatures are not indicated in the score, the Finale is resolutely in bright Amajor. Echoes of jazzy syncopation animate this bright and optimistic music,internally contrasted by episodes of beguiling warmth featuring, among others,flute and harp. The work concludes in a blaze of positive energy in a fullorchestral restatement of the opening cello theme.

Steven Lowe

g Seattle Symphony

Item number 8559161
Barcode 636943916124
Release date 11/01/2003
Category Symphony
Label Naxos Classics
Media type CD
Number of units 1
Composers Piston, Walter
Piston, Walter
Conductors Schwarz, Gerard
Schwarz, Gerard
Orchestras Seattle Symphony Orchestra
Seattle Symphony Orchestra
Disc: 1
Symphony No. 6
1 Moderato
2 Adagio
3 Allegro
4 Fluendo espressivo
5 Scherzo: Leggerissimo vivace
6 Adagio sereno
7 Allegro energico
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