The American Academy in Rome is a leading center for independent study and research into the arts and humanities. There are 30 prizes awarded every year through juried competitions available in the following categories: architecture, design, historic preservation and conservation, landscape architecture, literature, musical composition, visual arts, humanistic approaches to ancient studies, Renaissance and early modern studies, and Italian studies. 1921 saw the first three prizes in music, and today there are two fellowships in composition and once residency per year.
As you can see in the heading of this review, there have been a number of famous composers to emerge from the Academy, and a host of not so famous ones as well. The idea of this comprehensive CD set is to give the listener a flavor of some of the music that emerges from the Academy by a host of composers spread out over the last century and into our new one. Donald Berman, pianist on the third disc and the Artistic Director for the concerts and the CDs worked in 1998 at the Academy on research, and return determined to present the rich output of American music that originated there. In 2000 a series of concerts was formed, serving as the basis for this current set. It is impossible for me to go into detailed analysis on each work—suffice it to say that if you purchase this set (available for about $67 on Amazon, and at half that price if you use an associated dealer) you will be getting full and thorough information on the Academy, and complete and detailed notes on each composer and work in a very full program booklet. Basically we have four categories: vocal music, piano, strings and piano, and winds and piano. I must say that personally the first two listed meant the most to me, but each disc has its treasures. First things first: none of this music (or very, very little) poses challenges beyond what any serious listener should be able to apprehend. Second: even though there are a lot of unknown composers here, they have crafted some very fine music, a much richer and rewarding selection than other discs of unknowns that have passed my way. In other words, there is a heap of terrific music in this collection, and I enjoyed each disc tremendously.
I shall mention a couple from each CD that stand out; non-mention in no way corresponds to degradation or non-interest. Robert Beaser’s Four Dickinson Songs add to the corpus of Emily Dickinson inspirations that litter the musical landscape. These are tonal and very tuneful, like Copland’s but also very much unlike his. Elliott Carter’s two songs also serve as a reminder of what a great tonal composer he was in years past. Disc 2 offers Paul Moravec’s rollicking and substantial Passacaglia for Piano Trio while Stephen Hartke’s Beyond Words shows us why this man’s music is so immediately engaging (Piano Quartet). On disc 3 we get a piano smorgasbord, Hunter Johnson’s 1938 Sonata showing us the real genius present in an unknown composer, while the rhythmic and outstandingly infectious Sombras of Mark Wingate (coming in 1995) are played with panache and down home feeling by Donald Berman. Finally, disc 4 brings in David Lang’s wonderfully atmospheric and pseudo-oriental Vent, where the piano imitates the flute’s proclivities in the upper register. Richard Stolzman shines in Yehudi Wyner’s Commedia (the same name Dante gave to his Divine Comedy), and the straightforward narrative engages us with some energetic, poetic, and bustling music that Stolzman simply eats alive.
This is a very rewarding set, in excellent sound throughout, that captures something that otherwise might have gone lost, and for that alone deserves a hearty recommendation.
— Steven Ritter