GEORGE WALKER: Icarus in Orbit; Piano Concerto; Abu; Dialogus; Da Camera – Rochelle Sennet, piano/ Sherban Lupu, violin/Brandon Vamso, cello/ Dmitri Kouzov, cello/ Sinfonia da Camera/ Sinfonia Varsovia/ Ian Hobson – Albany TROY1334, 56:13 ****:
This is the first CD by Walker that I have had the opportunity to review since 2007. Walker is a serious composer: thoughtful, intellectual, probing, and often quite difficult to understand. On the other hand, some pieces are direct and uninhibited in a manner that speaks quite directly to the listener. He is hard to pigeonhole, and while I wouldn’t consider him as a multi-stylistic composer I do think that his music breathes the moment according to how he feels it. If raw unchecked tonality meets that need then he writes it; if more complex structures are called for he doesn’t hesitate. His gestures are usually concise and very controlled, with few extraneous notes needed, not unlike that of Samuel Barber, with whom he studied, though you won’t confuse the two of them. Walker’s early conservatory studies at Oberlin and Curtis, with piano highlighted by Rudolf Serkin, and chamber music with William Primrose and Gregor Piatigorsky, culminated in a doctoral degree from the Eastman School of Music. He is the first African American composer, unbelievably, to receive the Pulitzer for his work Lilacs in 1996. It is amazing it took so long.
Perhaps the key to understanding him is the quote taken from an interview with Bruce Duffie: “I’m not really concerned with pleasing the public. I can’t please the public because I don’t know what the public wants. Even if I know what the public wants, I don’t know that I could give it to them. I try to write something I’m going to be able to live with and hope that others will begin to find some of the things that I feel have given certain strength to the music. I don’t really believe in creating something that doesn’t have any strength.”
“Strength” is an operative word in Walker’s music. Those interested in being spoon-fed should look elsewhere. Take the tightly-constructed Dialogus for cello and orchestra, the only work nominated for the Pulitzer Prize finals in 1977. Its effervescent concentration and spindle-woven melodic content are a joy to hear even though the demanding cello part not only beckons but demands your attention in ways that few works do. I can’t believe this is the first performance since its premiere. And the almost French madcap antics of the Da Camera for piano trio, harp, celeste, string orchestra, and percussion takes us back to the world of Les Six while disguising its Broadway, spirituals, and jazz quotes.
Every piece here is worthwhile listening, the third album of “Great American Orchestral Works” by the composer on Albany. My only exception might be Abu for narrators and chamber orchestra, but only because I have a general allergy to pieces with narration. Walker is prolific enough to present us with a vast canvass that is not always even in quality, and I have found some of his music impenetrable. But this disc contains music that shows a master composer at work, at the top of his game, and is a pleasure to recommend. All the performances are top notch, and the Albany engineers give him splendid sound.
A cascading sweep of keyboard miniatures