WUORINEN: Eighth Symphony; Fourth Piano Concerto – Peter Serkin (p.)/ Boston Symph. Orch./ James Levine – Bridge

by | Apr 27, 2017 | Classical CD Reviews

Two beautifully conceived and highly expressive works.

Charles WUORINEN: Eighth Symphony, “Theologoumena”; Fourth Piano Concerto – Peter Serkin, piano/ Boston Sym. Orch./ James Levine – Bridge 9474, 59:39 [Distr. by Albany] *****:

It is a quote from Neo-Platonist commentator Maximus of Tyre (2nd – 3rd c.) that first inspired Wuorinen to create the tone poem Theologoumenon, a work with a distinct ebb and flow in a fantasia-like manner, lending itself to the “non-dogmatic theological opinion” that defines the term. The material in this symphony, from 2007, is closely related to the tone poem (2003), but is not the same, even though the composer has indicated the two can be performed together as a large 50-plus minute work. Here we have only the three-movement symphony, clocking in around a half an hour.

Wuorinen has often been described as the inheritor of the compositional methods of Milton Babbitt, and an arch-serialist, even though he has said that the word has lost any meaning. Perhaps to him this is true, but to the public at large it is an apt description. Having said that, anyone hearing this Eighth Symphony with open ears (and hearts) is going to be quite surprised at their reaction. This piece is not only complex and intricate in the traditional Wuorinen manner, but is engaging, emotional, and not all that hard to hear multilinear threads of meaning. In fact, it is one of the most “followable” pieces of his that I have ever heard, full of color, unhinged yet focused counterpoint, and harmonies based on thirds and fifths that almost give the illusion of tonality in many places—something I am not sure the composer would be happy about hearing, since he is on record as being rather anti-tonal by philosophical bent. Perhaps his older age is now finally exhausting the 12-tone system and bringing him subconsciously around to Leonard Bernstein’s famous tonal “poetry of earth”. Whatever it is, I loved the work and feel that it could introduce more people to this intellectual and fascinating composer.

Wuorinen has dedicated much music to maverick pianist Peter Serkin, and this Fourth Piano Concerto, written in 2003 just before the creation of the symphony, was initiated based on the composer’s admiration for him and conductor James Levine, also a longtime creative partner. His four concertos reflect a lifetime of achievement on the instrument, the previous ones spread over a wide period, including 1966, 1974, and 1983. This piece takes full advantage of the piano as a percussion instrument, emphasizing the bell-like sonority and decaying ability of the sounds, often written in arpeggiation and meant to be echoed with similar effects in the orchestra. It is a punctuated, brilliant opus of much flair and opulence, fiery and dramatic, yet inundated with poetry and striking effects.

I do not know if this was ever released by the Boston Symphony or not, but the sound is vibrant and vivid, the playing top notch. An easy recommendation even for those not normally on the Wuorinen train—he just might speak to you here.

— Steven Ritter

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