In any discussion of 20th-century music, certain names--Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Britten, etc--crowd to the front of the room. But a more thorough examination of the era reveals many more fine composers. Stefan Wolpe is among those, and his reputation has grown over the decades since his death. This CD presents music composed in the first decade of Wolpe's time in America. "The Man From Midian" is a ballet, scored for two pianos, on the subject of Moses.
Ballet scores can be problematic, restricted as they are by the need for short tableaux. In the case of some composers--Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev come to mind--scores never escape those restrictions. They're always "ballet music". Wolpe instead found an opportunity. The score plays as an integrated suite, exploring various scales and formal mechanisms. It's more innovative than a first hearing would indicate, and nicely explores the sonorities available from two pianos. Of course, if one prefers to listen to music programmatically, the story is ready-made. Some of the processional music reminds me slightly of Britten's "Burning Fiery Furnace", which came much later.
The "Sonata for Violin and Piano" doesn't really break any new ground, but it's still a well-made piece in a unique voice. It's quite vigorous and dramatic. Although Wolpe was born in Germany, the Sonata doesn't sound particularly German, or American, or any other particular nationality. Wolpe has successfully breathed in the musical air from all around. It's a nice piece.
The peformance comes from the Group for Contemporary Music--not so much a specific assemblage of performers as a sort of clearing house for first-rate musicians. The readings are excellent, and the recording--while a bit reverberant--is excellent. Thanks again to Naxos for giving these excellent readings a second life.