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A Legacy of Audacity Is Granted an Encore

By Anthony Tommasini
The New York Times (December 27, 2007)


In his later years the flinty American composer Ralph Shapey, who died in 2002 at 81, would rail against the conservatism of the mainstream classical music scene in America. In fist-shaking defiance he wrote formidable, complex and ingenious works. And if people resisted, that was their problem.

Yet for all his kvetching Shapey has had a roster of champions — major musicians like the violinist Robert Mann, the cellist Joel Krosnick, the pianist Gilbert Kalish and the Juilliard String Quartet — who are challenged and exhilarated by his uncompromising works.

As an admirer of Shapey’s audacious music, I feared that performances and recordings of his works would diminish after his death, when he was no longer around to agitate. Alas, with scant exceptions, his pieces have not noticeably figured on concert programs in recent years in New York.

But two recordings released this year suggest that Shapey is winning support among the new generation of performers, and that some committed foundations and recording companies continue to support important American music....

The other recording is a two-disc release titled “Ralph Shapey: Radical Traditionalist,� from New World Records, an essential nonprofit label devoted to American music. This recording is evidence of a promise fulfilled. In 2003 CRI (Composers Recordings Inc.), a scrappy nonprofit label that maintained the widest-ranging catalog of contemporary music, went out of business after 48 years. This was a particular blow to the discography of American composers because CRI kept all releases in its catalog available, no matter the sales.

New World Records came to the rescue, pledging to digitize the master tapes of the complete CRI catalog and to make every recording available as a burned-to-order CD, complete with the original liner notes and cover art. New World also promised to reissue selected recordings and compilations. The Shapey album is one. The program includes performances of five major works originally recorded and released by CRI, mostly in the 1970s and ’80s. There are two daunting piano pieces: 21 Variations (1978), performed by Wanda Maximilien; and “Fromm Variations�(1966; 1972-73), a sprawling 52-minute work consisting of 31 variations on a chorale theme, performed by Robert Black.

Also included are the compact, intense 12-minute String Quartet No. 6 and the 35-minute, traditionally structured String Quartet No. 7, performed by quartets drawn from the contemporary chamber ensemble of the University of Chicago that Shapey established when he joined the faculty in 1964. His work with this adventurous ensemble gave him a secure home base. Having conducted student ensembles since he was 17, he was a skilled conductor and an inspiring teacher.

What comes through in this recent trove of recordings is that for all the gritty complexity of Shapey’s works, this authentic music has arresting qualities, including pugnacious rhythmic vitality and vibrant humor. Yes, like many curmudgeons, Shapey had a self-deprecating sense of humor, which came through in a 1996 interview with The New York Times when he turned 75. “Now it’s official: I’m an old fish, as they say in Yiddish,� he said, laughing heartily.

Shapey described himself as structurally a classicist, emotionally a romanticist and harmonically a modernist. His musical language came from a free adaptation of the 12-tone technique that he called “the mother lode,� in which aggregates of pitches around each note in his rows allowed him to shift from chord to chord through common tones, lending his harmony a grounded quality. In any case, during a good performance of a Shapey work, few listeners will fret about tone rows. The music is too ecstatic, thorny and elemental for that.

The “Fromm Variations,� for example, abound in steely harmonies, jagged lines and leaping chords. The sheer size of the 52-minute work is overwhelming and impractical, which makes Mr. Black’s commanding performance the more impressive. But for all the unremittingly intensity and outbursts of aggressively dissonant cluster chords, there are stretches where the pace slackens and the music turns quizzical and tender.

The 21 Variations for Piano, at nearly 30 minutes, is more approachable. The initial theme is like some wild and jerky dance. Many of the variations hover on the divide between impishness and intimidation. Again there are those passages of ruminative, elegiac writing, all qualities compellingly conveyed in Ms. Maximilien’s performance. Here is a work that could be a knockout among the right companion pieces on a recital program... Full Article