Bolcom Orchestral Works

Author: 
Peter Dickinson

Bolcom Orchestral Works

  • Symphony No. 5
  • Fantasia Concertante
  • Concerto for Violin and Orchestra

William Bolcom is one of the most colourful figures in American music. Although known as a composer, with recordings of works such as his Frescoes for two pianos, he first made an international impact as a pianist (on record, usually for Elektra-Nonesuch). His all-Gershwin LP contained probably the best recorded performance of the Songbook; his Milhaud LP showed his sympathy with the composer who taught him for a time; and finally his ragtime albums are simply stunning—not for Bolcom the po-faced detachment of Rifkin, but instead a much closer rapport with the style and its vernacular context. Bolcom has also appeared on record as accompanist to his wife, Joan Morris, in Victoriana and a Eubie Blake album.
All these connections with popular music nourish Bolcom as composer. His infectious enjoyment of a variety of musical styles is evident in the two main works here, the Violin Concerto in D and the Fifth Symphony, both from the 1980s. He has a sense of humour, too, so that the style-modulations are incidents in themselves which sometimes create confusion. The Violin Concerto opens in the manner of Prokofiev's Violin (or flute) Sonata in the same key. So are many other violin concertos, including Stravinsky's. The general affability of the music—a quality common to Milhaud too—is attractive in an age when expressionism of one form or another has been a passport to being taken seriously. The second movement, in memory of the pianist Paul Jacobs, is a grave Adagio with stylistic resonances reaching back to baroque music. The bitonal opening chords (Milhaud again) set the scene for the soloist's lament which plumbs deeper feelings than Bolcom's sense of comedy usually allows. The clouds lift into the celebratory rondo finale influenced by the jazz violinist Joe Venuti—a simple descent from the soloist and Bolcom swings into his catchy finale (track 3). His orchestration invariably underlines his intentions: so do his juxtapositions, such as the woodwind second theme at 1'52'' followed by the soloist's drunken ornamentation. There's more comedy when this second theme gets big-time treatment later on (4'05'').
At first I found the Fifth Symphony the most successful fusion of styles in this all-Bolcom CD. But now, after more hearings, the slightly less ambitious Violin Concerto seems to strike the most satisfying balance between the composer's diverse allegiances. The Symphony is more riotous, after a serious first movement. Then the scherzo combines, very obviously deadpan, Abide with me and the Bridal March from Lohengrin. As if that was not enough, it continues with a foxtrot take-off of the Liebestod from Tristan. This is very much in the American grain—demystification via the satire of Charles Ives. The Hymn which follows is a little close to Messiaen but the finale has foot-tapping minimalist continuity. In the end the movements don't quite add up, which is where the Violin Concerto may score. The Fantasia concertante is a tribute to Mozart and his influence, commissioned by the Salzburg Mozarteum. More classical than neo-classical, the Fantasia has less scope than the other works and feels over-extended, too reverential towards its models which are not deflated this time. But this is an enterprising release and it provides an opportunity to come to terms with a composer relatively unfamiliar to European audiences in authoritative performances all round.'

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