JWR Articles: CD - The Music of George Perle (Featured performers: Michael Brown, Min-Young Kim, Matilda Kaul, Jessica Thompson, Thomas Kraines) - April 12, 2020

The Music of George Perle

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BRIDGE 9426, 9398
Solo piano and string quartets

Here are two discs from Bridge Records that paint a varied portrait of this American composer via solo piano and string quartet repertoire.

Perle is lucky indeed to have pianist Michael Brown champion his compositions for so many years. The Eight Pieces album most certainly feels like a meeting of the minds.

From 1938, Classic Suite shows remarkable artistry and variety, lifting off with the festive, engaging and a tad saucy “Allemande.” More forceful and a kind of perpetuum mobile, “Courante” grabs the ear and never lets go. Brown flies along, clearly enjoying the ride. At the core of the suite, “Sarabande” features a Satie-like hue, the moving, thoughtful lines are the ideal foil to what precedes and follows. This “Gavotte”, with its delicate dry-and-light construction/presentation is causing Bach to be smiling somewhere. The infectious drive of “Gigue” dashes to the final double bar with breathless surety and a few dollops of fun.

Perle inventively lights the candles and Brown serves up the cakes (the icing being “For Gunther Schuller at Seventy”) in Six Celebratory Inventions, these morsels written over a span of 14 years for composers’ birthdays. Opening by proving less is more for Ernest Krenek (85), in just 52 seconds, moving at the speed of light, succinctly demonstrates to his former teacher that this student “got it”. For the closer, Leonard Bernstein (also 70) would delight in hearing his own music (from Anniversaries) fuel the fire as Brown readily swings, ebbs and goes, before a Lenny-like adieu finishes the party.

The five movements of Lyric Intermezzo live up to the name, with none of them outstaying its welcome. “Andante” couples moody quietude with a few bits of dryness for balance. Brown delivers a fine legato and ideally rendered contrasts. The rollicking opening of “Grazioso” (at times informed by near-impatience) adds to the forward flow. A calmo second section radiates warmth, then returns in the “revise and repeat” notion before everything slips away to niente. “Rondoletto” conjures up a surreal march. Like the subject, listeners will keep coming back for more after the inventive excursions. The “Fantasy Variations” offer a lovingly rendered search for the answer but what is the question? Brown convincingly delivers the inner drama. Literally reprising “Andante”, makes “Postlude” feel like a bookend. Much of life does come full circle. The wee coda is gentle farewell.

The three miniatures of Short Sonata combine for an engaging whole. I lifts everything off with a buffet of energy, textures and tones—rhythmic vitality abounds. II feels like a multi-voiced soliloquy (a conflict in terms, methinks) with many ideas to share. Magical silence is used effectively. Brown’s timing of the transitions is just right, letting what was sink in before contemplating what is. III is a marvellous combination of agitation and determination. Brown melds the disparate parts together with aplomb before everything vanishes into the night.

Toccata is a veritable riot of thrust and parry/stop and start. At times moody, rhapsodic and impish, while redefining “nary a dull moment”, finally runs out of gas.he remainder of the disc consists of three collections of miniatures.  Chansons caches is another celebration of important events in the lives of the “subjects”. It ranges from a gently mystical “For Claire Brook”, beautifully voiced by Brown; the “feelings” feel off the top are followed by very personal statements; touches of pain and hope inform “For Margaret and Phillip Hess”. The longest of the set, “For Miriam Gideon” could well be described as a soliloquy with self-commentary, most elegantly rendered by Brown. Who amongst hasn’t had a similar experience?

Six Preludes (taking less than five minutes might well be renamed Six Preuldettes?) is precise and succinct in its brevity. I will do likewise:

  • I Strong vs. calm
  • II Mostly fun and joy
  • III Inner self-reflection; What now? Where to go? To a place of peace.
  • IV A wee bit of anger
  • V A somewhat rhapsodic snippet
  • VI A fond goodbye; liquid and introspective

Shorter still is Modal Suite:

  • Moderato - a search to start
  • Slowly - Song without words, wonderfully understated by Brown; indeed, what’s the hurry?
  • Very Quickly – An energetic finish; crystal clear closing punctuation.


Perle and Brown prove the old adage: Good things do come in small packages. 

Last seen in these pages with a two-disc set of Haydn quartets, the Daedalus Quartet takes on the challenging task of bringing the highlights of Perle’s quartets to digital life.

String Quartet No. 2 in D Minor (the complete meal compared to the unfinished—17 bars—No. 1) is Perle’s “proof” that he can write a “traditional” quartet. He most certainly succeeds.

The opening “Moderato” features a scalic first subject that literally has its ups and downs as the players set to work mastering its many ebbs and flows. Legato predominates; yet the music seems slightly unsettled in the early going. Some scurrying contrast over an anchoring pedal from cellist Thomas Kraines (the pizzicati are superb) eventually gives way to a second theme whose lift is somewhat like a clarion call. Everything is well balanced both musically and sonically (the ever-dependable Adam Abeshouse at the controls). The cello leads the development, infused with both ideas seen and heard in various iterations. Brief silence adds to the overall mix, as do welcome “rests” in the major. The closing section is as engaging as it is retrospective.

The brief middle movement is a vrai Invitation to the Dance—the welcome foil to what preceded, and with a scalic link to serve as thematic glue. Violist Jessica Thompson soars at will and exudes compelling warmth in her varied lines, before, after all moving as one—still another contrast with the busyness of the score—the music calmly slips away.

The concluding movement is a thoughtful essay on the human experience, particularly when all is not well, filled with poignancy and glimmers of hope. A unison line magically leads to deeply personal solo segments, violinist Min-Young Kim readily takes stage and sets the bar high for her colleagues. Ensemble is the best thus far: four strong minds trying to coalesce and achieve resolution. Some light glimmers at last, encouraged by ringing 5ths—almost too good to be true. “Best be cautious not to lose what has been gained” can be subliminally felt. The unisons mount before a singular note x 3 finishes the quest.

String Quartet No. 5 begins with a marvellously muted texture and a covey of fast, repeated notes that add drive. The near-constant variety is like a quilt of musical ideas, all stitched together with aplomb. Violinist Matilda Kaul frequently weaves the disparate parts together even as the forward momentum is never lost. At times, the writing is conversational: subject matter to be imagined. Bits of silence give everyone a chance to breathe; a homogenic group “walk” provides still more contrast.

In the middle frame: and…they’re off! Here are two minutes of unbridled energy and joy.

The finale oozes with drama and quest for, eventually, quietude, brought to engaging life by near-perfect ensemble. The movement is not so much 12 tone, but a baker’s dozen of ideas and hues most engagingly served up. There’s also a wee bit of Brahms in the mix and a wonderfully arid segment. With the end clearly in sight, the quartet quietly yields the stage, leaving listeners much to contemplate.

In Perle’s own words, “The expression ‘order amid chaos’ was my way of denoting certain elements in atonal music, which could be called referents in that they establish connections between different post-diatonic compositions.” Clearly the highlight of this disc, Windows of Order (String Quartet No. 8, 1987/88), 30 years later, has much to say about the evolution of music. In a way, it is a stroll through the composer’s creative neighbourhood, peering through four windows that—now—exude nothing but order, any chaos being far removed from our collective hearing. The work is a veritable masterclass in form, style, structure, colour and rhythm. The Daedalus Quartet are more than up to the challenges, producing an impassioned performance that will linger in memory and demand many replays.

From 1938, the concluding Molto Adagio, somewhat cinematic, immediately establishes an eerie and brooding mood. The portamenti, a touch too “juicy” for my taste, add to the overall sombre tone. Mainly introspective, there are some moments of blossoming and a gradually expansive collective range, sprinkled with few dollops of counterpoint. Certainly, Perle is learning his lessons for the oeuvre, which pay off handsomely in the years ahead. JWR

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