George Perle: A Retrospective

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Above all, American composer George Perle is not known for any of his works, but instead for the book Serial Composition and Atonality, a standard textbook used in college-level music courses. This has led to the common misconception that Perle is a serial composer, a designation that is only partly true. Perle works within a highly modified version of the twelve-tone system and its primacy, both in his work and in the era through which he was most active as composer, did not preclude him from composing traditional music from time to time. Perle celebrated his 90th birthday in 2005 and Bridge Records' George Perle: A Retrospective collects a number of recordings made during observances of this milestone in addition to a couple of items rescued from the back catalog. Perle's Serenade No. 3 for piano and chamber orchestra comes from a highly praised Nonesuch LP led by Gerard Schwarz and his Piano Concerto No. 2 from a long-deleted Harmonia Mundi issue. The selection chronologically ranges from his Quintet for Strings (1958) to Perle's later work, Bassoon Music (2004).

Perle is highly respectful of traditional forms and his use of systematic reorganization of tones seldom yields anything violent or spectral; his music is lyrical and Perle's main overriding concern is really with rhythm, prompting fellow composer Paul Lansky to comment, "Some might say it 'swings,' but I prefer to say that George's music really dances!" Serenade No. 3, for example, has a very clear-cut formal design and its movements move from one to the next just like a Baroque suite or classical symphony; the "Burlesco" from that same work is so sprightly and cheerful that the method tonal organization in use is nearly invisible, perhaps as it should be. The Solo Partita for violin and viola (1965) sounds tonally oriented, and it is true that Perle utilizes "tonal" interval combinations, as opposed to predominantly chromatic, in constructing his row structures. In the main, the propulsive rhythmic ideas inspired by the Bartók and Berg that he loves are seldom far away from the music he writes. To characterize Perle as being as easy to listen to as Tchaikovsky would definitely give the wrong impression, but he certainly is easier to listen to than Elliott Carter or Leon Kirchner; at times his music is vaguely reminiscent of a somewhat younger composer, Charles Wuorinen.

Although played by a wide variety of instrumental groups and performers -- pianists Horacio Gutiérrez, Molly Morkoski, and Richard Goode; Perle's wife Shirley Rhoads Perle; violinist Curtis Macomber; the Chicago and DePaul string quartets; and many others -- the performances are all strong. There really aren't any weak moments, or weak works, in the program, and while one might develop preferences toward certain pieces over others it wouldn't be fair to single this or that work out in this review. One problem is with the book -- the review copy sent to AMG has a book that repeats some pages while missing some others; according to Bridge, this affects only a small part of the run and anyone winding up with a defective booklet can exchange it for a corrected version.

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