This North/South Consonance release, Harold Schiffman at 80!, is certainly one that you cannot judge by its cover. It features the birthday boy, seated with his banjo on the front porch, looking like he's going to rip into "Up on Cripple Creek" any second, and perhaps that's what some listeners may think they are in store for here. Not so; Schiffmann is a serious composer born in Greensboro, NC, and he taught composition at Florida State University for a quarter of a century. One might suggest he belongs to a regional American arc, including Schiffmann within the loop of composers such as Carlisle Floyd, Robert Helps, and John Powell, all of whom lived most of their lives south of the Mason-Dixon line. Much is made in print regarding Schiffmann about his long course of study with Roger Sessions, and you can definitely hear the connection, but he also studied with Ernst von Dohnányi, and you hear that, too. In some quarters Schiffmann is labeled as a "neo-romantic," though much of the music heard in this program is more neo-classic in style, though with a far more expansive agenda than that alone might suggest.
The concert was given in New York City on March 9, 2008, at the Morgan Library and Museum to celebrate Schiffmann's 80th birthday. The highlight is pianist and North/South Consonance label head Max Lifchitz's well-studied, dedicated, and exciting performance of Schiffmann's Piano Sonata No. 1 (1951), which indeed comes from the neo-romantic side of Schiffmann's tracks; it begins in a mood similar to the opening of Alban Berg's Piano Sonata and wraps up in a rhythmically dynamic, "big city" sound that Lifchitz brings off with verve and panache. Schiffmann is quite skillful in two-voice dissonant counterpoint and two examples of that is included, the Duo Concertante for violin and clarinet (1993) and in the Fantasy-Suite for solo viola (1980). Violist Ah Ling-Neu performs the latter with precision, and it is quite a solo viola piece; at times there is a stubborn rhythmic figure that is sort of like something out of a jig or traditional Southern fiddle dance that is put through a number of sophisticated harmonic permutations, and Ah's playing is such that she sounds almost like two people, not one. The weak spot, however, is the performance of Blood Mountain: A Song Cycle (2007), which is given by a soprano with a very wide vibrato and a slightly sharp sense of pitch, the telltale sign of a singer who's working a little too hard. So while North/South Consonance's Harold Schiffman at 80! might not be the ideal convert-winner to the cause of Schiffmann, it has some excellent music; moreover, North/South Consonance has a wide variety of offerings available from this composer. Perhaps the next one should be a sampler.