Stefan Wolpe was a composer who cut a Zelig-like path through the early twentieth century. Starting out in Ferruccio Busoni's master class, he ended up pounding piano in Weimar-era cabarets, fled to Palestine, and then to America, where he turned up at Black Mountain College in time to impact the work of John Cage and Morton Feldman. In the 1960s, his music was paired on a CRI album with that of the young George Crumb and the work of the near-septuagenarian Wolpe sounded in no way less contemporary than his then 30-something colleague. That Wolpe's music was forgotten after he died is probably not an accident of history, as during his lifetime he was never "famous" so much as respected by his peers and, to some extent, copied by them. Since about 2000, Wolpe is back with a vengeance, largely through the efforts of musicologist Austin Clarkson and the Stefan Wolpe Society. Naxos' Stefan Wolpe: The Man from Midian makes available once again some of the first recorded salvos fired on Wolpe's behalf in the digital era, initially released on Koch International Classics in the early '90s.
This Naxos disc consists of two major works taken from different Koch issues; Wolpe's original ballet music for The Man from Midian (1942) as scored for two pianos and his later Violin Sonata (1949). The Man from Midian was written for choreographer Eugene Loring and illustrates some chapters in the life of Moses drawn from the Biblical book of Exodus; it originally premiered on the same program as the first performance of Aaron Copland's ballet Billy the Kid. The Man from Midian is not as dissimilar from the far better known Copland work as one might think; it is similarly potently rhythmic, and parts of it are straightforwardly diatonic, though not very neo-Classical in the sense that this might imply. There are stretches of busy twelve-tone composition that wind back into, and out of, the diatonic sections, a very post-modern way of working for 1942. It is also a very exciting and engaging piece, somewhat reminiscent of Nikolaos Skalkottas' four-hand piano work Le Retour de Ulysse (1944). Duo pianists Cameron Grant and James Winn of the Group for Contemporary Music turn in a swinging, yet well-articulated performance of The Man from Midian, and their steel-fingered sonorities raise just the right rhythmic profile in Wolpe's music. Parts of The Man from Midian are deeply jazzy in sound and even these sections spin off through twelve-tone sections scored at hair-raising tempi that will leave one's jaw agape.
The Sonata for violin and piano is a much more strict serial work and a very aggressive one; it is superficially similar to the fast sections of Arnold Schoenberg's Fantasy for violin and piano, Op. 47. This sonata will prove absolute torture for some, however if you ever loved atonal music for its sense of bite and aggression, this is for you -- it will remind many who have enjoyed strict, old-fashioned serialism in the past what they liked about it in the first place. Jorja Fleezanis and Garrick Ohlsson's performance is very good in its turbulent, hell-bent-for-leather treatment of the music, but in this case the recording, made at Concordia College in Bronxville in 1991, is just a little too "live" -- the generous reverberation of the hall swallows up some of the music. Anyone interested in music of the twentieth century, though, should endeavor to get to know The Man from Midian -- it is one of the most distinctive and direct musical utterances that Wolpe left to us.