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Dip Your Ears, No. 220 (Marc B.: A First Rate Second Rank American Composer!)

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Marc Blitzstein Piano Sonata. 1 Piano Percussion Music. 1 Scherzo, “Bourgeouis at Play”. 1 String Quartet “Italian”. 2 Serenade for String Quartet. 2
Sarah Cahill (pn); 1 Del Sol Str Qrt2, OTHER MINDS 1017 [59:28]

Marc Blitzstein only lived 58 years, but they were plenty eventful. Born in 1905 to well-to-do parents in Philadelphia, his musical talent was obvious early on. He studied piano with a pupil of Liszt and Tchaikovsky, and—briefly—composition with Nadia Boulanger and then Arnold Schoenberg. He snubbed political artists like Kurt Weill, but later became a communist party member himself and composed political songs. He was best buddies with Leonard Bernstein. He married ‘properly’ but was openly gay. For whatever it’s worth, he’s been played by Hank Azaria in Tim Robbins’ rather idealized film “Cradle Will Rock”.

In part thanks to the latter, he might now be best known for his musical-cum-opera “The Cradle Will Rock”, which made more of a political splash, than an artistic one, at the time. After that deliciously controversial success in 1936, he wrote largely for the stage and screen, which might have culminated in a commissioned opera for the MET in 1960 (Sacco and Vanzetti), had he not been meted out his early demise by three sailors he propositioned; bludgeoned after a tryst in Martinique.

“First Life”, the CD release by Other Minds (a “new music community” not-for-profit organization), showcases not this late output, but three important earlier piano works and his two forgotten string quartets. Blitzstein at his most (neo) classical, if you will. His Piano Percussion Music is more rout than romp; a vigorous, spiky piece that delights in slamming the piano lid shut a few times, courtesy pianist (and radio-host) Sarah Cahill. Stravinsky is never far away as a model, and with Antheil the work shares a kinship of spirit. The one-movement Piano Sonata that precedes it by two years, with fewer neoclassical influences, isn’t exactly the masterpiece that Berg’s op.1 represents. But what a striking work of the then twenty-two-year-old composer, all the same: A bit of a muddle and a happy mess, unashamedly uncomfortable and in-your-face.

The “Italian” String Quartet (1930) sounds like ill-digested early Schoenberg—and I mean that as a whole-hearted compliment. The early (tonal) Schoenberg quartets are marvels in their own late-romantic right, and even an ill-digested version would still bring askew gratification and enchantment to the inclined listener. The Del Sol String Quartet does excellent work in keeping the meandering lines a cohesive whole; getting the balance right between long, if broken, romantic lines and a chugging propulsive beat.

Obviously, there’s a certain amount of sameness to the second quartet, the “Serenade for String Quartet”. Three movements, each five minutes and a few seconds long, each with the tempo indication and title: Largo. “Largo, largo, largo” wasn’t so much a joke as Blitzstein’s rebellion against ever-shortening attention spans. The initial audience wouldn’t have it and expressed disapproval. Either to appease or hose future audiences, Blitzstein changed the tempo markings to “Allegro Moderato”, “Larghetto”, and “Andante Maestoso” at some point. It’s a dense and unwieldy work, but with enough going on to hold—and reward—the listener’s attention. This isn’t background-music and it’s certainly not easy-listening. But for those with interest, patience, and some proclivity toward art-through-effort, Marc Blitzstein reveals himself in this tasteful compilation as one of the finest American composers of second rank.

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