PISTON: Violin Concerto No. 1. Violin Concerto No. 2. Fantasia for Violin and Orchestra.
James Buswell, violinist/National Symphony Orch. of Ukraine/Theodore Kuchar, cond.

NAXOS 8.559003 (B) (ADD)

After 1920, "Neo-Classicism" became a catch-all phrase for tons of music composed on both sides of the Atlantic, Walter Piston's included (albeit carelessly). Because he taught composition at Harvard for 34 years (1926-60), during which time his pupils ran a gamut from Elliott Carter and Irving Fine to Harold Shapero and Leonard Bernstein, musical taxonomists were predisposed to pigeon-hole him. (That he wrote four excellent "how-to" textbooks, and reaped high honors including the Pulitzer Prize for Music twice, served to cement this taxonomic mindset.)

Piston composed steadily, copiously, in the best sense conservatively, and mostly without programs for more than four decades. He was the first-born (in 1894) of several Italo-American composers who flourished during the first two-thirds of the 20th century: Vittorio Giannini, Peter Mennin, Norman Dello Joio, Vincent Persichetti, Paul Creston, Thomas Pasatieri, and Nicolas Flagello. Piston's music, however, was primarily influenced by Nadia Boulanger and Paul Dukas, with whom he studied in Postwar-One Paris. He wrote of himself, "It is not one of my aims to write music that will be called modern, nor did I set out to compose according to any particular style or system.... Is the Dust Bowl more American, say, than a corner in the Boston Athenaeum? The composer cannot afford the wild-goose chase of trying to be more American than he is."

Although he majored in art and trained to be draftsman, Piston played violin and piano in his salad days, then switched to saxophone after enlisting in the Navy as "musician second class" during World War One. Only afterwards did he become a full-time composition student, claiming that he didn't create a significant piece until his 32nd year. He wrote a series of concertos—the two for violin (plus Fantasy) on this 61-minute CD, one each for piano, two pianos, viola, flute, harp, English horn, full orchestra, and finally for String Quartet with Wind Orchestra and Percussion in 1976, the year of his death. There were eight symphonies, lots of concert pieces for combinations large and small, chamber music of course, and a ballet called The Incredible Flutist with a recording (briefly) of a barking dog. Ironically, this became his most popular concert piece.

The violin concertos (from 1939 and 1960, respectively) have been neglected for the most part, with only a single broadcast recording of the First, by Louis Kaufman from London, in mono, previously issued on disc. The loveliest music in both, and in the Fantasy of 1970, comes in slow movements, where Piston allowed his Italian heritage the wings to fly, but not away. The fast movements demonstrate the painstaking application of a master craft on materials that lend themselves to structural development rather than whistling. For those who acquire the taste, they can be as delectable as calamar—allowing that you like squid, and started early by chewing the erasers on pencil-ends in school. The Fantasy (written for Salvatore Accardo) is a darker piece, more dissonant, even agitated in the Allegro sections of a five-part structure, but with an Adagio the more poignant for its environment.

Violinist Buswell, who debuted at age seven as James Oliver Buswell IV, plays everything with evident love as well as technical aplomb, while conductor Kuchar coaxes the Ukrainian National Symphony to "play American." If the sum is counterfeit, it has spirit enough to fool many professional engravers. Good notes, and better balanced sound than heretofore from the Radio Ukraine Concert Hall in Kviv, as stateside nationalists want us to spell Kiev.

R.D. (Oct. 2000)