The opening piece in this fascinating and educative collection, littered with first recordings, is called Waterfall, a light and fluffy barcarolle decorated with little descriptive liquid cascades from the pianist’s right-hand. And this is by Marc Blitzstein, the angular and tart musical and political radical? It was, however, composed in 1918, in the month that the composer of The Cradle Will Rock turned thirteen. We all have to begin somewhere. In fact the piece is not such a dead end as it might appear; in its simple and rather touching phrases, I certainly caught an audible glimpse of the composer’s future lyric gift, often tucked away even in his most angry-sounding pieces.
Following the (mostly) chronological progression in Leonard Lehrman’s belatedly released recital, you can see that Blitzstein ‘grew up’ quite quickly. By the early 1920s he was already keeping key-centres fluid, with frequent chromatic spicing. In the blues movement from Svarga, Blitzstein’s first ballet score, George Gershwin’s spirit flits over its crunched chords and jazzy rhythms. At the decade’s end, though, obstreperous modernity has spectacularly arrived, in Percussion Music for the Piano and Scherzo: Bourgeois at Play: music with the aggressive bluntness of Aaron Copland’s contemporary Piano Variations, but nowhere near its structural mastery. Lehrman pitches in with tremendous force and energy, though even he can’t stop the Scherzo or the more wandering portions of Percussion Music seeming a string of striking gestures waiting to find a composite form.
The extracts from the ballet Cain (1930) – unproduced like so much from this period – already suggest the solution to Blitzstein’s modernist impasse: music with a theatrical purpose, and a more incisive political intent. The three Cain excerpts here (all first recordings) might appear superficially haphazard, but they vigorously characterise actions and moods, all derived from the biblical story.
The next major work in Lehrman’s survey is a nineteen-minute collection of music from Blitzstein’s post-war ballet collaboration with Jerome Robbins, ultimately titled The Guests when staged in 1949. The difference between The Guests and the album’s earlier tracks leap out immediately. This is Blitzstein post his music-theatre triumphs The Cradle Will Rock and ‘No For an Answer’; also post-World War Two. His manner now is more direct, less forbidding, more populist; and he’s more willing to spike the pungent harmonies with moments that touch the heart. They certainly touched Leonard Bernstein, who absorbed and copied Blitzstein’s more-tender turns and gestures in numerous works. The ballet’s concluding ‘Pas de deux’, previously recorded by Bennett Lerner, is seriously moving; as indeed is the much later Lied of 1963, Blitzstein’s final instrumental piece – almost as simple as Waterfall, but with affecting harmonic slips added.
Finally, in a masterly gesture, Lehrman’s recital climaxes with Blitzstein the modernist at his best in the Sonata of 1927-8: an exhilaratingly belligerent piece, dramatically punctured by abrupt pauses that only intensify the music’s fire. The slightly distant Queens College acoustic, somewhat unhelpful throughout, doesn’t cope well with clangourous fortissimos; but a few shrill moments can’t dent the overwhelming power of this final track.
Blitzstein in some important ways was an unlucky composer: tragically unlucky in his early death, murdered in Martinique in 1964; unlucky, too, in the volume of music he left unperformed or unfinished. But in another way he’s definitely lucky. He has a champion like Leonard Lehrman, tireless and passionate, determined to spread his enthusiasm with these pungent performances of pungent music – finally brought into the public domain through the inspired support of Martin Anderson and his label Toccata Classics. I learned a lot from this collection.