Classical Lost and Found
Bob McQuiston
June 30, 2015

Boston-born Irving Fine's (1914-1962) unfortunate demise at forty-seven deprived the classical music world of an extremely promising talent. A superb teacher and administrator, he was also an accomplished pianist, conductor and composer, who owing to his early death completed only six orchestral works. Now for the first time we get all of them on one disc with this hybrid, CD(2)/SACD(2/5.0), disc from BMOP/sound in their acclaimed series devoted to twentieth century American composers (see 14 May 2014).

A student of Edward Burlingame Hill (1872-1960, see 30 March 2015) and Walter Piston (1894-1976) at Harvard, he'd go on to study with Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979, see 22 November 2010) in Paris. Then he'd return to Cambridge and teach at his alma mater (1939-50), where he'd become closely associated with Aaron Copland (1900-1990), Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) and Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971).

During this period he fell under the spell of the latter's neoclassicism, which is strongly reflected in Fine's earlier works. A case in point is Toccata Concertante of 1947 [T-1] that he says was meant to capture the "fanfare-like character" of festive 16-17th century orchestral toccatas. And he's done just that in this high-strung, rhythmically volatile piece.

This loosely structured sonata form piece opens with a scurrying phrase [00:02] succeeded by a muscular four-note riff (MF) [00:06]. A couple of catchy ideas follow, and all of the foregoing undergo an intricate development with contrapuntal spicing. This slows [09:27], building with hints of MF to an ominous climax followed by a dramatic pause. Then forceful reminders of MF [10:20] announce the thrilling closing measures.

The Notturno for Strings and Harp (1951) is of late romantic persuasion. In three short movements, the harp plays a decorative rather than concertante role. The initial lento [T-2] is an engaging chromatic reverie where a solo viola surfaces in the final moments to end the movement amorously.

Built around a mewing main theme for the violins [00:09], there's something catlike about the twitchy animato that's next [T-3]. It ends in a furtive, pizzicato-enhanced passage.

The concluding adagio [T-5] opens with sighing strings that give way to melodic arpeggios on the harp. These introduce a tender melody sung by the strings, which closes the work equivocally.

As far as Fine's orchestral works go Serious Song, A Lament for String Orchestra (1955) [T-6] is one of his best. Described by the composer as an aria, it falls into three respectively slow-fast-slow arches. The doleful overcast first has modal elements that make it all the more plaintive. At one point there's a glimmer of sunshine [01:59], but this soon fades, and the arch ends despairingly.

Wisps of hope introduce the second one [03:17], but turn increasingly anguished, concluding it in abject desperation. Then the final arch [06:57] offers a sense of resigned consolation only to leave the piece in limbo.

Now for a complete change of pace! The following selection originated as a fight song Fine wrote for Brandeis University (see the album notes), and later turned into a march. Dating from 1959-60 and named Blue Towers [T-6] after the school colors, it's an ostentatiously scored, spirited number with a memorable main theme perfectly suited to those Saturday afternoon college football games.

Having marched off the field in triumph, we get Diversions for Orchestra, which is a suite of four miniatures drawn from the composer's unpublished solo piano works (1942-59; not currently available on disc). Dedicated to his three young daughters, it brings to mind Debussy's Children's Corner (1906-08) and La Boîte à joujoux (The Toy Box, 1913; see the newsletter of 10 March 2011).

The initial "Little Toccata" [T-7] is an impish Munchkin frolic. Then we get the first of two selections originally from Fine's incidental music for a 1942 theatrical production of Alice in Wonderland based on Lewis Carroll's (1832-1898) 1865 novel (see 8 April 2013). Entitled "Flamingo Polka" [T-8] it's a merry cartoonish shimmy with overtones of Irving's good friend Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990).

Then after an interim "Koko's Lullaby" [T-9], which is an affectionate characterization of the Fine family poodle, the suite concludes with the other Alice... selection called "The Red Queen's Gavotte" [T-10]. This is an infectious dance with Gallic folk associations brining to mind Ravel's (1875-1937) neobaroque orchestral works. It ends this charming domestic divertissement in the land of make believe.

The disc concludes with Fine's masterpiece, the symphony of 1962. Brilliantly scored with many instrumental solos, it's a synthesis of neoclassical and serial elements that despite twelve-tone associations also appeals to the emotions.

In three movements the opening "Intrada" [T-11] begins in rustic fashion with syncopated, atonally flavored motifs. These are developed and augmented in listener friendly fashion, only to fade away. Then the woodwinds introduce a lyrical afterthought [04:14], concluding the movement with a sense of mystery.

The following "Capriccio" [T-12] is a driving scherzo-like digression set to Stravinskyesque rhythms. It becomes increasingly manic somewhat along the lines of Dukas' (1865-1935) Sorcerer's Apprentice (1897), and ends raucously.

A concluding "Ode" [T-13] combines the developmental aspects of the first movement with the kinetic energy of the second. It starts hesitantly, getting more and more agitated as it turns into a striking dodecaphonic-spiced orgy rhythmically reminiscent of Igor's Le sacre du printemps (The rite of Spring, 1911-3). Then the music becomes pensive [05:42], and the work closes with chilling percussion-laced outcries from the brass [06:50].

It's an impressive ending for this outstanding disc of discovery featuring one of America's most undersung, modern-day composers. Those wishing to learn more about him should see musicologist Phillip Ramey's (b. 1939) book Irving Fine: An American Composer in His Time (2005).

Once again the Boston Music Orchestra Project (BMOP) under their founding conductor Gil Rose gives superb performances of these rarely heard selections. His well-judged tempos, meticulous phrasing, and astute dynamics bring out all the detail in these immaculately structured, less-is-more scores. What's more the BMOP musicians deliver virtuoso accounts of the many highly demanding solos.

Made last year either at the Rogers Center for the Arts, North Andover, Massachusetts, or Jordan Hall, Boston, the recordings are excellent. The CD and SACD stereo tracks create well-proportioned sonic images in warm venues with the Rogers Center ones (Notturno... and Serious Song...) sounding somewhat closer in less reverberant surroundings The SACD multitrack projects a more open representation of everything, giving the listener a center seat several rows back from the orchestra.

The overall instrumental timbre is natural sounding with pleasing highs and a lifelike midrange. Fine's elegant scoring engenders a lean bass end that remains clean throughout. The many instrumental solos are well captured and highlighted in all three play modes with the string tone even more convincing on the SACD tracks. This release is another addition to BMOP/sound's growing catalog of demonstration quality discs (see 14 May 2014).