CD Review–Emma Lou Diemer

CD Review

Summer Day: The Complete Works for Violin and Piano, Emma Lou Diemer

Truetone TT9688

Starting in the most fundamental of places—the mode of the C major prelude of Bach—the opening Aria from Aria and Scherzo of Emma Lou Deimer’s CD Summer Day gets right back to the basics of classical music. In an era when those fundamentals have often been forgotten, some might even deem this deceptively simple opening “New Age Music”, when nothing could be further from the truth.  Emma Lou shows her great mastery from the start here, for the counterpoint is that of a classical composer deeply trained in her idiom, whose feeling for simultaneous harmony and melody is effortless.  When a few jazz voicings creep into the middle section, along with some straying into denser harmony, it seems largely in the service of pointing up the purity of the opening, which shortly returns.

The Scherzo continues the jazz idiom, but closer to Ravel than Brubeck in the spareness and economy of means Diemer employs.

I remember the coming of spring in Santa Barbara, as a student of Emma Lou’s; now, having lived in New England for thirty years, it seems almost nothing compared to the catharsis it is here.  The music of Before Spring reflects the subtlety of that California season; I hear in it the dry brush and spareness of the semi-arid environment.  However, with the coming of the middle section there is a passionate release culminating in a polytonal pastorale—a splendid flowering, yet still the aridity of the climate seems ever present even in the most animated sections.  This is not a Wordsworth Spring; perhaps more of a Steinbeck season.  Overall Diemer’s control of mood is matchless, and this is a remarkable work of abstract as well as programmatic music.

In the Suite for Violin and Piano Emma Lou moves away from the innocence of the Aria and Scherzo.  The opening Summer Day shows the influence of French composers like Poulenc and Jean Rivier filtered through Americans like Piston and Halsey Stevens.  On its own merits this Franco-American influence is a pairing of style and sophistication with innocence and straightforwardness, and is characteristic of much pre-WWII American music.

The Elegy shows similar influences, and here the depth of feeling from the American side prevails, partaking just enough of French economy of means to avoid rambling.

Jazz Romp is very much that, though again in the mode of Ravel.  Although the piece is an extremely well-crafted example of the “American Scherzo”, it is my own discomfort with that style—a style that tends to eschew counterpoint and development in favor of various effects—which makes it hard for me to communicate personally with this otherwise beautifully crafted movement.  The gorgeous ending chords—a characteristic of much of Emma Lou’s work on this CD—are a delightful catharsis though.

Diemer now plays the famous Paderewski Minuet in G (she is the pianist on all works on this CD, recorded on her own piano) as a prelude to her Homage to  Paderewski.  The Homage itself begins slowly, with no overt reference to the Paderewski at first—this is saved for the following fast section, superficially another scherzo in the American mode made much more interesting by the theme and variation structure of the movement, with all the attendant development of melody, harmony, and rhythm.  For me this becomes what such a scherzo should be, full of musical invention instead of effects.  What a wonderful series of variations it is as well!  At one point it segues effortlessly from a seductive Latin dance to perhaps the most profound music on the entire CD, a cantilena for violin and piano which has the utter simplicity yet consummate skill demonstrated in the opening  Aria and Scherzo.  This beautiful solemnity reminds me of the best of the “American Stravinsky” composers—Arthur Berger and Ingolf Dahl—and makes this work perhaps the masterpiece of this CD.

After the intensity of the Homage, Diemer reaches back to her roots as an organist and gives us variations on three hymn tunes.  The American influence here is decidedly Copland’s, and reminds us that the innocent intensity of our native land comes to some extent from the influence of hymns both European and native.  That great hybrid hymn Amazing Grace, written by an Englishman yet almost ferociously claimed by these shores, receives a particularly touching polytonal treatment. The treatment of Great Is Thy Faithfulness appears cast against type (joyous and pastoral),  yet seems for Emma Lou a very personal statement, as many of the best characteristics of her style are on display here.

The Khachaturian Toccata is a godsend for me as a pianist: a piece which sounds very difficult, yet is actually quite easy to play.  Diemer’s Catch-a-Turian Toccata is rather more difficult, with multiple meter changes and patterns not simply rapidly repeated chords as in the original, but intricate counterpoint which likely necessitates much practice to perfect.  The virtuoso mood swings require a pianist not only versed in classical technique but boogie-woogie and swing.  This is definitely not your pianist’s Khachaturian!  Yet it is a consummate showpiece, and would make a brilliant encore at a concert.

This is a CD which starts and ends definitively, and  is a wonderful showcase for the broad range of moods and techniques which Emma Lou Diemer has brought to music.  Just a second, I would like to start it all over again…

Gregory Hall

Reprinted by permission of CRS Inc.  (  Inquiries about recordings/concerts/master classes may be directed to the CRS web page.

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