OTTO LUENING (1900-1996): Suite for Cello and Piano, Aria for Cello and Piano, Variations on Bach’s Chorale Prelude “Liebter Jesu Wir Sind Hier” for Cello and Piano, solo cello: Sonata No. 1, Lament for George, 3 Etudes, Sonata Composed in Two Dayturnes.

Catalogue Number: 07Y041

Label: Centaur

Reference: CRC 3939

Format: CD

Price: $16.98

Description: Luening is mostly remembered for his pioneering work (with Vladimir Ussachevsky) in early electronic music, but there was rather more to him than that. His life spanned almost the whole of the 20th century, and his compositional activity, the bulk of it; he studied with Busoni and Jarnach, and taught Wuorinen, Corigliano, Andrew Violette, and Joan Tower, among many others; he worked with James Joyce on the stage; and as conductor he premiered many new operas as head of the opera group at Columbia University, and he was a flutist of professional standard. Throughout it all, he produced a substantial body of compositions, elegant, immaculately crafted, and with a thorough understanding of the possibilities presented by a wide range of instrumental combinations. What his achievements in electronic music have obscured, though, is that he was by no means an avant garde composer in any other respect; to be sure, his lifelong lively curiosity led to essays in a range of idioms from frank tonality to dodecaphony, but he was essentially a conservative composer, writing for instruments idiomatically and traditionally - even the orchestral parts of his works with manipulated electronic parts on tape are predominantly mainstream 20th-century post-romantic in style. Luening wrote for the cello throughout his career, and credited the friendship and advocacy of cellist George Finckel (dedicatee of the Bach variations and the Suite, and the subject of the Elegy) with refining his string writing, which is never less than immaculate. The first solo Sonata is early - 1924 - and already shows the composer’s flexible approach to tonality, with figuration based on freely variable scales (a point of contact with Busoni, whose "new classicality" is also evident in the work’s elegant form). The four-movement Suite (1946) is the largest work here, and the finest; its form suggests a Baroque suite, though its tonality is wide-ranging, the composer effortlessly moving between tonality, bi- and poly-tonality and harmonically rich chromaticism that borders on atonality; and in the last movement, a lively Dance, the Busonian combination of scales produces an attractive middle-Eastern modality. Beginning with a striking recitative, punctuated by passionate dramatic action (the opera conductor in evidence), the next movement is a playful scherzo, followed by an Elegy of unexpectedly tragic depth. The 1942-43 Aria, dedicated to Jarnach (with whom Luening remained in contact for years) is entirely tonal and neo-romantic in idiom, as are the ingenious and engaging variations, described by the composer as: "a slight token of my undying love and admiration for Bach, particularly for his chorale preludes." Most of the two works here predate the 1952 watershed when Luening began his work with electronic music, but even the much later Etudes and the deeply felt Lament (both from 1987) show no hint of avant garde tendencies. The Etudes contain nothing remotely outlandish and, indeed, have a strong sense of tonality and thematic and expressive unity, while bristling with a rapid-fire series of every conceivable (traditional) advanced technical demand; the Lament is eloquently neo-romantic in idiom. John Knelling (cello), Mescal Wilson (piano).

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