At the Still Point, CRI CD 686

Chester Biscardi (b. 1948) has already had a career that many composers would envy, graduating from the Yale School of Music, winning the Rome Prize, and heading the music department at Sarah Lawrence College, outside of New York City. This recording documents a fascinating progression, one that is not uncommon among composers of Biscardi's generation. As a student in the 1970s, he absorbed the principles of complex organization and a largely chromatic harmonic language characteristic of (by now what is viewed as) "late modernism," which was still firmly entrenched at that time in academic institutions, especially on the East Coast. But in the course of about a decade, he took this grounding and enlarged his expressive vocabulary to encompass far more lyrical and tonal materials. The result in the most recent pieces on this disc is at times enchanting.

The three early works are Tenzone (1975), for two flutes and piano, At the Still Point (1977), for orchestra, and Mestiere, for piano. The first is the most conventional, with elegant sonic strands interweaving between the flutes with periodic interjections from the piano, which acts as more of a guide than a full-fledged participant. The orchestral work was written while Biscardi was in Rome, and shows in particular the influence of Elliott Carter. While the general harmonic rhythm of the piece is slow, the sharply outlined details of individual lines and the emphasis on particular intervals reiterated in similar contexts combine to remind one of similar moments in Carter (in my case, I thought of the slow-moving blocks of sounds in that composer's piano concerto). In Mestiere (1979), however, something new begins to emerge. Out of the initial dramatic, dissonant opening, soon more lyrical lines and rich, quasi-tonal harmonies emerge. The whole piece seems to be a dialog between the composer Biscardi has been taught to be and the one he wants to be. In the end, it seems the latter wins the contest, and subsequent pieces confirm that verdict.

The remaining works date from the 1980s, and show the emergence of a mature voice. Traverso (1987) is an elegant work. Incitation to Desire (1984) was written for Yvar Mikhashoff's Tango Project, though its relation to the dance is less in the rhythms than in the sense of superheated Romantics. The Gift of Life (1990-93) is a brief song cycle on texts of Dickinson, Levertov, and Wilder; it is notable not only for the music, but also for the extremely careful matching of disparate texts to form a moving whole - images of birds and mothers, ideas of aging and death, flow in a sequence that creates its own logic (Biscardi's graduate study in Italian literature before his move to composition obviously helped here). Furthermore, the vocal writing is genuinely beautiful. The setting of Emily Dickinson's "Mama never forgets her birds . . .," which opens the piece, is nearly perfect in its matching of harmonic rhythm to poetic rhyme and meter. Biscardi uses a music that is evocative of Barber without sounding like a knockoff . . . the piece is genuinely affecting, and its expressive sincerity is matched by its musical substance.

Companion Piece (1989-91), however, is the work that strikes me as an unqualified success. Written as an homage to Morton Feldman, it is a trope of sorts on Feldman's 1952 Extensions 3, also for solo piano. Something magical happens here, when the template of Feldman's soft, spacy gestures intersects with Biscardi's lush harmony. The Romantic gestures don't sound forced here, there's nothing kitsch about these beautiful chords, still more functional than Feldman would have ever made them but also less directed than American midcentury neo-Romanticism would normally allow. In short, very much of this time . . .

Biscardi is talented and blessed with real sensitivity, imagination, and a feel for the poetic. His background, education, and current direction bode for a fruitful aesthetic synthesis. Based on his development, I look forward to further pieces. And considering both the obvious feel that he has for words, and his lyric bent, it seems that this is a composer made to write opera. - Robert Carl

. . . Th[is] collection spans over eighteen years of Biscardi's musical career - from his 1975 Tenzone through The Gift of Life, composed between 1990 and 1993. If one be so bold as to discern a chronological pattern in this incomplete collection of evidence, it would be a progression from a philosophical examination and exploration of the fundamental elements of music (Tenzone, At the Still Point, and Mestiere) to a kind of directly communicative neo-Romanticism wherein Biscardi takes what he has learned structurally and places it at the service of conveying emotion.

Tenzone, for two flutes and piano (composed in 1975), is a response to Takemitsu's 1959 Masque, for two flutes. Both it and At the Still Point, for orchestra and trio (1977), utilize the technique of "frozen registration." Harmonies don't logically flow from one moment to the next, leaving the listener not unpleasantly trapped in a never-ending present tense. Like Debussy, Biscardi uses instrumental timbre and dynamic variation as structural elements.

In what appear to by transitional pieces - Incitation to Desire (1984), Traverso, for flute and piano (1987), and Companion Piece (1991), Biscardi's harmonies, no matter how arcane, show themselves to be never farther than the proverbial hair's breadth for the mainstream diatonicism that has informed so much of music's recent history. His subtle and often telling vacillation between these at once vastly separated and extremely close harmonic realms imbues these pieces with dynamism and expressiveness.

The Gift of Life, for soprano and piano (1990-93), is the crowning jewel of this release. An all too brief song cycle on texts by Emily Dickinson, Denise Levertov, and Thornton Wilder, it has the directness and accessibility of Aaron Copland's music from the mid 30s through the 40s. Make no mistake, however; the voice is Biscardi's - a voice that fully informs each piece on this release regardless of its technical or stylistic properties . . .

In sum, a fine compilation of the work of a significant American composer, and one that can be recommended without reservation. - William Zagorski

"Chester Biscardi is a professor of music at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. This disc presents a survey of his works for soloists, chamber ensemble, and orchestra from the mid-1970s through the mid-1990s. Though his musical voice has evolved and changed through those years, each work presented here displays a moment of inspiration, a gentle and compassionate spirit, a captured moment in time — at the still point." - CRI Comminiqué (1995)

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