Author Topic: The Incredible Walter Piston (1894-1976)  (Read 33842 times)

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Offline vandermolen

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The Incredible Walter Piston (1894-1976)
« on: April 04, 2010, 01:27:45 AM »
I was very surprised that this composer appears not to have featured yet. I have been listening to his fine wartime Second Symphony (generally considered the best one). The second movement is especially beautiful I think. Piston has a reputation for writing rather dry and 'academic' music but, where the emotion comes through (as in the second movement of Symphony 2), it is all the more affecting for it. Other works I know and like are Symphony No 4, The Incredible Flautist (his best-known work) and the Three New England Sketches, the last one of which 'Mountains' opens just like Vaughan Williams's contemporaneous 9th Symphony of 1958. The Piston Delos CDs are now on Naxos and the one featuring symphonies 2 and 6 would be a good starting point for anyone wanting to investigate this fine composer.
« Last Edit: April 05, 2010, 11:41:30 AM by vandermolen »
"Courage is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm" (Churchill).

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Offline Archaic Torso of Apollo

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Re: Walter Piston (1894-1976)
« Reply #1 on: April 04, 2010, 02:53:41 AM »
The 2nd Symphony and the two violin concertos are favorites of mine. I was lucky enough to hear the symphony performed in Chicago several years ago - one of the great American symphonies.

Beyond those pieces, the limited amount of Piston I've heard hasn't impressed me as much. I had the chamber music on Naxos, but got rid of it - too dry and yes, "academic."
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Offline Daverz

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Re: Walter Piston (1894-1976)
« Reply #2 on: April 04, 2010, 03:25:59 AM »
The 2nd Symphony and the two violin concertos are favorites of mine. I was lucky enough to hear the symphony performed in Chicago several years ago - one of the great American symphonies.

Beyond those pieces, the limited amount of Piston I've heard hasn't impressed me as much. I had the chamber music on Naxos, but got rid of it - too dry and yes, "academic."

I'd think you would also enjoy Symphony No. 4.  Munch did a great recording of Symphony No. 6 for RCA.  The Tilson Thomas recording is definitely the one to have for the 2nd.



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Re: Walter Piston (1894-1976)
« Reply #3 on: April 04, 2010, 05:34:48 AM »
I like the string quartets very much (there are five) as well as the orchestral works.  I have the Portland String Quartet doing all of them.


Offline Archaic Torso of Apollo

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Re: Walter Piston (1894-1976)
« Reply #4 on: April 04, 2010, 08:10:19 AM »
I'd think you would also enjoy Symphony No. 4.  Munch did a great recording of Symphony No. 6 for RCA.  The Tilson Thomas recording is definitely the one to have for the 2nd.

I had the Naxos recording of No. 4, but wasn't too impressed. The recording you show does interest me, though mainly for the Martinu 6th.
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Offline Guido

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Re: Walter Piston (1894-1976)
« Reply #5 on: April 04, 2010, 08:26:54 AM »
Symphony 2 is I think his best, and the others are all in way variations on its theme - they all have good moments and though are variably successful - some are quite dull, while others are far more engaging and beautiful. I don't think he ever did better than no.2 though.

I really like the piano quartet and keep meaning to hear the string quartets.
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Offline Daverz

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Re: Walter Piston (1894-1976)
« Reply #6 on: April 04, 2010, 03:01:53 PM »
I had the Naxos recording of No. 4, but wasn't too impressed.

I blame Schwarz.  Keep an eye out for the Ormandy recording.

Quote
The recording you show does interest me, though mainly for the Martinu 6th.

It's the best recording of the Martinu, too.  Fabulous RCA stereo sound.


Offline SonicMan46

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Re: Walter Piston (1894-1976)
« Reply #7 on: April 04, 2010, 03:44:54 PM »
I blame Schwarz.  Keep an eye out for the Ormandy recording.

It's the best recording of the Martinu, too.  Fabulous RCA stereo sound.

Well, guess that I may join this thread since I own 4 CDs of Piston's music, including 2 w/ Schwarz on the Delos label (i.e. Symphonies 2,4,6 et al) - I've been quite impressed w/ this conductor of the Delos label and his 'American' recordings - believe that I should re-listen to these recordings - been a while.  My other 2 recordings are on Naxos, Violin Concertos & Chamber Music - looking forward to more posts - Dave  :)

Offline Daverz

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Re: Walter Piston (1894-1976)
« Reply #8 on: April 04, 2010, 07:24:20 PM »
The thread has inspired a Pistonethon.  The Viola Concerto, the Symphonies 5, 7 & 8; and the String Quartet No. 5.  Maybe I'm easy to please, but I enjoy all the symphonies.  These Whitney/Louisville Orchestra recordings are quite good.


Offline vandermolen

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Re: Walter Piston (1894-1976)
« Reply #9 on: April 05, 2010, 12:31:44 AM »
The thread has inspired a Pistonethon.  The Viola Concerto, the Symphonies 5, 7 & 8; and the String Quartet No. 5.  Maybe I'm easy to please, but I enjoy all the symphonies.  These Whitney/Louisville Orchestra recordings are quite good.



Hope the Pistonethon is going well! Thanks for all replies.  Yes, the MTT Piston Symphony No 2 is a great performance (a great CD generally with Ruggles's 'Sun Treader' and Ives's 'Three Paces in New England'). I also like Symphony No 4 and the Three New England Sketches - I must listen to the violin concertos and the chamber music.
"Courage is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm" (Churchill).

'The test of a work of art is, in the end, our affection for it, not our ability to explain why it is good' (Stanley Kubrick).

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Re: Walter Piston (1894-1976)
« Reply #10 on: April 05, 2010, 04:50:05 AM »
It's getting pretty tight around here coming up with composers who still have no thread, haha. I'm jealous! :P



An interesting consensus is emerging. I have given Piston(i) every chance, and find the same kind of mixed bag everyone else seems to have found also. My LEAST FAVORITE Piston would be the symphs 5,,7,8 (Albany). I like No.2 (DG), very Sibelian, and, I've heard really good things about No.3, but when I heard snippets i wasn't all that impressed. Gernally, I'm not a fan of Piston's symphs.



No one has mentioned the classic NAXOS disc of Violin Concertos 1-2. Everyone likes that!!



However, the Concerto for 2Pianos has a vaughn-Williams slow mvmt that is perfect. I've also heard good things about the Viola Concerto. Also, the smaller items, such as the Cello Variations, and the piece for orchestra and SQ, and the p[iece for harp and english horn(?), have been on the list for a while. I notice nobody has yet mentioned The Incredible Flautist, Piuston's most famous piece.



I have the NAXOS chamber disc, and, for once, I really looove the 'dry academism' of the String Sextet and the Piano Quartet. I especially like the dry Sextet. These pieces exemplify the 'hardening of the language' that I always go on about, that composers from Bloch to Malipiero to Villa-Lobos to Hindemith experienced. Of course, I understand why one wouldn't like these pieces, but, SOMEBODY has to write some dry stuff, or there wouldn't be any! :'( ;D

The NAXOS disc also includes the Piano Quintet, maybe Piston's masterpiece. The piece begins with a purposeful minor-sixth type of rolling figure that has some nice power behind it. I'd put this right up there with the Bloch No.1 as the greatest PQ of the 20th cent. Also, the Quintet for Flute and SQ is a nice early piece.

I have also been interested in his Wind Quintet, another early piece (and also another wind trio), though it's hard to find cheap. And,... there is a nice Sonata for Violin & Harpsicord that I like.



I also have the SQ No.5 on the VOX, for which Piston won the Pulitzer. I would like to hear the rest.



Well, no one seems to like everything Piston wrote, but, no one is completely dismissing him either. For those of you who are curious, let this thread be your guide. I recommend:

Sym No.2: generally considered the best sym

Syms 4/6: who HASN'T heard these Delos/Naxos discs???

Concerto for 2Pianos: perfect neoclassicism

Violin Concertos 1-2, Viola Concerto + smaller, one-mvmt concertos: to round out the academism...

Naxos Chamber Disc: I love, some don't,... but you'll like the Piano Quintet.

SQs: natch



I did my Piston homework a looong time ago. Generally, he is my least fav of the usual American suspects, but, he has some jewels in there. You don't have to go through the whole she'bang like we did: just trust the thread!


Offline vandermolen

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Re: The Incredible Walter Piston (1894-1976)
« Reply #11 on: April 05, 2010, 10:50:32 AM »
It's getting pretty tight around here coming up with composers who still have no thread, haha. I'm jealous! :P



An interesting consensus is emerging. I have given Piston(i) every chance, and find the same kind of mixed bag everyone else seems to have found also. My LEAST FAVORITE Piston would be the symphs 5,,7,8 (Albany). I like No.2 (DG), very Sibelian, and, I've heard really good things about No.3, but when I heard snippets i wasn't all that impressed. Gernally, I'm not a fan of Piston's symphs.



No one has mentioned the classic NAXOS disc of Violin Concertos 1-2. Everyone likes that!!



However, the Concerto for 2Pianos has a vaughn-Williams slow mvmt that is perfect. I've also heard good things about the Viola Concerto. Also, the smaller items, such as the Cello Variations, and the piece for orchestra and SQ, and the p[iece for harp and english horn(?), have been on the list for a while. I notice nobody has yet mentioned The Incredible Flautist, Piuston's most famous piece.



I have the NAXOS chamber disc, and, for once, I really looove the 'dry academism' of the String Sextet and the Piano Quartet. I especially like the dry Sextet. These pieces exemplify the 'hardening of the language' that I always go on about, that composers from Bloch to Malipiero to Villa-Lobos to Hindemith experienced. Of course, I understand why one wouldn't like these pieces, but, SOMEBODY has to write some dry stuff, or there wouldn't be any! :'( ;D

The NAXOS disc also includes the Piano Quintet, maybe Piston's masterpiece. The piece begins with a purposeful minor-sixth type of rolling figure that has some nice power behind it. I'd put this right up there with the Bloch No.1 as the greatest PQ of the 20th cent. Also, the Quintet for Flute and SQ is a nice early piece.

I have also been interested in his Wind Quintet, another early piece (and also another wind trio), though it's hard to find cheap. And,... there is a nice Sonata for Violin & Harpsicord that I like.



I also have the SQ No.5 on the VOX, for which Piston won the Pulitzer. I would like to hear the rest.



Well, no one seems to like everything Piston wrote, but, no one is completely dismissing him either. For those of you who are curious, let this thread be your guide. I recommend:

Sym No.2: generally considered the best sym

Syms 4/6: who HASN'T heard these Delos/Naxos discs???

Concerto for 2Pianos: perfect neoclassicism

Violin Concertos 1-2, Viola Concerto + smaller, one-mvmt concertos: to round out the academism...

Naxos Chamber Disc: I love, some don't,... but you'll like the Piano Quintet.

SQs: natch



I did my Piston homework a looong time ago. Generally, he is my least fav of the usual American suspects, but, he has some jewels in there. You don't have to go through the whole she'bang like we did: just trust the thread!

Thanks for this interesting and very informative post. Clearly I must listen to the Piano Quintet as I rate the Bloch work very highly indeed. I thought that there was already a Piston thread to which I wanted to contribute having been really enjoying his Symphony No 2 - maybe there was one on the old forum.  I am listening to and enjoying Symphony No 4 (Ormandy/Albany CD). The Symphony No 2 has, IMHO, two wonderful moments, the haunting 'last post' type section at the end of the first movement and the section about 5 minutes and 20 seconds into the second movement (in the MTT DGG recording). The dance like tune in the second movement of Symphony 4 reminded me a bit of Malcolm Arnold! I must look out, from what you say, for the Concerto for Two Pianos. I hope that I may like it as much as the equivalent VW, Lennox Berkeley and Malcolm Arnold works.

I do like The Incredible Flautist, which has some lovely, poetic sections. I have now given this thread a racier title in tribute  ;D
« Last Edit: April 05, 2010, 11:44:37 AM by vandermolen »
"Courage is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm" (Churchill).

'The test of a work of art is, in the end, our affection for it, not our ability to explain why it is good' (Stanley Kubrick).

Offline Guido

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Re: The Incredible Walter Piston (1894-1976)
« Reply #12 on: April 06, 2010, 03:17:42 PM »
the Piano quintet is really lovely but I don't think its a truly Great work - I'm surprised you rate it so highly. I do really like it though!
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Offline some guy

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Re: The Incredible Walter Piston (1894-1976)
« Reply #13 on: April 06, 2010, 09:19:38 PM »
Piston has a reputation for writing rather dry and 'academic' music...."
Really? Piston? Where have you seen evidence of this reputation? (I mean other than in this very thread, of course!)

I would never have thought that Piston would have ever gotten this reputation. Babbitt may be (though even there, I wouldn't agree with that assessment--I just understand better with Babbitt how that reputation could have arisen).

I'm just now listening to the Naxos chamber music disc. The quintet is on right now. What a lovely and delightful work that is, to be sure!! (As are all the other works on this CD. A real treat.) It makes me wonder about what things some of the other posters listen to. What they're used to compared to which the always engaging Piston could possibly be called dry or hard or academic. (The string sextet exemplifying a hardening of the language? Really? That warm, ingratiating bit of loveliness? Hmmmm.)

Otherwise, what is up with this respelling? The Incredible Flautist? It's The Incredible Flutist everywhere else in the world! And while the suite may be his most popular piece, there's only one recording of the ballet (and has only ever been just the one, so far as I know). It is in every way a more interesting piece of music than the suite, which makes for a very different experience from the ballet--much more so than that given by the Copland Rodeo suite or the Bartók suite from Miraculous Mandarin. (There are sixteen copies listed on Amazon, new and used. It's the Louisville Orchestra with Jorge Mester one.)

Offline John Copeland

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Re: The Incredible Walter Piston (1894-1976)
« Reply #14 on: April 06, 2010, 11:56:43 PM »
What got me into Walter Piston was his Symphony 8.  It is a real mysterious crawler, superbly imaginative use of the orchestra for one who has been accused of being 'dry'.

But I don't have any program notes so you'll have to put up with my havering.
 
It is a symphony which reflects some kind of lost yearning in a musical stream which sounds like Bartok in some places.  This work has a habit of taking you by the hand and leading you through some places where danger may be close by, but the music itself confronts and conquers it at each turn.
If you want to go on a wee journey where music is your lover, protector and illuminator, this is it.

The body of music by Piston that I have tells me he is BY FAR the most listenable and enjoyable of all American composers I kmow of.  Why this stuff isn't paraded around Europe as part of our staple Classical diet I don't know....

Offline Guido

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Re: The Incredible Walter Piston (1894-1976)
« Reply #15 on: April 07, 2010, 12:15:52 AM »
The body of music by Piston that I have tells me he is BY FAR the most listenable and enjoyable of all American composers I kmow of.  Why this stuff isn't paraded around Europe as part of our staple Classical diet I don't know....

Barber's better?

So for that matter is Copland and possibly Schuman. Ives goes without saying. Barber's in the same sort of line of misty eyed nostalgia and ravishing beauty, but there's a greater imagination, far less second rate material and a far greater gift for melody. Too many of Piston's fast movements are perfunctory.

I hate to be the naysayer on this thread as I do really like Piston, but people are making very large claims for this composer!
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Offline John Copeland

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Re: The Incredible Walter Piston (1894-1976)
« Reply #16 on: April 07, 2010, 12:46:11 AM »
It doesn't go without saying at all.  I'm saying it.
 :P
I have amassed a fair corpus of American Classical Music, most of them famous for one or two things (Barber - Adagio, Copland - Fanfare,  etc, etc) - Piston is famous for nothing, not in Europe anyway.  I find this unsettling because his work is of a distinctive type which is not as narrow as many think.  It is mindscape evocative.
It is in the music.

Offline vandermolen

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Re: The Incredible Walter Piston (1894-1976)
« Reply #17 on: April 07, 2010, 09:37:52 AM »
Really? Piston? Where have you seen evidence of this reputation? (I mean other than in this very thread, of course!)

I would never have thought that Piston would have ever gotten this reputation. Babbitt may be (though even there, I wouldn't agree with that assessment--I just understand better with Babbitt how that reputation could have arisen).

I'm just now listening to the Naxos chamber music disc. The quintet is on right now. What a lovely and delightful work that is, to be sure!! (As are all the other works on this CD. A real treat.) It makes me wonder about what things some of the other posters listen to. What they're used to compared to which the always engaging Piston could possibly be called dry or hard or academic. (The string sextet exemplifying a hardening of the language? Really? That warm, ingratiating bit of loveliness? Hmmmm.)

Otherwise, what is up with this respelling? The Incredible Flautist? It's The Incredible Flutist everywhere else in the world! And while the suite may be his most popular piece, there's only one recording of the ballet (and has only ever been just the one, so far as I know). It is in every way a more interesting piece of music than the suite, which makes for a very different experience from the ballet--much more so than that given by the Copland Rodeo suite or the Bartók suite from Miraculous Mandarin. (There are sixteen copies listed on Amazon, new and used. It's the Louisville Orchestra with Jorge Mester one.)

Yes, should be 'Flutist' - my mistake. Interestingly I recently bought a boxed set of recordings  by the Russian/Soviet conductor Alexander Gauk (vol 2) and see that it includes Piston's 6th Symphony - am looking forward to hearing this.
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Re: The Incredible Walter Piston (1894-1976)
« Reply #18 on: April 07, 2010, 06:50:21 PM »
the Piano quintet is really lovely but I don't think its a truly Great work - I'm surprised you rate it so highly. I do really like it though!

Really, it's the first mvmt. that has that cool, minor-sixth rocking theme. I'm not saying it's in the same league as the Bloch no.1 (what is?,...except Bloch SQ No.1, haha), but the literature for the lion of chamber music is not is everyone's face, so, I will give him any weaknesses in the other mvmts (if there are any,...I will listen later). I mean, what PQ 20th century masterpieces are there after Shosty and Bloch and Martinu? I just think the theme of Piston's first mvmt (simple rocking minor-sixth,... that expectant sound of intrigue!) is pure ingenuity. What other famous piece uses this theme?


I'm just now listening to the Naxos chamber music disc. The quintet is on right now. What a lovely and delightful work that is, to be sure!! (As are all the other works on this CD. A real treat.) It makes me wonder about what things some of the other posters listen to. What they're used to compared to which the always engaging Piston could possibly be called dry or hard or academic. (The string sextet exemplifying a hardening of the language? Really? That warm, ingratiating bit of loveliness? Hmmmm.)

ok, Hindemith's late Octet is what I would use as the perfect example of I think happened to most all composers of the generation (to varying degrees). Bloch, Malipiero, Villa-Lobos, Chavez,...mmm,...who else?...

I mean, I particularly like that Piston Sextet because it exhibits for me just the exact proper amount of saturated tang in every measure. And, it has probably Pisdton's most profound slow mvmt. Maybe I find the Piano Quartet a better example ( once again, I will have to listen tomorrow).

But yes, why not? Listen to the early Flute Quintet, and compare to the late music. Of course there is a,... well, in Piston's case I wouldn't use the word 'hardening',...but he certainly was still a normal sounding composer (as opposed to Xenakis) who would never write another piece in the style of the Piano Quintet. To normal people, the PQ is normal music, but the Sextet is, somehow, as my friend would say, 'jazz'! Right?, you can't really hum it?

What normal early/mid 20th century composer ended up writing the 'ugliest' late music?

Offline some guy

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Re: The Incredible Walter Piston (1894-1976)
« Reply #19 on: April 07, 2010, 07:52:53 PM »
What normal early/mid 20th century composer ended up writing the 'ugliest' late music?
Haha, I know the answer to this one...

...none!!

(I coulda said Penderecki or Gorecki, too, but I didn't!)