As a graduate student I remember Arthur Berger's music being described in the halls as "white-note Webern." In fact, as Rodney Lister's notes clarify for me, it was Milton Babbitt, who, in a 1950 article, described the music as "diatonic Webern," a moniker that apparently stuck the same way to Berger as the notorious "Who Cares If You Listen?" stuck to Babbitt (incidentally not that composer's title).
OK, I'm getting ahead of myself. Berger (1912-2003) was a fixture of the Boston new music scene, teaching at Brandeis and New England Conservatory. He was one of the major composer-critics of mid-20th-century American music. He created an extremely personal and supple blend between the aesthetics of Stravinskian neoclassicism and Viennese serialism, perhaps the most perfect of that rarified genre. As such, he's at the very least an important part of the history of American concert music.
This release helps to identify Berger's strengths, and yes, weaknesses. On the one hand, it gives us a selection of pieces from various periods of the composer's creative life, but not the one most frequently evoked for his historical profile, i.e. the works from the early 1950s that used limited "quasi-tonal" sets to create a sound that was like the Boston neoclassicism dominant at the time, but closely and II, 1990 rev. 1995; and III, 1992 rev. 1994), which are unique specimens of a composer revisiting his music late in life.
The Yeats settings for-voice with flute, clarinet, and cello are elegant, precise, and whimsical. They suggest a sensibility that would remain throughout Berger's creative life, though soon rendered more economical and Modernist. Chamber Music for 13 Players is for me the star attraction of the program. It is not "white-note serialism"; one hears all 12 chromatic tones throughout quite consistently. But the piece has a quicksilver wit that causes it to dance throughout, despite a dissonant veneer that might be off-putting to some. It does not sound overly cerebral or theoretical. Rarely has a composer of such seemingly austere music made a celesta so key a player in the iconic sound of the ensemble, and the second, concluding movement works itself in a frenzy that remains "Apollonian" in its refusal to crash and burn.
The Septet is more severe in tone, and uses repeated "frozen" tones in particular registers. It moves ever closer to the sound of late Stravinsky. The Collages from the 1990s are something else again. By this point Berger had foresworn further new works, but he revisited older pieces (in these cases the 1984 Woodwind Quintet and the 1976 Composition for Piano Four Hands). The result is not a revision, but a "recomposition." Taking as a model paintings using collage technique by Robert Motherwell (the composer had a knack of knowing lots of people of consequence in different fields), Berger cut, pasted, reorchestrated, and rewrote earlier music. I find the result a little pale. For me it has neither the urgency nor the playfulness of the earlier works on this program. But it does have elegance, and Collage III, with its sequence of nine short instrumental miniatures, has that ragged but polished, aphoristic quality Edward Said identified in his classic text on artists' "late style."
In short, I think this release allows us to confront a composer who was very influential "behind the scenes" for decades, and has a body of work well worth exploring in depth, so that we can ultimately cull what is truly worthy of preservation and useful to future generations of musicians. Also, the performances, that for this sort of music can sometimes be dry, are instead over the top in their abandon and delight in the intricacies of the works.