American Record Guide
Allen Gimbel
January 1, 2009

Charles Fussell (b. 1938) resume includes studies at Eastman with Bernard Rogers, in Berlin with Boris Blacher, a long stint as Virgil Thomson’s “assistant,” and a variety of posts in the Boston area (including the Boston University faculty). The two pieces in this collection are outgrowths of planned operatic projects, evidently not yet brought to fruition. High Bridge is meant to be a study for an opera based on the life of Hart Crane. It seems that the work is part of a multi-movement piece called Portrait of Hart Crane—this is the Prelude (the notes are very fuzzy on all this). It got its first performance by the Boston University Symphony in 2003. It opens with fanfares meant to express Crane’s forceful personality; a moody, pensive second theme follows. Both ideas are developed. Glittering descending scales lead to that moody theme again, and the piece ends with a firm conclusion. The work does not leave a particularly strong impression.

The Crane movement functions on the program as an overture to Wilde (1990, rev. 1995), a “symphony” in three parts for baritone and orchestra built primarily on Wilde’s letters to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas, stitched together with brief selections from his writings (libretto by Will Graham). Seemingly another sketch for an opera, the piece comes across as a comination tone poem, monodrama, and operatic scene. Part 1 is an atmospheric portrait of London, with Wilde drifting through town rapt in his thoughts; 2 is an orchestral segment depicting Wilde’s release from prison and adventures in Italy; 3 cuts to Wilde on his deathbed, meeting Christ as if he were another hot guy to be picked up, the two walking arm in arm to paradise—or his apartment.

Fussell’s music is essentially tonal and lyrical. Carlisle Floyd and Dominick Argento are representatives of the general style; if you enjoy that brand of American opera, you’ll be right at home here. The brilliant Sanford Sylvan gives the piece an American accent (but Wilde was British!) The work is well written and entertaining, but the libretto is essentially cobbled together and lacks a driving force. If the piece is intended merely as a sketch, it should remain so, and we should look forward to the opera if it arrives. As always, Gil Rose’s group plays beautifully, but this is not the most convincing release in this series.

© 2009 Allen Gimbel