Wuorinen’s Eighth Symphony complex and compelling

Charles Wuorinen’s Eighth Symphony and Fourth Piano Concerto are hard music to perform, and hard music to listen to. But they’re worth the investment of time and energy both for performers, and listeners.

Wourinen’s music is complex, multi-faceted, and original in construction and sound. There’s a lot to unpack in these works, and I certainly didn’t get it all the first few times I listened (I still haven’t).

Even the connections between Wuorinen’s Eighth Symphony (2006) and the Fourth Piano Concerto (2003) are multi-layered. The Eighth Symphony is an expansion of Wuorinen’s Theologoumenon, written for James Levine’s sixtieth birthday (basically, Theologoumenon forms the first of the four movements in the symphony).  Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra commissioned the work, and the premier performance is what’s captured in this recording.

Pianist Peter Serkin,like James Levine, has long championed Wuorinen’s music. The Fourth Piano Concerto was also a Boston Symphony Orchestra commission premiered with Levine conducting and Serkin performing.

I might describe Wuorninen’s style as serialist, but not in a negative way. These aren’t bloodless intellectual exercises. Wuorinen’s music has an authenticity to it that comes through in the stormy emotions it expresses. The more I listened, the more I could sense the structure underlying the music.

Committed performances by Levine and Serkin help tremendously. They get what Wuorinen’s about, and do their best to articulate those intentions.

The concerto makes interesting use of keyboard percussion, using it in places to underline the percussive nature of the piano.

I was also struck by the lyrical quality of the symphony’s final movement. While there were dramatic changes in timber and texture, the music seemed to flow rather than jump from one motif to the other.

This is hard music to listen to. But if you keep listening, in time it may speak to you. And the Eighth Symphony and the Fourth Piano Concerto both have a lot to say.

Charles Wuorinen: Eight Symphony (Theologoumena); Fourth Piano Concerto
Boston Symphony Orchestra; James Levine, conductor
Peter Serkin, piano
(live recordings)
Bridge Records 9474

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