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Dip Your Ears, No. 248 (Three American Symphonies)

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American Symphonies
W.Piston, S.Jones, S.Albert
Symphonies 6, 3 & 2
L.Friedel / LSO

Walter Piston, Samuel Jones, Stephen Albert are all fine American symphonists of the 20th century. Anyone who likes – or even likes to champion – tonal orchestral music that is ultimately more beholden to beauty than musicological ideology, should want to hold up these composers as an example for classical music that never allowed itself to be divorced from (potentially) popular music. Stephen Albert has a chapter in Surprised by Beauty – A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Music; Samuel Jones should, and even without such a mention Piston is part of a group of “American Classics” to which also belong Samuel Barber, Copland, David Diamond, Roy Harris, and William Schuman.

When Stephen Albert, student of the wonderful George Rochberg, died in an automobile accident at 51, the Washington Post perceptively wrote that his death “deprived American music of one of its most luminous talents”. Albert had just finished the short score of his Second Symphony which the New York Philharmonic had commissioned. Sebastian Currier tended to the tart, vigorous orchestration. Along with its Pulitzer-Prize winning sibling, the First Symphony, it has previously been recorded by Paul Polivnick and the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra for Naxos. His influences are Strauss, Stravinsky, Sibelius, and he had a penchant for good tunes (first movement) packed with a robust punch and zero treacle. While one is listening, there’s enjoyment to be had. It would work still better in the concert hall, though.

His music, like that of the two other composers here, is often more easily admired and proselytized than it is loved. All three works contain many good things upon closer inspection but too few merits at the all-important just-below superficial level. Those who listen closely may find much to admire, but the rest scratches their heads. Very little of Piston, for one, is memorable at all. I don’t mean memorable in the literal, “whistle in the street afterwards” sense, which very little music is, but even to remember having had an impression while listening. The most gripping account of that rarely recorded Sixth Symphony may still be Munch’s visceral reading, ahead of the serviceable rest (Slatkin/St. Louis, Schwarz/Seattle, Fridel, LSO).

Samuel Jones’ “Palo Duro Canyon” ends up the most worthwhile inclusion on this disc. His symphony wasn’t, unlike the others, commissioned by big-shot orchestras (Boston and New York, respectively), but by the humble Amarillo Symphony Orchestra. (Which goes to show what important work the easily-overlooked orchestras in the country do.) It’s a colorful and evocative work, between Roy Harris, Carl Orff and a very conservative Messiaen. After a windswept opening (literally, with the help of pre-recorded sounds of gusts in the canyon), it develops a Carmina-Buranaesque energy. Its penchant for the lyrical comes out in the second segment of this nominally one-movement, six-partite symphony No. 3: an awfully sweet, certainly delicious short interlude.

Now if these three works were great-sounding knock-out performances, performed with passion and a hint of desperate communicativeness – rather than being tossed off out with enormous technical skill in a neutral, unimpressive acoustic – this might be a perfect primer for discovering the beauty of American symphonic music. As it is, it’s just a good recording of three good symphonies in a field where “good” is simply not good enough. Any of the Naxos recordings with these works – usually coupled more logically with other works of the respective same composers – are as good or better. That said, the disc is worth it for the discovery (to whomever it would constitute a discovery) of the Samuel Jones symphony alone!


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