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EDWARD MACDOWELL (1861-1908) The Symphonic Poems:Two Fragments after The Song of Roland: (1884); The Saracens; The Lovely Aldâ; Hamlet/Ophelia (1884); Lancelot und Elaine * (1886); Lamia * (1887-88)   Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Karl Krueger * 1-4 June 1966 the rest recorded c. 1965 BRIDGE RECORDS 9089 [64:11]


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Macdowell's photo on the front cover of this CD gazes out with confident defiance and humour in his eyes. The drooping moustache, the confidence of his stare and the general set of his face seem somehow very 1970s. Indeed he looks like a cross between Charlie Sheen, Tom Cruise and Dennis Hopper. It is a most striking photograph and is only one of the many strengths of this CD.

The recordings belong to the era of the 1960s when the Society for the Promotion of the American Musical Heritage (SPAMH) launched a series of 55 LPs with money from a gift by Henry H Reichold. It must have been a very substantial sum. We owe it to the Library of Congress Music Division that these fabled recordings are now available again although I should note, in passing, that this is not the first time they have been reissued on CD. The Library of Congress themselves issued them (with a small handful of other CDs) about a decade ago. Some of you may already have that version. I do not have any of those original issues. I knew the discs from tapes sent to me by a friend with an extraordinary LP collection.

The famous SPAMH series did not make an enormous impact beyond the USA although a fine profile of the complete series was written by Richard D C Noble and published in the much lamented Records and Recordings during the late 1970s. The Gramophone rather tragically ignored the series despite its patent treasurability and artistic value, not to mention the sheer pleasure delivered by many of these romantic works.

The conductor Karl Krueger (1894-1979) was a native of Kansas. During the 1940s and 1950s he was music director at Seattle, Kansas City and Detroit but in 1958 he founded SPAMH and it was under his baton and guiding hand that the series was created using a British orchestra for the recordings - Beecham's fabled RPO. Although the series spanned a wide range from authentic US folk to string quartets for the late 18th century, its central core was a series of orchestral recordings that took in Templeton Strong, Paine, Chadwick, Herbert, Macdowell and many others. The mainstream was avoided completely. It is only with the confident launch of Naxos's American Classics series that a true and rich successor to the SPAMH series has emerged. We should not forget CDs from Chandos (the Detroit Järvi series began with promise but petered into the sand), the two Chadwick CDs from Reference (very highly recommended) repertoire-targeted with precision and unerring judgement, and New World whose often celebrity-conducted series seems to be rather difficult to access if my abortive attempts at contact with the company are anything to go by.

This CD contains two diptychs and two monoliths.

The Song of Roland was originally planned as a Roland Symphony with two movements flanking the surviving pair. The first, Saracens, is quite brief (3:20) and is fully of feverish, black-cloud activity, swirling and tumbling. The Lovely Alda is a real beauty: Tchaikovskian (cf the more lilting sections of Romeo and Francesca) but with elements of Dvorák as well. This is touching music (sample 4:55, track 2): cool yet very emotional. It is odd that although Liszt is, quite naturally, referred to, the affinity of all four of these works with Tchaikovsky receives not a mention. The Alda movement closes in a Delian hazy fade-out. Gorgeous.

Hamlet (track 3 6:03) has a luscious theme and much sturm und drang playing around it. There is an uncanny and obvious echo of Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini (1877) at more than one point. As mentioned above it is largely neither Liszt nor Wagner I hear in these warm romantic essays but Tchaikovsky (7:12 in Lancelot und Elaine), Rimsky and Balakirev. Lancelot und Elaine (notice that German conjunction) rises to a potent and startlingly Nielsen-like horn-lofted climax at 3:01. Once again early Delius is a reference. There is some undeniable Wagner in the brass chorus at 6:31. The least successful performance of the sequence is the potentially glamorous Lamia which turns out to be a work performed here with only fitful inspiration. Krueger gives every sign otherwise of having been a most sensitive conductor with attention to varying the dynamics and tempi. Whether this is faithful to the composer I cannot tell but overall the music impresses. Quite loveable music with only Lamia plodding along in ungainly and fragmentary style. I suspect that Lamia would have benefited from a more flighty interpretation. This is what happens when you have your recording sessions during a no doubt sweltering June. Now what would this have sounded like if recorded during a wild November? Lamia has been recorded with greater success on ALBANY TROY235 with the LSO conducted by Kenneth Klein. This recording dates from 1987 and was made in Watford initially for EMI.

The notes (English only), which are fine, are by Dolores Pesce. They are much preoccupied by the plotline of the poems and legends suggested by their titles. I have always felt that this sort of pictorialism was a trap. The last thing one needs to imagine is whether a particular bar is the start of a section of the story or someone's motif. The music either holds your attention or it doesn't. For the most part there is more than enough gleaming magic in this music.

There are a couple of music examples in the notes and, if you include the liner tray, three photos including one with Macdowell posed alongside George Templeton Strong (the composer of the Sintram Symphony, a work recorded in the SPAMH series and recently recorded by Naxos in the US Classics sequence.).

Special congratulations must go to Bridge for their design choices for the insert leaflet. This combines some imaginative nineteenth century detailing alongside clear fonts, contrasty printing and thoughtful page-layout.

The next release in the series is BRIDGE 9086 with the William Grant Still Afro-American Symphony and Amy Beach's Gaelic Symphony. I can hardly wait.

For my part I do hope that Bridge will issue the following gems from the series earlier rather than later:-

Louis Coerne's Excalibur

Parker's Vathek & Northern Ballad

Farwell's Gods of the Mountain

Foote's Francesca da Rimini and Rubbayat

Hadley's Salome

Herbert's Hero and Leander

Carpenter's Sea Drift

Lovers of the late nineteenth century romantics will want these works which date from Macdowell's years in Germany. They contain not a hint of Americana but are squarely European in style and impact.

If Lamia lacks that vital spark, the rest more than compensates. Bridge have worked wonders with the remastering although there is no disguising the thirty-plus years vintage of the tapes. Meantime I warmly recommend the present disc.


Rob Barnett


If readers would like to order on-line, the Bridge website now accepts credit cards:

Bridge Records

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NY 10801



The Original LP details for these works:-

Two Fragments after The Song of Roland: MIA 119 rec 1965
The Saracens
The Lovely Aldâ
Hamlet/Ophelia MIA 130 rec 1965

Lancelot and Elaine * MIA 131 rec 1966

Lamia * MIA 133 rec 1966


Rob Barnett

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