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
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.
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
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
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
If readers would like to order on-line, the Bridge website now accepts credit
200 Clinton Avenue
The Original LP details for these works:-
Two Fragments after The Song of Roland: MIA 119 rec 1965
The Lovely Aldâ
Hamlet/Ophelia MIA 130 rec 1965
Lancelot and Elaine * MIA 131 rec 1966
Lamia * MIA 133 rec 1966