Oft condemned for allegedly 'three-piece-suit' commissioned symphonies, Mennin
is well and generously represented on this CRI disc. Mennin had a stainless
steel reputation as an academic and especially as an administrator. Rather
like Britten he delivered to the commission timetable. An air of safe
predictability seems to have been fabricated around his work. The three works
recorded here confound that reputation.
The ageing Mitropoulos leads the New Yorkers in a hair-raising electric-chair
of a performance. Third Symphonies in the USA seem to have done rather well
and often in association with the NYPO (look at Schuman, Harris, Copland).
Hiss has been largely defeated by CRI's music-friendly processing staff.
We are left with a work that heaves in a torment of restless emotions. Apart
from 'obvious influences' such as Schuman and Roy Harris I was also reminded
more than several times of the Vaughan Williams symphonies (6, 7 and 8).
The finale's alert heroism casts glances back to the turmoil of the first
movement with echoes of Walton 1, Stravinsky's Rite and some thunderous brass
work mingling with the unease of lyrical Western Americana. This is not at
The storm clouds evocative held notes of the strings at the beginning of
the piano concerto soon give way to a plangent contribution from the piano
reminiscent of Martinu's Toccata e Due Canzoni. The abrasive raw nerve-end
energy with which the work clamours is close to Shostakovich in spirit but
cross-bred with a tumbling and hurtling jazziness. Once again I detected
a Waltonian spirit (Sinfonia Concertante). Ogdon is breathtakingly magnificent
and the orchestral contribution gives every sign of having been carefully
rehearsed without sacrificing spontaneity. The central adagio religioso sounds
rather like a time-delayed focus-distorted version of the first section of
The seventh symphony dates from more than fifteen years after the third.
Its five movements are deployed over approximately half an hour. The introductory
adagio is very peaceful; a total contrast with the clamorous clangour of
the succeeding Allegro (almost five minutes of jet-stream 'mechanismo').
The following Andante returns to the uncertain tonalities of the first movement
and this continues into the Moderato (IV). The final Allegro Vivace starts
calmly enough but soon conflict breaks free and eddies and currents of anarchic
energy are set free across the aural landscape. This is certainly the toughest
work on the disk though always rooted in lyricism.
The English-only notes are by Walter Simmons. The performer line-up could
hardly be more impressive so there can be little question that Mennin was
sold short in these recordings. Indeed in the case of all of these pieces
it is difficult to imagine the performances being improved on.
Enthusiastically and unreservedly recommended - especially for the piano
concerto and the earlier symphony.