Going by these recordings from the 1960s it is a great pity for us that the
late Charles Gerhardt did not go on to record more concert music. I recall
an RCA album of French impressionist music but little else except more than
ten of the groundbreaking RCA Classic Film Music albums amongst which
those LPs devoted to Herrmann, Waxman and Korngold stand out.
Gerhardt's recent death (there is a rewarding obituary on Ian Lace's film
music section) may too easily spell oblivion for this conductor's handful
of recordings. I hope not. They deserve better and anyone who invests in
this Chesky disc will quickly discover that there is nothing time-serving
about these interpretations.
As an anthology it is unique in its varied mix. The Gould (granted not the
strongest piece here!) is not available in any alternative recordings.
Copland's Billy the Kid is given with authentic elan which inspires
admiration though (in my case) very little affection. The Gun Battle has
a raw fury even if the gun-shots sound more like Browning Automatic Rifles
than Colts. The Celebration Dance surprised me with its distinctly
Weill-like decadence emphasised - a survivor from Vitebsk or Warsaw rather
than Tucson! The final extract Open Prairie again made me reconsider.
Brash though it is, it has the brawny power of Fanfare for the Common
Man. Jerky, whipcrack energy bursts from every pore of the make-weight
Griffes' impressionistic White Peacock is the first of four Roman
Sketches - a suite written for solo piano. Griffes orchestrated it for
a ballet sequence premiered by the Philadelphians on 19 December 1919. The
piano version was written in 1915-16. It shows not a shadow of the murderously
tragic contemporary waste of life in Europe.
Peacock is a hesitant Faun-haunted essay. If Debussy is not far away,
then neither is Bax's Spring Fire and Summer Music. The whole
piece has a sunlit bosky enchantment which basks in the heat and boils to
a Scriabin-like climax of molten ecstasy.
Griffes' magnum opus in the orchestral sphere is Pleasure-Dome. This
is an orchestral poem which is sinuously impressionistic with a broader
mood-range than Peacock. Like the Coleridge poem which inspired it
the work bathes in orientalism. Eros swims languidly among the warm rockpools
and Sheherazade sings her seduction again. The music sways and shimmers in
fluorescent colours. Louis Aubert and Holst (Beni Mora) swim in similar
waters but none can match Griffes tone painting. Hollywood and Hanson both
owe Griffes a great deal. The strange tonalities of the closing pages also
suggest a debt owed by Bernard Herrmann in the Rosebud sequence of
Tropical is a postcard of lush rumba, real jungle birds call and maraccas
rattle in the best traditions of Hollywood big production numbers - Carmen
Miranda could happily hang her fruity hat on this bough. Just think of Ketelbey's
Bells Across the Meadow and transplant it across the Atlantic and
you get some idea of the genre this skilful but ever so brief piece inhabits.
Dates from 1934-42.
Next comes Hanson's Second Symphony, which with the Griffes pieces, is the
reason for seeking out this golden disc in front of Hanson's own (Mercury
- ageing sound), Montgomery's on Arte Nova, and the spanking 1990s Delos/Schwarz
CDs. Gerhardt gives a simply great performance. How lamentable that he did
not go on to record Hanson's Nordic Symphony and Lament for
Beowulf. My, how this man and his orchestra (I recall them being called
the National PO when the LP was issued on RCA Gold Seal LP in 1977)
know how to pace this glorious piece. What I wouldn't have given for them
also to have recorded a piece of similar glories: Louis Glass's Symphony
No. 5. The recording quality here is excellent with many fine details emerging
in polished and yet totally natural perspective. Especially noteworthy is
the crisply patterned work of the harp, the burred horn section and the lushly
buoyant strings led by Sidney Sax (this same pick-up orchestra also partnered
Gerhardt in the Classic Film Music series).
The central movement was chosen by the BBC to represent Hanson in a
US music themed programme on BBC Radio 3 one Sunday morning in 1972.
It was through that broadcast of this Sibelian luminous eruption that I came
to discover Hanson. I was immediately enthralled even if the lusty tune did
sound like 'Born Free' (remember the Virginia Mackenna film and the song
sung by Matt Munro?). Listen to those throaty tear-stained horns at 3:08
on track 9 and the answer of the honeyed string section! The miniature gales
of sound conjured by the swirling strings in the finale were surely the
inspiration for Alan Hovhaness's Majnun Symphony (recorded by the
National Philharmonic during the early 1970s) having themselves been influenced
by Respighi's Roman trilogy. Respighi .from whom Hanson always said he learnt
the most, was Hanson's teacher in Rome (1921-24).
The rippling pizzicato energy at 2:59 in track 10 is brilliantly caught and
I must wonder whether E J Moeran heard this work before writing his E minor
symphony (1934) and Sinfonietta (1944). The crackling Waltonian energy
of the last 2-3 minutes is brilliantly done.
If you do not know this work and enjoy music of forthright accessible emotion
then do not hesitate.
The symphony might well be remembered as its big theme appeared at the end
of the film Alien - the first film in the sequence of three.
These recordings were originally made by Ken Wilkinson (mostly I believe
in the now-demolished Kingsway Hall, London) and were produced by the conductor.
The Griffes and Hanson tracks sound wonderful and not just 'for their age'.
They were made for the Readers Digest series which was, I seem to recall,
a subscription series. Congratulations must obviously go to those who chose
the repertoire and artists.
Decently full (English only) notes by Annette and David Chesky.
Warmly recommended. Though gaining some pleasure from part of the Billy
score I feel that the Copland items are a missed opportunity despite
the spirited performances.