Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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MEREDITH WILLSON (1902-1984) Symphony No. 1 in F minor A Symphony of San Francisco (1936) 39 mins Symphony No. 2 in E minor The Missions of California (1939) 31 mins  Moscow SO/William T. Stromberg rec Moscow, June 1998 NAXOS 8.559006 [70:38]



Meredith Willson's symphonies are relaxed documents of entertainment rather than barn-storming epics. They are given cheerfully enthusiastic performances by the adventurous Stromberg and the intrepid Muscovites.

Willson may well be better known to you as the composer of two successful musicals: The Unsinkable Molly Brown (Titanic again!) and The Music Man. He wrote music for Hollywood films and orchestrated Chaplin's score for The Great Dictator. A man of many careers his music is not to be dismissed and Naxos have done us great service in making this recording.

The first symphony's first and fourth movements refer to one of those themes that suggest Medieval pageantry and derring-do - a refugee from the (in fact) much later Rózsa score for Ben-Hur. It bursts with influences, all of a conservative cast. Ultimately it feels somewhat ramshackle as a work but has its moments and one can imagine becoming quite affectionate towards the piece.

The second symphony is from three or so years later. The voices are Russian (Rimsky is not far away) all those woodwind rhapsodies and curlicues! There is more than a trace element of Biblical epic and I suspect Willson had heard Howard Hanson's Nordic Symphony. The Straussian (Richard) violin solos and babbling Respighianisms all make for a fun symphony and considerable pleasure provided your sights are not set too high. Each of the movements has one of the Californian missions as its subject - a little like Respighi's Church Windows and Gesensway's Squares of Philadelphia. The andante is a deeper movement of patent sincerity. The Capistrano movement (III) has the swallows darting and diving across the wide sky in attractive woodwind display. The final El Camino Real (Royal Road) is catchy and nervy with railroad rhythms and grand with Hollywood romance (5:01 - Rachmaninovian grandeur) before the idiom had really established itself. I felt that in this work the playing really caught fire.

Two estimable symphonies that will deliver plenty of entertainment without plumbing depths or ascending the heights.


Rob Barnett


Rob Barnett

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