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