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Paul CRESTON (1906-1985)
The First Three Symphonies
Symphony No. 1 (1940) [23.32]
Symphony No. 2 (1944) [22.23]
Symphony No. 3 (1950) [26.38]
National SO of the Ukraine/Theodore Kuchar
rec Kiev, 25-29 December 1998 NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559034 [72.39]

Of all the Naxos discs in this series this is the one I have awaited with the least patience.

Paul Creston (born Giuseppe Guttoveggio in New York City) like Randall Thompson, Vittorio Giannini, Howard Hanson, William Schuman, Roy Harris and Gian-Carlo Menotti found his melodic language during the 1940s and remained true to it. This can be contrasted with Roger Sessions, Elliott Carter, Peter Mennin, and Walter Piston who, each in their different ways true to themselves, branched out into different and arguably impoverished territory as the years ploughed forward.

This is the first symphony's premiere recording on any commercial medium. My comparison was with an air-check of a US relay. The first was given by Fritz Mahler with the NYA SO at Brooklyn Academy of Music on 22 February 1940. My tape was of the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy (3 March 1943) although it might just as easily be from the second Philadelphia relay on 23 March 1943 (were both broadcast I wonder?). Broadly the four movements compared with the Naxos as follows:-

Majesty Humour Serenity Gaiety
Ormandy   7.30 4.30 7.00 4.30
Kuchar 6.28 5.32 7.12 4.13

Ormandy, heard through distressed broadcast platters of the second complete public performance, is initially emphatic to the point of ponderous. Soon, however, he gives the impression of speed shaking off languor. Kuchar launches straight in and does not let up. This is a smooth and limber work which impresses in its darting Gallic clarity and wit. It is imposing but devoid of angst. From this point of view I am sure that it must have been influenced by the Randall Thompson Symphony No. 2 of 1931 (memorably committed to disc by Bernstein for Sony-CBS) or the Paul Paray Symphony No. 1 of 1935. The last movement certainly recalls the pacey slipstream of the Thompson. The first movement explores the tinsel bustle of Bax's Overture to a Picaresque Comedy and Rawsthorne's Street Corner Overture. The Serenity movement is an arboreal idyll of horn-bloomed melody - think in terms of Bax's Spring Fire, Happy Forest and Summer Music with a Hollywood overlay. The orchestral piano is quite clear on the Ormandy but disappears in the Kuchar.

The other two works were known for years from a Westminster LP (W9708) from the early 1960s or late 1950s (Howard Mitchell/National SO of Washington). I don't have the LP but I do have a friend's cassette dub and it was through this cassette that I came to know these works.

The Second Symphony is in two grand movements: I Introduction and Song; II Interlude and Dance. It is, by the way, the most impressive of the three symphonies and its first movement is especially fine. Mitchell takes 13.35 against Kuchar's 11.56 but Kuchar's seems not a whit too fast. The movement's long string-intoned, inward-orientated, introduction sets up a climactic song of Hansonian delirium in which the brass stamped rhythm counterpoints a finely unfolded melody. However the laurels for the most devastatingly organic approach to the Song rest with David Amos's otherwise rather lugubrious edge-softened recording on Koch International with the Krakow PO. Amos is superb in the sunburst-topped declamation with strings sway-surging over emphatic brass 'shouts'. I would also commend Pierre Monteux's NYPSO live concert relay (preserved in the NYPO Americana box) on 19 January 1956, motivated by a supple exciting impulse. Mitchell makes much of the piano in the introduction (it sounds disconcertingly like Bax's Maytime In Sussex). Amos holds time steady in peaceful resolution in the conclusion of the first movement - spiritually close to the final 'farewell to bliss' of Bax's seventh symphony (premiered in New York in 1937).

The Second's second movement, after some high Gothic melodrama worthy of Wuthering Heights, is a dynamic stomp with hauntings by the wraiths of Gershwin, the finale of Piston's Symphony No. 2, the explosive storm, stamp, smash and bark of the Moeran Symphony (finale) and the RVW 4th symphony (first movement). Latino elements also surface. Copland's Danzon Cubano (1942) and El Salon Mexico (1936) would surely have been known to the composer. This makes for a powerful finish but does not have the emotional thrust and assured confidence of the first movement.

Second Symphony Introduction and Song Interlude and Dance
Howard Mitchell (Westminster LP)



David Amos (Koch)



Theodore Kuchar (Naxos)



The Third Symphony is sub-titled Three Mysteries - each movement depicting a 'mystery' from the life of Christ: Nativity; Crucifixion, Resurrection. After the string-tensioned serenity of the lento, Nativity leans substantially on jaunty wassailing disconcertingly close to Vaughan Williams in clod-hopping mode and Franz Schmidt's Hussar Song Variations. The Crucifixion is at stylistic ease with its subject matter - a recessed pessimism hinting at the darkly rumpled pages of Firebird - then clearing for music as thumpingly oppressive and bleak as 'The Valley of Death' Arthur Bliss's tragically neglected John Blow Meditations. It is interesting to note that this 1950 symphony stands, chronologically speaking, between two sacred works by Howard Hanson: Symphony No. 4 Requiem, 1943 (with movements: Kyrie, Requiescat, Dies Irae, Lux Aeterna) and the one movement Fifth Symphony Sinfonia Sacra (1954). Resurrection in its string and wind cataracts inevitably suggests Hanson, and some sections seem to reflect a familiarity with Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 5. Everything builds well until the return of that jaunty Regerian theme from the first movement. For me this theme rather saps the work's high ideals. There is little to choose between Schwarz's performance (perhaps a shade slicker) and the Ukrainians. I also compared both with a fine radio performance of the BBC Philharmonic conducted by George Lloyd. That radio version (circa 1995 on BBC Radio 3) had a memorably stirring panache in Nativity.

The only available CD comparisons are differently coupled. The Naxos has the great advantage of a strong logical coupling bring together the first three symphonies. The performances are bright and spirited without being spotlit. Both the second and third symphonies exist on alternative discs: No. 2 with Krakow PO/David Amos (c/w Corinthians XIII and Walt Whitman Koch International 3-7036-2H1) and No. 3 Seattle SO/Schwarz (c/w Out of the Cradle, Partita and Invocation and Dance Delos DE3114).

Perhaps some way down the turnpike we will see a second disc from this source coupling the final three Creston symphonies. This grouping works perfectly: No. 4: [26.00]; No. 5: [27.00]; No. 6: [18.30] = [71.30].

Meantime snap up this bountifully complete and inexpensive disc and open your symphonic shutters just a little wider. If you need one section to convince you then sample the whole of track 5 - the mark of a composer at the zenith of his powers - technically in command and emotionally eloquent. The second symphony is an achievement to set beside the great symphonic works of 1940s USA. Highly commended.


Rob Barnett

NOTE There is still plenty of Creston to record. Now that James Buswell and the Ukrainians have recorded the two Walter Piston Concertos it would be natural for them to move on to the two Creston violin concertos and couple them with the Creston piano concerto of 1949.

Lewis Foreman adds :-

The American composer Paul Creston (1906-1985) wrote six symphonies and we have here the three best known. The fifth is also recorded by Gerard Schwarz on Delos (DE 3127), while the sixth, with organ solo, was premiered by Philip Brunelle with the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington in 1982. I have never heard the fourth.

Naxos have quite simply produced an inspired programme, boldly and idiomatically performed by a good Ukrainian orchestra, and filling a major gap - Creston's First Symphony - in the discography of American music, and at a bargain price. Good though it is to have that work, for me the high point of this programme is Creston's Third Symphony, surely one of the all-time greats of American symphonism - my reaction doubtless the outcome of having owned for best part of forty years the Nixa/Westminster LP of Howard Mitchell's fine performance of the Second and Third (WLP 5272), though in mono sound that now shows its age.

Creston is another 1940s, big-boned, self-evidently "American" symphonist, to rank beside that wonderful nationalist group who emerged just before, during and after the Second World War: Roy Harris, David Diamond, Howard Hanson, William Schuman, Walter Piston and Peter Mennin. And all who respond to that punchy yet broadly lyrical American approach to music will love Creston. Certainly in the Second Symphony, as the composer remarked in a famous statement. we have "an apotheosis of the two foundations of all music: song and dance". The symphony falls into two movements encapsulating four - 'Introduction and song' and 'Interlude and Dance' - and this approach underpins so many orchestral works by Creston, indeed another of my long-standing favourites of Creston is actually called Invocation and Dance, long-known from a Louisville Orchestra programme issued by American Columbia (ML 5039) well over forty years ago, but best heard today in Gerard Schwarz's coupling with the Fifth Symphony.

The Third Symphony, with its title Three Mysteries, is a little different, founded as it is on Gregorian chant which colours the melodic style in an orchestral meditation on the birth and Passion of Christ, of unique atmosphere and appealing lyricism. While perhaps the music should not be listened to in a closely programmatic way, the movements are titled "The Nativity", "The Crucifixion" and "The Resurrection", and it is valuable to know this to appreciate the music, for after all, Creston was the long-established organist of a mid-town Manhattan church, and the Gregorian chant was deeply loved by the composer.

The booklet does not name the melodies Creston uses, but it is useful to do so, for they illustrate how tunes associated in the Roman Catholic tradition with these three tremendous events are used in each movement, underlining the story. Thus in the first movement we have Puer natus est nobis ('Unto us a child is born') and Gloria in excelsis ('Glory to God'). In the slow movement the haunting opening cello solo, pitched dramatically against the brass, is the tune Pater, si non potest hic calix ('Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me'); and, becoming more closely programmatic, in the violent middle-section we hear the fury of the mob. In the finale Angelus Domini descendit ('The angel of God descended') is played by the lower strings. Soon, on the horns, comes Christus resurgens ex mortuis ('Christ is risen'), to return as the triumphal chorale at the end. This is all slow introduction, and when we reach the Allegro ma calmo we have the Gregorian theme Victimae paschali laudes ('To the Easter Victim sing Praise'). The music communicates so immediately it can, of course, be enjoyed without any of this.

If you want just the second or just the third symphonies, then there are very competitive versions of each available respectively from Chandos (CHAN 9390) and Delos (DE 3114). In the Chandos version of No 2, Neeme Jarvi has the benefit of a better orchestra - the Detroit Symphony - and the Chandos sound, while in the Delos orchestral collection conducted by Gerard Schwarz we have another American orchestra, the Seattle Symphony, and the Third Symphony is heard in a programme of three other Creston orchestral works not otherwise available. There is also a very idiomatic recording of the Second Symphony with a mixed programme of Creston orchestral pieces by the Krakow Philharmonic conducted by David Amos (Koch 37036-2). The annoying aspect of these varying couplings is that if you are a Creston enthusiast you are going to want all those different orchestral works which come with the symphonies. But even if you have all three, for under a fiver this new recording is surely worth having, essential to add the First Symphony. Just occasionally I could have welcomed a warmer string sound, particularly in high exposed passages, but conductor Theodore Kuchar persuasively champions the First Symphony, and presents all three symphonies in sequence, in committed vividly recorded performances. It is difficult to believe they have not been playing them for years. Recommended.


Lewis Foreman

but David Wright has severe reservations

I have known and loved these symphonies for over forty years. I possess scores and, in fact, discussed the symphonies with the composer face to face in the mid 1960s.

Because the composer told me that Howard Mitchell's recording of Nos 2 and 3 were 'definitive performances' and that it 'was inconceivable that they would ever be performed better I acquired this Westminster LP and studied the performances with the scores. There is absolutely no doubt that Mitchell accurately realises all the composer's intentions. The composer said so; the scores say so and I concur.

In the opening movement of Symphony No 2 Mitchell gives the music its essential space whereas Kuchar is too fast; the music does not breathe and thereafter the Song is not cantabile at all. Both Kuchar and David Amos (Koch - International) have exaggerated performances in which sforzandos are painfully caricatured in the style of Simon Rattle. The balance is awful on the Naxos disc ... for example, some of the bass drum entries are so strong that they obliterate the equally important remaining orchestral detail. Naeme Jarvi is better but only second best to Mitchell who is miles in front. The Pierre Monteux broadcast has its good points but, quite frankly, all these performances are seriously lacking compared to Mitchell.

The second movement's main section is a Latin-American dance and the Naxos version has absolutely no idea of the composer's intentions. The rhythmic drive is lost in Kuchar's performance and the important piano obligato is missing. Imagine Shostakovich's Symphony No 1 without the piano part and you will appreciate what I mean. The Mitchell version honours the composer's intentions and how magnificently he achieves the orchestral balance and respects Creston's instruction to make the high violin cantilena sing. Only Mitchell has the incursive attack as clearly indicated by the composer.

Pierre Monteux's performance is a good attempt at this colourful music but even this is lack-lustre compared to the Mitchell sound.

I was bemused by Rob Barnett's review of this disc. His comparison of Creston's music to that of Bax has no currency at all and his comment that the piano part is disconcerting is not so. The piano part is not the disturbance of the music's composure but the composer's wish. I was also confused by his reference to Creston's music having a Hansonian delirium, whatever that is. There is nothing incoherent or hallucinatory in the text of Creston's music. The 'ecstasy' of the second movement is only caught (and kept) by Mitchell. I doubt whether Howard Hanson would want to be referred to as delirious! He was a very level-headed man.

Rob refers to this second movement as Gothic. It isn't. There is nothing Western European about it and the music is certainly not barbarous or uncouth. Neither is it a dynamic stomp nor can it be compared to E J Moeran's Symphony, the finale of that symphony is structurally unsound. Paul Creston told me that he 'came to Copland late' which may refute Rob's claim that Creston would surely know Danzon Cubano and El Salon Mexico.

The Symphony No 3 is, according to Rob, influenced by Vaughan Williams 'clod-hopping mode', whatever that is, Franz Schmidt, Stravinsky, Max Roger and Arthur Bliss. This attack on Creston's originality is both unfair and unfortunate. Paul was a devout Roman Catholic and saw this work as 'an unworthy homage to God' and that 'true spirituality would be its only influence'. What we have is a deeply-felt personal and original religious quest. It is a 'factual' music-picture not an emotional one. Both Amos and Kuchar miss the point, failing to understand the music's profound utterance as did George Lloyd in his hopeless and embarrassing account with the BBC Philharmonic some five years ago. In fact, that performance was threadbare and served to depopularise this very fine symphony. Lloyd, the English Schubert, highlighted the melodies at the expense of the harmonies, counterpoints, subtle modulations and so many other features.

Mitchell captures what no other conductor does ... the mystery of the Nativity, the stillness and wonder of Bethlehem's might, the rejoicing shepherds. In the Crucifixion there is no pessimism in Mitchell's version but the acceptance of the vital purpose of the death of Christ and in the Resurrection, the sunlit morn and the disciples rushing to the empty tomb is so alive, so real and not exaggerated. The 'Hallelujah Chorus' is of quiet celebration, that inward joy that does not froth. Again, only Mitchell captures that.

The Symphony No 1 did come out on an LP in the 1950s, complete with the Saxophone Concerto and Trombone Fantasy, which I have.

I am further bemused by Rob linking Creston, Thompson, Giannini, Hanson and Menotti as melodists on the one hand and, on the other hand, Sessions, Carter, Mennin and Piston who branched 'into impoverished territory'. Melody is only one possible ingredient in music and the originality of Sessions and Carter is admirable. Mennin's Cello Concerto is possibly the finest concerto for the cello of the twentieth century and his last three symphonies are both powerful and magnificent. Impoverished territory?

Kuchar's version of Creston's Symphony No 1 is frankly awful because it is cheap. It is a performance of sentimental Hollywood proportions and is too fast in the first movement, Majesty - too slow in the second movement, Humour and so on. Kuchar's performance is schmaltz.

Since writing this I have followed the Naxos performances with the scores and listed over 40 errors and flaws in each of the symphonies' performances. They are very poor.

These are great symphonies, probably some of the best American symphonies of all but I urge you to acquire the Mitchell performances and avoid disappointment. Only the best will do. The Ukrainians sound as if their performances are first rehearsals; they certainly do not understand the music or where it is going.


David Wright




Rob Barnett


Lewis Foreman
David Wright

Reviews from previous months

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