Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Easley BLACKWOOD (born 1933)
Symphony No.5 op.34 (1990)
Symphony No. l Op.3 (1955) (a)
 Chicago Symphony Orchestra; James DePreist
Boston Symphony Orchestra; Charles Munch (a)
Recorded: Orchestral Hall, Chicago, May and June 1992; Symphony Hall, Boston, November 1958a
 CEDILLE RECORDS CDR 90000 016 [57:46]
  Cedille Records   

The American composer Easley Blackwood studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris where he completed his Symphony No. 1 Op. 3 in 1955. This is a quite ambitious and substantial score written, I suspect, under the spell of Honegger (and none the worse for that!). It is laid-out in four sizeable movements adopting, according to the composer's notes, the Franckian cyclic pattern though the music is unmistakably modern (i.e. by 1955 standards). The first movement opens with an impressive slow introduction stating the main material on which most of the piece will be based. The music then moves into a vigorous Allegro redolent of Honegger and Hindemith, but quite impressive in its own rugged way. The slow movement, while dynamically contrasted is a tense piece of music that does not dispel the tension accumulated in the course of the first movement. The following Allegretto grotesco (shades of Shostakovich here) has its share of irony and, at times, sounds as a distorted, out-of-tune Waltz. The last movement, a weighty slow-moving Andante sostenuto, is more appeased and eventually dispels the tension generated during the course of the preceding movements, but it nevertheless ends inconclusively. Easley Blackwood's First Symphony is an impressive achievement whose sheer vitality and exuberance sometimes makes up for sometimes comparatively unmemorable music. A youthful, ambitious work and no mean achievement indeed. Charles Munch, who consistently championed contemporary music, conducts a vital performance of the work which he obviously regarded highly. The 1958 recording made in Boston, probably by RCA is very fine indeed and its commercial re-release is most welcome.

Blackwood admits to being a chameleon-like composer undaunted by radical stylistic moves and agrees that his Fifth Symphony, written in 1990, is more conservative than the First of 1955. The Symphony No. 5 Op. 34, though unquestionably from the same pen, is more traditional both in its layout and in its actual music. Its three movements adhere to the usual fast-slow-fast pattern. The vigorous Allegro inquieto is quite agitated but less emotionally charged than its counterpart in the First Symphony. The slow movement, probably the finest of the whole work, is a dark-hued meditation building towards a massive climax (again shades of Shostakovich) before reverting to the calm mood of its opening. The final Allegro vivo, serving both as a rondo and as a scherzo, rushes the symphony towards its affirmative conclusion. Blackwood's Fifth Symphony, though still a fine work, is lighter in content than the First and musically a bit more eclectic. It does not have the youthful energy and the white-heat tension of the earlier work, and - to a certain extent - it seems to lack the uncompromising confidence displayed in the First Symphony. Nevertheless it is a quite satisfying piece of music that aims, pace the composer, at pleasing both the orchestra and the audience. A very fine performance by James DePreist and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

This release adds to our appreciation of the 20th Century American symphony. Blackwood's music may be less polished and less personal than, say, Mennin's but his First Symphony is certainly one of the finest American symphonies I have heard so far. I wonder what the other three are like. Well worth having.

Hubert Culot

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