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Morton GOULD (1913-1996)
American Ballads (1976) Foster Gallery (1939) American Salute (1947)
National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine/Theodore Kuchar
Rec. Grand Hall of the National Radio Company of Ukraine 2-14 June 1999
NAXOS American Classics 8.559005 DDD [73:48]
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I have often thought of Morton Gould as being akin to an American Malcolm Arnold, prodigiously talented and yet cast aside somewhat in the "serious" musical world as a composer of light music. Gould may not have produced a symphonic cycle of the depth and gravity of Arnold but if one sets aside the surface glitz of his music there is much to uncover. The influence of Aaron Copland is there but so are a few surprises. I was struck by the number of times that William Schuman came to mind, even in the early Foster Gallery with its imaginative treatment of such well known tunes as Camptown Races and Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair.

Gould was a child prodigy. Born in Long Island, New York, at the age of four he was already playing the piano and composing, having his first piece published at the tender age of six. By the age of eight he was performing on New York radio and after academic studies it was vaudeville and the radio that both earned him a living and gave him an outlet for his talents. His sparkling arrangements of popular music became particularly well known although he was also producing a steady flow of original compositions, all of which were marked by his customary brilliant orchestration.

The Foster Gallery was one of his early successes in the field of "popular" music, written in 1939, at the request of Fritz Reiner to whom the work is dedicated. Gould openly stated that the idea of the work was largely based on Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, with numerous variations on Camptown Races recurring in the manner of the "promenade" throughout the work. It is a substantial piece, nearly thirty-five minutes in length, and there is a huge degree of variety in Gould's often highly skilful treatment of Stephen Foster's songs and dances which he drew from the Lilly collection of Fosteriana, "Foster Hall". It is some of the more unfamiliar tunes which I found most intriguing, particularly the sixth movement (track twelve), Old Black Joe and My Old Kentucky Home, with its haunting, slightly eerie opening which returns at the close. Swanee River is treated to a tongue-in-cheek arrangement for what Gould described as a "social orchestra" comprising flute, trumpet, trombone, violin and banjo whilst there are some lovely sonorous brass chorale sounds in the central climax of Come Where My Love Lies Dreaming (track eight). The finale, based on Oh, Susanna, forms a suitably riotous conclusion to the work.

By comparison, American Ballads, is a late work, commissioned in 1976 as a celebration of the United States Bicentennial. It is marked by the same brilliant, youthfully exuberant orchestration evident in Foster Gallery and, given the reasons for the commission, it is perhaps no surprise that Gould once again turned to popular American song as his inspiration (the composer referred to the tunes as "chestnuts"). The Star-Spangled Overture with which the work patriotically opens is a characteristically lively treatment of The Star-Spangled Banner although once again it is Gould's treatment of the more unfamiliar material that often catches the attention. The fourth movement, entitled Memorials, is a sombre funeral march, which makes considerable use of muted brass and for me, recalls the opening movement of Mahler's Symphony No. 5. Saratoga Quickstep, the fifth movement, has, as its basis, The Girl I Left Behind Me with the final Hymnal drawing on We Shall Overcome, a national hymn of hope which is built to a huge final climax.

In many ways it is ironic, although not perhaps unexpected, that the work for which Gould became best known is a patriotic miniature. American Salute is a brief but exciting elaboration of the civil war marching song, When Johnny Comes Marching Home. It is once again typical of Gould in popular mode, full of bravado with fanfare-like figures to open and scored with striking facility. Yet its popularity tends to overshadow the greater achievements of his musical output. Nevertheless it provides a fitting and exciting conclusion to the disc.

The National Symphony Orchestra of the Ukraine are fine advocates for these works, capturing an invigorating feeling of spirit which pervades the whole disc. I would like to have heard a richer sound from the strings at times and an American orchestra may have given a slightly greater degree of incision although, as befits Gould's scoring, the Naxos engineers place the wind and brass well forward in the balance. The recording is vivid with an impressively wide dynamic range. Some people may find the brazen Americanism of Gould's music a little overbearing but I find it irresistible and in performances such as these this disc has to be considered a first rate bargain.

Christopher Thomas

See also review by Ian Lace

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