Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Suite No. 1, Op. 42
Suite No. 2, Op. 48 "Indian"
Hamlet and Ophelia
, Op. 22.

Ulster Orchestra/Takuo Yuasa
recorded 2-4/12/99, in the Ulster Hall, Belfast. DDD
NAXOS 8.559075 [63.50]
Crotchet   AmazonUK   AmazonUS

MacDowell was a turn of the century American composer who spent his formative years in Europe (being educated in both France and Germany). His works sound like it but with a tunefulness which I find most attractive. They are not world shattering masterpieces, but neither are many of the works issued nowadays. This disc is well worth purchasing.

I have a Mercury disc of the Suite No. 1, which was performed by the Eastman-Rochester forces under the baton of Howard Hanson. This however, only had the first suite, coupled with Chadwick's Symphonic Sketches. This new disc does not remove memories of the older recording, but the playing of the Ulster Orchestra, here under their Principal Guest Conductor, Takuo Yuasa, comes pretty close. In terms of recording quality, however, the Naxos issue wins hands down, with an extremely fine digital recording of 1999 vintage. The orchestra is set fairly well back, but not so much as to mask the individual instruments.

So, what we have here is a disc of American music for people who don't like American Music. At one time, somewhere around the turn of the Century (1900), MacDowell was the most famous American composer in existence. Such masters as Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Charles Ives, Walter Piston, Carl Ruggles, William Schuman and others had yet to develop their own individual styles. At the time of MacDowell's great popularity, American audiences liked their music to be in European form, and to have an American who could write very well in a European style was just the ticket. To have a piano concerto endorsed by none less than Liszt was an honour and it was a great shame that the composer died at the very early age of 47.

The Second Suite sub-titled "The Indian", was written in 1890, and purports to be based upon Native American legends. It sounds very European to me, so the ethnic flavour has been much diluted somewhere along the line. If you come across a Wagnerian Native American, please let me know, as you cannot get much closer than here.

Hamlet and Ophelia originated as two separate tone poems, written as a result of seeing a production of Hamlet in London in 1884. Rather than write a descriptive piece for the play, he wrote two poems, each describing the personalities and emotions of the two principal characters of the play, combined here in his final version. There is an all pervading Wagnerian atmosphere around the piece and it was very well worth resurrecting.

I can thoroughly recommend this issue to the collector, but do not be mislead - this is not American music as we know it today. Come on Naxos - thank you very much but be a little more enterprising - there is still an awful lot to do!!

John Phillips

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