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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett


 

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AMERICAN MASTERS 2
Walter PISTON (1894-1976)
Incredible Flutist - suite (1938)
Marc BLITZSTEIN (1905-1964)
Symphony - The Airborne (1946)
Edward Burlingame HILL (1872-1960)
Prelude for Orchestra (1953)
Orson Welles (narrator), Andrea Velis (ten), David Watson (bar), Choral Art Society (Blitzstein)
New York PO (Piston, Blitzstein); Columbia SO (Hill)
cond. Leonard Bernstein
rec Manhattan Center, NYC, 2 Dec 1963 (Piston), Philharmonic Hall, Lincoln Center, NYC 18 Oct 1966, (Blitzstein), Columbia 30th St Studio, NYC 1 Apr 1953 (Hill)
SONY CLASSICAL Bernstein Century series SMK 61849 [78.09]

In a world where new issues and reissues tumble out in such multiple profusion it is too easy to overlook discs of this quality.

The Piston suite is his most famous work though its fame is largely unmerited. It is nowhere near as fine a work as any of the first six Piston symphonies. The Second, Third and Sixth stand out in this company. The Flutist ballet music has glitz and glare in spades and, to be fair, Bernstein probably gives it more pizzazz than any other version. If the work appeals then go for it. If you do not know it then think in terms of a confection of Satie (Relache and Parade), Stravinsky (Pulcinella and Dumbarton Oaks) and Berners (Triumphs of Neptune) with a dose of the more glittering and obvious moments from Schuman's New England Pictures.

I must thank Tim Page who can always be relied on for economical, lucid notes. He points out that Blitzstein was a sort of mentor to Bernstein and his debt (largely unrecognised) is said to be great. It seems fitting that the Symphony should be recorded by Bernstein 20 years after it was written. It is a symphony only in a similar sense to the Morning Heroes symphony of Arthur Bliss. It is scored for narrator, tenor, baritone, chorus and orchestra (with wind-machine). There are twelve sections, each separately banded on this disc. The titles give some flavour of the wartime fervour of the piece: Theory of Flight, Ballad of History and Mythology, Kittyhawk, The Airborne, The Enemy, Threat and Approach, Ballad of the Cities, Morning Poem, Air Force: Ballad of Hurry-Up, Night Music: Ballad of the Bombardier, Recitative: Chorus of the Rendezvous, The Open Sky. Welles is in young and smooth voice. He does not scorch the sky with the hoarse volume of an Olivier. The CD booklet does not give the words but Welles is all clarity without the lofty affectation that can settle on the shoulders of English orators in RVW's Oxford Elegy or the Bliss work. However texts would have been useful for the choral and solo singer interjections. I mentioned Bliss. The history of flight was also charted in Bliss's music for the film The Age of Flight. I detect in Blitzstein's music the knowledge of Copland's Lincoln Portrait also for orchestra with narrator. The Blitzstein is of calculatedly ambitious grandeur - designed to make an occasion. It takes something from the USA's patriotic wartime grit exemplified by Roy Harris's Fifth Symphony. The references to the bombing of Guernica, Warsaw, Manila and London still carry a potent charge. The choral singing recalls Vaughan Williams' Dona Nobis Pacem and Whitman's 'immense and silent moon'. The tableaux bind the allies together although the effect at the first performance might well have been politically strained in a way that would not have happened if the work had been premiered during 1945 rather than 1947. The spirit and universal bond reaches back (e.g. in Open up that second front - track 23) to the words of John Addington Symonds in John Ireland's These Things Shall Be and to Randall Swingler for Britten's Ballad of Heroes and of Alan Bush's Piano Concerto. By 1947 the US was already well down the turnpike to realigning against such threatening universalism.

Hill, from the generation or two before Bernstein's, represented the 'Gallic' tradition in US music. Along with Loeffler, Farwell and Coerne, Hill tramped a quite different path from the more Germanic Paine and Chadwick. This group was much more inclined to impressionism and pantheistic delights. The classic late nineteenth century watercolours of the North American wilds also played a role. Man's loneliness or insignificance in the face of nature's vastness were wrapped into the quite unGermanic and Delian approach. I knew the Hill Prelude from a tape sent to me by Mark Lehman back in the 1980s. It must have been taken from a very scrawny and distressed LP. Through all the brawling and scratching I, even then, picked out that this was an atmospheric companion work to Delius's In a Summer Garden, Roussel's First Symphony and Bax's Summer Music and Enchanted Forest. Not to be missed but very different from the other two works here. Surprising too that this jewelled insubstantial piece dates from 1953 the very year in which it was recorded. On this showing I would be pretty confident that Hill's Violin Concerto and Symphonies would be worth hearing even if his Stevensoniana suites (once available on 1960s SPAMH LPs under Karl Krueger's direction) are unpromising. Fingers crossed that Naxos do not run out of steam before they get to Hill in their American Classics series. This is just the sort of piece I would have expected Bernard Herrmann to champion and with his links as a CBS 'staffer' I would not be surprised to see him directing performances.

A varied collection but extremely attractive and not lacking in personality.

Rob Barnett

 


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