> Edward Macdowell - The Symphonic Poems [JW]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Edward MACDOWELL (1861-1908)
The Symphonic Poems

Two Fragments after the Song of Roland Op 30 (1890)
Hamlet/Ophelia Op 22 (1884)
Lancelot und Elaine Op 25 (1886)
Lamia Op 29 (1888)
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Karl Krueger
Recorded London ?June 1966
BRIDGE 9089 [64’11]


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MacDowell’s interest in big orchestral works was relatively brief – no more than seven years – and concentrated between 1884 and 1890, the years during which he wrote the works recorded here. All were begun whilst he was living in Germany, in Liszt’s indomitable shadow and strongly influenced both by him and by Wagner. MacDowell was, in any case, well placed to adapt their descriptive procedures to his own, somewhat less grandiose, ends. This Bridge issue of 1966 performances recorded in London reverses the chronology by presenting the Roland Fragments first. Originally intended as the inner movements of a projected four-movement symphony they were to take their place as part of the wider panorama of the Song of Roland but the surviving movements show how well MacDowell combined technical, expressive and melodic material in pursuit of his ambitious schema. The first of the two Fragments, The Saracens, is saturated in Wagnerian feeling. Martial, with muted brass and aggressive, animating pizzicati MacDowell is fully in command of his material, deploying and redeploying it to strategic effect, the waltz-like contrastive central section acting as a kind of sonata form. In the second Fragment, The Lovely Aldâ, these processes and procedures become somewhat more explicit in their conflict of diatonic and chromatic thematic material – which is not to say they are brazenly obvious, more that he tries to imply changed emotional states through the use of minimally changed thematic material.

The earliest tone poem is Hamlet/Ophelia Op 22 – creatively sparked by a glut of Shakespeare going whilst the young composer and his wife were in London. The passionate opening of Hamlet becomes troubled and developmentally bold and aspirant. MacDowell inserts an Ophelia theme into the central section cleverly entwined with the Tristan theme on the horns before a quiescent, reflective ending closes the piece. Ophelia meanwhile is shorter but shares linked material and reminiscences repeated in slightly reorchestrated passages. A more stringent central panel gives way to more rustic material, much play being given to the lyrical theme on the lower strings and the Elysian piping above it. The sound here is a little congested – which doesn’t do absolute justice to MacDowell’s scoring which is ever fruitful even if this early example seems to me, whilst aspiring to Lisztian models, to be faltering in its inspiration.

Lancelot und Elaine is notable for its extreme compression of narrative incident. It’s a rigorously descriptive tone poem, taking as its literary source Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. The highly detailed and reflective writing evokes the love, wanderings and drama implicit in the poem – ominous brass and drums, innocent and passionate declamation and a note struck of ultimate reflection and contemplation. Again the skeleton upon which MacDowell clothes the narrative is essentially sonata form – three themes, repetition of material and a coda. Lamia, Op 29 again employs sonata form, this time combined with variation form. He takes Keats this time and the doomed tragedy of Lamia and Lycius. There is a great deal of very imaginative transformative writing here, a compelling series of variations and consistently inventive orchestration. There is not the same density of incident as in Lancelot und Elaine but this allows a certain increased spaciousness of lyricism and it’s a surprise to me that this piece was only performed after MacDowell’s death.

MacDowell in these works is full of technical skill, has a strong sense of melodic contour and curve, a real control of thematic relationships, splendid abilities of orchestration and architecture. If nothing really bursts from the scores to enrapture and haunt the mind there are many compensations to enjoy along the way.

Jonathan Woolf

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