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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    

Paul MORAVEC (born 1957)

Spiritdance (1989)
Ann SILSBEE (born 1930)

Sanctuary (1991)
Jerré TANNER (born 1939)

Suite from The Singing Snails (1986)
Larry BELL (born 1952)

Sacred Symphonies Op.23 (1985)
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra of Bratislava/Szymon Kawalla
Recorded: no date, published 1992


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The present release must be a rare example of a VMM disc exclusively devoted to American composers. The composers featured here seem to share a common musical approach deeply imbedded, to a varying degree though, in what may be referred to as "Americana". All four pieces share the same positive outlook and are all superbly crafted, colourful and highly communicative in often fairly direct terms.

Moravec’s brilliant dance fantasy Spiritdance clearly displays these characteristics to the full. This is an engaging and very attractive piece brimming with freshness and energy. It should be a popular concert opener, were it played and heard more often.

Ann Silsbee’s Sanctuary is a somewhat more ambitious and, on the whole, more restrained piece of music though it has its moments of anger. The composer, however, describes the piece as "a search for sanctuary ... the universal hope for a sacred, inviolable place of refuge in these days of war, violence and genocide". The music is thus generally more reflective and introspective than in Moravec’s life-celebrating work; and it is a most moving and deeply felt utterance of great consolatory power.

Jerré Tanner settled in Hawaii in the mid-1960s and composed a number of pieces inspired by Hawaiian legends such as his symphonic poem Aukele (available on VMM 3004) or his operas Ka Lei No Kane, The Naupaka Floret and The Singing Snails of which the orchestral suite is recorded here. The straightforward, vividly colourful and melodic music (often redolent of Copland) betrays the origins of the opera which the composer describes as his first opera for youth, again based on Hawaiian myths and folklore. The suite drawn from the opera is in four movements: a lively, energetic Overture, a beautiful Nocturne (in fact a love duet in all but the name), a March depicting the angry Snails on their way to scare off "those evil creatures" (i.e. the lovers from the preceding movement) and the final number Triumph and Paean to Dawn which rounds off the suite in sometimes mock-Handelian fashion. A lovely, straightforward piece of music by all counts.

Larry Bell’s Sacred Symphonies Op.23 is another quintessentially American piece of music drawing on the composer’s own religious experience "as a Southerner" and paying some tribute to Charles Ives whose shadow looms large over the first three movements. The work also draws on an earlier work (Four Sacred Songs Op.20 for soprano and piano in which Bell sets well-known hymns to his own music). The four movements, so we are told, represent atonement, evangelism, suffering and humility. The composer also tells us that "the symphonic development of the themes of the songs coexists with a slow-moving version of the songs in a distant tonality" (the Ives touch mentioned earlier). The final movement Transcendently is particularly moving and concludes this fine work in appeased serenity. Sacred Symphonies is one of Bell’s finest works that I have heard so far.

Some may sometimes criticise VMM releases for being somewhat mixed affairs bringing together composers from widely different musical (and geographical) horizons. The present disc, however, is remarkably consistent in musical terms though each composer featured here has his or her own approach, which makes this varied disc quite appealing, especially in such fine performances and recording. A most enjoyable disc well worth investigating.

Hubert Culot

Gerard Hoffnung CDs

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