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Walter PISTON (1894-1976)
Symphony No. 2 (1943), [Moderato, 10.07 +Adagio, 10.48 +Allegro 4.27]
Symphony No. 6 (1955) [Fluendo espressivo, 6.42 +Scherzo, Leggerissimo vivace, 3.38 + Adagio sereno, 11.19 +Allegro energico, 3.51]
Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz
Recorded at Seattle Center Opera House, Seattle, Wash., Nov. 23, 1988 (No. 2); Dec. 6, 1989 (No. 6).
NAXOS 8.559161 [50.56]

There are doubtless any number of ways to write a wartime symphony. The easiest to conceive, if not to bring to completion, may be something like the Shostakovich Symphony No. 7 - an epic sense of battle, probably with a suggestion of eventual triumph. The Martinů Symphony No. 3 with its tone of high drama or tragedy probably fits in this class, too.

Less obvious as wartime symphonies but perhaps even more common than their noisier epic or dramatic counterparts are quiet works such as the Martinů Symphony No. 2, the Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 5, or this great American piece, the Walter Piston Symphony No. 2.

It's one of the good things Naxos did for Walter Piston in 2003 - issuing at budget price a 1988 recording of the Symphony No. 2. It is paired with Piston's Symphony No. 6 on this disc, but it's the No. 2 that is the star of the show.

Along with Paul Hindemith, Piston is one of two composers I've heard praised with a sort of unspoken asterisk as "a composer's composer," as though Jack Citizen will never find anything to love about this music. Too bad for Jack, if such faint praise convinces him not to buy and play this disc.

It's easy to accuse Piston of steely intellectualism because he was a Harvard professor whose greatest influence musically is probably not through his music at all, but through the textbooks he wrote about music: Counterpoint, from 1947, Harmony, from 1941, and Orchestration, from 1955. Yet that doesn't mean Piston didn't have plenty to say through music. Fortunately, Piston has found a great interpreter in Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony. The fine notes by Steven Lowe put this work in context by pointing out that Piston wrote his Symphony No. 2 in 1943, when the events of World War II had begun to turn in favor of the Allies. (Oddly enough, that's the same year in which Martinů wrote his No. 2 and Vaughan Williams his No. 5).

It's true that Piston's three-movement symphony lacks the big gesture that, say, Howard Hanson might have given if he had written it. In fact there's rather more ice than fire.

But to my mind what Piston has done may be even more difficult than giving us martial music: He speaks of the war by not speaking of it at all, by simply reminding us of what is important about the life we have. In that way I think the Symphony No. 2 is a sort of an American pastoral, something listeners must have craved at the time. The very next year would give us the quintessential American pastoral, also a World War II work, Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring. But Copland's ballet suite is set safely in the past - not so Piston's symphony. There's no attempt to take listeners out of the present, Piston is writing for the people of America in 1943, and it's inconceivable that he wouldn't have something to say about what they're reading every day in their newspapers.

(As an aside, one could argue that Bohuslav Martinů's No. 2 is also, perhaps even more than the Piston No. 2, a wartime pastoral. Martinů wrote it for Czech refugees living in Cleveland in summer 1943. It's in that same year that Martinu writes his 'Memorial to Lidice' as a reminder of Nazi atrocities in his homeland, so of course he's deeply troubled by the war. But you do not hear that in the joyous Symphony No. 2. No. 2 is great in the way human nature is great, by looking beyond the crisis to celebrate something older and stronger than ideologies or war - that folk-like second movement that evokes the rhythm of seasons and daily life, for example.) To my mind Piston is doing a similar thing in his Symphony No. 2. Perhaps that is - there are some very American-sounding interludes in the first movement, the first at about 2 minutes into the movement, with a jazzy, big band feel such as you might have heard in a nightclub.

Some people hear in the Adagio the vast distances of America. I confess I don't hear plains and big sky, but painful resolve, worry, perhaps even fear. Emotionally, that is no doubt what sweethearts, mothers and fathers felt, looking out across wheatfields or down city streets and thinking about their young men in Europe or the Pacific. Particularly beautiful in this movement is the playing of the clarinet, leading to a flute solo of terrible yearning. It is like overhearing two generations of a family talking quietly in words we can't quite make out, but whose emotional content is clear. The third movement, allegro, is the only place where I could argue that Piston is actually alluding to the war. It begins with a small explosion like a shell bursting, then moves on, propelled by limber playing in the strings, in tireless, cool energy. It's more like listening to a war machine than a battle, the brass and percussion complementing each other like airgun and rivet. It might be America saying in its brash way, that year of 1943, "OK, let's wrap this thing up, shall we?"

The Piston Symphony No. 6 is, but for the driving fourth movement (Allegro energico), a quiet, meditative work - contemplative in the way that a Rubbra symphony so often is. Piston wrote it in 1955 to mark the 75th anniversary of the Boston Symphony, an orchestra that he knew intimately. I like the Seattle Symphony's account, but I admit I'm curious to know what it sounded like in the hands of those individual musicians whom Piston had in mind when he crafted each part.

If there's a drawback, it may be that some passages are rather subdued. For example, there is some lovely writing for the harp in the first movement that momentarily, melts away the tension that has been building, but it's easy to miss if you have the volume too low. So buy the disc, and turn up the volume.

Lance Nixon

a message from Peter Joelson

Please pass on to Lance Nixon that Munch's recording of Piston's 6th is
available from in an excellent transfer.

All good wishes

Peter Joelson


See also review by Jonathan Woolf

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