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Philip RHODES (b. 1940)
With a Mountain View - Music with Appalachian Roots
Two Appalachian Settings for String Quartet (1)
Mountain Songs (A Ballad Cycle) for High Voice and Piano (2)
Fiddletunes (No. 1) for Solo Violin and Synthesized Strings (3)
Reels and Reveries (Variations for Orchestra) (4)
The Veblen String Quartet (1); Phyllis Bryn-Julson (soprano) (2); Anne Mayer (piano) (2); Hector Valdivia (violin) (3); Owensboro Symphony Orchestra/Michael Luxner (4)
Recorded June 6, 2002, Carleton Concert Hall, Northfield, Minnesota, USA (1); October 31, 1976, Carleton Concert Hall, Northfield, Minnesota, USA (2); March 20, 2001, Carleton Concert Hall, Northfield, Minnesota, USA (3); October 3, 1992, RiverPark Center, Owensboro, Kentucky, USA (4)
CENTAUR CRC2597 [63.40]

 

Philip Rhodes was born in North Carolina into a family with strong Appalachian roots. This disc gathers together a number of his works which have Appalachian themes using a variety of recordings which were made between 1976 and 2000.

The disc opens with ‘Two Appalachian Settings’ for string quartet. The first, ‘Love Song’ is an attractive, melodic movement in which the Appalachian tune Black is the colour of my true love’s hair is given a treatment reminiscent of Vaughan Williams, Holst and Copland. The folksong itself will be familiar to listeners from the arrangement by Berio. The second movement, ‘Fiddle Tunes (No. 2)’, is a lively, modern take on a set of Reels. In fact it started out life as the piece for violin and synthesized strings which appears later on the disc. Rhodes’ treatment of the music here is more reminiscent of Stravinsky and Bartók; in fact he even manages to work in a quote from The Rite of String. The Veblen String Quartet give fluent, assured performances but I had a sneaking feeling that the music would work just as well for string orchestra and that Rhodes has not really explored the uniqueness of the quartet medium.

‘Mountain Songs (A Ballad Cycle)’ is a group of five songs setting Appalachian ballad texts but in all but one, Rhodes eschews the traditional tunes for his own settings, thus creating a very different style of music. It is perhaps unfortunate that the cycle begins with a setting of ‘The Unquiet Grave’, a folksong whose original is both haunting and memorable. Rhodes has created an expressionist setting with a vocal line which is expressive without ever being tunefully melodic. This style recurs in the 4th setting of the cycle, ‘The True Lover’s Farewell’. As a contrast, the 2nd song ‘The Old Man and the Devil’ is given a lively edge as befits the text’s comic narrative nature; here Rhodes embeds melodic elements into the texture and uses some delightfully quirky rhythms. The third song is the exception, it uses both the text and melody of a traditional hymn, ‘Guide me, O Thou great redeemer’. Rhodes allows the haunting melody to stand alone with the piano only appearing in the last verse. The music is flexible and flowing, the antithesis of a metrical hymn. The final song, ‘Birdie Went A-Courtin’’ is giving an adroitly perky setting with a piano accompaniment reminiscent of a fiddle. The songs are given strong, committed performances by Phyllis Bryn-Julson ably supported by Anne Mayer. The recording was made in 1976 and shows its age in the poor piano sound. Byrn-Julson is admirably tireless in her commitment to the songs, but I wished she had made more of the text, after all she is singing in her native language. Though Rhodes has created some fine music here, the shadow of the original folk-songs hangs over these settings and Rhodes has not entirely solved the problem of how to re-use the lovely texts without invoking the spectre of the original folk-music.

‘Fiddletunes (No. 1)’ is written for solo violin and synthesized strings and it uses the same material as the string quartet movement. Hector Valdivia gives a strong performance of the solo part but I found the use of synthesized accompaniment rather puzzling as Rhodes never really seems to make use of the power of the synthesizer and the work sounds as if it could be transferred to string orchestra without losing any of its qualities.

The final piece on the disc, ‘Reels and Reveries’ is a substantial orchestral tone poem written in a very traditional melodic style. A well-made piece in which the traditional reels are never far away, it would make a very attractive, albeit undemanding, concert opener.

Robert Hugill



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