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Ferde GROFE (1892-1972)
Mississippi Suite (1926) [13’38"]
Grand Canyon Suite (1931) [31’57"]
Niagara Falls Suite (1961) [22’06"]
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/William T. Stromberg
Recorded 1999 Wessex Hall, Poole Arts Centre, Poole, Dorset, UK
NAXOS SACD/CD 6.110002 [67.46]


The picaresque details of Grofé’s early life are entertainingly set out in Victor and Marina Ledin’s sleeve-notes for this SACD/CD. It would probably be easier to list those careers he didn’t try, rather than those he did, but his big break came when Paul Whiteman signed him to his eponymous band in 1917, first as a pianist, then expanding his portfolio as assistant conductor, orchestral librarian and orchestrator. It was with his orchestration of Rhapsody in Blue that he hit the headlines and from this time we can date his growing confidence in writing original works of his own. These were of the cinematic/landscape rich variety, strong on local colour and scenic vibrancy, responding to nature and incident with immediacy, strength and imagination. Those who are interested in Whiteman’s sometime cornet soloist, the brilliant alcoholic Bix Beiderbecke, tend to filter his classical influences through the erstwhile band leading violinist – but it was more likely Grofé who was the real influence; Beiderbecke always cited Debussy, Delius and MacDowell as significant influences, though the same can’t always be said of his orchestrating and composing mentor Grofé – though equally it often could.

The three works on this disc span his compositional life. The Mississippi Suite (1926) is a four-movement evocation of the river, opening with Father of Waters – strong on fine rolling drums and a sense of watery expectancy in the lower strings (had he been listening to Vltava – I’d put my money on it) and some exotica redolent of (Red) Indian music – though somewhat less subtly than Amy Beach evoked Eskimo music (sensitive types should substitute "Native American" and "Inuit" at this point.) There’s plenty of impressionistic whirl and quite a deal of brassy bite as well. His Huckleberry Finn second movement teems with juddering brass and also a Swanee whistle (not high on my list of novelty favourites I have to admit) but it’s probably best to see this as a Yankee Til Eulenspiegel in fun fair mode. Languorous impressionism certainly does course through Old Creole Days before the frolicsome Turkey in the Straw barnyardisms and colour of the Mardi Gras finale – with a splendid jazz-based finale.

The Grand Canyon Suite (1931) is in five movements, ranging from the burgeoning eloquence of Sunset, to the clearly Francophile The Painted Desert. He’s not afraid to entrust the opening of the central panel, On the Trail, to a violin solo or then to spice things with a Will Rogers cowboy tune, some terpsichorean fun, or add a sentimental lullaby and then top things off with a wistful, handkerchief-reaching music box passage. I admired the descending horn motif in Sunset, a lovingly Delian moment (and a sure sign of that early musical inheritance, nurtured in the Whiteman band) as well as the warmth of the last movement Cloudburst, with its thunderous rainstorm and triple-tongued trumpet flare.

In 1961 he wrote the Niagara Falls Suite, a highly cinematic and descriptive four-movement piece. The massacre movement – settlers ambushed by tribes - is tensely argued and then bursts into "ambush" mode and we also have a movement redolent of Waltzing delicacies in the Honeymooners (is there an allusion to Keep the Home Fires Burning or is it coincidental?) The most compelling of the movements however is the last, the Power of Niagara, which is saturated in siren wails and industrial anvils, and has climax piled upon climax – not subtle, certainly, but exciting.

As I said this is a Super Audio CD (SACD) but is perfectly compatible with ordinary systems (like mine). I can’t vouch for its surround sound capacity but it sounds full of depth and wide spectrum response on my less than state-of-the-art equipment. The performances are splendid as well and cap a salutary salute to Grofé.

Jonathan Woolf


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