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Harold Shapero (b.1920)
Nine-Minute Overture (1940) [9:15]
Symphony for Classical Orchestra (1947) [44:04]
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra/André Previn
Recorded, in performance, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Music Center in Los Angeles between 22nd April – 1st May 1988
NEW WORLD RECORDS NW 373-2 [53.19]

I find it quite incredible that a symphony as excellent as Harold Shapero's is virtually an unknown quantity. I have given some thought to trying to work out why this can be. There may be three reasons.

Firstly there seems to be a bit of a downer on neo-classicism at the present time. Stravinsky is claimed to have defined the movement with his Pulcinella Suite. However there are other claimants to the style such as Max Reger, Paul Hindemith and perhaps Ferruccio Busoni. In the United States we think of Walter Piston as the leading exponent of this genre. All of these composers are regarded as being important in musical history, yet with the obvious exception of Stravinsky they are comparatively little performed.

The second reason goes back to Stravinsky himself. Apparently, in 1947 Shapero met the older man and showed him the score of his Symphony. After a brief perusal of the work the Russian handed it back to the Shapero with the throwaway suggestion that he become a conductor!

And thirdly, there is the Aaron Copland ‘double-speak’. In the first instance Copland praised the young composer but there was a sting in the tail. He was impressed with Shapero's compositional technique and his creative imagination. However he believed that the younger man felt 'a compulsion to fashion music after some great model’. Thus "his ...Serenade ... is founded upon neo-classical Stravinskian principles, his three Amateur Piano Sonatas on Haydnesque principles and his recent long Symphony is modelled after Beethoven ... he seems to be suffering from [a] hero-worship complex ..."

This adverse criticism put Harold Shapero off the idea of composing for nearly twenty years with the subsequent loss of much good music.

The CD insert gives us a good account of the background to this work. It is unnecessary to repeat it in this review, however a few salient points will help listeners decide if this work is for them.

The reason we have this recording at all is due to the ‘American Encore Programme.’ This was an organization that supports the performance of neglected American music. When Previn first presented this work to the audience in L.A. it was a resounding success spurring considerable interest in the composer and his music. It is, I suppose, unfortunate that this has not been translated into the CD catalogues. Previn was seriously impressed by this score; he has suggested that the ‘Adagietto’ is the most beautiful slow movement of any American symphony. And it is true to say that this long and varied movement is the very heart of the work; it may well be that it is Shapero’s abiding legacy.

If I was asked to describe the Symphony I would have to say that it is very much in the classical style. Other writers have equated it with Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, with considerable justification. It is written using a conventional style but which brings welcome freshness. Never for a moment does it lose the listener’s interest. It never loses its overall unity; the whole is certainly greater than the sum of the parts.

The ‘Scherzo’ is particularly fun. There are all kinds of interesting modulations and a certain classical ‘sturm und drang’ in the main theme. But perhaps Beethoven comes to the fore in the Finale. Pages of this music could almost have been written a hundred years previously. However this is no criticism. What Shapero is able to do is bring a modern flavour to this basically classical sound; there is even a hint of ‘swing’ rhythms!

Perhaps, as a British listener, I could be persuaded that this was a ‘Cheltenham’ Symphony. Yet the more I listen to this work the more I see it as being timeless. It is a rather good example of the ‘classical’ symphony seen through mid-twentieth century eyes. It is full of great tunes and exciting moments.

The Nine-Minute Overture was the very first orchestral piece composed by the twenty year old Shapero. It was written in 1940 while he was still a student of Walter Piston. So it is hardly surprising that the pupil’s work reflects the neo-classical style of the master. The programme notes tell the story of how Shapero went off to study with Hindemith. He assumed that the new work would be given an ‘airing’ at Tanglewood. However Hindemith decided that there would be no student works performed that season. Aaron Copland came to the rescue. He ran a sort of scratch orchestra with the sole purpose of giving first performances of ‘worthy’ student compositions. Unfortunately the band was depleted and this resulted in a performance that left much to be desired. The work was not appreciated until it was given a performance by the CBS Symphony Orchestra a few years later.

This is an excellent work for a student composition. It is full of rhythmic interest and melodic variety and could never be regarded as ‘pedantic’. There is a lovely second subject that haunts the remainder of the work. It would be easy to argue that the Overture is derivative and perhaps that it does not break new ground. Yet that is a spurious argument. It is a fine work that is exciting and thoroughly enjoyable. For this reason it deserves a place in the canon American music.

New World Records have done a fine job in presenting this ‘essential’ CD of Shapero’s masterpiece. It well complements the excellent recording of the String Quartet (1941) and other chamber works. [New World Records 80569-2 review]

Perhaps the programme could have been a little longer; there are other orchestral works by Shapero that could have been considered. But I expect that this is all that André Previn and the Los Angeles Philharmonic recorded at the live session.

The programme notes are excellent; this is especially important when there is so little available about the composer either on the ‘net’ or in the libraries.

I have no complaints about the recording and obviously André Previn and the orchestra give this work their full attention. I doubt it could be bettered, although I would love to have heard Lenny Bernstein’s recording of it.

When I was in New York a few days ago I looked in the browsers at Tower Records by the Lincoln Center. There was only one Shapero CD there. I had hoped to pick up a recording of the Piano Sonatas – but failed. It seems very sad that such an excellent composer as Shapero is so under-represented. How can it be that we have just one recording of this present Symphony when we have some 145 versions of Sam Barber’s Adagio and 187 recordings of Beethoven’s 7th a piece with which this present work has been justifiably compared.

John France

Further to John France's review of the Andre Previn version of this
symphony, in which he asks how we can have only one recording of this
symphony, it's worth mentioning that Leonard Bernstein's version with the
NYPO is still available on Sony SMK60725, which includes Lopatnikov's
Concertino and Dallapiccola's Tartiniana. Although in mono, the Shapero
holds its age well and is arguably a better performance than the Previn.

Richard Pennycuick

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