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David DIAMOND (b. 1915)
Symphony No. 2 (1942/3)
Symphony No. 4 (1945)
Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz
Recorded: Seattle Center Opera House, September 1989 (Symphony No. 2) and May 1990 (Symphony No. 4)
NAXOS 8.559154 [59:19]

Diamond’s Symphony No. 2 stands in sharp contrast with its predecessor (available on Naxos 8.559157, reviewed here some time ago) composed in 1941. The First Symphony’s virile energy is completely at odds with the Second Symphony’s inner tension, deep sadness and revolt, hopefully dispelled in the energetic, optimistic Finale. To a certain extent, the Second Symphony might be termed Diamond’s "War Symphony". It was written at the time the United States was at war. Moreover, it was written in a period of anxiety for the composer "as an artist lacking a solid financial underpinning" (Steven Lowe’s words in his excellent notes). The Second Symphony is a substantial work laid-out on a grand scale, its four movements playing for three quarters of an hour. The first movement Adagio funebre sets the mood. It opens in a dark, menacing mood hardly relieved later in the course of the movement. Even the second main theme played by the oboe does not offer much solace to offset the overall sad mood. As a whole, this often echoes Mahler, although the long melodic lines, that characterise so much of Diamond’s work, have an unmistakable American ring (just think of Harris, Copland and Schuman in their Third Symphonies). The aggressive Scherzo is a brief, violent gesture of anger, again full of tension. The Andante expressivo, quasi adagio that follows is tense and sorrowful, actually bringing little (if any) solace. The final Allegro vigoroso’s assertive optimism finally relieves the tension accumulated in the course of the preceding movements. One is again reminded of Harris and Copland. Diamond’s Second Symphony (which was new to me) is certainly a masterpiece, and one of the finest American symphonies of that period. I can only think of Harris’s magnificent, though still shamefully underrated Fifth as a possible rival.

The compact Symphony No. 4 in three short movements of fairly equal length is a completely different piece of music, even if Diamond’s hallmarks are there. Its overall atmosphere "is fraught with thoughts of mortality on the part of the composer" (Steven Lowe’s words again). The modally-inflected first theme of the opening Allegretto is redolent of Vaughan Williams (his Fifth Symphony), whereas the second theme’s pastoral mood brings some contrast. Both themes are neatly worked-out (echoes of Rubbra here) while the music gathers some momentum before reaching a comparatively calm, though rather abrupt close. The second movement opens with a powerful brass gesture leading into what the composer described as "a chorale-like theme of religious and supplicating nature". The mood of the third movement is again one of robust energy effortlessly sustained till the assertive peroration. Another major symphonic achievement in spite of its brevity (it is all over in about a quarter of an hour).

The original recordings of these symphonies were released in Delos’s first volume of their unfortunately incomplete Diamond series (DE 3093). That disc also included the Concerto for Small Orchestra which has been inexplicably dropped in this re-issue although Naxos’ advertisement in The Gramophone - July 2004 does actually mention it. I really wonder why, and only hope that it will soon be re-issued in a forthcoming Diamond disc from Naxos.[see footnote] This, however, is a superb release, that devotees of Diamond’s music, who might have missed the original Delos disc, will want to have. These works are simply too good to be ignored.

Hubert Culot

[footnote] Our understanding is that Naxos only has the rights to Seattle Symphony recordings. The concerto is played by the New York Chamber Symphony. For the same reason, the Naxos Piston 4th CD is missing material from the original which was played by other forces.

see also review by Rob Barnett


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