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Peter MENNIN (1923-1983)
Symphony No. 5 (1950) • [20:29]
(I. Con Vigore [4:38]; II. Canto [8:23]; III. Allegro Tempestuoso [7:28])
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1956) • [25:51]
(I. Allegro moderato [9:42]; II. Adagio [10:01]; III. Allegro vivace [6:08])
Symphony No. 6 (1953) • [25:38]
(I. Maestoso; Allegro [7:56]; II. Grave [8:19]; III. Allegro vivace [9:23])
Janos Starker, cello
Louisville Orchestra/Robert Whitney, Jorge Mester
Recorded: 1954, 1960, 1969, Louisville, Kentucky
Executive producer: Matthew Walters
Original supervising producer: Howard Scott
Annotation: Peter Mennin, Frank J. Oteri and Fanny Brandeis
Partial funding by Aaron Copland Fund for Music and National Endowment for the Arts
world premiere recordings

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One of two sons, Peter Mennin was born Mennini. His elder brother Louis retained the final i but his two symphonies (1960 and 1963) have so far failed to capture the imagination. Mennin’s own nine symphonies have done relatively well and all except the first two have been recorded. His reputation rests a step down from the hallowed symphonist threesome: Schuman, Piston and Harris. The Fifth Symphony starts with the same sort of grittily determined tag that launches Harris’s Fifth (also on First Edition). The first of the four movements is energetically propulsive. For contrast the following Canto (a typical title and mood for Mennin) proceeds in meditative calm with violins sweetly singing and surging - almost Finzian in their restful confidence. At one time the Fifth was the symphony was the one you were most likely to encounter in the record shop. It was on a Mercury LP (SRI 75020) in a good if rather boxily recorded version conducted by Howard Hanson. In fact the taut heroic-tragic horn writing ion the outer movements sometimes sounds like a Hanson symphony! This Louisville version certainly carries off the spatial illusion of a hall but the treble does sound constricted - tart rather than sweet. The work was premiered by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra conducted by Walter Hendl. This recording conducted by Whitney is in mono.

The Cello Concerto is from six years after the Fifth. This was recorded by Janos Starker and is in stereo although oddly enough this does not have quite the same openness that you find in the 1960 recording though both were made in the same hall, the Macauley Theater. Mester had taken over by 1969 when these sessions took place. The work itself is more subdued and ochre-toned, sombre although darkly brilliant and tautly rhythmic in the finale. How come we never hear the Violin Concerto written in the same year as the Fifth Symphony?

The Sixth Symphony takes us back to mono but this time was recorded at the Columbia Auditorium in Louisville. It was commissioned by the Louisville Orchestra. This time the 30-year old composer starts the three movement work with a dense and profound Maestoso - slow rather than rhythmically sprung. It is extremely serious and grand in the impliedly catastrophic idiom of Vaughan Williams’ Job, Fourth and Sixth symphonies. The slow movement is again a calm centre but this time troubled again - in touch with the doom limned in by the first movement. Even the final Allegro Vivace is irradiated with a darkling tension. It crackles with an atmosphere like that found in the finale of Walton’s Second Symphony. This is an unremittingly serious statement - exciting yes but never relaxing - perhaps reflective of the Cold War.

The flanking symphonies (3 - Mitropoulos and 7 - Martinon) can be heard in archive recordings on a superb CRI disc - deleted but probably trackable down on e-bay and Berkshire. It’s a fine recording with the Piano Concerto astonishingly played by John Ogdon. That disc is well worth adding to this one. They have a certain aesthetic symmetry.

The excellent work-notes are by Frank Oteri and the composer and are wonderfully complemented by a striking portrait of Mennin at the piano and Whitney standing.

A superb addition to the Mennin discography. Wonderful to have the dedicatees’ version of the Sixth and Starker’s pioneering recording. In fact I think these are all first recordings. The Fifth predates the Hanson-Mercury version. It is however up against the 1990s recorded Albany CD (TROY 260) of the same two symphonies coupled with Moby Dick and the Fantasia. Of course that is a fully digital version in stereo while this is in mono so far the symphonies are concerned. David Alan Miller does not make life easy for us. His recordings have a similar tensile strength to those of Whitney. However you would then have to forego Starker’s version of the Cello Concerto - to date the only version. Serious Menninists must get this First Edition recording. If you insist on the last word in recorded sound then go for the Albany.

Rob Barnett

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