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Walter PISTON (1894-1976)
Serenata (for orchestra) (1957) [11:36]
(I Con allegrezza [2:58]; II Con sentimento [5:32]; III Con spirito [2:56])
Symphony No. 5 (1956) [21:31]
(I Lento. Allegro con spirito [8:48]; II Adagio [8:01]; III Allegro lieto [4:32])
Symphony No. 7 (1960) [20:48]
(I Con moto [6:25]; II Adagio pastorale [10:02]; III Allegro festevole [4:09])
Symphony No. 8 (1965) [23:39]
(I Moderato mosso [9:29]; II Lento assai [10:07]; III Allegro marcato [3:52])
Louisville Orchestra/Robert Whitney, Jorge Mester
Recorded: 1959, 1964, 1974, 1975, Louisville, Kentucky
Executive producer: Matthew Walters
Original supervising producer: Howard Scott
Annotation: James M. Keller, Nelson Keyes, Walter Piston, Marshall Portnoy
Partial funding by Aaron Copland Fund for Music and National Endowment for the Arts.
world premiere recordings

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The Piston of the 1940s and 1950s wrote in a much more accessible vein, never extravagant of gesture but with sprung power and a lyrical gift rarely held in check. The works of the 1960s became increasingly inward looking - more the work of an aesthete craftsman. The musical world was changing around him and perhaps this seeped into his veins too.

The Serenata is in three short movements - the whole thing is over and done in under twelve minutes. A rather lack-lustre middle movement is framed by warm and showily celebratory music, and with a darting forward pulse. In fact the athletic rush and bustle recalls the start of Tippett’s Second Symphony - the one the premiere of which foxed Adrian Boult and had to be restarted.

The Fifth Symphony was written in the same year as the Serenata. An emotional holding back and reserve is now encountered. However there are compensations in plenty including some exceptionally intriguing orchestral timbres. This and the other two symphonies are in stereo unlike the Serenata. Rather like the Mennin Sixth this is quite serious writing. A plodding pizzicato initiates the Adagio which feels emotionally drained - certainly dignified and with nothing so vulgar as explicit passion. The finale kicks into gear almost carefree and bristling with an activity that has the Randall Thompson and Bernstein signatures.

Four years later Piston wrote the Seventh Symphony. This is the most succinct of the three symphonies here at twenty minutes. It is a work lacking surface brilliance. Of both this symphony and its successor Piston wrote that they were composed: ‘with no intent other than to make music to be played and listened to.’ A tight little Con Moto is succeeded by the longest movement - an Adagio Pastorale which has more pathos and lugubrious humanity than the other two movements. The Allegro festevole casts a sidelong and conspiratorial glance back towards the celebratory dynamism of the finale of the Second Symphony (done best of all by Tilson Thomas on DG). The Eight Symphony makes a perfunctory nod towards the twelve-tone row. It was commissioned by Leinsdorf and the Bostonians who premiered it on 5 March 1965. Once again the colours and moods are very restrained - grey even. Both these late works are rendered with what I take to be complete fidelity. The two works seem written to be template: with the longest movement being the middle one and the finale being the most active of the three.

This is not the first time that these recordings of symphonies 5, 7 and 8 have been issued on CD. In the mid 1980s Albany issued AR011. However the Serenata was not included on the disc.

This First Edition disc is the most convenient and pleasing way of acquiring many of your missing Piston symphonies. Performances are good but do not expect the ingratiating ways of the first four symphonies. A growing but fascinating severity pervades this music. Make no mistake this ascetic approach is leavened by poetry and bright elan but the ascendancy goes to the matte and away from the gloss.

Rob Barnett

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