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Edward Joseph COLLINS (1886-1951)
Ballet-Suite: The Masque of the Red Death (1932) [25:32]
Irish Rhapsody (1927) [11:44]
Set of Four (1933) [18:50]
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Marin Alsop
Rec. Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, Scotland, 16-17 October, 2002 (Masque of Red Death; Irish Rhapsody); City Halls, Glasgow, Scotland, 19-20 March 2003 (Set of Four). DDD
ALBANY TROY657 [56:06]


If you are not already familiar with the name Edward Joseph Collins, you can certainly be forgiven. Collins was a little known composer from Illinois who made a living teaching at the Chicago Musical College. Throughout his life he completed several major musical works including an operetta, a symphony, three piano concertos, two overtures and three suites. During his lifetime he was well received by critics, but after his death quickly became a footnote. This was not due to a lack of talent on his part. The works collected on this recording are easily the equal of Paul Dukas, Henri Duparc, or César Franck. However that may be precisely the problem: his works feel as if they are plucked directly from the very best of the French symphonic tone poems from the generation before he wrote. Since he can be easily dismissed as derivative, he often has been.

In the case of Collins though, you can easily make a case to forgive him for his similarity to the older composers. The French tone poem has few masters and fewer disciples. American authors in the first half of the 20th century were predominantly part of the Neo-classical and Populist schools of composition, and Collins was no different than Walter Piston or Howard Hanson in his desire to find music that his audience could relate to more than creating sounds that would challenge them. So while each of these pieces is easily comparable to other works, they do not mirror their inspirations so closely as to quiet the voice of the composer himself.

The Ballet-Suite: Masque of the Red Death very much resembles the works of Dukas and Franck in character and voicing. It was inspired by the Edgar Allen Poe work, is presented in five parts and was submitted for the St. Louis Symphony in 1940. He borrowed scalar material from his understanding of Middle Eastern music and contains a great deal of energy and metrical complexity that invigorates the work throughout. One wonders what the winning work would have been, as this is actually an excellent piece of music.

Irish Rhapsody is based on the Irish potato famine folksong "O! The Taters they are small over here!". Again, it is an interesting, energetic tone poem. It prominently features the bassoon and oboe, although strings and harp provide the fundament. The work feels much like a Copland piece in many ways. There is an energy and freeness that definitely harkens to Gershwin or Copland, and in many ways defines what it means to be an American composer from this period.

Set of Four is a collection of four short works written for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and presented as a single unit. They are well crafted and entertaining. Collins makes fine use of the strings, passing melodic material up and down from cellos to violins and back again. Three of the pieces are less than four minutes long, and shine in their brevity. The second movement, "Moonlight and Dance" is nearly ten minutes long, allowing a greater expressivity.

Ballet-Suite: Masque of the Red Death is presented here for the first time in any public performance of any kind. Irish Rhapsody and Set of Four were first performed in Chicago shortly after they were composed but subsequently never recorded. Collins apparently had the ear of Frederick Stock, the conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra during the 1920s and 1930s, and can owe any legacy he has to that relationship.

In presenting these works to most listeners for the first time the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under the direction of Colorado native Marin Alsop does the listener a great service. Under her baton these works truly come to life. The recording is technically quite nice and speak well of both the hall and the engineers. The notes shed a great deal of light on the composition and evolution of each piece and reflect a great deal of research that is sure to enhance a listener’s appreciation of the music and the man. Generally speaking, this is a solidly produced recording.

So while Collins’ name is not held in the same reverence as those of Copland or Barber, he was certainly no hack. These are good works which deserve a better fate than they have so far been given. The American Neoclassicists and Populists have been largely ignored to date, but the music produced by them is certainly worthwhile. Fans of Copland, Gershwin or any of the French Romantics will be certain to enjoy this music.

Patrick Gary



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