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The Story of American Classical Music
Author: Barrymore Laurence Scherer
2 CDs with 130-page booklet: (20,000-word essay; Timeline of historical and musical events; illustrated throughout with composer pictures)
Includes music by MacDowell, Foote, Chadwick, Beach, Ives, Sousa, Joplin, Gershwin, Copland, Schuman, Barber, Cage, Bernstein, Carter, Glass, Adams and many others.
NAXOS 8.558164-65 [78:39 + 79:22]

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Uniquely in the record industry the powerhouse that is Naxos sees education as part of its mission.

Their catalogue reaches wide and deep, covering standard repertoire and extending out to the periphery and beyond. They are continually pushing the periphery outwards. Their commercially savvy missionary zeal is multitudinous and the present two CD + booklet set is completely at one with their ambitions which are both idealistic and market-aware.

The format of the set is two CDs in a single width case plus a 130 page booklet all in a card slipcase.

The book is by eminent and lively American critic Barrymore Scherer who, across sixteen concise chapters, surveys the period from the Mayflower through the Europe-tribute years to the two world wars and onwards to the growing academic and concert confidence of the post-war period.

It's an overwhelmingly rich canvas and can only be skated over but Scherer does a respectable job even if he has his blindspots.

Broadway and musicals, bandstands, marching bands, and piano-stool sentimentalists all get their place. Cowell and Antheil put in appearances but not Ornstein. Scherer is off the mark in not even mentioning Piston's symphonies. Piston is myopically represented by the Incredible Flutist an overrated work anyway. Hanson and Barber get a mention but there no room found for Giannini or Flagello.

Schuman's symphonies might was well not have been written. I find that utterly bewildering. On the other hand Scherer quite adroitly presents the first three Creston symphonies.

Babbitt, Cage and Partch get a mention but nothing for Nancarrow or Lamonte Young

Opera: Thankfully Scherer mentions Barber’s Vanessa and also throws in a reference to the same composer’s Antony and Cleopatra which I rather hope Naxos will favour when they can find a worthy production. Much the same would go for Lee Hoiby's opera Summer and Smoke. Scherer brings things bang up to date with a mention of the intended premiere of Picker's An American Tragedy after Theodore Dreiser. This is to appear at the Met later this year (2005).

I was delighted to see that Scherer spent time on the most enjoyable and masterly contributor to American musical theatre, Stephen Sondheim. Let’s have some Naxos recordings of the complete Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods and A Little Night Music.

The last chapter surveys the 'current' scene with helpful observations on the music of Crumb, Earle Brown, Lou Harrison, Foss, Bolcom (his superb Songs of Innocence and Experience recently issued on Naxos), Harbison, Coates, Schwantner, Rochberg (whose death has just been announced), Hartke, Liebermann, Torke, Libby Larsen, Meredith Monk and Zwillich. I am a little discomfited to see the women composers lumped into the final paragraph as if a ghetto afterthought.

However overall what you have here is not at all anonymous or bland. Scherer’s cuts a very personal, provocative and readable survey.

The rest of the book lists composers by name with dates and places of birth and death. There’s a map showing places of birth. There’s also a useful timeline with contemporary events set against musical events. A list of suggested further listening is drawn only from the Naxos catalogue. That’s one place where the commercial dimension obtrudes.

The book is dotted with photos and plates of the composers. The text keys explicitly to particular tracks on the CDs

When it comes to the music on the two discs you can't fault Naxos for their exhaustive use of the CD medium: look at the playing times.

The recordings are all sourced from the company’s burgeoning and still extending ‘American Classics’ line.

The 2 CDs take the music chronologically. We launch with the undigested influences of Wagner and Weber in Fry's overture Macbeth. Gottschalk's Festa Criolla is fun if a little too foxy for the Hot Springs Music Festival orchestra. It from his Symphony: A Night in the Tropics once an exclusive fixture of the Vox catalogue. The brooding then glittering Macdowell Piano Concerto No. 2 finale becomes Tchaikovskian and rumbustious as things progress. Foote's Piano Quartet smiles optimistically in a Schumann-Grieg-Dvořák mood-set. Chadwick's Angel of Death again touches on Schumann (First and Fourth Symphonies) with a twist of Elgarian nobility and Froissart gallantry to add spice. The Ukraine Orchestra tackle the third movement of his Fourth Symphony - a work memorably recorded in Karl Krueger's SPAMH series in the 1960s. This gurgles and chortles along in good mood - more of a suite than a symphony in mood. Amy Beach's Gaelic Symphony is left to one side in favour of her Piano Concerto from which we get the Largo - somewhere between Mozart's Clarinet Concerto and Dvořák's Serenade for Wind Instruments. Griffes - as much a great known and unknown as George Butterworth in England - is represented by the gently Debussian Prelude No. 2. There's no Farwell here (shame!) but we do have the work of another Indianist, Charles Cadman. His From the Land of the Sky Blue Water is lullingly sentimental, recalling the native Indian work of Coleridge Taylor and with a restful Dvořákian trill. Ives is seen as the great revolutionary but his Second Symphony is much closer to Brahms and Dvořák - very successful it is too. Ives shook off the heavy cloak of imbibed tradition for The Unanswered Question which, in its quiet mystery and hieratic language, links back to RVW's Tallis Fantasia and in the high-priestly oratory of the trumpet to Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy. This work also looks forward to Barber's Adagio and to Franz Schmidt's Fourth Symphony which is also opened and closed by an ikonic trumpet singing of nostalgia and disillusion. Ives’ transformation of rowdy raucous Broadway and rat-a-tat popular tawdry, Sousa gone to seed, can be heard in the Country Band March. We get some real billowy and bombastic Sousa in King Cotton. CD1 ends with Peskanov's knockabout exuberance in Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag.

CD2 kicks off with a respectable but not irresistible Gershwin Cuban Overture - still you can smell the cigars and taste the sea salt on the promenade. Antheil's Symphony for Five (wind) Instruments is busy and just a touch Stravinskian-heartless. The Spanish Waltz from Piston's Incredible Flutist adopts the grand swagger and recalls Barber's Souvenirs with a great dollop of Massenet along the way. Pity though that Piston is not represented by something from the Second Symphony (maybe the adagio or the explosive finale). Schuman suffers in the same way with the Chester movement from New England Triptych; how much better a movement from the Violin Concerto would have been. Chester is trivial Schuman by comparison. Copland is representatively rendered by the finale from his Billy the Kid suite - all gentle evening air and elegies. Judd and the NZSO do an excellent job here rising to the grand oratory of the close. In much the same crepuscular mood we hear the introduction to Barber's Knoxville - touchingly done by Alsop and the RSNO and intelligently and sensitively sung by Karina Gauvin. Big gear-change for Confrey's Kitten on the Keys played by the miraculous Eteri Andjaparadze playing pianola-cheeky. Speaking of crashed gear-changes we also hear Cage's metronomically sustained Totem ancestor played by Boris Berman on prepared piano. Bernstein's murderously businesslike Tonight melts direct from planned mayhem into a crackingly sung and propelled love song. Schuller's Piano Trio presents the strong vein in dissonance and self-regarding modernism. It was a movement that swept old-fashioned music and audiences from the radio waves and concert halls in the period 1946-1985. The same applies to the fragmented dissolution represented by Carter's Piano Concerto. Now there's a composer whose language changed dramatically: from his early American idealism-lyricism of the Pocahontas Suite and Symphony to the dissonance and avant-garde frolics of The Symphony in Three Movements and the rest of his mature works. I recall the concerto from an RCA recording made by Jacob Lateiner in the 1960s. On the other hand George Rochberg's Violin Concerto is a miracle of inventively intense accessibility without sacrificing 20th century context. This has something of the impelled drive of the Schuman violin concerto. a deeply impressive work. The minimalist line is heard in the memorable propulsive finale of Glass's Violin Concerto and in Adams' Short Ride in a Fast Machine which has the same woodblock rhythmic drive - surely imbibed from the finale of Schuman 3? Listen if you doubt me and at the same time discover in the Schuman one of the great works of the last century. Torke's trilling and tintinnabulatory Rapture is for percussion and orchestra. Its snappy jazziness and positive zest recalls the zippy nervy optimism of Constant Lambert's Rio Grande and Horoscope. Hovhaness's Angel of Light, with its brass oratory and trembling pulse, proclaims the voice of the many romanticists who wrote on at the periphery and who are now gaining ascendancy.

All these extracts, each presented as a complete strand of music rather than part movements or bleeding chunks, are referenced to the CD from which they were taken and the tracks and artists are fully listed in the Scherer book.

By the way the essay stays in the book and does not stray onto the CDs. This is not one of those read essays to be played back by the listener. You must read the book and listen to the CDs which are given over exclusively to the music.

Where will the Naxos Classics series go next? I fervently want them to return to Roy Harris with Kuchar in the Ukraine after their superb CD of symphonies 7 and 9. We need all the Harris symphonies but priority to The Folksong (No. 4), then 1, 3, 5, 6 10-14 - in that order. Also the line will be incomplete without a good production of some Sondheim - how about a Sweeney Todd and an Into the Woods. We also need Farwell's orchestral music especially his massive Gott Symphony and the tone poem Gods of the Mountains. Then we need CDs of the orchestral music of Grant Fletcher, Edgar Stillman Kelley (especially his The Pit and the Pendulum) and Cecil Effinger (the symphonies and major choral works such as The Invisible Fire and Paul of Tarsus). Nathaniel Dett's Ordering of Moses oratorio is a superb work lying unrecorded as also is Dett’s Chariot Jubilee. The Violin Concerto by Edward Burlingame Hill and the symphonies of Frederick Converse need attention as well. Their catalogue will be seen as desperately incomplete while we lack a Schuman Third Symphony - an epochal work in the American cavalcade. Then a good Hanson Second Symphony coupled with No. 6 and later perhaps No. 4 or No. 5. While we are on the subject of Hanson let's have a modern recording of the opera Merry Mount. We have some impression of it from the 1930s original production issued by Naxos back in 1999. Of course we must have more Hovhaness, the unrecorded symphonies (plenty to be picked off yet), the Violin Concerto written for Menuhin and the oratorio The Revelation of St Paul.

After this venture can we hope for Lewis Foreman being invited by Naxos to do a similar job for British music.

This is a handsome but opinionated, wrongheaded but satisfying, infuriating but intriguing set. Read it, be encouraged to explore but don’t limit yourself to Mr Scherer's horizons. Once you discover the symphonies of Hanson, Schuman and Piston, of Ray Luke, Cecil Effinger and Grant Fletcher you will realise what a varied and comprehensively rewarding world of experience American music represents.

Rob Barnett

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