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If it’s the Czech works you’re after, do not hesitate

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

 

Joseph SCHWANTNER (b. 1943)
A Sudden Rainbow (1986) [13:01]
Angelfire (2001)a [17:32]
Beyond Autumn (1999)b [17:31]
September Canticle (2002)c [17:12]
Anne Akiko Meyers (violin)a; Gregory Hustis (horn)b; James Diaz (organ)c
Dallas Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Litton
Recorded: Eugene McDermott Concert Hall, Morton H Meyerson Symphony Center, Dallas, June 2004
HYPERION CDA 67493 [65:46]


A Sudden Rainbow is the earliest work in this anthology of Schwantner’s recent orchestral music. The composer admits to a lifelong passion for the orchestra. This orchestral fantasy and the other pieces recorded here fully demonstrate his skills in handling often quite large forces with considerable imagination as well as his obvious liking for clear, vivid orchestral colours. Brass and percussion are often prominent, although the composer allows moments of respite. His music does not attempt to break new ground, but rather relies on an innovative and imaginative use of the 20th Century mainstream orchestral tradition. His music is often based on ostinatos that serve to propel flights of fancy as well as anchoring the music to firm ground. It is colourful, straightforward and often communicates strongly. A Sudden Rainbow is a very fine example of Schwantner’s orchestral music.

None of the three concertante works recorded here is a real concerto. Actually, both Angelfire and September Canticle are described as ‘fantasies’ whereas Beyond Autumn is a ‘poem’ for horn and orchestra. The soloist is more of an important partner than an outsider battling against the orchestra although this does not mean that confrontation is completely absent.

Angelfire for amplified violin and orchestra was written for Anne Akiko Meyers who gave the first performance. It opens with "several strongly punctuated gong-like pedal tones" - to my mind, one of the most typical hallmarks of this composer - out of which several melodic fragments emerge. They then progressively expand into long lines, by turns dreamy, meditative and heroic, interspersed with cadenza-like passages. At about five minutes into the work - after the arresting introduction - there begins a long lyrical central section, in which the music slowly gains considerable momentum. The accumulated tension is eventually unleashed in the brilliant coda: a varied restatement of the opening section abruptly cut short. Incidentally, Laurie Shulman’s excellent notes do not tell us to what extent the soloist is amplified, although I suppose that such amplification is probably more justified in the concert hall than in a recording.

Beyond Autumn, dedicated to the memory of the composer’s father-in-law, was composed for Gregory Hustis who premiered it with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. This poem for horn and orchestra has much in common with the other pieces here, in that it, too, is structured as a musical arch and that much of the music is actually derived from basic material stated at the outset. After a short, forceful call to action, the soloist is heard off-stage in fanfare-like gestures punctuated by massive timpani strokes and echoed by the orchestral horns, seated front stage, left where the cellos usually are. From then on, various contrasted episodes follow, lyrical and impassioned, until the peaceful coda is reached, with the soloist’s last da lontano farewell over a softly tolling ostinato.

September Canticle for organ, brass, percussion, amplified piano and strings was written for the winner of the Second Triennial Dallas International Organ Competition in March 2000, James Diaz who premiered it in 2002, with Jesús López-Cobos conducting. The piece eventually turned out to be Schwantner’s response to the terrible events of September 11, 2001, although the music is by no means programmatic. After a mysterious, bell-like introduction in the strings punctuated by short outbursts from brass and percussion, the organ enters forcefully surrounded by fanfares and timpani strokes. It then moves on in a heavy-treading processional leading into an energetic hymn-like theme. There follows a slower section in which strings have the lead (a beautiful tune a bit à la Copland) and in which the organ is silent. A massive brassy climax arrives. Then the organ softly picks up the tune and expands it with a varied restatement of its first grand tune in a contrapuntal section of great strength in which the organ is allowed to be itself. The music builds to a mighty climax, again heavily punctuated by timpani, soon joined by brass and percussion. Once again progress is abruptly interrupted; and the piece ends with a short, soft, appeasing coda.

These performances by the musicians for whom these pieces were written cannot be bettered. Superb, immaculate and committed playing by all concerned, making the best of this strongly communicative music.

Just as the all-Schwantner release from Naxos (8.559206) recently reviewed here shed interesting light on his chamber music, this superb release provides a survey of this endearing composer’s honest and personal orchestral music. Warmly recommended.

Hubert Culot



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