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Morton GOULD (1913-1996)
Jekyll and Hyde Variations [21:20]
Fall River Legend (complete ballet)* [52:28]
*James F. Neal (narrator)
Nashville Symphony Orchestra/Kenneth Schermerhorn
rec. Ingram Hall, Nashville USA, 5-6 December 2004. DDD
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559242 [73:48]

This CD has already been reviewed by my colleague, Patrick Gary, and I can do no better than refer readers to his detailed comments on the plot of Fall River Legend.. Link

I had come across some of this music before. In 1952, four years after the première of the full ballet, Gould made a six-movement suite, lasting just over twenty minutes in performance. The music that he included in the suite includes a conflation of the first two numbers from the ballet, ‘Prelude’ and ‘Waltzes’ (mainly from the latter). ‘Elegy’ is the next movement in both the ballet and the suite (track 17 on this Naxos CD), but then in the suite Gould jumps to ‘Church Social’ (Naxos track 24), then ‘Hymnal Variations’ (track 25) followed by ‘Cotillion’ (track 26). The suite concludes with the final section of the ballet, ‘Epilogue’ (track 30). I mention all this because it gives some indication of how much music – and narrative – is excised from the ballet, which Gould cut down by more than half to form his suite.

I have two versions of the Suite in my collection. One is a 1982 recording by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under James Sedares (Koch International Classics) and the other, dating from 1960, is by the composer himself and "his" Orchestra (RCA Gold Seal), I suspect both recordings are long deleted. It was only when I heard the complete ballet for the first time in this recording that I realised just how much of the ballet is missing in the suite – far more than is the case, for example, in the case of Copland’s Appalachian Spring. In fact, to be truthful, the suite gives a rather lopsided view of the ballet. It was only after I’d listened to this new recording that I turned to the recordings of the suite and read, in the liner notes accompanying the Sedares performance, a quote from Gould himself, in which he commented that in compiling the suite he "selected sequences that I felt had the most presence as pure music."

Arguably the suite contains the plums from the full score but there’s much in the remainder of the ballet score that’s of great interest. The quirky, attractive ‘Waltzes’ are common to both, as is the wistful ‘Elegy’. However, I think it would be a pity not to hear the somewhat spiky ‘Lullaby’, which is more restless than I’d normally expect a lullaby to be; that’s not included in the suite. Even more tellingly, the sinister and atmospheric ‘Death Dance’, which precedes the discovery of the corpses of Lizzie’s slaughtered parents, can only be heard in the full ballet and the frenzied ‘Mob Scene’ is also absent from the suite. On the other hand, Gould was surely right to include in the suite the sequence of three numbers mentioned above that begins with ‘Church Social’ for these are three most attractive items, which very neatly suggest the atmosphere of a small town social gathering, especially when heard as a sequence.

In fact this is a most engaging and illustrative score and it’s well worth hearing in its entirety, especially in a fine and colourful performance such as this present one from Nashville. In any event, I’m not sure if any of the Fall River music is otherwise represented in the catalogue.

The coupling is equally enterprising, not least because it offers a very sharp contrast to the essentially accessible and outgoing ballet. The Jekyll and Hyde Variations were commissioned by Dimitri Mitropoulos, who gave the first performance with the New York Philharmonic in February 1957. Steven Ledbetter, the author of the liner notes, is surely right to contend that the work owes its subsequent relative neglect partly to the fact that Mitropoulos quit the NYPO only a few months later and so was unavailable to champion the work further. Even more importantly, I think, Gould, hitherto known as a composer of less "demanding" music, had composed on this occasion a much more gritty and serious piece, which must have perplexed many listeners.

The work comprises a theme and thirteen variations, most of them short and pithy. Though one or two of the early variants are fairly nimble, especially number two, the prevailing mood is dark and quite intense. From the tenth variation onwards the music becomes particularly fierce, even forbidding, and there’s a quite high quotient of dissonance throughout Eventually the thirteenth and final variation is more reflective but even here the music is still troubled and the ending seems to me to be deliberately inconclusive. It’s not an easy listen, certainly in comparison with Fall River Legend but it’s a most interesting score and Kenneth Schermerhorn and his orchestra give a very strong and committed account of it.

In fact throughout this disc the commitment and skill of the musicians cannot be faulted and all the music is presented most convincingly. The recorded sound is very good. These must have been two of Kenneth Schermerhorn’s last recordings and they stand as a fine testimony to his work in Nashville. The music on this CD is well worth investigation and should most certainly be sought out by anyone with an interest in twentieth-century American orchestral music.

John Quinn

 
See also review by Patrick Gary and Jonathan Woolf

 

 



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