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Morton GOULD (1913-1996)
Jekyll and Hyde Variations (1957) [21:20]
Fall River Legend (1948) [52:28]
James F. Neal (narrator)
Nashville Symphony Orchestra/Kenneth Schermerhorn
Recorded at Ingram Hall, Nashville, Tennessee, USA, 5-6 December 2004. DDD
NAXOS 8.559242 [73:48]

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Although not as famous as Copland or Bernstein, Morton Gould is among the eminent American composers of the 20th century. He was immensely popular during his lifetime, at least for his appearances on radio shows and his light music. Ironically, his great popularity nearly cost him his chance at writing his greatest work. He wasn’t widely considered to be a composer of serious literature, when Agnes DeMille was looking for a composer for her ballet based on the story of Lizzie Borden. She was eventually convinced to give Gould a chance to write Fall River Legend by the conductor Max Goberman, who knew of Gould’s more serious work. The resulting piece was a nearly-one hour long ballet that forms the core of this disc.

This is a somewhat different experience from the one normally encountered when one finds Fall River Legend, assuming that one can find a recording of Fall River Legend at all. Normally the work is reduced in length to a concert suite containing about half of the material composed for the ballet. Here the entire story of Lizzie Borden, the (in)famous alleged murderess who “took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks” is told, largely in flash-back. Historically Lizzie Borden was acquitted, though that didn’t seem to deter either Gould or DeMille from pronouncing their own judgement.

Straying from the story of the historical Lizzie, the work opens with a narrator convicting Lizzie to be hung for her crimes. The ballet then consists of Lizzie’s life flashing before her eyes as she is hanged. Neither the murders nor the hanging are explicitly shown in the ballet, so this could be considered a justifiable poetic license, an alternate history or a nightmare Lizzie would have had before the sentencing. Regardless, the reason that Gould himself used was that it was much easier to write “hanging music” than “acquittal music”, and that she was probably guilty anyway.

After the sentencing Lizzie is taken to the gallows, where she sees in flashback her happy childhood. This is interrupted by her mother’s death and her father’s subsequent remarriage. She becomes forlorn as her father prefers the company of his new wife to his daughter. The stepmother, in true evil-stepmother fashion, starts spreading rumors that Lizzie has a mental condition. Then Lizzie tries to supplant her father with a supportive relationship with the local pastor. At that point, the parents order her back into the house, where she finds the axe…

She is then invited to a church social by the pastor where she decides to murder her parents after her return home. They are then shown cringing in terror as she approaches with her axe, and the stage falls black. This is followed by a mob sequence where the townspeople rip apart the home and erect a gallows among the ruins, returning us to the point at which the ballet began. Finally she is left alone on the gallows, and we have the recapitulation of the brutal orchestral theme that began the work. A final ominous timpani roll ends the work as Lizzie faces death.

All of this is orchestrated with something akin to a dark version of Aaron Copland’s Rodeo ballet suite or Appalachian Spring. The music is certainly written with themes that resemble American folk music, though the melodies and hymns that are “quoted” are all original, directly from Gould’s mind and pen. The use of brass and strings sounds distinctly American, cut from the same cloth as Copland and Bernstein. Indeed, anyone that considers themselves a fan of these composers would surely enjoy Fall River Legend.

The other work here is Jekyll and Hyde Variations written in 1957 for the New York Philharmonic. It was conceived as a serious work in the mid-1950s, which meant that it was practically required to be based on a tone-row. This is not a strictly serial work however, and does a nice job of bridging the gap between the works of the strict serialists and the neo-classicists. Gould considered it among his better works, though it is rarely heard or recorded.

The opening movement is a simple statement of the theme with traditional harmonization. What follows is a collection of twelve variations of varying character, growing darker with each succession. Finally the thirteenth serves as a finale, coming close to the contemplative nature of the initial theme. The majority of the piece is derived from a musical sensibility much closer to Debussy than Schoenberg. The orchestration and general feel of the work owes much to L'après-midi d'un faune, though beginning with the 6th variation, one begins to hear the influence of Stravinsky as well.

The recording is quite well done. The Nashville Symphony does a fine job of recording undervalued work by a perhaps undervalued composer. The result is an opportunity to explore a truly fine recording that would not normally be exposed. Both pieces are rendered lovingly, and in their entirety. As the Nashville Symphony is still in the “up and coming” category, this is certainly a good way to gain notice and notoriety. After all, the world probably doesn’t need another recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or Stravinsky’s Firebird by a symphony of mostly-regional celebrity. Alternatively, bringing to light truly lovely works by lesser known composers does much for both the music and the orchestra. There is a chance here for this CD to become the definitive recording of these works. There certainly is no reason that this would cause any consternation. The music is well recorded and the performances well done.

This is in its totality a very good album of works that are not “old chestnuts”. In this reviewer’s opinion, that is a plus. It certainly is worth your listening time.

Patrick Gary



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