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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    




 
 
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Roy HARRIS (1898-1979)
Kentucky Spring (1949) [11:12]
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1949) [27:49]
(Section One [8:43]; Section Two [10:00]; Section Three [5:14]; Section Four [3:52])
Symphony No. 5 (1942] [23:25]
(1st Movement [4:36]; 2nd Movement [10:31]; 3rd Movement [8:20])
Gregory Fulkerson (violin)
Louisville Orchestra/Robert S. Whitney; Lawrence Leighton Smith (concerto)
rec. 1960, 1965, 1985, Louisville, Kentucky. ADD
world premiere recordings (Concerto; Kentucky)
Funding from Aaron Copland Fund for Music and National Endowment for the Arts.
FIRST EDITION FECD-0005 [62:49]
The story of the Louisville Orchestra in the 1950s and 1960s and its contribution to the recording of less well-known music, to say nothing of its record of commissioning new music, is a remarkable one. The man behind it all was Charles P. Farnsley, who was both Mayor of the city and also the president of the orchestraís board. It was he who, in 1947, persuaded his colleagues and the orchestraís music director, Robert Whitney (1904-1986), that the orchestra should embark on a programme of commissioning new works and performing a new piece at every single concert. Even more daringly, this proposal was adopted at a time when the orchestra was facing a major financial crisis. Beginning with William Schumanís Judith, premiŤred in 1950, the commissioning programme really got going in earnest in 1954 and by 1959 the orchestra had commissioned and performed no less than 116 new works from 101 composers, many of them American, of course. The recording project, which went hand in hand with the concert programme, lasted for much longer and eventually some 400 works had been set down. Most of these were first recordings Ė and in many cases they remain the only recordings the works have received. Itís excellent news that under the aegis of Santa Fe Music Group some of these Louisville recordings are now to enjoy a new Ė some would say overdue - lease of life on CD.

The Louisville story is summarised in the fascinating liner note accompanying this CD. More detail about the history of the Louisville Orchestra, including this project, is to be found in the book, Orpheus in the New World. The symphony orchestra as an American cultural institution Ė its past, present and future (New York, 1973) by Philip Hart, the biographer of Fritz Reiner (pp. 192-211)*. As Hart points out, many of the Louisville works were by conservative composers and all too many of them have remained largely unperformed since their original Louisville performances. Nonetheless, this should not detract from the significance of the orchestraís achievement, nor for oneís admiration for the vision of Farnley and of Whitney, who occupied the orchestraís podium between 1937 and 1967.

One of the major American composers to benefit from the Louisville enterprise was Roy Harris and of the three works featured on this CD one, Kentucky Spring, was commissioned by the orchestra and premiŤred by them. Both Kentucky Spring and the Violin Concerto were also recorded by the orchestra for the first time. So far as Iím aware none of the works featured here are currently in the catalogue so their availability here is doubly welcome.

The Fifth Symphony has had other recordings. William Steinberg set it down with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, in a recording that was not, I think, widely available commercially and there was also a live performance by Kubelik and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra available only from the CSO but that, too, is long out of print. So for the moment this Robert Whitney performance is the only one available. The work was composed in 1942-3 (the documentation, confusingly, gives both dates) and was revised in 1945, two years after the premiŤre by Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony. Itís a strong and rhetorical work and, to be brutally honest, I think thereís more in the score than Whitney and his players find. Their performance sounds rhythmically rather foursquare and itís in this performance most of all that one is reminded that, for all its endeavours the Louisville Orchestra had its technical limitations. There are several instances where the string attack is less than unanimous and intonation is sometimes a bit suspect in the brass. The recording doesnít help them, either, for the sound is somewhat strident and confined, with little ambience around the players. As it happened, around the time I was listening to this disc I was also evaluating a CD of performances recorded mainly in the 1950s in New York by Stokowski and I have to say that the sound achieved by Stokiís engineers was infinitely more flattering than the results we hear on this 1965 recording.

But this performance of Harrisís Fifth has much to commend it. The playing displays lots of spirit and commitment, especially in the powerful slow movement. I understand that Naxos has just announced a complete cycle of Harrisís symphonies, which is great news. No doubt when their recording of the Fifth appears it will be in much better sound and the orchestral playing will probably reflect the general advances in technique that have taken place over the last four decades. However, this Louisville recording will still deserve its place of honour in the annals of Harris recordings.

The Violin Concerto is also a substantial score. Composed in 1949, its first performance was scheduled for that year and was to have been given by the Cleveland Orchestra. Unfortunately, during rehearsals all sorts of textual problems with the orchestral parts came to light and the performance was cancelled. The score then languished unplayed until 1984 when it was finally heard for the first time. Then, as on this recording, the soloist was Gregory Fulkerson, who gives a splendid account of the solo part.

Itís a single movement work though cast in four sections, each one of which is helpfully tracked separately on the CD. The first section is predominantly lyrical, in moderate tempo, and the solo violin sings almost continually. The second section, which is the longest, is more vigorous. Dancing rhythms predominate but even here long lines are not completely banished. The third section reverts to a slow speed; indeed this is a heartfelt adagio, following which the final section is almost a continuous accompanied cadenza. In this last section there are some interesting episodes when the whole violin section plays unison passages that almost sound like cadenzas. Itís a fine work. It may not be in the same league as Samuel Barberís Violin Concerto but itís well worth hearing and scarcely deserves the neglect it has endured. The recorded balance places the soloist very prominently in the aural picture but both the recording and the performance give a very good impression of the piece. Since another recording must be considered a remote possibility Harris enthusiasts should not hesitate.

The remaining work is in much lighter vein. Kentucky Spring is very much an outdoor piece. Itís a large scherzo, containing a substantial lyrical central section. I found it to be an engaging affair and Whitney and his players clearly relish it. I canít resist quoting the composerís own summary of the piece. ď[It] might be said to be a mixture of the composerís memories and faith that he will again feel warm sun in a blue sky and see a red bird in a green tree, to say nothing of partaking of Kentuckyís most famous product.Ē

One canít overlook completely the limitations in both the recorded sound and in some of the orchestral playing on this CD. However, it is still a very valuable and enjoyable release and Iím extremely glad that these pioneering recordings are once again available. I enjoyed this disc and I commend it warmly.

John Quinn
 
* The book by Philip Hart, mentioned above is, sadly, long out of print. It is a fascinating and detailed book, well worth investigation by anyone interested in the subject. It may be possible to acquire a second hand copy, as I did a few years ago, from www.alibris.com
 
see also review by Rob Barnett 

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