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Walter PISTON (1894-1976)
Serenata (1957) [11:31] *+
Symphony No.5 (1956) [21:34] *$
Symphony No.7 (1960) [20:44] #%
Symphony No. 8 (1965) [23:32] #^
The Louisville Orchestra/Robert Whitney */Jorge Mester #
Rec. in: Columbia Auditorium, Louisville, Kentucky, 16 December 1956 (mono) +; Macauley Theater, Louisville, Kentucky, 24 February 1965; Alumni Chapel, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky, 12 November 1974; Macauley Theater, Louisville, Kentucky, 15 May 1975. ADD
FIRST EDITION FECD-0010 [77:28]

 

Walter Piston was a masterful composer but remains underestimated and, consequently, underplayed. Like a number of American composers of his generation, he was a pupil of Nadia Boulanger. As with many of them, his refusal to follow fashion led to his music being ignored for being too tonal and too concerned with form. Nevertheless, he continued to produce distinctive, intelligent scores that inhabit a world somewhere between the neo-classical and the neo-romantic.

This First Edition re-release comprises recordings made by the Louisville Orchestra from 1959 to 1975, each of which was a world premiere. In each case, these recordings remain the only available versions of each of these pieces. The Serenata was recorded by the New York Chamber Orchestra and Gerard Schwarz for Delos, but (for licensing reasons, perhaps?) that recording did not emerge when its original disc mates were re-released by Naxos. Interestingly, it is the Serenata which has been added to this disc. Only the symphonies were included in its previous incarnation on Albany.

The Serenata is a neo-classical cracker. In three brief movements, it is a concerto for orchestra in miniature and sounds like the language of Hindemith spoken with Coplandís accent. It is a marvellous piece and is given a spirited performance by the Louisville Orchestra under Robert Whitney. The mono recording is clean and clear and the ear quickly adjusts, given the excitement of the performance.

The three symphonies that follow are all treated to decent stereo recording that wears its age reasonably lightly. Each is in three movements.

The Fifth Symphony is as good a piece as the more famous Sixth Symphony. Although the first movement is gritty and does take a little while to get going, it introduces the themes that will be developed and manipulated throughout the piece. Once these have been grasped the symphony is fascinating. The second movement is an adagio of subtle shifts and the finale is a romping rondo that snaps with syncopated rhythms.

The opening of the Seventh Symphony is all brutality and harmonic ambiguity. The central slow movement is given over to an almost bucolic interplay of woodwinds. The finale, after recalling the preceding movements, canters to an emphatic finish.

As for the Eighth Symphony, after a chromatic first movement, the slow movement deals in uneasy counterpoint before another rhythmically fascinating and driven finale.

Whitney and Mester prove worthy guides through these scores and if the orchestral playing is not outstanding, it is certainly very good.

For Pistonís fans, this disc is essential listening, the more so due to the lack of competition. For those who do not know Piston, the music collected here (with the exception of the Serenata) is probably not an ideal introduction. For an initial contact with Piston, I would recommend the superb disc of his two Violin Concertos and the Fantasia for Violin and Orchestra on Naxos, featuring soloist James Buswell and the National Symphony Orchestra of the Ukraine conducted by Theodore Kuchar. Once you have a feel for Piston's idiom, buy this disc.

A final note to a couple of record companies in the hope that they may be receptive:-

To Naxos: please finish off the Piston cycle you have licensed from Delos. Now that Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony are recording for you as well as licensing to you, perhaps they would like to finish what they began? If not, could the project be handed over to Kuchar and his Ukrainians, who have proved their mettle in this repertoire?

And to Telarc: one of the reasons Piston does not command an audience is because when his music is recorded it is usually by itself for Pistonís existing fans to buy. Your innovative coupling strategy for Paavo Jšrviís Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra recordings has seen Martinů coupled with DvořŠk, Tubin with Sibelius, Lutosławski with Bartůk, exposing record buyers to possibly unfamiliar composers when they buy a much loved classic. What about Piston with Hindemith or Shostakovich? You know it makes sense.

Tim Perry

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