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Gardner READ (1913-2005)
Toccata Giocosa, Op. 94 (1953) [7:13]
Night Flight, Op. 44 (1936, revised 1942) [6:52]
Symphony #4, Op. 92 (1958) [28:47]
Los Dioses Aztecas (The Aztec Gods), Op. 107 (1959) [25:36]
Louisville Orchestra/Robert Whitney (Toccata Giocosa, originally released 1959, Night Flight, originally released 1963); The Cleveland Orchestra/Lorin Maazel (Symphony #4) rec. live, Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio, April 1980; Paul Price Percussion Ensemble/Paul Price (Los Dioses Aztecas) rec. Tenafly, New Jersey 1980. ADD
CRI 742 [66:57] 

 


This compilation, released in 1997, was part of CRI’s “American Masters” series. Although the label no longer exists, it is presently available through the website of New World Records. 

Gardner Read was born just north of Chicago in the college town of Evanston, Illinois on 2 January 1913 and went on to have a prolific career as a composer, conductor, teacher and author until his death at his home in Manchester-by-the-Sea in Massachusetts on 10 November 2005 from complications of pneumonia. 

After initial lessons in composition and counterpoint at Northwestern University’s School of Music, Read subsequently (1932-1941) studied with Bernard Rogers, Howard Hanson, Ildebrando Pizzetti, Jean Sibelius and Aaron Copland. Later, regarding his time with Copland, Read recalled that “Copland and I were at sword’s point for some days because he called me a romanticist …But it did make me question whether or not my music was a bit too lush, too complex, for contemporaneous expression. It made me sure that if I were standing on my own ground, it was with reason”. Read also has the distinction of beating out both Copland and Leonard Bernstein on two separate occasions in competitions: his Symphony #1 was the winner of the New York Philharmonic’s American Composers Contest of 1937 over Copland’s El Salon Mexico and in the Paderewski Fund Competition a few years later, Read’s Symphony #2 bested Bernstein’s Jeremiah Symphony – much to Bernstein’s dismay. 

The pieces on this recording span a 23 year period and considering them in the context of earlier and later works of Read’s proved quite interesting. He produced nearly 200 compositions over a 70 year career. 

Toccata Giocosa, Op. 94 (1953)

This short piece was written in 1953. This was the same year that Aaron Copland was called to testify before McCarthy’s sub-committee and his Lincoln Portrait was banned from being performed at Eisenhower’s inaugural. The work was commissioned from the Louisville Orchestra and is performed here with absolute conviction by those same forces under the direction of Robert Whitney. Read himself called this work an “orchestral tour-de-force” and it certainly qualifies as a display piece. An accelerated, driving rhythm dominates throughout and the title “Giocosa” (playful) surely is apt as would have been “Fantasia”. The brass utilize a variety of mutes as well as wood-blocks struck with a range of sticks – manic forward propulsion from beginning to end. 

Night Flight, Op. 44 (1936, revised 1942)

This piece, composed in 1936/37 and then revised in 1942, was named after and inspired by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s 1929 novel about the mail planes that flew the South American Andes - also made into a movie starring John Barrymore and Clark Gable in 1933. Howard Hanson conducted the first performance, given by the Eastman-Rochester Symphony Orchestra on 27 April 1944. 

Read wrote that in this work: “… the composer has sought to express the loneliness and mysterious beauty of the space in which these planes must fly”. Admittedly, the impression upon first hearing this music was that of a Sci-Fi movie soundtrack – Forbidden Planet immediately came to mind. Of course the eeriness and mystery of “night-flying” is depicted quite precisely and surely must have made rather an impression in its day. There is hollowness and vacuity to this music that evokes the loneliness and ambiguity of space in an uncanny manner – very effective! 

The orchestra employs a tam-tam - a type of Chinese gong - rolled with soft wool sticks, harp and vibraphone with oboes, trombones and bassoons used to evoke the flight of the plane as it passes overhead and then fades away into the silent distance. This is six and a half minutes of taut material perfectly balanced and presented most successfully by the Louisville Orchestra once again led by Robert Whitney. 

Symphony #4, Op. 92 (1958)

Gardner Read composed four symphonies, the first of which was premiered by Sir John Barbirolli and the New York Philharmonic in 1937, the second in 1943 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the composer’s direction, the third in 1962 by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra led by William Steinberg and this final one, in two movements, premiered by the Cincinnati Symphony under Erich Kunzel on 30 January 1970 – 12 years after it was completed! This recording is a live performance of the Cleveland premiere of 10 April 1980 featuring the Cleveland Orchestra lead by Lorin Maazel. 

The common denominator of these four symphonies is the prevailing mood of romanticism. As a point of reference, other symphonies of note by American composers from 1958 included: Henry Cowell’s Symphony #13, Ross Lee Finney’s Symphony #2, Vincent Persichetti’s Symphony #7, Roger Sessions’ Symphony #4, William Grant Still’s Symphony #5 and Charles Wuorinen’s Symphony #1. 

The first movement, marked “Largo con intenzita, Tranquillo assai”, starts with a tender melody played by a lone cello soon to total six cellos playing an extended canon. The cello sextet gives way to the brass and the movement changes direction, texturally and emotionally. There is a transitory shift and the music relaxes through the lovely and plaintive lament of a solo clarinet – here, once again, is the Gardner Read of the earlier song-cycles, romantic and sensitive. This brief respite however is ultimately overtaken by the passion of searing violins leading to the eventual return of a solo clarinet, then the cello sextet again and finally the solo cello as the movement dissolves as it began - an orchestral palindrome. 

The second movement, “Lento sostenuto, Allegro scherzando”, begins with a short introduction, orchestra playing at full force - although lento, leading into a grotesque, Mahlerian scherzo. This music is more percussive and complex than in the preceding movement, but not any less affecting. The heralding of four horns in unison leads us to a grave melody played by the cellos, then a quiet theme in the woodwinds, strings and brass as the symphony peacefully fades away. 

The sound, especially for a live recording, is of demonstration quality and the Cleveland Orchestra is in world-class form – the impression left is that Maazel must have had a sincere affinity for this music. 

Los Dioses Aztecas (The Aztec Gods), Op. 107 (1959)

This suite for percussion ensemble was composed as a result of a trip that Gardner Read made to Mexico in the summer of 1957 and the personal impressions inspired by the sculptures of the Aztec deities on display at the National Museum in Mexico City. The suite is scored for six percussionists performing on 60 instruments! Included are: marimba, glockenspiel, xylophone, tom-toms, tambourines, gongs, chimes, triangles, woodblocks, sandpaper blocks, claves, raspers, maracas and even a thunder sheet. 

The work was dedicated to Paul Price and the Manhattan Percussion Ensemble who premiered the work on 8 March 1960 at the Manhattan School of Music in New York City. 

The Aztecs believed that they existed in a turbulent and antagonistic world that was ruled by unpredictable deities who needed to be appeased. They worshipped clouds, fire, the earth and forests and identified different gods with such phenomenon as the sun, the moon, planets and stars, earthquakes, water, rain. To please these gods the Aztecs would make them offerings - the highest act of piety being human sacrifice - the victims’ burned after their hearts were removed. 

Read chose seven Aztec Gods as the subjects of this suite: Xiuhtecuhtli: Dios del Fuego (God of Fire), Mictecacihuatl: Diosa de los Muertos (Goddess of the Dead), Tlaloc: Dios de la Lluvia (God of Rain), Tezcatlipoca: Dios de la Noche (God of Night), Xochipilli: Dios de la Alegria y la Danza (God of Pleasure and Dance), Coyolxauhqui: Diosa de la Luna (Goddess of the Moon) and Huitzilopochtli: Dios de la Guerra (God of War). 

I. Xiuhtecuhtli: Dios del Fuego (God of Fire)

(With savage energy)

The God of Fire, also known as “The Turquoise Lord”, was considered the creator of all life, the mother and father of all the gods. 

The opening ritualistic drums and bells shortly fade into silence, and then return, accompanied by chimes and woodblocks followed by another silence and an abrupt flurry to finish. A definite “hard bop” feel à la Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers. 

II. Mictecacihuatl: Diosa de los Muertos (Goddess of the Dead)

(Slowly and solemnly)

The Goddess of the Dead was believed to have been sacrificed as an infant, her purpose being to watch over the bones of the dead. 

This music starts, continues and ends very quietly and mystically – almost as if rising out of the ground – hushed, only a whisper, a hint of life - so quiet in fact, that I had to check my system and listen on another player just to make sure. 

III. Tlaloc: Dios de la Lluvia (God of Rain)

(Moderately fast, with steadiness)

The Rain God ruled with a grim humor often “forgetting” to provide rainfall and had a legion of admirers but was also greatly feared and tragically, was appeased by the drowning of children. It is said that the children’s tears were collected and offered up to Tlaloc before they were put to death. 

This music also starts with drums, but with a much more ominous and sinister impression - fearful with a warning of some sort – a bare interlude. 

IV. Tezcatlipoca: Dios de la Noche (God of Night)

(Slowly and mysteriously)

The God of Night inspired fear – usually depicted as black with a yellow stripe across his face, he also represented enmity and strife. 

The sweet tinkling of the xylophone and chimes belies the fear that this deity imposed – played “piano” throughout. 

V. Xochipilli: Dios de la Alegria y la Danza (God of Pleasure and Dance)

(Gracefully and lightly)

The God of Pleasure and Dance, also known as the “Flower Prince”, is often depicted as being in a state of ecstasy. 

There is a slightly hallucinogenic quality present here in a way reminiscent of the Bacchanale from Saint-Säens’ Samson et Delilah - the gentleness of the xylophone and blocks giving way momentarily to the drums. 

VI. Coyolxauhqui: Diosa de la Luna (Goddess of the Moon)

(Quietly, with serenity)

The Goddess of the Moon was also a magician and leader of the “Star Gods”. Legend has it that her head was cut off, was thrown into the sky and became the moon. 

The music is ethereal and transparent, effectively evocative of the emptiness of space, or perhaps, a lunar landscape. 

VII. Huitzilopochtli: Dios de la Guerra (God of War)

(Broadly; Fast and fiercely)

The God of War was also the tribal god of the Aztecs and was identified with the sun – worshipped fanatically by Moctezuma who once captured sixty-two Spaniards and sacrificed them to Huitzilopochtli in front of Cortes and his men. 

War drums, rolling thunder, a call to arms and an army on the march – drums and blocks dominate the first half as the playing accelerates. Drums, bells, crashing cymbals as the battle rages on to the end. 

The Paul Price Percussion Ensemble led by Paul Price himself acquit themselves most impressively – beyond reproach. 

After becoming familiar and quite enamored of such earlier compositions of Read’s as the Four Nocturnes, Op. 23 of 1933/34, Songs for a Rainy Night, Op. 48 of 1939/40 and the particularly moving A Sheaf of Songs, Op. 84 of 1949/50 (all available on Albany Records, Troy CD-336), and a later composition such as the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 130 of 1973/78 (available on Albany Records, Troy CD-245), these works were certainly an unexpected surprise. His ability to work within varied genres in such a substantial manner, so tastefully and so convincingly is both admirable and remarkable. 

Gardner Read is a creative artist clearly worthy of the utmost respect and his music deserves to be more widely known and much more generously represented in the catalogue.

Osvaldo Polatkan

 

 


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