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William PERRY (b. 1930)
Jamestown Concerto for Cello and Orchestra* (2006) [24:41]: I. London 1606. The Virginia Company [4:12] II. Settlements Along the River [4:56] III. The Long Winters [4:40] IV. Pocahontas in London [5:45] V. Jamestown: Four Hundred Years On [5:07]
‘Orpheus With His Lute’, from William Shakespeare’s Henry VIII [0:52] #
William SCHUMAN (1910-1992)
A Song of Orpheus – Fantasy for Cello and Orchestra (1960-61) [23:04]
Virgil THOMSON (1896-1989)
Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra (1945-50) [23:33]: I. Rider on the Plains [7:59] II. Variations on a Southern Hymn [9:09] III. Children's Games [6:25]
*World première recording
Yehuda Hanani (cello)
Jane Alexander (reader)#
RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra (Ireland)/William Eddins
rec. 23, 24, 30 April 2007, National Concert Hall, Dublin
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559344 [72:09]
Experience Classicsonline

The Naxos American Classics series has come up with some real gems. Among the sparklers are discs from Gloria Coates, John Corigliano, Kenneth Fuchs and Paul Moravec, all of which have spent time in my CD player this year. Even the better-known pieces of Americana from Copland and Ives have received persuasive – and competitive – outings in this series.
 
So, what of this latest offering? Among the three composers we have two Williams, of whom Schuman is probably the best known; and then there’s Virgil Thomson, most celebrated for his film scores, The River and The Plow That Broke the Plains (see review). He and Perry have both written for visual media, so it’s no surprise that the latter’s work – composed for the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, Virginia – has a cinematic sweep to it.
 
Cellist Yehuda Hanani launches the concerto with a warm, lyrical solo before a fanfare conjures up the spirit of 17th century England. This first movement, which quotes Elizabethan madrigals, has a Korngoldian surge at times, but without the latter’s harmonic richness. Indeed, the Irish band sound rather distant, which tends to highlight the music’s paucity of good material. That said, the movement ends with a splendid flourish for orchestra, before we move to the new town on the James River and the struggle between settlers and Indians. Musically this is straightforward pictorialism, with brass motifs for captains and chiefs, thudding drums for cannon and, in the second movement,  a gentle cello-led prelude evoking the dawn.
 
Alongside the gritty, sometimes quirky, narratives of Copland, Ives and Thomson the Jamestown Concerto is shot in soft focus, especially in the harp- and string-dominated music of ‘The Long Winters’. The duet between cello and viola d’amore is affecting enough but it strays into sentimentality. The fourth movement, ‘Pocahontas in London’, has plenty of zest, the dancing fiddles especially, but generally it sounds too much like routine accompaniment to a film sequence. And even though ‘Jamestown: Four Hundred Years On’ attempts a perky, processional air it’s anything but a high-stepping baton-twirler.
 
Not the most auspicious beginning, the playing and conducting average at best. The recording is dry and lifeless as well, which doesn’t help. So how does the Schuman piece, inspired by a snippet from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, compare? The disc includes a reading of this text – also printed in the booklet – before the work itself.
 
Schuman’s response to these lines is anything but simple; it’s austere – cerebral, even – and the soloist faces more of a challenge. Certainly the composer works his material vigorously, contrasting light lyricism with a degree of dark discord. Unlike the thin gruel offered by the Perry piece A Song for Orpheus is musically more nourishing. In fact it’s actually rather abstract and Schuman’s eclecticism makes for a varied and stimulating musical feast.
 
A Song of Orpheus is a fine piece, spoilt by a tinder-dry recording; the solo and orchestral playing also lacks that last degree of eloquence. I was heartened by the more spirited opening to the Thomson concerto – acoustics notwithstanding – sensing some of the unbridled energy of his Depression-era film scores. The cello part is vigorous yet direct, the orchestral writing robust yet full of individual touches: just sample the ever-present snare drums that hark back to ‘War and the Tractor’ from The Plow That Broke the Plains.
 
But it’s the central movement, ‘Variations on a Southern Hymn’, that really captures that stoic mood of pioneering America; despite the close recording the music expands rather well in the movement’s few climaxes. And Thomson’s yearning, song-like melodies will surely strike a chord with Copland fans.
 
On the subject of singing Hanani acquits himself well in this concerto, with a warm, lyrical tone that seems entirely apt. He modulates easily into the sprightly, more cheerful rhythms of ‘Children’s Games’, which has some of the most characterful music on this disc. If only the playing and recording were more satisfying this would be even more delectable than it is.
 
As much as I admire and support this Naxos project it would be idle to pretend that all the music and/or performances will live up to the high standards set by the best of the bunch. This disc is worth hearing for the Schuman and Thomson pieces, even though both deserve more alert and spontaneous readings than they get here. On the plus side the liner-notes are very detailed, and include several music examples.
 
Dan Morgan
 
Naxos American Classics pages


 


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