Charles Tomlinson GRIFFES (1884-1920)
Roman Sketches, Op. 7 (orch. Griffes and Craig Leon) (1915-6, 1919/2004) [22:48]
Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Symphonic Serenade, Op. 39 (1947) [25:57]
London Symphony Orchestra/Simone Pittau
rec. Abbey Road Studio No 1, January 2004
ASV GOLD GLD 4020 [59:21]
The American Impressionist composer Charles Tomlinson Griffes enjoyed a brief vogue in the earlier part of the last century, but then fell into obscurity, perhaps because a little of his favored faux Orientalism - like the ersatz Americana of Carlisle Floyd and Douglas Moore - goes a long way. Griffes originally wrote the four Roman Sketches for piano, though he only got around to orchestrating two of them, with the first, The White Peacock, attaining independent status as a concert piece. The producer of the present disc, Craig Leon, who claims expertise as both an arranger and an ethnomusicologist, has completed the task, matching Griffes's own orchestral style nicely. Not examining the booklet carefully until after I heard the disc, I had no idea that the arrangements weren't all the composer's.
The White Peacock goes nicely; the gorgeous liquid woodwind solos are a delight. Night begins with a harder edge before blossoming into coruscating sonorities, with full-bodied horn duets answered by the woodwinds. The Fountain of the Acqua Paola remarkably works a Debussyan harmonic palette, generating activity from strings of parallel chords, into rich, Ravelian textures. In the concluding Clouds, the celesta accents in the more lightly-scored passages represent perhaps too obvious a pictorial stratagem, but the music again opens out voluptuously at peak moments.
The title Symphonic serenade may seem oxymoronic, and, indeed, Korngold's "serenade" for strings is no trifling one: the score is laid out on a "symphonic" scale, with the first and third of its four movements each running for over ten minutes. Surprisingly, it's not the rich, Romantic style of the composer's film music that dominates this score. The outer movements are driven by the vigorous, strongly profiled rhythms of Neo-classicism. The finale's third theme, at 2:09, would have fit right into Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks! The pizzicatos of the Intermezzo are aggressive, even spiky - nothing like the Playful Pizzicato of Britten's Simple Symphony. The broad, concentrated chorale that begins the Lento religioso suggests Bruckner, but other influences make themselves felt as the movement proceeds: vaulting leaps out of late Mahler, hints of the slow movement of Nielsen 2, and even a bit of anguished Expressionism. Yet Korngold's craftsmanship fuses this potpourri of influences into a persuasive musical stream with a compelling, impeccable logic.
The young Italian violinist-turning-conductor, Simone Pittau, finds just the right touch for Griffes, touching in detail with a light hand - as noted, the LSO woodwinds shine - while maintaining a firm rhythmic backbone, and he has a good grasp of Korngold's arching structures as well. The wide-ranging engineering strikes a good balance between detail and warmth in the Griffes; the Korngold sounds a bit blurry, perhaps because the string playing, while basically accurate, doesn't quite offer pinpoint precision. For those interested in these less-well-trodden corners of the repertoire, this definitely merits a recommendation.
Stephen Francis Vasta