William Grant STILL (1895 - 1978)
Symphony No. 5 ‘Western Hemisphere’ (1945 rev. 1970) [19:37]
Poem for Orchestra (1944) [10:27]
Symphony No. 4 ‘Autochthonous’ (1947) [26:15]
Fort Smith Symphony/John Jeter
rec Arkansas Best Corporation Performing Arts Center, Fort Smith, Arkansas, USA, 23-24 May 2009
NAXOS 8.559603 [56:24]
Musically this disc has proved to be something of a disappointment. In the past I have really enjoyed William Grant Still’s music. The companion disc of the earlier symphonies from Naxos is a winner and in particular a disc on the short-lived Collins label entitled Witness Volume 2 - The Music of William Grant Still is both powerful and moving. Likewise, the indefatigable Neeme Järvi and his Detroit orchestra produced for Chandos dynamic versions of his symphonic music. Hence, I was really looking forward to expanding my knowledge of this trail-blazing and important American composer. I don’t think I have heard as dull a piece of symphonic writing as the Symphony No.5 ‘Western Hemisphere’ in a long time. It is in effect a 1970 major revision of the 1945 Symphony No.3. I have no way of knowing the extent of the revision so I can only assume that by 1970 Still, at 75 year old, found it harder to summon the vigour that so characterises his earlier music. This symphony is built on a 3-note short, short, long rising motif. This is treated in predictably uninspiring ways - inverted, expanded, contracted and ultimately builds to a somewhat cinematic climax. There is an appended programme to the whole work that is remarkable in its avowed goal - I’m not sure how to comment on it without sounding mean-spirited and negative. Enough to say, I did not feel the music successfully represents the aspirational intent. The second movement is the most successful of the work. A gently throbbing pedal chord sustained by a marimba over which languorous strings sing a simple song. It’s the kind of movement that could quite easily appear on a light classics disc with a title like Sunset in the Tropics. The scherzo third movement is again hampered by the repetitive use of small melodic/rhythmic cells. This results, just as it did in the opening movement is long passages of unvarying textures. The Finale is more interesting but pales beside any of the symphonic works of a Schuman, Harris or Diamond let alone a Copland, Bernstein or even Don Gillis at his most populist. Throughout this work I am disappointed by the orchestration - with the exception of the marimba moment mentioned above - Still’s handling of the orchestra is predictable and for 1970 downright reactionary.
David Ciucevich Jr.’s liner-notes tell us that Poem for Orchestra is “one of Still’s key works” without saying why! I find that kind of sweeping statement absolutely infuriating - it might well be central to his entire oeuvre but you must explain for what reason it deserves that status. It certainly has a bleaker more foreboding character than the Symphony. It is all too easy to assume any work written during wartime reflects the mood of the time. I do find this to be a wholly more impressive work although I could not escape the sense that there is something rather cinematic in the emotions it seems to convey. By that I mean that it creates a mood which is then sustained until a transition to a new “scene”. Also, there is a progression from a dark and menacing opening to a sunlit ‘happy ending’ that is rather corny to be honest - right down to Hollywood countermelodies on the horns over the strings richly harmonised hymn. I’m a sucker for this kind of writing but it does feel rather forced here.
The programme concludes with the longest work presented here - the Symphony No.4 ‘Autochthonous’. Hopefully I am not alone in not previously knowing that autochthonous means pertaining to indigenous flora/fauna/rocks of a country or continent. Apparently Still uses the title to refer to the spirit of the whole American people not just the original inhabitants. Again, I am naturally uneasy about any art that aspires to encompass enormous “ideas” within such limited frameworks - so when the fourth movement is subtitled “the warmth and the spiritual side of the American people - their love of mankind” I start to twitch. Clearly this is expressed as an ideal and an admirable one at that but regretfully I have to say I do not think Still has the compositional tools at his disposal to bring it off. The most successful movement for me is the most modest - the 3rd movement - with a graceful lilt. Again this could very easily be extracted as a separate character piece and certainly contains elements familiar from Still’s earlier works showing his knowledge of the Jazz and Broadway scenes. It has an easy swinging bluesy feel (and the orchestration is so much better than the Symphony No.5) and nonchalantly strolls along in a way that probably does capture more of the “American Spirit” than any other section of the work. The abovementioned finale very quickly descends into cinematic clichés of brave new worlds and happy ever afters that to be honest others have done better.
One of the unexpected beneficial by-products of the Naxos American Classics series has been the discovery that the USA has a lot of very good orchestras away from the big famous cities. The Fort Smith Symphony from Arkansas are good without being exceptional - characteristically confident brass playing but strings who sound under pressure during complex passages a little more than the best orchestras do. The various sections of the orchestra do not blend or speak with the total unanimity that one has come to expect - the very ending of the last track would have benefited from one more take. They play with gusto when required although no-where on this disc does the playing truly bloom. The recording is good without being one of Naxos’s finest. It sounds as though the resonance of the hall has made the engineers bring the microphones slightly closer than normal which results in the strange combination of a balance tight onto the instruments set in a halo of ambience.
As ever, it is wonderful that via Naxos one is able to hear unusual and specialised music such as this for so little money. I will be returning to the works of Still in the future just not as presented here.