Jack GALLAGHER (b.1947)
Diversions Overture (1986) [10:07]
Berceuse (1977) [5:19]
Sinfonietta (1990/2007) [26:45]
Symphony in One Movement ‘Threnody’ (1991) [21:36]
London Symphony Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta
rec. Abbey Road Studio 1, London, UK, 5-6 January 2009
NAXOS 8.559652 [63:47]

The Naxos “American Classics” has grown from a starting point of focusing on the key works by composers of the 20th Century to a position now of giving the soubriquet “classic” to any repertoire that appears in the series. By definition therefore this series is the least focused and most diverse of the many that Naxos pursue and the most variable in terms of the quality of the repertoire recorded. Calling everything ‘classic’ smacks of awarding each child in the class a gold star and an A on their report. The plus side has been the discovery of many fine works often played by regional American orchestras proving themselves to be the equal of many of their more celebrated compatriot ensembles. Unusually this disc has used the London Symphony Orchestra recorded at the famous Abbey Road Studios. One suspects the substantial amount of money required to fund this project has come from the pockets of those close to the composer rather than any particular belief on the behalf of the Naxos hierarchy that this is work deserving especially stellar support. Oddly, I’m not totally convinced this expenditure of both time and money is totally justified by the result. The LSO play very well - they are a fantastic group of musicians but the results err on the efficient rather than inspired to my ears.

This is the first time I have encountered the music of Jack Gallagher but given only one of the four works is receiving its recording debut clearly there are other discs of his work out there to be heard. All of the music is well crafted but what eludes me is a sense of the individual voice, a musical personality that commands my attention. The disc opens with the Diversions Overture. The calm opening has a gently pastoral feel to it with the open woodwind chords adding a hint of Coplandesque prairie that typifies much American music – lovely oboe playing here. For an overture perhaps it takes a bit too long to get fully into its stride – over four minutes into a ten minute work seems disproportionate to me. The central section certainly rollocks along although the spirit here is somewhat filmic and swash-buckling; John Williams out of Alfred Newman. This is comfortably tonal music – nothing wrong in that at all – it is just for me it revisits musical ground others have already covered at some length. The return to the opening calm feels rather abrupt and not wholly convincing. The Berceuse that follows is an orchestration of a 1976 piano work. This occupies the same gently graceful world as Walton’s Siesta although again the harmony is more obviously lush. It makes for a pleasant five minutes or so but sadly to my ear remains stubbornly un-memorable. The five movement Sinfonietta is for strings alone. What is it about films and this composer but now in the opening Intrada I hear echoes of Bernard Herrmann and Psycho (the famous opening sequence when Janet Leigh is driving her car at night) in the nervously energetic figurations and lyrical counter melodies in the cellos/bass. The Intermezzo that follows I find more interesting; the basic lilting calm disrupted by arabesque figurations that snake their way through the otherwise transparent texture. The third movement Malambo is quite a rhythmic tour de force for the orchestra – it is also the longest movement in the work. Gallagher in his own liner note, mentions Ginastera as writing stylised forms of this dance – most famously as the conclusion to the ballet Estancia. Gallagher’s version does not achieve the earthy primal vigour of Ginastera either in Estancia or elsewhere probably because he chooses not to maintain an underlying rhythmic cell which adds to the cumulative impact of that kind of ritualised competitive dance immensely. Instead it seems to take some of the elements of a malambo and give them a concert hall treatment which is fine but not that interesting. Likewise the fourth movement Pavane is perfectly pleasant without sticking in the memory. The final Rondo Concertante has a boisterous moto perpetuo energy and its use of a solo group of players has echoes of Tippett’s writing for strings. Throughout the LSO play very well on what one must assume were read/record sessions but I have a nagging feeling that the last ounce of inspiration is missing in the midst of all the perspiration. Quite why this is termed a Sinfonietta as opposed to a suite is unclear unless on my superficial acquaintance I’m missing some unifying material across the work as a whole.

The disc closes with the most substantial and significant work; the Symphony in One Movement ‘Threnody’. In his liner-note the composer describes it thus; “Divided into two principal sections (slow and fast) the symphony progresses from expressions of loneliness and longing to resolve and assertion.” Given the dedication to the composer’s parents – his mother died while it was being composed – the seriousness and sincerity of the work is not in doubt for a second. I just wish I personally responded to it more. Unfortunately I find too many of the musical gestures to be familiar from other works. Not that this is pastiche or plagiarism, just not individual. So the opening with slowly moving high string lines seems familiar in a non-specific way as does the bird-song like piano figure at around 2:20. Indeed I find myself being reminded of another work at pretty much every musical turn. The slowly rising string passage around 6:30 reminded me of the Barber Adagio for Strings every time I played it. Or take the transition into the main fast section around 10:20 – the echoes of the finale in Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra seem clear. My main issue is the episodic nature of the works here particular the Overture and Symphony. I’m sure there are musical connections across sections but they are not apparent without extended listening and/or studying the score. The work ends with one last Herrmann/Psycho homage – the infamous stabbing strings at 21:00 tacked onto a Rite of Spring held chord before the final collapse. The Naxos engineering is able to cope well with the complex textures in fact this is a very good example of just how sophisticated and detailed the engineering can be on a bargain label. The LSO strings are not quite as secure as one would expect them always to be. With no other frame of reference it is hard to make any judgements about JoAnn Falletta’s conducting other than it gets the job done. Ultimately this is post-modern tonally centred music to which many listeners will respond more positively than I.

Of the batch of contemporary music that I have been listening to recently this is the disc that has engaged me least and one I would be hard pushed to recommend even there is nothing wrong with any aspect of it. Simply put, many other discs must surely demand your consideration first before this one.

Nick Barnard

Simply put, many other discs must surely demand your consideration first before this one.