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Morton GOULD (1913-1996)
Fanfare for Freedom (1942) [1:34]
Saint Lawrence Suite (1958) [9:51]
Jericho Rhapsody (1941) [12:11]
Derivations for Solo Clarinet and Band* (1955) [17:18]
Symphony No.4 West Point (1952) [21:06]
Stephanie Zelnick* (clarinet)
University of Kansas Wind Ensemble/Scott Weiss
rec. Lied Center of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, USA, 25-28 March 2010
NAXOS 8.572629 [62:00]

Experience Classicsonline

This fine disc represents, to my mind, one of the most important in the continuing Naxos Wind Band Classics series. It brings together exciting and convincing performances of one of the best American composers for this genre – Morton Gould. Gould still labours under the impression of being at heart a light music composer who wants to be taken seriously. In part this is because he had a very successful career as an arranger/conductor of a large number of light orchestral – what might be termed today - ‘cross-over’ albums. Additionally, his most famous works make use of popular tunes; American Salute based on ‘When Johnny comes marching home’ being the prime example. As ever with easy generalisations like this, scratch the surface of this complex and fascinating composer and a body of work of enormous breadth and individuality comes to light.

What is clear is that pre-eminent amongst his generation of American composers Gould had an abiding fascination for what might be termed ‘Americana’. Whereas Copland skated around the edge of this with his famous cowboy ballets, Gould time and again returns to themes – both emotionally and literally musically – that lie at the essential heart of what it is to be American. The quickest skim through his catalogue produces titles like Spirituals or Foster Gallery, Fall River Legend, Columbia: Broadsides for Orchestra and Classical Variations on Colonial themes. Dig a little deeper into the actual movement titles or markings and the preference for the vernacular continues; sections on this disc alone called Quickstep, Rag, Ride-Out and Epitaphs. His great skill is the fusion of the simple and the sophisticated, the earthy and the elevated without compromising either extreme. Every piece on this disc represents a different facet of this identification with his home country. Not surprisingly, the University of Kansas Wind Ensemble play it to the manner born. Anyone concerned that the sound of a wind ensemble might become unrelenting need have no concerns on that front here.

The disc opens with the Fanfare for Freedom. This is one of the twenty or so pieces commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and its conductor Eugene Goossens as patriotic pieces in wartime. Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man is the most famous of these. Properly speaking this is scored for orchestral wind and brass. The LPO and Jorge Mester recorded the complete set on Koch (CD 3-7012-2) and it has to be said that version has a fraction more bravura edge and snarling grandeur than Kansas can muster; to be honest though, a sequence of twenty or so fanfares is a little too wearing for most occasions. The four movement St. Lawrence Suite was written to celebrate the opening of the St Lawrence power project. Gould manages in his superbly crafted ten minute suite to weave together four perfect little miniature encapsulations of quite distinct moods. It is the kind of thing Malcolm Arnold was able to do to perfection. From the very opening the intertwining trumpets create a mood that is both nostalgic and strangely evocative. I like the way that although the commission was for something grand and epic in nature Gould chooses a path initially reflective and lyrical. Yet at the same time the hymnic feel of the melody suggests a latent power and emotion. Very often you find Gould using fragments and wisps of familiar or traditional melodies yet the way these are woven into the music you are never quite sure where tradition ends and Gould begins. After a gawky entertaining and brief Quickstep the return to a simple folk-like melody in Chansonette displays how well the single-reeds of the Kansas players blend. The closing Commemoration March is another Arnold-esque swaggeringly good-natured affair with the various instrumental sections chasing each other in close canon before expanding into another hymn-like passage. This is a perfect example of Gould’s sophistication at work below the surface of something superficially simple. The tune could feature in a John Williams score but the sliding harmonies and shifting accompaniment imply more than simple heroics.

A fascination with the act of singing spirituals and their function within communities is another recurring theme in Gould’s work. My introduction to his music was the – still unsurpassed – recording of his Spirituals for String Choir and Orchestra conducted by Walter Susskind on Everest. Gould’s brilliant yet simple concept there was to make the string section the ‘choir’ singing the spirituals around which the remainder of the orchestra interjected. Elsewhere in his catalogue you will see a Symphony of Spirituals, Spirituals for Strings and Harp. The Jericho Rhapsody tells the biblical story of the siege of the eponymous city and the destruction of its walls by the Israelite’s trumpets. Gould divides this twelve-minute work into eight brief sections which clearly narrate the whole story. The narrative is knitted together with themes and motifs that are more or less spiritual-based. Time and again with his music I come back to the impression of a woven tapestry, a sampler in sound; intricate and beautiful. All of the other works recorded here seem to have been the result of direct commissions. Conductor Scott Weiss, who provides the liner-note, makes no mention of any such impulse for the Jericho Rhapsody. In its almost cartoonic literal telling of the story it sounds like enormous fun to play from the March & Battle section to the final Hallelujah. The recording is able to cope well with the fifty or so members of the ensemble when playing at full tilt. As is the nature of many wind band recordings the sound is a little closer than one associates with orchestral discs but this does suit the technicolor feel to this work in particular.

The next work takes its title – Derivations – again from the origin of various American musical forms. So we have a Blues, a Ragtime and a nervously energised be-bop influenced closing Ride-Out. Aside from the opening fanfare this was the only work here I had previously encountered on an album called ‘American Classics’ played by Sharon Kam backed by the LSO. From memory I think some people didn’t like this disc with the engineering being dismissed. As a collection of clarinet and orchestra/band jazz influenced pieces I think it is pretty remarkable. I see online it is available – a sensational bargain for as little as 68p plus postage as I write or the MP3 for £2.79. The original Benny Goodman version can still be found too. The soloist here is the ultra-cool Stephanie Zelnick. Her playing is superbly poised and very objective but for my taste where does cool end and detached start? Gould wrote of the closing Ride Out that “[it] is a galvanising movement meant to go like a shot.” Interestingly Zelnick is pretty much identical time-wise to Goodman and Kam but this is a case where timing tells only part of the story. Goodman and his band are all shuffling nervous twitches and blaring interjections; it’s a modern disjointed landscape. Zelnick in Kansas just glides along – still fun and exciting and very well played but less of the zeitgeist half a century down the line, one can’t help but feel. This is the only instance on the disc where you feel the University ensemble lack their professional counterparts, not on a technical level but for sassy knowing panache.

Patriotism was central to Gould’s outlook – to the country if not the state but the latter too is implied in the final work Symphony No.4 West Point. This is Gould’s actual 4th Symphony not his fourth in this genre. By taking its place in his canon of works you get a sense of the equal validity he gives his wind band works. This is the longest piece on the disc and is divided into two movements; Epitaphs and Marches. Again I have nothing but admiration for the way Gould steers the path between his obvious pride in his heritage and the jingoistic. You could imagine this type of piece becoming a somewhat hectoring paean to all things American. Not at all; Epitaphs emerges from a subterranean half-light (which reminded me in passing of the opening of Holst’s Hammersmith) – as the liner says, the overall mood of this movement is elegiac and noble in a restrained and impressive way. There are several Gould fingerprints on display here – in all his music he likes to toss fanfare-like figures across the instruments chasing or imitating each other in close canon. Gould gives his players some pretty tricky bare chords to tune and just occasionally I found myself thinking that the upper wind and brass were not in perfect unanimity. The second half of Epitaphs develops a passacaglia on hymn-like bass line. This allows Gould’s penchant for variation form to develop – I love the way he creates a stamping military march [track 11 from about 9:00] that gradually approaches encapsulating excitement and menace at the same time. The Kansas players capture the energy and power of this passage well before the movement dies back into the mist over quiet fanfares and drum-taps. The closing barnstorming Marches is the kind of piece that Gould perfected – I bet it is rousing to play as it is to listen to. Again his ability to write good tunes bound up with a sense of bubbling energy and humour prove central to his success. Here, after a positive opening, he allows the march to fragment into something far more uncertain before the forces are rallied and with the aid of that marching band favourite – the glockenspiel – the symphony moves resolutely to its end. There seem to be echoes or shreds of well-known marches, less than quotes but deliberate nonetheless I’m sure. The very ending broadens out into another hymn-like peroration which then becomes a riot of fanfares and flourishes. This makes for an exciting end to both the piece and the disc.

Naxos have slowly but surely been building their catalogue of Gould’s works – the American Ballads played by the Ukraine National Symphony Orchestra is very good although lacking the final ounce of flair Kenneth Klein got from the LPO on EMI. By focusing on his wind-band compositions this disc places admirers of Gould’s work in Naxos’s debt. This is an excellent disc of some very fine music, well played if lacking the very last drop of flair and finesse. Occasionally I have felt that the soubriquet ‘American Classics’ used by Naxos for another of their series is ill-deserved. Most certainly that is not the case with Gould’s compositions and I hope that Naxos will continue to expand their catalogue of his works.


Nick Barnard



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



 


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