Deems TAYLOR (1885-1966)Naxos American Classics on Musicweb International
Through the Looking Glass, Op 12 (1919-21) [31:28]
Charles Tomlinson GRIFFES (1884-1920)
Poem for Flute and Orchestra (1919) [10:34]
The White Peacock (1917) [6:11]
The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan (1912, orch. 1919) [10:51]
Three Tone Pictures (1912, orch. 1919) [8:21]
Bacchanale (1913, orch. 1919) [4:15]
Scott Goff (flute)
Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz
rec. 20 March 1990 (Poem, Pictures), 29-30 May 1990 (remainder)
NAXOS 8.559724 [71:39]
This CD handily couples two American composers who deserve more attention: Charles Tomlinson Griffes, a fascinating impressionist whose death at age 36 silenced one of the nation’s most original and interesting voices, and Deems Taylor, a younger man who for decades successfully kept the romantic spirit alive. It’s a valuable addition to any library of American music, especially for the Griffes.
Deems Taylor comes first on the program, with his half-hour suite Through the Looking Glass. It’s based on Alice stories and it sounds a little bit like Ravel’s Mother Goose but without any of the pathos or hidden threat. There’s bubbly good cheer throughout, as in the Mendelssohn-meets-Disney scherzo “The Garden of Live Flowers”, although this is undercut by the rather enigmatic ending of the piece, a fade to black which ends the section dedicated to the White Knight. Taking up one-third of the running time is a lone disappointment, “Jabberwocky”, although I might just be sad because of my expectations. I expected a play on the nature of the poem itself, a work where all the words sound familiar and right even though they’re all complete nonsense. Wouldn’t it be interesting to hear a musical attempt at that, where all the notes seem to make sense even though they’re gibberish? Please refrain from writing in to tell me who your least favorite composer is. Instead we get a literal depiction of the Jabberwocky beast galumphing and getting struck down by the vorpal blade.
The CD’s second half is another story. Charles Tomlinson Griffes began his studies with the late German romantics but became fascinated by the twin threads of impressionism and exoticism; he especially loved Scriabin. This collection brings his nearly-complete orchestral music - there’s also an overture and a handful of dances - and it’s all superb. The Poem for Flute and Orchestra, if it had Debussy’s name at the top, would be played everywhere by everybody, so wonderful is its writing for the soloist and so enchanting are its melodies. The White Peacock showcases the composer’s superb way with the orchestra, celesta and muted strings engage in dialogue with the flutes and oboes before a sudden swell of the violins portends Griffes’ glorious attempt to write the most luxurious, radiant music he possibly can. The work’s second half is pure magic.
This clears the way for his masterpiece: The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan. Of the Americans, only Ives was anything like this good at orchestration, as the piece sounds simply utterly amazing, from its foreboding beginning through swells and waves of hallucinatory rapture. The climax arrives when it’s least expected, but goodness is it breathtaking in its explosive sweep. It would most certainly make a good pairing with The Firebird, La mer, or The Poem of Ecstasy. The three Tone-Pictures are rather slight-sounding in comparison, although they are quite effective descriptions of their subjects (especially the “Lake at Evening”). The CD ends with a Bacchanale, which sounds very oriental and includes yet more delicious orchestral writing. The trombone chorales, violent tubas and ecstatic percussion don’t at all betray the fact that this started off as a piano piece.
Griffes didn’t have time to really make his name as a great master, but what he left behind can be extraordinary. I’d say you need the piano music - Stephen Beus has a good selection on Harmonia Mundi, and the complete works appear on two aging Naxos discs - and also suggests at least an MP3 investigation of the other Naxos orchestral CD, which adds “Clouds” and three songs with soprano. As for this disc, Scott Goff’s flute solo work in the Poem is extraordinary - no wonder he was with the orchestra for 42 years! - and Gerard Schwarz really understands the sensual, impressionistic idiom of the music. The sound from 1990 has aged well, though as always it’s worth pointing out that the Seattle Symphony has since moved to a hall with yet finer acoustics, so don’t expect the sonic opulence of the new Rimsky-Korsakov CDs.
A great introduction to Griffes’ exotic impressionism, one of the greatest of American sound-worlds. The Taylor is non-essential but fun.