Joseph SCHWANTNER (b.1943)
Concerto, for percussion and orchestra (1994) [27:56]
Morning's Embrace, for orchestra (2005) [20:20]
Chasing Light..., for orchestra (2008) [19:44]
Christopher Lamb (percussion)
Nashville Symphony/Giancarlo Guerrero
rec. Ben's Studio, Nashville, 6 June 2010; Schermerhorn Symphony
Center, Nashville, Tennessee, 17-19 February 2011 (Concerto). DDD
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559678 [68:00]
Joseph Schwantner will likely be known to none but a few connoisseurs of contemporary American orchestral music, but this is in fact the fourth Naxos disc to feature his music: two works on separate 'Wind Band Classics' compilations (8.572242, 8.572109), and a more significant monograph of works for voice and/or chamber ensemble (review). Another important, critically lauded volume of orchestral works was released by Hyperion a few years ago (review).
The back inlay of this CD carries a surprising advert, surprisingly large too, for the Ford Motor Company. Its justification, if that is the right word, is the fact that Schwantner's Chasing Light... was commissioned by Ford Made In America, "the largest orchestral commissioning consortium in [US] history". Does being one consortium partner among many and commissioning one work out of three entitle you to two pages of the accompanying booklet plus a quarter-page advert for your business logo on the back? It clearly does if you happen to be the Ford Motor Company. Sponsorship and advertising are nothing new even on art music CDs, but many music lovers will be hoping that this kind of branding is the thick end of the wedge.
Given this endorsement, Schwantner's music is, not surprisingly, family friendly: melodic, rhythmic, varied, generally easy on the ears and brain - something of a latter-day Aaron Copland. As early as 1979 Schwantner was already winner of the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for his orchestral work Aftertones of Infinity, which has to date only been recorded once on CD (New Worlds Records, NW 381-2). His style is eclectically accessible, employing elements, though far less anaemically, much favoured by contemporary film composers, such as ostinatos, ethnic drumming, a piano in the orchestra, uplifting endings - all of which can be found in the delightful Chasing Light... and the more serious Morning's Embrace. What Schwantner's music lacks in depth - not a large deficit, by any means - it makes up for in colour, texture and excitement.
His Percussion Concerto has been recorded previously, first and most notably by Evelyn Glennie, with the National Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin (BMG Classics/RCA Red Seal 09026-68692-2), and twice in a version for winds by the North Texas Wind Symphony (GIA Composer's Collection CD-657) and the University of Calgary Wind Ensemble (Albany Records CD-Troy 999). There is a terrific cadenza near the end that should thrill anyone with red blood. The Concerto is dedicated to soloist Christopher Lamb, who gave the premiere in 1995, again under Slatkin, as principal percussionist for the New York Philharmonic.
Lamb, the Nashville Symphony and Guerrero give pretty much immaculate performances in all three works. The Nashvillers now have many recordings under their belt for Naxos, including perhaps a dozen in this generally superb 'American Classics' series - long may they continue. By contrast, this is Guerrero's third CD for Naxos, but his previous recordings, both conducting the Nashville, were memorable and warmly received (review, review).
Recordings made in America are quite often of the highest quality, and these are no exception. The Percussion Concerto was recorded in front of an audience, but the sound is as noise-free as a studio recording. The booklet, whilst slim, is detailed and informative, particularly Schwantner's own notes on his works, which are all anyone could wish for.
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