William Grant STILL (1895-1978)
Wood Notes (1947) [16:32] (world premiere recording)
Symphony No. 2 in G minor Song of a New Race (1937) [27:05]
Symphony No. 3 The Sunday Symphony (1958) [18:01]
Fort Smith Symphony/John Jeter
rec. Arkansas Best Corporation Performing Arts Center, Fort Smith, Arkansas, 17-18 April 2011. DDD
NAXOS 8.559676 [61:39]
For much of his life William Grant Still was invariably referred to as the “Dean of African-American Composers”. Though his music partakes of many African-American elements, it also demonstrates his varied training under Chadwick and Varese and the many years he spent writing music for jazz bands, radio, music and television. Today Still can be seen simply as one of that number of American nationalist composers who came to maturity between the wars.
In the late 1920s Still began a musical trilogy that would portray the African-American experience in the U.S.: Africa, a tone poem describing the original homeland; the Symphony No. 1 (African-American) describing the years leading to the Emancipation Proclamation; and the Symphony No. 2 (Song of a New Race) describing a future where African-Americans would take equal part in the destiny of their country.
The Symphony No. 2 is a major work, blending jazz, blues and gospel elements with a nationalist feeling akin to that of the Eastman School. All of the movements are relatively slow (cf. Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 3). The slow movement proper is the most beautiful and expressive, while the “moderately slow” finale shows Still’s great technical skill as he joins thematic elements of all four movements into an emotionally satisfying conclusion.
Wood Notes is a suite evocative of nature in the American South. Each of the four pieces begins with simple, almost trivial material, which Still then transforms into something far more poignant than one would have expected.
While numbered as the third, The Sunday Symphony was the last of Still’s five symphonies to be written. It describes the typical Sunday of a churchgoer (Still was quite devout) and while not as profound as the Symphony No. 2 it is equally sincere and more compact in expression. The opening movement is full of energy, somewhat reminiscent of Gershwin, but with modal elements and scoring reminiscent of the Big Bands. In the Prayer movement Still develops the main melody for English horn to a poetic coda in his best style. Relaxation is very simple, while the last movement alternates resolution worthy of an army going into battle with a lovely central section describing twilight and the thoughts of the worshipper as he prepares for the coming day.
The key to performing Still’s music is to concentrate on his obvious sincerity and technical ability, while not letting his tendency towards sentimentality to overwhelm all else. John Jeter realizes this and wisely brings out the positive elements, demonstrating complete control of his players (especially regarding rhythm) and deriving enthusiastic performances. The Fort Smith (Arkansas) Symphony has some troubles with ensemble, but the overall sound is lush, as much of the music requires. This disc completes the Naxos series of the Still symphonies. While there are other impressive recordings of the first two symphonies, Jeter faces no real competition with the last three, and the entire set can be recommended to all fans of American music.
William Grant Still on Naxos American Classics
Committed recordings of works by a “golden age” American finally coming into his own on disc.