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John Knowles PAINE (1839-1906)
Overture to Shakespeare’s ‘As you like it’, op.28 (1876) [10:27]
Shakespeare’s Tempest - symphonic poem, op.31 (1877) [20:03]
Symphony no.1 in C minor, op.23 (1872-1875) [40:08]
Ulster Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta
rec. Ulster Hall, Belfast, 15-16 October 2012
NAXOS 8.559747 [70:38]

I suspect that any non-Americans who buy the first Mercury Living Presence Collector's Edition (478 3566) may be, in at least one respect, rather taken aback by the contents.  For there, nestling among its 50 CDs offering a wide-ranging, superbly recorded selection of interesting and frequently superbly performed repertoire, are two rather odd ones indeed.  Discs 20 and 21, The Civil War: its music and its sounds, feature not only "band music" and "field music" but no less than 28 "cavalry bugle signals" and 14 "bugle signals for the service of skirmishers", the latter causing me to wonder with some bemusement whether "retreat (short)" is simply a bugle call of brief duration or one ordering a tactical battlefield withdrawal of just 100 yards?

Americans, it seems, are keen on reviving as much of their musical past as they can, whether it be Mercury's "camp and field duty calls for fifes and drums" or the - camp in a somewhat different sense - massive orchestral extravaganzas of Louis Moreau Gottschalk.  

Naxos, ever a company quick to spot potentially lucrative markets, has, for some time now, been releasing a series of discs designated "American Classics".  This latest one features an overture, a symphonic poem and a symphony, all dating from the 1870s, by John Knowles Paine, the senior member of a group of East Coast composers known to musicologists as the "Boston Six".  Naxos's presentation gives no indication that these are premiere recordings, so I presume that there may have been earlier ones.  I confess, though, that the composer is new to me, so that I cannot make any comparisons with other accounts.

During his lifetime, Paine's works were very popular with American audiences.  One concertgoer was, in fact, inspired to compose a plea for more performances in the form of a jaunty piece of doggerel, with a rather neat play on words in its last line:
Let no more Wagner themes thy bill enhance
And give the native workers just one chance.
Don't give the Dvorak symphony again;
If you would give us joy, oh give us Paine!

[Quoted in Peter G. Davis New-World symphonies, New York magazine, 6 February 1989.]

That particular versifier's preference for Paine over Wagner suggests that he or she was of a musically conservative disposition, for the American composer was certainly no radical.  As booklet notes author Frank K. DeWald notes, Beethoven's influence is strongly evident in the symphony, while elsewhere there are suggestions in either form or style of both Liszt and Brahms.  

The As you like it overture's graceful opening soon leads into an attractive, briskly flowing theme that, at almost exactly the half way point in the work, is briefly succeeded by music that is rather reminiscent of Mendelssohn.  Paine's attractive score effectively emphasises the play's pastoral nature while simultaneously engendering a warm smile - rather than an inappropriate belly laugh - at its comedic elements.  

The symphonic poem Shakespeare's Tempest, written just four years after Tchaikovsky had essayed the very same theme, is, as befits Shakespeare’s more thought-provoking themes, a more ambitious work of 20 minutes or so duration, with six clearly specified constituent sections.  The storm leads us into an attractively lyrical Calm and happy scene before Prospero's cell that in turn leads into a brief musical picture of Ariel - all light, fluttering woodwinds underpinned by the harp.  Prospero's tale (you may remind yourself of it in a somewhat bizarre account presented here is recounted both purposefully and pointedly before its tender, pastoral conclusion on woodwinds leads us to The happy love of Ferdinand and Miranda, depicted by a graceful and flowing theme for strings and those woodwinds that Paine seems to have enjoyed writing for.  Chirruping woodwinds then introduce the symphonic poem's concluding - and longest - section, a musical picture of Episode with Caliban that offers a more overtly dramatic and at times rather Lisztian-sounding conclusion to the proceedings.  

Paine's first symphony (of two) takes up more than half the length of this disc and is both an ambitious and a substantial work of more than 40 minutes in length.  With, as noted earlier, more than a touch of Beethoven hovering over it, the allegro con brio first movement is actually darker, more dramatic and agitated than that instruction might indicate.  The succeeding allegro vivace skips along jauntily enough, but its weighty orchestration and its length of almost nine minutes suggest that it, too, needs to be approached with some seriousness.  The third movement, marked simply adagio, is the least "Beethovenian" of the four.  Paine floats a beautifully lyrical theme for strings before us, building upon and developing it in such a way as to suggest that he was more in tune with contemporary musical trends than we might have hitherto assumed.  This movement lifts the score - temporarily, at least - onto a very different plane.  The finale, marked allegro vivace, immediately restores the mood of the opening two movements and, building to an impressive and predictably triumphal conclusion, is altogether very effectively done.

I have had cause elsewhere on the MusicWeb website to sing the praises of JoAnn Falletta, though this is the first time I have heard her with the Ulster Orchestra, of which she became Principal Conductor in 2011.  I am delighted to report that, on the basis of this disc, all seems to be well with the new partnership.  Ms Falletta - who has, in her career so far, premiered more than 100 works by past and present American composers - displays an obvious affinity with these scores and deploys her forces so as to make the best possible case for them.  While it is undeniable that Paine writes in a conservative idiom, it is equally the case that the three works on this disc encompass between them a wide range of mood, tone and approach.  In spite of what I presume to be their previous unfamiliarity with the music, the Ulster musicians rise successfully to every challenge and present very enjoyable accounts that make the best possible case for the composer.  Naxos's engineer has also created a warm acoustic that shows off the performances to best advantage.

As you will have gathered, I enjoyed this disc immensely.  While I may not have encountered Paine's music before, I can now only hope that Naxos records the second symphony - apparently entitled In spring - with the same impressive forces.

By the way, anyone inspired to explore those skirmishers' bugle signals and so forth that I mentioned earlier should note that the second box of Mercury's Collector's Edition (478 5092) contains a disc including both The Spirit of '76: music for fifes and drums based upon the field music of the U.S. army and Ruffles and flourishes: music for field trumpets and drums based upon the field music of the U.S. armed forces.  Such intriguing tracks as "Music for rendering honours" and "The camp duty" offer, to aficionados of music's more bizarre byways, enticing prospects indeed!

Rob Maynard 

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