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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 (1872-75) [40:08]
Ulster Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta
rec. Ulster Hall, Belfast, 15-16 October 2012.
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559747 [70:38]

The 'As You Like It' overture and Symphony no.1 replicate the programme of one of the New York Philharmonic's lesser-known recordings, released twenty years ago by New World Records (NW80374). That disc is still widely available over the internet - from the label itself too - and with Zubin Mehta as conductor, the commercial wisdom of this new Naxos release might be thought suspect.
 
Naxos, however, do have one or two aces up their sleeve. Firstly, JoAnn Falletta is enthusiastic about the Symphony, whereas Mehta was pompously dismissive. Though it would be fair to say that the Ulster Orchestra does not quite come up to the elevated standards of the New Yorkers, and Falletta clearly does not yet have Mehta's experience, listeners are surely better off hearing music performed with committed affection, rather than by musicians merely going through the motions. There is some irony for sure in the fact that Falletta had to travel to Northern Ireland to record music by a compatriot, but the Ulster men and women are certainly as good as many an American orchestra.
 
Secondly, there is the substantial bonus of John Knowles Paine's Symphonic Poem after Shakespeare's 'The Tempest', in only its second recording. The Naxos blurb rather fancifully describes this as an "adventurous and powerful Lisztian tone poem". Whilst it is a marvellously evocative work - more upbeat than Tchaikovsky's famous interpretation, with which it is almost contemporaneous, but just as tuneful - it is more Edward MacDowell - or at a push, Berlioz - than Liszt. A taste of what Paine was capable of on the darker side of things - his Oedipus Tyrannus Prelude - can be had on a recent EMI Classics reissue, a disc enhanced further by MacDowell's own turbulent symphonic poem, Lamia (see review). These recordings were important in the benighted 1980s, before Naxos's American Classics opened up a new world of music.
 
Paine's First Symphony is lighter in character than his magnificent Second, which, apart from being even longer, is more resolutely Germanic - similar to the soundworld of Joachim Raff. The First is, nevertheless, an attractive, semi-Beethovenian work - not, as is sometimes held, the first American symphony, but arguably the first to stake a claim for American symphonists to be taken seriously on the international stage. Paine was without doubt a trailblazer for the likes of Howard Hanson, Walter Piston and Paul Creston.
 
The final Naxos ace, at least relatively speaking, is audio quality, which should satisfy almost all ears. In contrast, the NWR dates from the early days of digital, and has some of its typical thinness. Shortly before it, Mehta and the NYP had recorded Paine's Second Symphony, also released on NWR (NW80350). That will, presumably, be the next port of call for Naxos as far as Paine is concerned - Falletta herself has indicated that a follow-up can be expected soon. As an American pioneer, Paine certainly merits the attention - his work has lain relatively neglected for much too long. Though he is not among the greatest composers, nor is he a merely mediocre one, and at least his symphonies deserve to be regularly heard. For music-lovers it may be a case of "no Paine, no gain". 

Byzantion
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