There is a good degree of variability in the quality of Navona recordings.
Their audio often has an 'mp3' feel. Add to this that
performances by their preferred more obscure orchestras can be patchy. With
the label's admittedly laudable propensity for championing
practically unknown living composers, the presented works themselves can
sometimes point up reasons for that lack of recognition.
Whatever its other faults, this latest release's cause is hardly
helped by an appalling running time which is not
compensated for in
the retail price. These 34 minutes will cost you the same as a 75-minute
disc from the same label.
Engineering here is all right, apart from unmistakable distortion in the
loudest passages - the microphones are simply not coping. Some minor
audience coughing from this live recording has been picked up, but far more
of an annoyance is the applause at the end of the second and third
movements. In the former case the clapping is laughably faded out, making it
sound as if the work is over.
The Hamilton-Fairfield Symphony Orchestra give a fairly competent account
of this work, but they do not really go further than that. Stanbery
obviously knows what he wants from the musicians, but their delivery options
do come across as rather restricted. The conductor should have insisted on
tighter ensemble playing, especially from the brass.
As for the Symphony itself, it was nominated, interestingly, for the
Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2012. That is surprising, because
Stanbery's programmatic work is nothing like as impressive as
previous symphony winners like Hanson's Fourth, Ives's Third,
Piston's Seventh or, more recently, Stephen Albert's
magnificent RiverRun Symphony
(available on Naxos 8.559257). True,
the Prize Board, responding to criticism from American cultural
post-modernists, changed its rules in the 1990s and again in 2004 to allow
more superficial entries from realms including "jazz, [.] musical
theater, movie scores and other forms of musical excellence". Hence the
trivialising Special Citations in 2010 for country-music cantillator Hank
Williams, and in 2008 for Bob Dylan, for his "lyrical compositions of
extraordinary poetic power". On the whole though, the Prize continues
to be what self-styled visionary Greg Sandow has called "a last-ditch
defense of the obsolete and snobbish idea that only classical music can be
art". The same year that Williams was honoured, the big Music Prize
went to Jennifer Higdon's superb Violin Concerto.
Yet despite a premiere in 2012 "to wildly appreciative
audiences", Stanbery's programmatic Symphony is self-evidently
not on the same plane as Higdon's work - by some distance. It is not
that it is lacks interest or colour; indeed, it starts well enough with a
punchy 'Prologue' - a "Coplandesquecapade", as
Stanbery aptly puts it - and its idiom, lying somewhere between
neo-classical Americana and generic film score, is likely to appeal to a
wider, undemanding, audience. If only Navona, Stanbery and his orchestra had
offered another symphony or some shorter orchestral pieces to fill up the
disc, the weaknesses as described might have seemed less important to the
listener of more sophisticated inclination.
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