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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers

Support us financially by purchasing this disc from
Spirit of the American Range
Walter PISTON (1894-1976)
The Incredible Flutist, suite [17:16]
George ANTHEIL (1900-1959)
A Jazz Symphony [7:08]
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Symphony No. 3 [41:03]
Oregon Symphony/Carlos Kalmar
rec. live, April 2013 and January 2014, Arlene Schnitzer Hall, Portland, Oregon, USA
PENTATONE PTC5186481 SACD [65:27]

This is a marvellous programme of American populist music, played wonderfully by the Oregon Symphony. The symphony's relationship with conductor Carlos Kalmar has yielded great results: intrepid musical choices, high artistic quality, and this recording contract with Pentatone, which keeps bearing new and delightful fruit. Previously on MusicWeb International: "the playing is excellent and Carlos Kalmar conducts all three works with understanding and flair" - John Quinn on a Vaughan Williams and Britten pairing; and "Music for a Time of War" was our Recording of the Month.

Walter Piston's The Incredible Flutist is a ballet written for the Boston Symphony, a total peach of a piece with a lovely tango, a seductive and French-sounding long solo for the titular flutist, and a parade of circus performers who inspire the non-performing orchestral musicians to shout and whoop with glee. The Oregon Symphony players really tackle their shouting parts with relish. It's great. There's a Spanish dance to maracas, and a polka that escalates wildly from Midwestern America's East European immigrant heritage into an exuberant, out-of-control finale.

In other words, every orchestra should have this piece in its repertoire. There are some good recordings of Piston's suite from The Incredible Flutist, though few are as good as this. Kalmar and the Oregon Symphony leave no chance for vivid playing untaken, from the gentle nocturne woodwind solos to the wild finale. True, Leonard Bernstein's Sony take might have an extra notch of thrill to it, but isn't that always the case with Bernstein in American populist music? To quote the philosophers of This is Spinal Tap, Bernstein goes to 11.

George Antheil's A Jazz Symphony is a nutty, joyful romp with bouncing brass. It was written in 1927, just a couple years after the Rhapsody in Blue, but the famous score it sounds most like is West Side Story. The orchestral piano doubling the strings; the way different orchestral sections try to belt out different tunes at the exact same time; climaxes with thundering kettle-drums; a weirdly repetitive piano solo that would later help inspire Porgy and Bess. This is jazzy music for sure, but ahead of its time. Leonard Bernstein never recorded A Jazz Symphony. He probably felt threatened by the obvious similarity to his own music. Kalmar & Co. easily out-dazzle a recent, much slower rendition by a German band on CPO.

Aaron Copland's Symphony No. 3 is the most famous piece here, a sort of American pastoral that celebrates the end of World War II in its finale, which incorporates the "Fanfare for the Common Man". The work was begun in 1944 and finished in 1946. This is not my favourite Copland piece, sorry to say; its structure reminds me of the Vaughan Williams Fifth - written just years before - but its language is louder, more brash. Kalmar and the Oregon Symphony temporarily convince me otherwise, however: their first movement is urgent in its drama, the brass section plays with great flair and excitement throughout, and Carlos Kalmar knows exactly how the piece should go. Maybe the Oregon Symphony violin section isn't as full or as lavish as the world-class bands but otherwise there are very few signs you are not listening to a top-notch orchestra. Certainly, there's every indication you are listening to a top-notch performance.

If you're interested in this programme, invest with confidence. The recorded sound is superb, and although I don't have an SACD player to test the surround-sound capabilities, Pentatone knows what they're doing. Their redesigned graphics also include a larger-print booklet, useful for listeners with older eyes. My one and only complaint, which will make me sound like a grumpy old man, is that Pentatone now wish their name be printed entirely in capital letters (Something we need not reflect here. Ed.), as if we are shouting it, or as if it is some sort of top-secret intelligence command post.

Brian Reinhart

Previous review: Brian Wilson






 



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