Samuel ADLER (b.1928)
Symphony No. 6 [26:14]
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra [24:02]
Drifting on Winds and Currents [8:47]
Maximilian Hornung (cello)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/José Serebrier
rec. Royal Scottish National Orchestra Centre, Glasgow, 17-20 November 2015
LINN CKD545 [59:00]

The symphony has seen a pretty dramatic revival in its fortunes during the last half century. Beyond the 296 (and counting) symphonies by Leif Segerstam, who stands not only as today’s most prolific symphonist but almost certainly the most prolific of all time, it seems that symphonies are now being produced with remarkable fecundity. But numerical quantity is no measure of musical quality, and with so few of Segerstam’s symphonies currently available on CD, few of us have any way of knowing how good (or otherwise) they are. On the other hand, the sixth symphony of Samuel Adler, performed and recorded here for the first time, is clearly a work of considerable and sustained musical worth.

An introductory note by Robert Beaser (a friend of the composer who attended the recording sessions at the RSNO’s Glasgow home) accuses critics of lumping American music into “a series of isms” and, since Samuel Adler does not fall into any one of these, overlooking his work. I’m a critic and I have to confess to never once having thought of American music as a series of isms; more than that I have a long and enduring admiration for the craftsmanship of Adler’s music. And while it would be churlish to point out that Adler is, by birth, German (he emigrated to the USA in 1939 at the age of 11), he certainly stands at the forefront of that group of composers (not restricted to the USA) who work within established classical models. His output includes four oratorios, five operas, ten string quartets, fourteen concertos for various solo instruments and six symphonies.

Completed in 1985 Adler’s Sixth Symphony is a taut and closely argued three-movement work lasting some 25 minutes and scored for a conventional symphony orchestra. The work is primarily involved in energy, and Adler in his own note suggests it was inspired “by the idea of feeling the energy of our time”. It certainly gets a hugely energetic performance from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra here, who press purposefully through its virtuoso demands helmed with unerringly sharp focus by José Serebrier. It’s a splendid orchestral tour de force which showcases every section of a very fine orchestra indeed in a vivid recording.

All is not remorseless energy and high-octane tension on the disc, however, and the Cello Concerto, dating from 1995, certainly opens on a note of tranquil reflection. It continues to unfold in a gracefully spacious manner, ratcheting up tension in small stages and often using the solo instrument to add a layer of calm introspection to proceedings. Maximilian Hornung understands this music and captures the frequent and often disarming changes of moods. Adler writes that “a concerto to me is a dialogue between soloist and orchestra”, and he is as good as his word here in a work where the conversational interplay is very much to the fore. The third of the four movements (labelled in Adler’s characteristically fulsome English-language movement titles “Slowly and declamatory, feeling very free”) takes the form of an accompanied cadenza in which the solo cello is joined by a variety of instruments which mirror the various colours the soloist creates. It is this highly intelligent use of orchestral colour which is perhaps Adler’s most distinctive quality.

That aspect of his writing is well displayed in the concluding item on the disc, a nine-minute orchestral piece carrying a title derived from the poetry of Louise Glück. Written in memory of the wife of one of the patrons of the Las Vegas Symphony Orchestra, who gave the first performance in 2010, Drifting on Winds and Currents is intellectually impressive but aesthetically unmemorable. This is something which does, it has to be said, inform much of Adler’s writing, and perhaps it is this, rather than any absence of “ism”, which accounts for the lack of enthusiasm so many critics show for his music.

Marc Rochester

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