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Edward Burlingame HILL (1872-1960)
Divertimento for Piano and Orchestra (1926) [6:57]
Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major, Op. 47 (1940-41) [29:08]
Concertino No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 36 (1931) [10:28]
Concertino No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 44 (1938-39) [13:46]
Anton Nel (piano)
Austin Symphony Orchestra/Peter Bay
rec. 31 May-1 June 2013 (symphony); 10-11 January 2014, Long Center for the Performing Arts, Austin, Texas
BRIDGE 9443 [60:42]

The American, Edward Burlingame Hill came from a lineage of distinguished Harvard academics. Unsurprisingly he studied at that university, where what was then the small music department was headed by John Knowles Paine. After graduation Hill studied with Widor in Paris before he joined the music faculty at Harvard in 1908. He stayed there until his retirement in 1940. An impressive roster of young composers studied under him, including Leonard Bernstein, Elliott Carter, Walter Piston, Roger Sessions, Randall Thompson and Virgil Thomson. Hill’s own music was reasonably known in his day, it seems – it was frequently programmed by the Boston Symphony in the Koussevitzky era – but he never achieved the celebrity of any of his aforementioned pupils.

That much we can deduce from the fact that the principal offering on this programme, his Fourth Symphony lay unperformed until the writer of the booklet notes for this album, Karl F Miller, drew it to the attention of Peter Bay. I surmise that the symphony was recorded live, though there is no evidence of audience noise, for Dr Miller tells us that the premiere performances took place on the dates of the recording.

The symphony is cast in three movements. First comes an Allegro ma non troppo. The music has energy and, at times, tension though I don’t hear the “impassioned” quality that Karl Miller mentions, though he’s far more expert than I am. To be sure, there are some strongly-voiced passages. The music is resourcefully scored; Hill evidently had a keen ear when it came to orchestration. Interestingly, the movement contains several fleeting references to a variant of the tune My Country 'Tis of Thee. The following Andante con moto, ma calmato is the serious heart of the symphony. There’s some deeply felt and even powerful writing here. Again, the quality of the scoring impresses. At 7:24 a flowing and gentle lyrical section, in which a violin melody is underpinned by woodwind triplets, catches the ear. This is a thoughtful and interesting movement. The finale, described in the notes as “a hybrid of rondo and variation form”, is lively and more extrovert than anything previously heard. This is an accomplished symphony which I enjoyed although I don’t think it speaks in a discernibly American accent.

The three pieces which involve solo piano were all recorded, together and all, I suspect, stem from concerts. The short Divertimento is sprightly and features mildly jazzy syncopations. It’s an attractive piece which keeps the soloist busy – and to good effect. Gershwin did this sort of thing far better – and, to be honest, more instinctively – but that doesn’t lessen the attraction of the Divertimento.

The Concertino No. 1 was premiered in 1932 by a pianist named Jesús Maria Sanromá and the Boston Symphony under Koussevitzky’s baton. Evidently Koussevitzky thought sufficiently well of the piece that he and Sanromá played it on six further occasions during the following two years. It’s cast in a single movement within which there are three sections. The first part is bright and attractive; French music struck me as an influence here. At 1:55 delicate piano figurations lead into the slow centre of the piece. For much of this section filigree piano writing is accompanied by hushed strings. Around 3:50 this dissolves into what I take to be the short cadenza. The closing episode (from 4:55) is a perky rondo. This is a thoroughly entertaining piece and though Hill ensures that it doesn’t outstay its welcome I would have gladly listened for a few more minutes.

Concertino No. 2 was never heard in its orchestral guise until the present performances. It was given in a version for two pianos in 1940 at a concert to mark Hill’s retirement from Harvard. On that occasion the pianists were Sanromá and Hill’s former pupil, Walter Piston. As in the first Concertino Hill follows a tripartite pattern within a single movement. After a busy and lively opening there’s a brief cadenza-like passage (2:30) which leads into what is for the most part a gently ruminative central section. Here the music is lyrical and pleasing. At 7:06 the tempo picks up and for the remainder of the work the music is mainly jazzy and dancing. As a listening experience this is as enjoyable as the first Concertino.

In all three Concertante works Anton Nel is an adept soloist and he receives excellent support from the Austin Symphony Orchestra and Peter Bay. Conductor and orchestra acquit themselves equally well in the symphony. The performances have been captured in good sound and the notes by Karl Miller, on which I’ve drawn in this review, are informative without being over-long.

I don’t believe Hill is all that widely represented on disc. Leonard Bernstein recorded his 1953 Prelude for Orchestra (review) and there’s also an off-air recording of his Violin Concerto; that’s the 1938 premiere played by Ruth Posselt with the Boston Symphony and Koussevitzky (review). However, this present CD could well be the only single-disc representation of Hill’s orchestral music. If you seek it out you’ll find that the music is worthwhile and that Hill has been well served by these musicians.

John Quinn



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