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Michael DAUGHERTY (b.1954)
Tales of Hemingway for cello & orchestra (2015) [28:28]
American Gothic (2013) [21:49]
Once Upon a Castle for organ & orchestra (2003 rev. 2015) [27:26]
Zuill Bailey (cello), Paul Jacobs (organ)
Nashville Symphony/Giancarlo Guerrero
rec. Schemerhorn Symphony Center, Nashville, Tennessee, USA 17-18 April 2015 (Tales & American Gothic), 4-7 November 2015 (Once Upon...)
NAXOS 8.559798 [77:43]

Recently, and quite unconnected with receiving this current disc for review, I heard for the first time an early entry in the Michael Daugherty discography - an Argo disc from the mid 90's entitled "American Icons". I do enjoy Daugherty's music so, apart from the pleasure in hearing his quirky music well-played, it struck me how, over the intervening two decades, Daugherty has been drawn to similar subjects for inspiration which he treats in broadly similar ways. The main difference - I suspect - is that as his fame has spread, so the commissions have become more valuable and he is able to write on a bigger canvas for larger ensembles.

"American Icons" could be an enduring definition of Daugherty's work up to and including this new disc. From places - Mount Rushmoor and Route 66, to people - Jackie O, and Liberace, to artistic icons as they appear on this new recording. Naxos have proved to be consistent and doughty Daugherty supporters. And not just through the work of a single conductor or orchestra. This body of music has inspired orchestras as widely-flung as Bournemouth, Detroit and Colorado. This is the second disc on Naxos from Giancarlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony and I have to say it is a cracker - played and recorded with considerable brilliance. I did not enjoy the previous Naxos disc, with the Pacific Symphony and including Mount Rushmoor, as much as previous releases. This new disc shows Daugherty back on top form. I think it fair to call him a 'marmite' composer; you will either respond to his very individual brand of eclectic virtuosic post-modern brilliance or you won't - I certainly do. Not for Daugherty the ideal of 'absolute' music shorn of any possible narrative or extra-musical association. He positively thrives on these kinds of allusions - nearly all his works tell a tale or illustrate an idea.

The disc features three substantial works from the last three years. Furthermore, the it enshrines two of the actual premiere performances as they were given in the concert hall. Two of the three are in effect concertante works, whatever their other extra-musical inspiration. Again Daugherty proves very skilled at fusing the demands of a solo-centric work with his narrative compulsion. The disc opens with Tales of Hemingway. This is a work for concertante cello and orchestra and we hear the premiere performance from April 2015. The soloist is Zuill Bailey. Bailey has built up a substantial discography and he certainly ticks all the boxes of the modern soloist with film-star good looks allied to an impressive technique. I had not heard any of his recordings previously but his playing is very good indeed. Total technical security, but also a willingness to push the expressive envelope with playing of a very wide dynamic range and great tonal variety. Daugherty's neat idea is to write a four-movement work which uses the title of a Hemingway novel/story for each movement. In essence, this allows him to follow a fairly traditional symphonic rather than concerto format, with an opening movement and finale book-ending 'slow' and 'fast' inner sections. All the Daugherty compositional fingerprints are here; ear-tickling orchestrations rich in percussion and colour, jittery post-modern rock-influenced rhythms, very demanding solos for all sections of the orchestra. Over all of that, he weaves a compelling and impressive narrative line for the cellist - perhaps Hemingway himself guiding the listener through the four distinct stories?

The second movement, For Whom the bell tolls, makes slightly lazy and obvious use of the ubiquitous Dies Irae. Lazy because it’s such familiar and over-used short-hand to link something about "death" with that ancient chant. Curiously Daugherty does exactly the same in the opening work on the previously mentioned Argo disc in Dead Elvis. Having said that, Daugherty shows his virtuosic compositional skill in weaving the chant into a very schizoid rhythm that is typically infectious. In many ways I find the third section, The Old Man and the Sea, the most impressive in the work. Effectively the slow movement, it’s a relatively pensive and reflective piece and allows the listener to hear that Daugherty is not always about superficial excitement and orchestral effect. Zuill Bailey is able to demonstrate his control of long lyrical lines as well. The closing movement based on The Sun also Rises [very different from Hugo Friedhofer's score for the film of the same name!] is the longest and, as is often the case with Daugherty, an absolute storm of orchestral virtuosity. Here the original story allows Daugherty to go off on a riot of Spanish-inflected mayhem. Think Fete Day in Seville out of Ennio Morricone with a good dose of guitar-inflected cello writing thrown in for good measure. This kind of stylistic mash-up is pure Daugherty and it really should not work nearly as well as it does. Although this is nominally the live performance, no audience sound is audible and no applause is retained - surely there must have been a storm, for this is an enormously entertaining work superbly performed.

The second work is a three movement 'suite' under the title American Gothic. There is a double inspiration here; firstly, the title refers to the paintings of Grant Wood of which possibly the most famous is American Gothic - the instantly familiar picture of an older bespectacled man dressed in jacket and dungarees holding a pitchfork, standing alongside his rather severe and sombre-looking wife or daughter. The couple are in front of a carpenter gothic style white wooden house that gives the painting its title. Secondly, Daugherty's father worked as a guide at the Grant Wood Studio in Cedar Rapids, so this is an affectionate tribute to him and places from Daugherty's childhood. The three movements try to distil recurring elements in Wood's work. In the words of Daugherty's own liner, the opening On a Roll; "[suggests] the vivid colours and dynamic curves of Grant Wood's paintings of rural Iowa". As ever with Daugherty, the initiating idea is a good spring-board into a vibrant sound-world rather than a painfully literal recreation from one medium to another. So this opening movement is a typically energetic rollercoaster which starts with a wonderfully manic tuba riff effortlessly dispatched here. The low brass writing is like a good natured distortion of part of Shostakovich's 8th symphony. Rhythms constantly shift in a jittery but compelling way and again I have nothing but praise for the sheer Úlan and virtuosity of the playing.

I have never had the chance to play any Daugherty but it sounds as fun as it is demanding. Listening to this work in particular made me relate Daugherty's music to that of Morton Gould or Don Gillis - from where I stand a substantial compliment. Those two composers seem rather relegated by history to that of occasional somewhat 'light' composers but both encapsulated the spirit of the time they wrote in and were orchestral virtuosos. It is not that Daugherty sounds like either - except for the occasional moment of deliberate "Americana" as in the solo fiddling in this work's closing movement - but rather that they all try to capture the essence of American-ness in the idiom of the day. Daugherty's music is nervier, up-beat but with an edge of mania, unstable even in passages of reflection compared with the more certain Gillis. Gould divided his music more explicitly between 'serious' and 'light' and to my ear to great effect. Daugherty intriguingly blurs that division - in his light-hearted sections there are shadows and in the overtly serious sections release is never that far away.

The central panel of American Gothic is called Winter Dreams which references both "bleak winter scenes of rural Iowa" and the poetry of Jay Sigmund, who encouraged the painter to turn to his native hearth for inspiration. This is one of Daugherty's most impressive 'slow movements'. He reins in his overt orchestral virtuosity and allows a relatively simple texture to dominate. A rather beautiful (alto?) flute solo with shimmering bell-trees and long-breathed lines makes this a rather benign Iowa winter but the atmospheric writing and the clarity make for a very compelling movement. The work closes with Pitchfork, which is a direct reference to the tool in the American Gothic painting. This is a massively virtuosic orchestral scherzo - think of Bernard Herrmann in The Devil and Daniel Webster mode but played at 78 instead of 33. The uncredited leader of the Nashville Symphony plays his possessed fiddling solos quite superbly. Again I like the way there is something rather unhinged and faintly menacing in the 'smile' behind the music. I am not wholly convinced by the 'big' ceremonial ending inserted around the 6:00 minute mark but mania has the last word.

The final work is another concertante one, this time featuring renowned organist Paul Jacobs - Once upon a Castle. The performance here is the premiere of the revised version of a work originally performed in 2003. In the liner Daugherty does not clarify the scope or scale of the revisions. The American Icon here is specifically Hearst Castle and by extension its creator Randolf Hearst. A secondary icon must surely be the ultimate film of the American Dream - Citizen Kane - the fictitious newspaper magnate modelled on Hearst by Orson Welles. In the opening movements of the work the solo organ part is more concertante than concerto - supporting the music rather than dominating it. I am usually loath to play the "sounds like" card, but the first few pages of the first movement - The winding road to San Simeon - seem to be such a direct homage to the sunrise from Daphnis and Chloe that the likeness cannot be avoided. Quite why the reference is made, I have no idea. Another sly homage would seem to be to the world of cinema. By no means does Daugherty reference Herrmann's famous score for Kane, but there is a cinematic sweep and lush grandeur that evokes many another equally opulent cinematic experience. The second movement is titled Neptune Pool - and again Daugherty proves as adept at writing atmospheric mood music as he is creating his dynamic muscular montages. The Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle is an Olympic-sized swimming pool surrounded by statues from antiquity. Daugherty gives the solo organ a Latin/Spanish inflected melody surrounded with arpeggiating bells and shimmering strings. The music builds to a processional climax with the organ supporting rather than dominating the texture - keeping to the cinematic allusion, there is more than a touch of Miklos Rozsa in Biblical-epic style before the texture thins again leaving a solo trumpet over rocking strings.

If the previous references to Citizen Kane had been implicit, in the third movement, Rosebud, they are explicit. Daugherty describes this as an argument between Kane/Hearst (the organ), and his mistress Susan Alexander/Marion Davies (solo violin), conducted from opposite ends of a cavernous empty room in the castle. Sleigh bells and vibraphone - alluding to the mysterious "Rosebud" in the film - alternate with cadenza-like organ figurations. This leads into the rollercoaster ride mayhem of the closing Xanadu. Daugherty's note refers to the Coleridge poem and the Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan. He seems to be trying to capture the hedonistic wildness of Hearst's famed/infamous lavish parties. Be that as it may, this is a stunning toccata for full orchestra with the most overtly virtuosic organ writing in the work - the organ pedals get a particularly rigorous workout. He pauses to recollect the earlier movements too - the 'Spanish' theme featuring prominently - but the abiding sense is one of pulsating energy superbly marshalled. He give the organ one last solo figure before "The End" is emblazoned across the closing bars as clearly as is possible in music alone. For sure this is a patchwork score where influences and allusions are thrown into the compositional pot with glee. But often that is what Daugherty does and frankly he does it as well or better than anyone else currently writing. The listener's reaction to the music presented here will very much depend on how they feel about this style of contemporary composition and its instant accessibility.

Producer Tim Handley and engineer Gary Call have done an excellent job - for live performances these are remarkably sophisticated and impressive and certainly the sound is ideally balanced - evocative and dynamic as required with plenty of detail and the potentially awkward solo organ part effectively present but never overwhelming. The Nashville Symphony are on tip-top form with all sections rising to the considerable challenges Daugherty throws at them. As with other discs in this series, Daugherty contributes the informative and useful liner which Naxos have illustrated with some interesting archive images of Hemingway and a Grant Wood painting. The usual artist biographies and pictures - all in English only - complete the booklet. Conductor Giancarlo Guerrero seems utterly at home with this idiom now. The wackiness of Daugherty's Metropolis Symphony - the other Guerrero/Nashville/Daugherty collaboration - will always be the composer's calling card because it encapsulates so much of his musical style and aesthetic creed, but this new disc might be an excellent introduction to this composer's work. If you already love his music this will be a valued addition - the nay-sayers will just have more grist to the mill.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: Nigel Harris

 

 




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