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Kevin PUTS (b.1972)
Symphony No 2 (2002) [21.39]
River’s Rush (2004) [10.32]
Flute Concerto* (2013) [24.24]
Adam Walker (flute)
Peabody Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
World première recordings
rec. Miriam A Friedberg Concert Hall, Peabody Institute, John Hopkins University, Baltimore, April/October 2015

Over the years, the Naxos series of ‘American Classics’ has been an important and valuable source of recordings of music by composers from the United States, both new works and revivals of unjustly neglected ones, bringing them to the attention of an international market. But this unassumingly packaged new CD must surely be considered as one of the most important and valuable of all, containing world première recordings of three pieces by Kevin Puts.

The events of 11 September 2001, which sent shock waves across the world, have been commemorated in a number of musical tributes written since; but Puts’s Second Symphony has claims to be one of the most profound among these. This is no mere illustration of the atrocity (which indeed makes only a fleeting appearance), but instead focuses on what the composer described as the “paradigmatic” change in attitudes that resulted. Before 9/11 there was a universal mood of innocent optimism following on from the end of the Cold War (and the threat of a nuclear holocaust) twelve years earlier; afterwards there was a sense of deep foreboding at what the actions of terrorism might engender, a mood with which we are still all too familiar today. This contrast is reflected in the structure of the symphony itself, not at all an imitation of classical models. It begins with a slow and very beautiful pastoral section, rising to increased emotional heights and culminating in a violin solo interrupted by a violent but brief orchestral outburst. Then the opening material returns in a sort of recapitulation, but now it is disturbed by dark undercurrents and insecurities; and the violin solo, this time more extended, leads into an epilogue in which the sounds of a ticking clock are uneasily prominent beneath the more consoling harmonies. That is all; but it is quite enough to make a real emotional impact. This is a symphony that deserves to be heard again and again; it is simply amazing that this is the first recording of a work given its first performance nearly fifteen years ago.

River’s Rush is a shorter piece, inspired in part by the Mississippi (it was originally written for the St Louis orchestra). The Gramophone review by Andrew Farach-Colton drew parallels with the music of John Adams and John Williams, suggesting that one passage could have been written for a Star Wars soundtrack. I find this rather unfair, short-changing music that has a real sense of symphonic and orchestral sweep. The Wagnerian overtones he also notes are certainly evident, but amount to no more than rising brass figures under excited string figurations (like Valkyries riding under the Rhine in full spate) which are surely part of the suggestion of a river flowing rather than imitation of the earlier composer. Once again it is astonishing that the work has had to wait so long for a recording.

The Flute Concerto was commissioned, much more recently, conjointly by Marin Alsop together with Bette and Joe Hirsch (who also underwrote all the costs of the current CD). One really has to thank these benefactors for their perspicacity and judgement. The concerto itself is somewhat more light-hearted than the other two pieces on this CD; and the writing for the soloist sometimes recalls Ravel’s evocation of Pan and Syrinx in Daphnis et Chloë (no bad model), especially in the upbeat finale. But the centrepiece of the work is the slow Andante, where Puts acknowledges inspiration from Mozart’s K467 Piano Concerto which indeed is briefly quoted shortly before the end of the movement (although Puts does not mention this fact in his booklet note). The opening movement also has an immediate melodic appeal. The finale features the sound of the orchestra clapping along joyfully to the infectious rhythms, a delightful effect. And the playing of Adam Walker, principal flute of the London Symphony Orchestra, is a joy to hear, limpid and sprightly by turns.

This CD also marks the first appearance on disc of the Peabody orchestra, a group of student and graduate instrumentalists which bids fair to rival the most professional bodies despite a very occasional thinness of violin tone. Marin Alsop, the principal conductor of the locally based Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, obtains the very best from her players in performances of the utmost commitment and engagement. It is surely about time we stopped describing her as a “great woman conductor” and simply recognised her greatness, regardless of sex. She has already recorded Puts’s Fourth Symphony with her own Baltimore players; that 2013 Harmonia Mundi release remains available, and is also worthy of investigation. That recording from a live performance was enthusiastically reviewed by the Gramophone but oddly seems to have missed the attention of Fanfare, although John Quinn on this site gave it a strong recommendation; the final movement has all the beauty and sense of reconciliation that we find here in the Second Symphony. On this CD one should also note that the actual engineering was undertaken by Peabody students, whose magnificent realisation of the recorded sound in what looks like a superb acoustic space is a testimony to the tuition they received.

This was my first encounter with the music of Kevin Puts, although his Pulitzer Prize-winning opera Silent Night has received multiple performances in the States and was given its European première at the Wexford Festival in 2015, to ecstatic reviews. I am sure that we will be hearing many more scores by the composer, and I look forward with much anticipation to the experience. In the meantime, we must record our thanks to Naxos (and the sponsors) for what we are given here.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: John Quinn



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