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American Symphonies
Walter PISTON (1894-1976)
Symphony No. 6 (1955) [23:25]
Samuel JONES (b. 1935)
Symphony No. 3 ‘Palo Duro Canyon’ (1992)* [23:30]
Stephen ALBERT (1941-1992)
Symphony No. 2 (1992) [30:11] Orchestration completed by Sebastian Currier
*Wind sound file created by Rice Electroacoustic Music Labs
London Symphony Orchestra/Lance Friedel
rec. 2017, Henry Wood Hall, London
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
BIS BIS-2118 SACD [78:08]

When I first saw this album my heart sank. No, it isn’t the music – which is very enticing – but the prospect of hearing the LSO in their usual venue, the problematic Barbican. So I was hugely relieved to find this programme was, in fact, recorded in the much more grateful acoustic of London’s Henry Wood Hall. And since I’ve not encountered these symphonies before, this qualifies as one of my ‘innocent ear’ reviews, As for the conductor, Lance Friedel, I much enjoyed his RSNO collection of Great Comedy Overtures (Naxos).

Maine-born Walter Piston’s Symphony No. 6 was written for Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony, who premièred it in 1955. Indeed, their subsequent recording is included in RCA’s 89-CD box dedicated to that fine conductor. The somewhat mournful start to the first movement, marked Fluendo espressivo, soon gives way to a lighter tread. One senses a degree of formal rigour in the writing, but it’s all clad in colourful raiment. The LSO play with their usual skill, the jaunty, ear-catching scherzo so nimbly done. The deeply reflective adagio is well shaped and projected, the quietest moments – and that gorgeous harp – unerringly caught. It’s capped by a fresh, freewheeling finale, witty and warm. One to add to my roster of recent ‘finds’.

Mississippian Samuel Jones seems to have a three-pronged career, as a composer, conductor and pedagogue. His small discography includes a Schwarz/Seattle recording of the Third Symphony and Tuba Concerto, which Bob Briggs and Rob Barnett both reviewed in 2009. As the title implies, the symphony is inspired by Palo Duro Canyon, near Amarillo, Texas. In six continuous movements – helpfully cued in this release – it begins with highly atmospheric wind sounds that morph into music of uncommon thrust and thrill. Yes, the work’s traditional in the sense that it’s straightforwardly programmatic, but there’s a strength and consistency of imagination here that makes for a gripping listen.

Like an Ansel Adams landscape, Jones’s striking piece presents nature in all its raw inspiring beauty. Pursuing the photographic connection, Friedel displays a keen eye for outlines and contrast, the resulting ‘image’ intuitively – and dramatically – framed. The playing is rich and full bodied, especially in those broad, craggy perorations; it helps that engineer Fabian Frank gives the orchestra all the space they need. What a pleasure it is to hear the LSO out in the open as it were, and not constrained by the acoustic limitations of their usual venue. I simply can’t imagine the symphony’s splendid tuttis expanding in that hall with anything like the ease or tactility that they do in this one. All of which makes this another ‘find’.

New Yorker Stephen Albert’s Symphony No. 2 was unfinished at the time of his death in 1992. Orchestrated by the composer and pedagogue Sebastian Currier, the work has a brooding, rather Sibelian first movement. And while the writing isn’t as explicit or as extrovert as that of the other pieces here – textures are denser, colours more subtle – it’s not without spikes of excitement. The expansive climax at the end of the first movement is particularly impressive. The middle movement is both animated and colourful, its internal conversations and asides a delight. The finale, more equivocal, reveals a fine orchestral blend, beautifully caught by this very truthful and transparent recording. So yes, another ‘find’. (Good notes by Friedel, too.)

In the past I’ve commended Naxos for their invaluable American Classics series, the latest instalment of which I reviewed just a few weeks ago. It’s only fair to point out that BIS have also done well by US composers, past and present. Three top-notch releases spring to mind: American Spectrum (music by Michael Daugherty, John Williams, Christopher Rouse and Ned Rorem); Copland ballets from Andrew Litton and the Colorado Symphony; and, most recently, Christian Lindberg and the RLPO’s centennial tribute to Leonard Bernstein. No doubt, there’s lots more to come.

A terrific trio, the LSO let off the leash at last; huzzahs all round!

Dan Morgan


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