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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Symphony No. 31 in D, K297, ‘Paris’ (1778) [16:29]
Wayne PETERSON (b. 1927)
Free Variations (1958) [19:32]
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Porgy and Bess – A Symphonic Picture (1935, 1942) [22:54]
Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra/Antal Doráti
rec. 18 April 1950 (Mozart), 21 April 1959 (Peterson), 14 December 1952 (Gershwin), Northrop Auditorium, Minneapolis

Following my disappointment at the production values of the first Doráti Society disc I reviewed (Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, with Szeryng, ADE029), I’m happy to report that this one is a distinct improvement. Above all, the transfers have been admirably achieved by Chris Brereton, who treats us to a gentle but rapid fade in at the beginning and out at the end, and also maintains the ambient vinyl background noise between the movements. This allows for much more relaxed listening and complements the overall excellent sound quality he achieves.

The Mozart, recorded in 1950, is a large-scale performance which probably won’t appeal to those only accustomed to, and interested in, current practice. There is certainly a relentless quality to the playing, with relatively little light and shade, particularly in the slow movement. Yet the performance has a rhythmic life and dynamism that reminds us that, later in life, Doráti went on to record a series of Haydn symphonies that opened our ears to a new way of appreciating that composer. Mozart, after all, is very much more than elegance and refinement, and in this performance Doráti shows us much of what can often be missed. And there is no questioning the brilliance of the Minneapolis players.

The Porgy and Bess music is given in the through-composed suite organised and scored by Robert Russell Bennett and subtitled ‘A Symphonic Picture’. Most of the big tunes are there, although you have to wait quite a long time for ‘Summertime’, and the scoring, though largely faithful to the spirit of Gershwin’s original, features some delicious original touches. The work mirrors the opera in that it passes through a bewildering mixture of musical styles and mood, and there would be no guarantee that a symphony orchestra would be able to slot in with ease to the jazz-based passages. A reasonable mind would also wonder where a Hungarian conductor might find his place in the scheme of things. In the event, Doráti and his players rise magnificently to the challenge; this is a performance of a Porgy potpourri that will bring pleasure to any listener.

The name of Wayne Peterson was new to me, and, as so often, it is Wikipedia that comes to help where, in this case, the CD publisher fails. He is a native of the state of Minnesota who began his musical studies there before attending the Royal Academy of Music in London. Wikipedia lists the latest in a long list of compositions as dating from 2010. The present work, composed in 1958, was first performed by the artists on this disc. Listening without a score it appears to be a conventionally shaped theme and variations, some of which are played without a break. Anyone familiar with American music of the period would recognise the work’s origins. It is largely tonal but with as much chromatic dissonance to identify it as coming from the same school as Roy Harris, say, rather than Samuel Barber. The work provides many opportunities for the woodwind principals to shine, most notably the oboe, whose tone and fast vibrato is very much of its time and place. The work begins calmly, before passing, variation by variation, through a number of different moods. One variation in particular, the second – I think – begins with pizzicato strings accompanying oboe and horn solos to establish a tranquil mood before passing on to a string passage that is really rather lovely. Mystery and disquiet are also present in a work that largely eschews faster music, or rather, does so up to the final variation which brings the work to an exciting, virtuoso close that will have entertained the audience on its first performance. As is the case with the rest of this interesting and satisfying disc, the playing of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra is brilliant.

William Hedley

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