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David DIAMOND (1915–2005)
Rounds for String Orchestra (1944) [15:28]
Music for Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (1947) [22:20]
Symphony No. 6 (1951-4) [27:10]
Indiana University Chamber Orchestra, Indiana University Philharmonic Orchestra/Arthur Fagen
rec. 2016-17, Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, Bloomington, USA

Naxos continue their indomitable long-paced trudge towards what may yet become the cycle of symphonies by American composer David Diamond. A New Yorker, he studied at the Eastman School with that imaginative master Bernard Rogers. Later he worked with Roger Sessions and Nadia Boulanger. He was of a cadre who thrived in the 1930s-1950s alongside a generation of writers of symphonies that included Peter Mennin, Vincent Persichetti, Roy Harris, William Schuman, Walter Piston, Cecil Effinger and Howard Hanson. On occasion he can sound like Harris (Romeo and Juliet) and Schuman (Sixth Symphony). In any event, in an American echo of the fate of the so-called "Cheltenham composers" in the 1960s and 1970s Diamond was edged and shouldered to one side by the 12-tone orthodoxy of the academic and performance establishment. It was itself a wide church but not one capacious enough to accept démodé Diamond's music.

For me there has to be a key moment in a key work. That's the music that catches in the throat and makes me want to hear more by a particular composer. The work that did it for me was Diamond's Fourth Symphony conducted by Bernstein. That CBS recording stopped me in my tracks with one of the most striking symphonic openings in all music. It's magical, grand, impressionistic - a surging romantic melos with the green and blue hues of a light-suffused marine-scape. Friends and contacts in the USA soon lit the darkness with cassettes of symphonies one to nine conducted by the likes of Schuller, Bales, Bernstein, Ormandy, Martinon¸ Munch, Morel and Koussevitsky.

Naxos have done remarkable justice to Diamond by reviving Schwarz's Seattle recordings originally made with Delos. Thus we have from that source symphonies 1 (review), 2 and 4 (review), 3 (review) and 8 (review). Add to these No. 5 recorded on New World by Christopher Keene with the Juilliard Orchestra (NW 80396). I had my fears when I saw that Arthur Fagen was involved. I found his Martinů cycle with the NSO Ukraine circa 2002 (also for Naxos) underpowered in symphonies that need voltage. Here Fagen is infinitely more telling with his Indiana University orchestras … far more thoughtful, emotionally fleet and tough.

Two of these three works date from the 1940s when Diamond’s popularity was at high tilt. The Allegro molto vivace of Rounds, the first of three movements, is propulsive, vivacious and a shining model of chattering horizontal-transparency. It sounds a little like the Tippett Concerto for Double String Orchestra but with more light and air around the textures; a closer approximation is the thrilling Dance Tunes movement from Roy Harris's Folksong Symphony. It has more humanity and warmth than the early Barber Serenade. A closer match is the Wirén Serenade for Strings although not quite matching that work's catchy accessibility.

The five movements of the Romeo and Juliet music for full orchestra date from three years later. The moods are varied and the orchestration is full. A bustling but emotional Overture ends on a passively tender gesture. Tenderness carries over into the string-dominated Balcony Scene - writing and performance that are yearningly romantic to the core. Romeo and Friar Laurence is a darkly shaded reflective chapter before the playful smiling capering of Juliet and Her Nurse (could Diamond have known Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet?). The fifth, last and longest episode is The Death of Romeo and Juliet. It is at first heavy-footed and gloomy; tragedy is not far away. Diamond was a master of orchestration and there is plenty of evidence of that here with some luminous quiet statements interleaving the gaunt and emotionally gruelling. Indeed, it is a mournful tenderness from woodwind and a tolling bell that bring this very fine score to a close.

The half-hour Symphony No. 6 has its feet planted firmly in the fifties. Exuberant, angular and dissonant, it bears an aural resemblance to the hard profiles presented by Symphonies 7 and 8 by William Schuman. It's a score that sears and shouts; moods vary from fury to foreboding to the disconsolate. Perhaps it reflects the Cold War atmosphere although it might perhaps be a product of something far more inward and personal. The style at times immerses itself in acrid disillusion and the orchestral piano does nothing to temper this. Unlike the Fourth Symphony there is nothing of the easy-winner about this score. It had to wait getting on for five years for its premiere at Boston under Charles Munch. Among broadly contemporary symphonies it can be heard in company with Alwyn's Third, Mennin's Sixth and Seventh, Arnold's Sixth and Vaughan Williams' Sixth. It ends on a protesting knife-edge and feels unresolved. There is no comfort to be had: that seems to be the message. No doubt Diamond wrote what he wanted to write but even this grouchy, leaping, turbulence was not going to endear him to the triumphantly upcoming and ascendant generation.

As Mike Herman has pointed out, Diamond's now unrecorded symphonies are narrowed down to Nos. 7 (1959), 9 for Baritone and Orchestra (1985), 10 for Organ and Orchestra (1989-2000) and 11 (1989-92). We can allow for Delos (DE 3189) having recorded one movement of the Symphony No. 11.

The notes by Robert Lintott in English only are no also-ran. They stand as a supportive companion to two scores which have already been recorded and a sternly commanding Symphony that appears in a recording for the first time. The audio side is strong and commanding with an open listening perspective.

Rob Barnett



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