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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
BIS BIS-2118 SACD [78:08]

I was alerted to this release by the laudatory review of my colleague, Dan Morgan, who heard it as a download. Twentieth century American symphonies interest me very much so I was keen to hear the disc for myself, especially as two of the works here – and, indeed, the music of their respective composers – were previously unknown to me.

The exception is Walter Piston. I’ve heard quite a few of his orchestral works in the past, principally through the releases by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony which I acquired as Delos CDs but which have now reappeared courtesy of Naxos. I have Schwartz’s recording of the Sixth Symphony (review) and also a 1990 recording by Leonard Slatkin and the Saint Louis Symphony (RCA Red Seal RD60798). I remember both of these as being very good though I confess it’s been some time since I listened to either. The symphony was written for Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony. Years ago, I owned, on cassette, their pioneering recording – coupled, if memory serves, with the Martinů Sixth – but that’s long gone, to my regret.

Lance Friedel’s account of the Piston Sixth is highly persuasive. Piston is sometimes labelled as a bit dry but works such as The Incredible Flutist and this symphony belie that rather unfair reputation and I don’t honestly believe that anyone hearing the symphony in this performance could justifiably label it ‘dry’. In part that’s due to the first-rate performance but I think the BIS recording contributes too. The hybrid SACD offers both a stereo and a surround option: I listened in SACD stereo. I’m accustomed to hearing excellent audio results from this label but the recordings here strike me as being outstanding. The sound of the orchestra is clearly presented, with every detail audible, and the sound has great presence at all dynamic levels. One characteristic that I’ve scribbled down in my listening notes for the first movement of the Piston is “a real open-air feel”. In fact, that proves to be characteristic of the entire programme. The orchestra is very realistically reported at all times – I love the sound of the bass drum. The other distinguishing factor is the superb playing of the LSO. This orchestra is famed for its adaptability and that’s amply demonstrated here. I can’t believe the orchestra has played any of this music before but you wouldn’t know that just from listening.

In the first movement of the symphony Piston’s material is excellent: he presents ideas that are clear and strong and then he works them out in a most interesting way. The second movement is a very fleet, scurrying scherzo in which the percussion has a prominent role. The music is quite quiet at the start and end of the movement, though the central part features a strong climax. The LSO brings the music to life with deft and spirited playing, which accurately reflects the marking Leggerissimo vivace. The slow movement comes next. The music is deeply felt and eloquent and it strikes me as being very beautifully conceived for the orchestra. This introspective mood is banished by a cheerful and upbeat finale. This is a super performance of the symphony; it’s as good as any I’ve heard.

Samuel Jones’ Third Symphony has been recorded before, by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony (review) – Jones, a onetime pupil of Howard Hanson, was composer in residence with the orchestra for an amazingly long term, from 1997 to 2011. Commissioned by the Amarillo Symphony Orchestra, this symphony was inspired, as its title indicates, by the nearby Palo Duro Canyon. Its in one continuous movement though this recording is helpfully divided into six tracks and I found Lance Friedel’s notes a very reliable guide to what is going on.

At the start we hear a pre-recorded sound of wind over which, after a while, scurrying strings play material which Friedel describes as “like fragments of country fiddle music”; this material will feature several times and in several guises during the symphony. At 2:05 there’s a big. imposing passage first for brass and then on the full orchestra, which represents the canyon. This theme, too, we will encounter again. This climax, and the even bigger one that follows a few minutes later, are handled effortlessly by the BIS recording. What is effectively the slow movement (track 6) begins with a tranquil and rather lovely cor anglais theme. The whole of this section is very beautiful and the BIS engineers put a fine bloom on the LSO’s impressive sonorities. Two related short sections of quick music follow. One features the “country fiddle” music, now heard on a variety of brass instruments. The pace of the music then slows (track 9) and for the next couple of minutes the argument is dominated by the canyon theme, which produces majestic, powerful climaxes. Then the music slows down and moves seamlessly into an extended, peaceful epilogue (track 10). The epilogue is highly atmospheric, not least from 2:30 where Jones introduces a quiet ostinato on celeste and xylophone: we are told that this represents stars in the night sky.

I found this symphony a most impressive piece of work. In particular, Jones reveals himself to be a resourceful and imaginative orchestrator. It’s a most attractive and accessible score and Lance Friedel leads the LSO in a finely committed and very convincing performance.

Stephen Albert’s Second Symphony was written for the 150th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic. Tragically, Albert was killed in a traffic accident before he could finish the score. We’re told that the orchestration was “completed” by his colleague and fellow-composer, Sebastian Currier. The documentation doesn’t really explain how much work Currier had to do. I found online a review by Steve Schwartz of a previous recording of the work on Naxos, coupled with Albert’s First Symphony; we don’t seem to have reviewed that disc on MusicWeb International (8.559257). From what Mr Schwartz has to say, it appears that Albert had completed most of the symphony in draft but Sebastian Currier had to make quite a number of editorial decisions. These not only related to the scoring but also to how the symphony should end because Albert had not composed the conclusion. How successful Currier’s efforts were I’m not in a position to say because I’ve no previous experience of Albert’s music. However, the NYPO must have been content with the results because they gave the work its posthumous premiere in 1994. Furthermore, as he makes clear in his notes, Lance Friedel not only believes in the work but is anxious that it should be more widely known. His recording can only help its cause.

The work is in three movements. The two outer movements are of roughly equal playing length and enclose a much shorter scherzo. The music of the first movement seems to be harmonically ambiguous - though it is resolutely tonal - and the harmonies often take surprising turns. Lance Friedel uses the term “earnest striving” to describe the music at one point and that description fits the movement as a whole, I’d say. If I’m honest I don’t feel I’ve fully got to grips with it yet but this is certainly music of purpose and no little seriousness. Serious it may be, but it’s also eminently approachable. Friedel describes the scherzo as “wild, manic”. He also makes a very interesting comparison with the Rondo-Burleske movement of Mahler’s Ninth and I can see where that connection comes from. This is music characterised by dark energy and jagged rhythms. Projected powerfully by the LSO, it’s a very effective movement. The finale opens with an attractively lyrical theme heard on the violins, though immediately thereafter the theme is given (by Sebastian Currier?) to a trio of trombones. That’s an interesting decision because the switch to trombones immediately imparts a different mood – rather more gravitas – to the melody. This opening is essentially tranquil and it thereby provides a very necessary contrast after the rigours of the scherzo. As the movement progresses the music increases in both volume and intensity but it always seems to me to retain a noble spirit. The climaxes have grandeur. The ending, which seems to have been composed by Currier, drawing on thematic fragments from elsewhere in the symphony, is big, confident and optimistic. It’s only since completing my listening that I’ve discovered and read the comments by Steve Schwartz from which it appears that the conclusion of the symphony is the work of Sebastian Currier. That may be the case but it doesn’t alter the view I’d already formed, namely that the ending of the symphony is consistent with what has preceded it. I agree with Lance Friedel that the symphony deserves to be better known: he’s certainly done his bit.

This is a most interesting and successful release. All three works on the programme are definitely worth your attention. In all three cases the LSO plays the music marvellously and Lance Friedel’s direction seems to me to be sure-footed and very sympathetic. He’s a very effective guide to the music, not only with his baton but also with the pen: his notes are excellent. The BIS recording is outstandingly fine and presents these scores and performances in the best possible light. I hope that BIS will soon invite Mr Friedel and the LSO to record some more American symphonic repertoire.

John Quinn

Previous review: Dan Morgan



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