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Florence Beatrice PRICE (1887-1953)
Symphony No.1 in E Minor (1932) [37.22]
Symphony No.4 in D Minor (1945) [31.34]
Fort Smith Symphony/John Jeter
rec. 2018, ArcBest Performing Arts Center, Fort Smith, US
NAXOS 8.559827 [69.04]

This is a release of much more than historical importance. Florence Price was the first Afro-American woman to have a work performed by a major American orchestra. The E minor symphony – a most attractive and enjoyable work - had won the Rodman Wanamaker prize in 1932. Frederick Stock took an interest, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed the work at an international exhibition in June 1933. The Fourth Symphony, also here, appears to have been written to no commission, and to have remained unperformed. Of the other two numbered symphonies, only a few bars survive from No.2, but it is to be hoped that Naxos might choose to record the Third. On the evidence of the two symphonies here, it would be of more than academic interest to do so.

Price’s music demonstrates a keen ear for orchestral sound, a deep gift for memorable melody and the ability to sustain interest over an extended span. One might quibble over the proportions of the symphonies, with their brief and lighter third and fourth movements rather overshadowed by more serious and much longer first movements. Timings for Symphony No 1 are 16.36, 12.11, 3.36, 4.45, for No.4, 15.10, 5.40, 5.13, 5.24, but whether these disproportions will affect anyone’s pleasure is unlikely.

Price was born and grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, moving to Chicago in 1927. Little Rock was not, at that time or long afterwards, a racially enlightened city. We might expect Price’s music to be of angry protest, but her approach is rather to delight in African American culture. There are references to jazz and – more – to spirituals. As with the New World Symphony, this is a matter of style rather than direct quotation. The most obvious connection is the use of the juba dance as the third movement in each symphony to replace the traditional scherzo (the final movement of No.4 is a scherzo). This works well: the juba is an antebellum dance with strong syncopations. Both finales are quite light-hearted.

The sound world reveals the influences of romantic symphonists, notably Dvořák and Brahms, but also Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, though the composer who first comes to mind is the Ives of the First and Second Symphonies. Nevertheless, Price has her own confident voice.

The performances are very accomplished: one senses the commitment of both conductor and orchestra. The notes are helpful and informative, and, overall, this will give much delight.

Michael Wilkinson
Previous review: Stephen Greenbank

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