Without doubt Morton Gould was an astonishing musician; remarkably talented in every aspect of music from performing (and conducting) to arranging and, of course, composing. Frank K. DeWald in his excellent liner to this new disc sets out the case for Gould very well and I quote his first paragraph in full; "Morton Gould was an American musical phenomenon, equally at home in the worlds of “serious” and “light” music. In the words of Chicago Tribune music critic John von Rhein, he was “a crossover composer well before crossover had a name.” The Recording Academy nominated him a dozen times in various categories; he won the Best Classical Album GRAMMY Award for his recording of Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 1 with the Chicago Symphony in 1967. The Academy honored him further with a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. A Kennedy Center honoree in 1994, Gould received the Pulitzer Prize in Music for one of his last compositions, Stringmusic, in 1995. His success as a conductor, orchestrator and arranger—especially on such popular “easy listening” albums as Blues in the Night and Moon, Wind and Stars—tended to overshadow his achievements as a composer, at least during his lifetime. But in the years since his death in 1996, his compositional work has continued to attract attention from conductors and listeners, beginning to redress the balance".
I did something of a double take to realise that it is nearly a full quarter century since Gould's death. On disc at least, there has been a steady trickle of discs, but it is more a trickle rather than a flood and no single conductor or label has produced anything like a comprehensive survey of Gould's work. Naxos has done as much as any with a couple of newly recorded discs of important major works, as well as a licenced disc from Delos, a valuable collection of Wind Band music and various archive recordings. But the most recent of these orchestral recordings; the quirky Jekyll and Hyde Variations coupled with the important complete Fall River Legend Ballet dates back to 2004. Since then, the Albany Symphony Orchestra under David Miller have contributed excellent discs but even the latest of those was recorded by 2008. So for a Gould aficionado such as me, there has been a wait of over a decade for a new disc devoted wholly to his music.
Which makes this present recording of particular interest and anticipation. Sadly, the performances here, although never less than technically well done, never spark alight with the verve and brilliance this music can possess. Gould's fame, even during his lifetime, as a composer rested on a small group of works written when he was a young man. The great advantage this new recording has is that it gathers together in one place most of those works - with the exclusion of American Salute and Fall River Legend amongst others. That these works are definitely part of his "populist" oeuvre might limit the appeal of this more to some listeners than others and there is an argument that over an hour of Gould in jazzy/folksy mode is too much of a good thing. But I have to say, I love it. However, listening to this new disc, my mind wandered and I could not work out initially why. As mentioned, the playing is perfectly good - the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra are a highly skilled, musically flexible ensemble. Likewise the engineering, although the actual level is slightly low, is discreetly good with the extensive percussion writing and swaggering brass well caught. The problem lies with the conducting of Arthur Fagen and his inability to project energy or pizazz or flair or dynamism or character to the players. The more I listened, the more I missed 'personality' in the performances.
As mentioned, the programming of these four works together is unique but each of them has been recorded elsewhere. In the case of the two most famous works; The Latin American Symphonette and the Spirituals for String Choir and Orchestra and not forgetting the Pavanne from the 2nd Symphonette, multiple times. In every case, comparison with the most compelling of those previous versions leaves this new Naxos disc way behind. Gould was a fine conductor both of others’ music and his own. So I think it reasonable to use his own recordings, where available, as a touchstone. Gould recorded a couple of LP's for Varese right at the start of the digital age with the LSO. One was of "orchestral spectaculars" and the other of his own music. The latter included the The Latin American Symphonette and it was recorded in 1978 with Brian Culverhouse engineering. Clearly part of the remit back in 1978 was to promote the new technology, but goodness me these performances still burst out of the speakers. The music oozes with everything the new Fagen version lacks. Gould as conductor chooses tempi consistently faster than Fagen, rhythms are tighter, dynamics are more sharply etched. For sure the new Naxos engineering is more "natural", less "sonic spectacular" but it is worth remembering that Gould produced a lot of his music either specifically for broadcast or with a radio audience in mind. So there is an argument that his music can benefit from an interventionist/heightened recording approach. Not that Culverhouse's engineering sounds in any way synthetic.
The earliest work here - the Symphonette No.2 - dates from 1935 and contains Gould's biggest light music 'hit', the Pavanne. The double 'n' spelling apparently deliberate to encourage American announcers to pronounce the name correctly! The tempo to take in this movement seems to cause a lot of interpretative controversy. Some conductors prefer a distinctly slower 4 beat to a bar feel, whereas others opt for a faster pulse which tips the music into a 1 & 2 & two beat pulse. Taking Gould himself as conductor/arbiter it is clear that the latter is the preferred option so it surprises me how few conductors seem to follow his guide. Kenneth Klein's recording as part of a Gould collection with the LPO is one of the few to get close to Gould's basic tempo here. Listen to a Gould recording with "his orchestra" and the personality of his lead trumpeter is without compare as well. Fagen opts for a tempo which sits right between a 2 or 4 beat feel which is almost identical to Miller in Albany. Without doubt, Gould as conductor is best here. The faster tempo gives the melody an easy insouciant swing and lightness of touch that a slower pulse precludes. It also makes the piece sound like a close musical cousin of Gershwin's Walking the dog. David Miller's slower tempo is for me his only mis-step on the really excellent Albany disc and even there at the slower tempo he finds a character and interest which the rather literal Fagen does not. The Albany disc contains complete recordings of both the 2nd and 3rd Symphonettes so the comparisons to Fagen are direct and easy to make. The key is in the tempo markings. Across the two works Gould variously indicates; "bright tempo", "very fast", "with vigor and bounce", and "fast and racy". The latter is the closing movement of No.2 and here Fagan is way off the mood. Also, just occasionally, here and elsewhere, the Vienna strings are taxed by Gould's demanding writing in a way the players in London or Albany are not. Aside from the miscalculation with the tempo of the Pavanne, Miller's performances are preferable in every instance to Fagen and are backed up with a top-notch recording made at the famed Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. Miller has a track record in Gould; aside from the disc with the Symphonettes, he recorded the 2nd and 3rd Symphonies as well as the Piano Concerto (not to be confused with Interplay) and several other major works. Unfortunately, all these discs are currently rather expensive where they can be found. If they can be found I do strongly recommend seeking them out, especially for those interested in hearing a knottier, more challenging Gould.
The work that closes this new disc is the piece which introduced me to Morton Gould's music; the Spirituals for Orchestra. DeWalt's liner refers to the alternative title too; Spirituals for String Choir and Orchestra. I think the latter name is better for a couple of reasons; firstly it separates out the work from others in Gould's catalogue that reference 'spirituals'; the Spirituals for Strings and the Symphony of Spirituals. Secondly, and more tellingly, Gould deploys his string section as the revised title suggests - a string "choir". Around the time Gould wrote this work, he was arranging music for broadcast using just such a massed string group and you can hear this dense, tightly voiced technique at work here. Peter W. Goodman in his Gould biography "American Salute" [pub. Amadeus Press 2000] quotes a letter from the composer Ernest Bloch referencing a broadcast of these Spirituals which Gould had framed and placed above his desk; "...at last a real composer.. American?.... inspiration, sensibility, evocations, all the spiritual qualities of which most the Others' lack, and, furthermore technique of form, of orchestra, mastery of his thought - Modern without being charalatanesque". Certainly within its five movement, sub twenty minute time frame it packs a lot of diverse emotion and style all within an accessible yet sophisticated style. This is probably the epitome of Gould's approach to composition - brilliantly crafted yet instantly comprehendible and wearing its craft lightly.
Again Fagen's interpretation proves to be perfectly good but lacking any real spark of performing fire. As far as I can tell - and I might well be wrong - Gould never recorded this work and in fact there have been relatively few versions committed to disc. Howard Hanson conducted the Eastman Rochester orchestra on Mercury, but for me the stand-out performance remains Walter Susskind with the LSO on Everest. Yes, it is the first version I ever knew so my perspective might well be skewed, but hearing it again for the purpose of comparison it is sensationally good. This recording appears in various couplings across various labels but the best transfer I have heard is a 20-bit Everest remastering coupled (as on the original disc) with an excellent Appalachian Spring from the same performers with Steinberg's dynamic American in Paris in Pittsburgh thrown in as a make-weight. Writing about this score Gould said; " I have tried to write music the way one speaks. I tried to make it as direct and simple as possible. Part of the "Jubilee" section, for example, is in boogie-woogie pattern. Of course, many contemporary jazz effects coincide with certain rhythmic patterns in our spirituals. What I tried to do was to synthesize some of these features. My starting premise was that our spirituals develop a wide gamut of emotions, musically. These emotions are specifically American. The songs range from strictly spiritual ones that are escapist in feeling, or light and gay, to those having tremendous depth and tragic impact. My idea was to get five moods, widely contrasted in feeling. Although most of the work is original as far as thematic material goes, I have used fragments of folk tunes here and there. The first movement ("Proclamation") has a dramatic religious intensity. The second movement ("Sermon") is a simple narrative — a sort of lyrical folk tale. The third movement ("A Little Bit of Sin") is humorous and good-natured. The fourth movement ("Protest") is bitter, grim and crying-out. The last movement ("Jubilee") is a festive and dance-like piece." Susskind's performance encapsulates this perfectly against which Fagen is no more than a competent run-through. Take Protest; the massed LSO string are so superior to their Viennese counterparts with weight, bite and passion backed up by mighty thwacks on the bass drum. The Vienna Radio orchestra is simply circumspect. For sure the late 50's Everest recording has some residual analogue hiss and there are a couple of occasions where the levels peak and fractionally distort but I infinitely prefer that to the lack of passion from Fagen. Unfortunately, cost and availability are again an issue when seeking out the Everest disc.
So, a disc to be welcomed with significant reservations. Gould completists will want a copy and those not willing to invest in multiple expensive performances elsewhere will find this a useful compendium. But this music contains burns low in this new recording and to experience that to its full, other versions must be heard.
Founding Editor Rob Barnett Editor in Chief
John Quinn Seen & Heard Editor Emeritus Bill Kenny MusicWeb Webmaster
David Barker Postmaster
Jonathan Woolf MusicWeb Founder Len Mullenger