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William Grant Still (1895–1978)
Can’t You Line ’Em (1940)
Three Visions – No. 2. Summerland (1936)
Quit Dat Fool’nish (1935)
Pastorela (1946)
American Suite (c. 1918)
Fanfare for the 99th Fighter Squadron (1945)
Serenade (1957)
Violin Suite (1943)
Threnody: In Memory of Jean Sibelius (1965)
Zina Schiff (violin)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Avlana Eisenberg
rec. August 2018, Glasgow, UK

Naxos have already done much to make the music of William Grant Still a living thing for listeners. For a start, they have recorded his five symphonies (Symphony 1, Symphonies 2 and 3, Symphonies 4 and 5). The nine operas remain to be tackled but each of these would be a big and therefore expensive proposition. The present CD advances the cause by bringing various shorter works, many of them with a prominent part for Schiff’s eloquent solo violin, out of the Stygian depths. It fills in around Still’s music on other discs without duplication.

William Grant Still studied composition at Oberlin Conservatory and found his metier as an arranger. Perhaps lesser known is that he advanced his studies with George Whitefield Chadwick and Edgard Varèse - not that his music sounds anything like Varèse. Classical styles are married up with jazz, blues and spirituals. Still grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, home of the Clintons. There, he delighted in hymns and spirituals and a love of God, country, heritage and his dog. He won a commission to write the theme music for New York’s 1939 World’s Fair. His romantically cast and not at all clunky music was taken up by Barbirolli, Monteux, Stokowski, Hanson and Fiedler.

Can’t You Line ’Em (1940) is founded on a railroad construction ballad. The notes tell us that it captures the rhythm and spirit of the construction gangs lining up railroad tracks. Still was a lifelong train enthusiast and this work was a CBS commission. Spirited horn writing marks out what is an engaging work.

Again Quit Dat Fool’nish (1935) was first written for solo piano. Here, in orchestral garb, it is a wild life enhancing vignette of Still’s mischievous dog, Shep. Later rewritten for saxophone and orchestra this was transposed for violin for this recording by Dana Paul Perna.

Summerland (1936) began life as one of Three Visions for solo piano. It has a prominent part for the prettiest of violin solos - said to be a “delicate depiction of the serenity and purity of Heaven.” It’s not that far removed from RVW’s Lark.

Pastorela (1946) has about it the folk feeling and sunset grandeur of Kodaly’s Summer Evening. The composer wrote that it is “a tone picture of a California landscape, peaceful but exciting, arousing feelings of languor in some of its aspects and of animation in others, presenting an overall effect of unity in its variety.” It was written in response to a request from Louis Kaufman and was premiered in New York City in 1947. The solo most ardent violin soars and the orchestra echoes the solo’s sincerity. The listener is left in no doubt that this speaks from the heart.  This is not to be missed.

The short American Suite (c. 1918) is the first of this disc’s two three-movement suites. It was Still’s first symphonic work. A confident composer sent the score to Frederick Stock in Chicago. Even so the orchestral parts had to be re-created for this recording by Dana Paul Perna. In its outer movements it’s beautiful, sly, easy-going and almost Delian. The middle movement is polished and a shade Vaudevillian. Twenty-five years later, the Violin Suite (1943) is a musical portrayal of three works of art. African Dancer is a bronze statue by Richmond Barthé (1901–1989). Mother and Child is a poignant coloured lithograph by Sargent Johnson (1888–1967). Gamin is a bronze bust by Augusta Savage (1892–1962). The first of these is a ruthlessly active humoresque. Then comes a romantic, setting-sun essay before a pattering Gamin.

The little Fanfare for the 99th Fighter Squadron Fanfare suggests the pride, courage and patriotic resolve of the Tuskegee Airmen (‘The Redtails’). Leopold Stokowski premiered the work at the Hollywood Bowl in 1945. Short though it is, this work can be grouped with Walton’s Prelude and Spitfire Fugue, the Goossens’ commissioned services fanfares at Cincinnati and Martinu’s Thunderbolt P-47, the latter also from 1945.

Serenade (1957) was originally intended for a cello concerto for Gregor Piatigorsky. As things transpired it saw daylight as a commission for a high school orchestra in Montana. Its well-upholstered writing for strings points backwards to the initial source of inspiration. It’s a most gracious and moving piece.

Threnody: In Memory of Jean Sibelius (1965) was a commission by Fabien Sevitzky for a concert in memory of Finland’s national hero, composer Jean Sibelius (1865–1957), on the 100th anniversary of his birth. It was premiered in 1965 by the University of Miami Symphony Orchestra. In 1966, it was included in a broadcast by the Finnish Radio. This substantial and sincere score, with its searing funereal tread, dates from seven years after the Finnish composer’s death. It merits being heard. It hales from when Sibelius’s music was stepping cautiously back into the sunlight and in the same decade as Harold Johnson’s important Faber study of the composer and his music.

The vital liner-notes - in English only - are by Zina Schiff and Avlana Eisenberg and like the performances on this disc, are a daughter/mother collaboration.

The recording is forward yet subtle - again the distinguished work of Michael Ponder.

Rob Barnett

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