Van Vactor (a native of Plymouth, Indiana) is another US composer completely
unknown to many listeners. A flautist who played under Frederick Stock with
the Chicago SO he came to prominence as a composer in the 1930s. He conducted
the NYPSO in his own first symphony in January 1939 and successes continued
well into the 1960s.
The CRI disc valuably anthologises recordings of three of his seven symphonies
(an eighth lies unfinished). The first symphony is in four movements of which
the first is wind-dominant opening with a Sibelian largo and pitching then
into the grotesqueries of the allegro vivace. This has many magical moments
including flute solo at 5.12 and the violin solo at 8.14. The second movement's
Roy Harris string passages suggest epic journeyings and an accent of
Tchaikovsky's Pathetique. The classical poise and cheek of the third movement
bridge across to Prokofiev's Classical Symphony. The finale has some dense
brass writing and romantic work for the strings.
The post-war Recitative and Saltarello is a work of emotional complexity,
slightly icy resembling Sibelius 4. The saltarello bowls along in Sibelian
style - neo-classical in liberated energy but rich rather than dried out.
The Third Symphony originally issued as No. 2 on a CRI LP is here in a recording
with a strong hiss level. The first movement sports a long melodic line and
at 7.26 a Sousa-like finale. The warm concentration of the adagio equates
with one of Roy Harris's string psalms (as in symphonies 3, 5 and 7) but
with slightly atonal overtones. The brief (3 mins) allegretto is like a dance
scene from a ball - prompting thoughts of Prokofiev Classical Symphony. The
finale blends elements of naïve jollity, Irishry, stately jigs and Sousa.
The Sinfonia Breve is a dark little study of a symphony in negation closely
approaching and vying with the asperities of William Schuman in his most
barbed and bitter vein.
These are somewhat elderly recordings and some very slight allowance has
to be made for this. On the overwhelming credit side we have recordings of
the utmost authority. All of these works repay attentive listening. I would
like to hear the remaining van Vactor symphonies. the ones recorded here
are accessible and repay repeat listening. The first is an easy approach
to this composer.