Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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Reviews from other months
Symphony No. 2 Romantic
(1930) - RCASO rec Dec 1967 c. 29 mins
Billy The Kid (five excerpts) c.10 mins; Rodeo - Hoe-Down. 3:08 RPO rec February 1962 5:45
: The Pleasure-Dome of Kubla Khan
11:02; The White Peacock 5:45. rec March 1968 and April 1965 respectively.
Tropical RCASO rec Apr 1964 3:10 conductor: Charles Gerhardt CHESKY CD112 [62:15]



Going by these recordings from the 1960s it is a great pity for us that the late Charles Gerhardt did not go on to record more concert music. I recall an RCA album of French impressionist music but little else except more than ten of the groundbreaking RCA Classic Film Music albums amongst which those LPs devoted to Herrmann, Waxman and Korngold stand out.

Gerhardt's recent death (there is a rewarding obituary on Ian Lace's film music section) may too easily spell oblivion for this conductor's handful of recordings. I hope not. They deserve better and anyone who invests in this Chesky disc will quickly discover that there is nothing time-serving about these interpretations.

As an anthology it is unique in its varied mix. The Gould (granted not the strongest piece here!) is not available in any alternative recordings.

Copland's Billy the Kid is given with authentic elan which inspires admiration though (in my case) very little affection. The Gun Battle has a raw fury even if the gun-shots sound more like Browning Automatic Rifles than Colts. The Celebration Dance surprised me with its distinctly Weill-like decadence emphasised - a survivor from Vitebsk or Warsaw rather than Tucson! The final extract Open Prairie again made me reconsider. Brash though it is, it has the brawny power of Fanfare for the Common Man. Jerky, whipcrack energy bursts from every pore of the make-weight Rodeo episode.

Griffes' impressionistic White Peacock is the first of four Roman Sketches - a suite written for solo piano. Griffes orchestrated it for a ballet sequence premiered by the Philadelphians on 19 December 1919. The piano version was written in 1915-16. It shows not a shadow of the murderously tragic contemporary waste of life in Europe.

Peacock is a hesitant Faun-haunted essay. If Debussy is not far away, then neither is Bax's Spring Fire and Summer Music. The whole piece has a sunlit bosky enchantment which basks in the heat and boils to a Scriabin-like climax of molten ecstasy.

Griffes' magnum opus in the orchestral sphere is Pleasure-Dome. This is an orchestral poem which is sinuously impressionistic with a broader mood-range than Peacock. Like the Coleridge poem which inspired it the work bathes in orientalism. Eros swims languidly among the warm rockpools and Sheherazade sings her seduction again. The music sways and shimmers in fluorescent colours. Louis Aubert and Holst (Beni Mora) swim in similar waters but none can match Griffes tone painting. Hollywood and Hanson both owe Griffes a great deal. The strange tonalities of the closing pages also suggest a debt owed by Bernard Herrmann in the Rosebud sequence of Citizen Kane.

Tropical is a postcard of lush rumba, real jungle birds call and maraccas rattle in the best traditions of Hollywood big production numbers - Carmen Miranda could happily hang her fruity hat on this bough. Just think of Ketelbey's Bells Across the Meadow and transplant it across the Atlantic and you get some idea of the genre this skilful but ever so brief piece inhabits. Dates from 1934-42.

Next comes Hanson's Second Symphony, which with the Griffes pieces, is the reason for seeking out this golden disc in front of Hanson's own (Mercury - ageing sound), Montgomery's on Arte Nova, and the spanking 1990s Delos/Schwarz CDs. Gerhardt gives a simply great performance. How lamentable that he did not go on to record Hanson's Nordic Symphony and Lament for Beowulf. My, how this man and his orchestra (I recall them being called the National PO when the LP was issued on RCA Gold Seal LP in 1977) know how to pace this glorious piece. What I wouldn't have given for them also to have recorded a piece of similar glories: Louis Glass's Symphony No. 5. The recording quality here is excellent with many fine details emerging in polished and yet totally natural perspective. Especially noteworthy is the crisply patterned work of the harp, the burred horn section and the lushly buoyant strings led by Sidney Sax (this same pick-up orchestra also partnered Gerhardt in the Classic Film Music series).

The central movement was chosen by the BBC to represent Hanson in a US music themed programme on BBC Radio 3 one Sunday morning in 1972. It was through that broadcast of this Sibelian luminous eruption that I came to discover Hanson. I was immediately enthralled even if the lusty tune did sound like 'Born Free' (remember the Virginia Mackenna film and the song sung by Matt Munro?). Listen to those throaty tear-stained horns at 3:08 on track 9 and the answer of the honeyed string section! The miniature gales of sound conjured by the swirling strings in the finale were surely the inspiration for Alan Hovhaness's Majnun Symphony (recorded by the National Philharmonic during the early 1970s) having themselves been influenced by Respighi's Roman trilogy. Respighi .from whom Hanson always said he learnt the most, was Hanson's teacher in Rome (1921-24).

The rippling pizzicato energy at 2:59 in track 10 is brilliantly caught and I must wonder whether E J Moeran heard this work before writing his E minor symphony (1934) and Sinfonietta (1944). The crackling Waltonian energy of the last 2-3 minutes is brilliantly done.

If you do not know this work and enjoy music of forthright accessible emotion then do not hesitate.

The symphony might well be remembered as its big theme appeared at the end of the film Alien - the first film in the sequence of three.

These recordings were originally made by Ken Wilkinson (mostly I believe in the now-demolished Kingsway Hall, London) and were produced by the conductor. The Griffes and Hanson tracks sound wonderful and not just 'for their age'. They were made for the Readers Digest series which was, I seem to recall, a subscription series. Congratulations must obviously go to those who chose the repertoire and artists.

Decently full (English only) notes by Annette and David Chesky.

Warmly recommended. Though gaining some pleasure from part of the Billy score I feel that the Copland items are a missed opportunity despite the spirited performances.


Rob Barnett

(Hanson and Griffes)


Rob Barnett

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