AMERICAN MASTERS (Three Symphonies):ROY HARRIS Symphony No. 3 (1937) 17:09 rec 1961, RANDALL THOMPSON Symphony No. 2 (1931) 27:44 rec 1968, DAVID DIAMOND Symphony No. 4 (1945) 18:52 rec 1958 NYPO/Leonard Bernstein The Bernstein Century series SONY CLASSICAL SMK60594 64:04


You may buy
this disc here

Here are recordings of three tonal and melodic American symphonies.You are destined to make life-log friends with them.


I have been a keen supporter of Roy Harris’s music ever since I heard the RCA Victrola LP of the Boston SO/Koussevitsky account of No. 3. Wasn’t it coupled with some Sibelius: Pohjola’s Daughter? All very apt as this symphony, with its single movement, has obvious Sibelian references (Symphony No 7) without being totally in thrall. Harris adds his own brand of intensity and emotional concentration usually concentrated on the longest singing lines on the strings but also distinguished by stormy monumental brass. Listen out also for the yearning flute at 5:25 leading into a great chorale and the same instruments arabesquing leaf-fall at 7:00.

Harris builds a delicious tension at 7:24 onwards with lightly undulating Sibelian rustlings and a magical vibraphone note resonating three times (8:00). The twists and turns of a typical Harris melody (established long before this symphony - try the first symphony 1933 and see what I mean) are irresistible. At 10:20 we get a resolute striking of attitudes soon to develop into an exciting Waltonian brass and drum dance echoing down eternity (12:50). The antiphonal effects pervading the heights and depths of the orchestra register wonderfully in the refurbished 20 bit sound (13:23). The sense of tragic homecoming is tangible in the closing minutes.

There are few better performances than Bernstein’s though sad to say I have never heard Mata’s nor Ormandy’s. This collection, anyway, is special. I hope that if you do not know this piece and you like Sibelius, Janacek’s Sinfonietta or Szymanowski you will want to hear this symphony. How sad that Bernstein did not record the other symphonies.

RANDALL THOMPSON wrote three dynamic symphonies but he is better known for his choral music. This SYMPHONY NUMBER TWO (four movements) is perfection. It is lithe, well-judged in length, poetic (especially in the second movement), exciting and rich in antiphonal dialogue. The third movement bubbles, capers and jumps: a feverish cauldron. There is then a substantial central pastoral interlude with much Sibelian birdsong for cor anglais, oboe and flute. It even swoons like Bax and perhaps Delius.

The finale opens with a feeling of decisive steadily paced resolution and gradually accelerates the confident march into a Waltonian complex of colliding tides and recollections of the first movement's themes. At 2:40 we get a hint of exhilarating syncopation (which always makes me think of Walton’s Sinfonia Concertante). This slips with inevitability into a determined Tchaikovskian finale: perky, joyous, irrepressible, cheeky. There is nothing dense or less than pellucid about this work - a gem and in a recording and realisation worthy of the work.

The Thompson is lighter than Harris 3 but not at all flippant or inconsequential. The best way of thinking about it is as a midway point between Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony (in its poise and balance) and the scampering and dark-toned energy of the British composer E J Moeran. There is a good collection of all three Thompson symphonies on Koch International but the performance of No 2 though c../graphics/reditable, and with quite a jolt to it, does not equal the Bernstein. Just listen to his yieldingly responsive control of tempo towards the end of the finale from 7:10 onwards!

DAVID DIAMOND’S FOURTH SYMPHONY opens in grand impressionistic, surging romantic melos - all swirling banks of mist. This is quite Sibelian and also surprisingly like Rubbra (Symphonies 3 and 4 and piano concerto) sometimes. The colours are touched in with highlights from the solo piano. The theme resolves into a spider-web gossamer march. Roy Harris puts in an appearance once or twice. This first  movement is extraordinarily attractive. The second of the three movements kicks in with solo piano wrestling with starkly high harsh trumpets but this relaxes into an at first reverent and then increasingly passionate string dream which caught me thinking of Finzi’s New Year Music or In Terra Pax.

The last movement is busily headlong but despite (or because of) the attractions of the two preceding movements this does not quite meet  the symphonic challenge. This is the oldest of the four recordings.

It comes as a jolt to realise that this recording was made forty years ago. There is a hint of hard glare in the strings and the more strident brass. I have the Delos recording which is excellent technically but it does not have Bernstein’s heavenly responsiveness to the music. There are some loveable Tippett-like touches and a Rubbra is not lost sight of. The off-beat cross the bars brass chord punctuation works wonderfully with long woodwind lines from 6:00 onwards but it does not end convincingly; it simply ends.

Nevertheless some memorable music here.

I know these recordings of the Thompson and Diamond quite well. In the early 1980s BBC Radio 3 broadcast a series of rare recordings celebrating the American symphony. My wife taped both for me and I loved the Thompson instantly and the Diamond’s opening bars have been etched onto my memory for many years.

Design values are excellent. Print is legible. Recording information is plentiful. Brief notes by Jackson Braider. Sound as refurbished from CBS is fresh and lively with none of the dazzling audio glare I recall from the original British CBS LPs.

The warmest recommendation for this fine set.


Rob Barnett


Rob Barnett

Return to Index