Meredith Willson's symphonies are relaxed documents of entertainment rather
than barn-storming essays given cheerfully enthusiastic performances by the
adventurous Stromberg and the intrepid Muscovites.
Willson may well be better known to you as the composer of two successful
musicals: The Unsinkable Molly Brown (Titanic again!) and The Music
Man. He wrote music for Hollywood films and orchestrated Chaplin's score
for The Great Dictator. A man of many careers his music is not to
be dismissed and Naxos have done us all a great service in making this recording.
The first symphony's first and fourth movements refer to one of those themes
that suggest Medieval pageantry and derring-do - a refugee from the (in fact)
much later Rózsa score for Ben-Hur. It bursts with influences
all of a conservative cast. Ultimately it feels somewhat ramshackle as a
work but has its moments and one can imagine becoming quite affectionate
towards the piece.
The second symphony is from three or so years later. The voices are Russian
and Rimsky is not far away - all those woodwind rhapsodies and curlicues!
There is more than a trace element of Biblical epic and I suspect Willson
had heard Howard Hanson's first two symphonies as well. The Straussian (Richard)
violin solos and babbling Respighianisms all make for a fun symphony and
considerable pleasure provided your sights are not set too high. Each of
the movements has one of the Californian missions as its subject - a little
like Respighi's Church Windows and Gesensway's Squares of
Philadelphia. The andante is a deeper movement of patent sincerity. The
Capistrano movement (III) has the swallows darting and diving across
the wide sky in attractive woodwind display. The final El Camino Real
(Royal Road) is catchy and nervy with railroad rhythms and grand
with Hollywood romance (5:01 - Rachmaninovian grandeur) before the idiom
had really established itself. I felt that in this work the playing really
Two estimable symphonies that will deliver plenty of entertainment without
plumbing depths or ascending the heights.