Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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WILLIAM GRANT STILL (1895-1978) Afro-American Symphony (1930) [30:05] AMY BEACH(1867-1944) Symphony Gaelic (1896) [35:27]   RPO/Karl Krueger rec 1965, 1968 BRIDGE 9086 [65.41]




Here then are two contrasting largish scale symphonies. The Still is a strong melodic work in a modern style and heavy with poignant feeling. The Beach is hardly ever less than compelling but rises to emotional heights in the lento third movement. Both works are of their time. The fact that they are coupled may well refer to the fact that each composer was from a group who had to struggle more than most in order to gain publication and performance. What matters now is the music and in both cases the symphonies make rewarding listening for the palate jaded by overdoses of the familiar 'greats'.

The Still symphony is contemporaneous with Constant Lambert's Rio Grande and Hanson's Romantic Symphony, John Foulds' Three Mantras, Frank Bridge's Oration and Bax's Symphony No. 4. Like Foulds, Bridge and Lambert, Still leans towards delicacy in his orchestration. His taste is usually faultless. Thankfully there is hardly a trace element of negro caricature - just a little too much in the banjo-solo featured third movement. Instead we have a mature symphony with a subtly exotic twist of jazzy sourness. Still uses the orchestra with great discrimination and his textures are often lacy and superfine. His themes are distinctive: try the Rimskian steppes motif at 5:52 in the first movement. His slow movement has all the tearful vitality of a negro spiritual. The finale Aspiration (I noticed a tape chirrup at 2:30) amply conveys a sense of the great enterprise, contentment and questioning. Randall Thompson may well have been influenced by this symphony. I thought of his third symphony several times as I listened to this piece though overall the Still has more gravitas.

The Beach is an old-fashioned work but only in the sense that the composer mixes her paint from the same palette as Dvorák and Schumann. This symphony suffers a similar handicap to Bantock's Hebridean Symphony. Note writers understandably (because their trade is words) focus on plotline and the appearance of named tunes. Both Bantock's work (from almost 20 years later) and Beach's will stand or fall not by a 'here comes that tune' approach but rather by the reaction of the listener who knows nothing about the inspiration or the underling thematic structure. The work is not Brahmsian in feeling. The melodic touch is lighter and earlier references to Dvorák and Schumann simply hint at the qualities displayed. The symphony hangs together well as a journey of the emotions. Its centre of gravity is the noble and passionate lento. It is deeply impressive and well worth getting to know.

The recordings are more than thirty years old but the technical work of Adam Abeshouse is outstanding. He presents the original stereo sound (which I know at one remove - from tapes of the LPs) without noticeable hiss and yet to my ears has not compromised the robustly natural audio image. The strings perhaps show a hint of Stürm und Drang but that is all.

The notes are in English only which allows both writers to provide substantial essays over 15 or so pages of the leaflet.

Design values are high with a striking portrait of Still on the front and of Beach on the rear case insert.

Another strong issue from Bridge who must continue to revive those SPAMH tapes. We await impatiently.


Rob Barnett


Rob Barnett

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