January 29, 2013

Recommended Recordings for Phils 8 by Gil French, Concert Editor for American Record Guide

Still: Symphony No. 1 (“Afro-American”)
Neemi Jarvi, Detroit Symphony
Chandos 9154

So it turns out after all that Jessie Jackson didn’t single-handedly invent the term “Afro-American” in 1988; William Grant Still used it 57 years earlier as the sub-title for his Symphony No. 1. In describing the music, Howard Hanson, who led the world premiere with the RPO in 1931, said, “Still’s music speaks of the common man. Listeners need no analytical table, seismographic chart, nor digital computer to understand it, only a sensitive ear, a mind, and a heart.”

Neemi Jarvi’s gorgeously engineered recording confirms that. True, the work is shy on counterpoint and “involution”, but it’s rich in melody, styles (plural), and superb orchestration. Still has a special gift for playing the woodwinds against the strings. Whether the style is jazz, spiritual, jig (with banjo!), or heat-withered laconic, Jarvi makes the music flow so naturally you’ll be humming, tapping a foot, or pausing in a contemplative, melancholic mood.

The other work on the album, by the way, is a suite from “The River” by Duke Ellington.

Lowry, Douglas: Commissioned Work
No recordings available.

Hindemith: Mathis der Maler Symphony
Eugene Ormandy, Philadelphia Orchestra
Sony 53258

To this day, 33 years after Ormandy ended his 44-year reign with the Philadelphia Orchestra, even when tuning the car radio into the middle of a piece, I can quickly exclaim “That’s Ormandy’s Philadelphia Orchestra” just by the sound.  Their recordings in the 1950s and 1960s were sometimes headed with the slogan, “The World’s Greatest Orchestra,” a nickname given by none other than Sergei Rachmaninoff.  This is one of their recordings that tells you why.

By 1962, when this recording was made, Ormandy had been music director for 24 years. Having hand-picked most of the players by that time, and having conducted between 100 and 180 concerts each year, he did indeed create his own sound. The string sound that the violin-trained conductor created is sumptuously rich and deep.  In fact, it’s awesome, unlike any other!  But so is the rich, firm, highly nuanced, richly lyrical playing of each of the principal woodwinds.  And so is the distinctively bright, firmly supported, deep sound of the amassed brass section, all enhanced on this recording by superb full-range engineering.

But it’s more than that.  Interpretation is what counts the most, and here Ormandy is at his best.  He balances all those amassed sounds by going primarily for the lyrical line and for phrasing that sustains long arches of sound; he gives the melody line primacy, while the chords and instrumental colors give it context.  Ormandy also conveys Hindemith’s strong characterizations here—the differing textures in “The Angels’ Concert”; the longing, yearning, surging of emotions, and almost “trying to hold on to a memory” in “The Entombment”. And in “The Temptation of St. Anthony” Ormandy makes the motifs worm their way into our psyche, like kernels of temptation screwing themselves into St. Anthony’s inner core. Even if Hindemith isn’t normally your cup of tea, this recording is enough to make you addicted to at least this one work.

The other works on this album are Hindemith’s most accessible one, “Symphonic Metamorphases on Themes of Weber” and William Walton’s “Variations on a Theme of Hindemith”, both with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra.  The Walton too is a classic recording.

Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue
Earl Wild; Arthur Fiedler, Boston Pops

Michael Tilson Thomas, Los Angeles Philharmonic
CBS 39699

Andrew Litton, Dallas Symphony
Delos 3216

“Rhapsody in Blue” comes in three versions, all orchestrated by Ferde Grofe: the original one for jazz band (with eight violins, reeds, brass, piano, percussion, banjo, and a string bass player who also played the tuba), one for a pit-sized ensemble, and the famous one for full symphony orchestra arranged after Gershwin died.

In the full symphonic version, no one compares with the Earl Wild-Arthur Fiedler recording, made way back in 1959.  Here the Rhapsody is no chunky, loosely organized pops piece. Boy, does Earl Wild always know precisely where he’s going, and so does Fiedler in one of his moments of pure panache! Amidst the supreme musicality and style, listen to Wild’s phenomenal technique—how he accents, prioritizes, and articulates even subsidiary notes amidst thickets of notes. Fiedler too is on fire—the orchestra is crazy, riotious. This is not just high energy; it’s a portrayal of wild 1920s NYC. As one critic wrote at the time, “Gershwin expresses us. He is the present, with all its audacity, impertinence, its feverish delight in its motion, its lapses into rhythmically exotic melancholy.” What a treat—to have lived at a time when impertinence was king instead of the bland pertinence so in style today.

This recording is available on two CDs. The older one includes the Piano Concerto in F (another over-the-top performance), “An American in Paris”, and “I Got Rhythm Variations”; the later “Living Stereo” release also includes the “Cuban Overture”. 

The other two recordings use Ferde Grofe’s original instrumentation for jazz band. Michael Tilson Thomas as both pianist and conductor is hot too—really hot. In fact, his pacing pretty much matches that of Wild and Fiedler, that is, the piece comes across as a unified whole. But crisp, taut, and rhythmically dazzling as both piano and orchestra are, for me the performance lacks that final touch of panache; others will find it perfect.

Panache is what Andrew Litton conveys as conductor; whenever the orchestra enters after the many piano solo passages, it’s as if you know exactly where Litton as soloist has been aiming. And what panache the players have—rhythms, balanced colors, accents so pungent they even made me jump a few times. They’re as riotous as the Boston Pops.

What’s different here is that Litton as pianist has far looser tempos in the solo passages; he treats them as cadenzas, virtuoso opportunities where one can be spontaneous. That’s why his recording is 75 seconds longer than Thomas’. But I feel that he too always knows where he’s headed, though his approach may not be to every listener’s taste. Also, good as the engineering is on the other two recordings, the sound on this album is truly exceptional, right down to the piano’s rich bass notes and the orchestral impact.

Both Tilson Thomas’ and Litton’s recordings contain world premieres of works each artist discovered combing the Library of Congress’ Gershwin archives (MTT with Ira Gershwin himself).   

Note: MTT has three recordings that use the original jazz band instrumentation; the other two are with the New World Symphony and Columbia Jazz Band. The cover of the Los Angeles Philharmonic one has MTT at a grand piano against a backdrop of NYC at night—not to be confused with the Sony “Classic Gershwin” album with the Columbia Jazz Band (it has a black cover).

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