JACK GALLAGHER: Symphony No. 2, “Ascendant”; Quiet Reflections – London Sym. Orch./ Jo Ann Falletta – Naxos

JACK GALLAGHER: Symphony No. 2, “Ascendant”; Quiet Reflections – London Sym. Orch./ Jo Ann Falletta – Naxos 8.559768, 75:08 *****:

My previous, and indeed, first, encounter with the music of Jack Gallagher occurred when I reviewed another outstanding Naxos disc with these same forces.  Now they’re back, and to even more stunning effect. The first disc was a miscellany that provided a nice overview to this composer’s music, and it was outstanding. Now we get an encore that proves not just a continuation of a symphonic sequence, but a massive and heady example of an artist’s development. Symphony No. 2, “Ascendant”, seems to have had its origins in the composer’s experience as a young trumpet player 45 years ago when he was first exposed to some of the more dizzying and colorful scores of the repertory, like Pictures at an Exhibition, Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, and the ever-ubiquitous Planets by Holst. But it would be a mistake to think that Gallagher is simply trying to recreate deep-seated-memory musical bombast; instead he milks the symphonic form for all of its worth, and in particular the ability to engage in expansive and integrated communication that only this type of medium provides.

Ascendant refers to “the elevated aspirations of the human spirit” according to the composer, and how refreshing that is. The opening movement, bold, brash, and thoroughly American, states in no uncertain terms this premise, and thematic strands find themselves woven throughout the tapestry of this piece. The second movement stays of the bright side of the force, gossamer and almost Mendelssohnian, while serving as an athletic interlude before the third movement. That is where the composer serves up some of the most beautiful music I have ever heard. The first five minutes or so are simply astounding in their delicate loveliness. It doesn’t last—no one could sustain this for too long—but we move in the final two parts of this extended aria. One might, after all that has gone before, expect something gargantuan and overwhelming when we finally arrive at the fourth and final movement; but Gallagher realizes, convincingly, that the finale to something like this must instead be fodder for reflection and sustained emotional energy. The ending is most satisfying, not attempting to outdo the other three movements—or even to summarize them–but instead providing a logical and steadfast conclusion to a very good story. This is one of the best symphonies of our new century.

Quiet Reflection, from 1996 (the symphony is from 2010-13) is almost a letdown after the Symphony—it might have been better served by being placed first on the disc. Its formation came after the composer’s Proteus Rising from the Sea, a rousing work recorded by and written for the Air Force Band. This time the Gallagher decided to explore a lyrical, almost bittersweet “longing for past tranquility”—a very effective work that grows on you after repeated hearings.

Gallagher is fortunate to have to advocacy of one of the best conductors in the world today, JoAnn Falletta, at the helm of the splendid London Symphony. The recording is at a fairly low level, so a volume boost is in order, but the tonal quality is then splendid and warm. Definitely a keeper! This is a true “American Classic” – let’s hope Naxos realizes this composer’s importance, and continues on…

—Steven Ritter

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