Three eminently American, powerful symphonies find their debut performances with Koussevitzky restored.
Koussevitzky conducts Rare American Symphony Performances = HARRIS: Symphony No. 5; HILL: Symphony No. 1 in B-flat Major, Op. 34; DIAMOND: Symphony No. 2 – Boston Sym. Orch. – Pristine Audio PASC 484, 77:49 [avail. in var. formats at www.pristineclassical.com] *****:
Producer and engineer Andrew Rose deserves an honorable mention for the sheer effort lavished upon these previously unreleased, live performances by Serge Koussevitzky of classic American repertory, often from sources in originally sad shape. From BSO archives, 1943-44, Rose has virtually resurrected wartime concerts that fueled much for the aesthetic morale of our country during this critical period. The Roy Harris Symphony No. 5 – based on a process the composed called “autogenesis,” a kind of through-composed technique of building upon kernels of musical material played early and extended in their musical possibilities, a la Beethoven’s Fifth – is dedicated to the Soviet Union, at the time busy repelling the Nazi horde. The music contains aggressive, martial aspects: the first movement Prelude evolves from thirds, sixths, and repeated notes. The second movement Chorale capitalizes (rec. 27 February 1943) on the BSO’s strong suit of strings and brass: the music has funereal energy, both lament and secular hymn. The last movement Fugue makes a strong case for American polyphony, a gift much acknowledged in the music of David Diamond. Whether Koussevitzky’s committed realization makes this last movement less “academic” and more “gutsy” remains a matter of taste.
Among the forgotten generation of American composers, Edward Burlingame Hill (1872-1960) seems to have literally fallen into obscurity, undeservedly so. A student of John Knowles Paine, Charles Widor (in Paris), Arthur Whiting, B. J. Lang and George Chadwick, Hill became an influential writer and educator – of Leonard Bernstein and Roger Sessions – as well as composer with a strong penchant for French Impressionism as reflected in his book Modern French Music as well as in an early tone poem Lilacs (1926). His compositions include orchestral suites, orchestral tone poems, four symphonies, two sinfoniettas, a violin concerto and concertino for piano and orchestra, a sextet, music for english horn and rrchestra, and other instrumental, and chamber music. His music can be captivating, often exciting and gripping, and certainly deserving more attention. The Symphony No. 1 (1928) often found itself on Serge Koussevitzky’s programs, and this recording (27 February 1943) preserves that maestro’s ninth performance of the fifteen-minute work. While some note in Hill a jazz influence, this music rambles effectively in robust gestures. The first movement Allegro moderato, ma risoluto swaggers with confidence in basically conservative harmonies. The central Moderato maestoso conveys a degree of ominous power, but it also settles for a lyric quality that imitates Faure or Dukas. The last movement, Allegro brioso, capitalizes on the BSO brass sonority, and it conveys a sense of personal victory.
I met David Diamond at the Juilliard School, where we discussed Dimitri Mitropoulos, and David made me a gift of an autographed copy of his Fifth Symphony. David’s brilliance in musical counterpoint and for acerbic commentary had a counterpart in his personal pessimism. A large work, the Symphony No. 2 (rec. 4 October 1944) presents us a slow-fast-slow-fast structure, in the manner of a concerto grosso. An Adagio funebre opens, set in E, an austere, moody lament. It modulates to a pedal point on G in the strings. The lyricism proves valedictory, with occasional comments from the brass and winds, especially the bassoon. The final pages resemble sad moments in Shostakovich, lyrical and lachrymose, at once. The second movement, Allegro vivo, gives us violence in D Major we do not often experience. Rife with aggressive momentum, this music likes to canter on B-flat, but offers little consolation for a “scherzo.”
The Andante espressivo, quasi adagio presents us more music in E, slow, heartfelt, and restrained. We have the impression of Diamond’s urge to cyclicism in music, with his recurrent motifs and rhythmic currents.
The oboe enjoys some nostalgic riffs, girded by those patented BSO strings, high and low. “To me, the romantic spirit in music is important because it is timeless,” quipped Diamond. Whatever optimism emerges from this symphony comes hard-won by way of the Allegro vigoroso finale, more direct in its raw, “American” energy. With its insistent, driven pulse and raucous scoring – although the pizzicati resort to moments in Tchaikovsky – we think that Dvorak would have well appreciated what Diamond has done with “native” impulses in modern harmony. Georges Laurent’s flute sails across the landscape with airy verve. The last pages explode in fiery affirmation to a delighted Boston audience.
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