Jamestown Concerto, American Music for Cello and Orchestra = WILLIAM PERRY: Jamestown Cello Concerto; WILLIAM SCHUMAN: A Song for Orpheus; VIRGIL THOMSON: Cello Concerto – Yehuda Hanani, c./ RTE National Sym. Orch. of Ireland/ William Eddins – Naxos 8.559334, 72:11 *****:
Cellists are always bemoaning the supposed lack of repertory for their instrument; I’ve known a lot of them over the years, and it’s a common complaint. Well then, this new disc by cellist Yehudi Hanani, a name new to me, should offer comfort and solace to many. Hanani’s obscurity is probably just my shortcoming as he been appearing with major U.S. and international orchestras for years, started his career after studies with luminaries like Pablo Casals and Leonard Rose (at Juilliard), and has many commissions and world premieres to his credit. Currently he is Professor of Cello at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music; his tone is broad and warm, with no discernible technical flaws. I enjoyed his performances tremendously.
Perry’s Jamestown Concerto is a real find; his studies with Hindemith, Piston, and Randall Thompson gave him a firm tonal outlook that proved to his advantage in the early 1950s before the radical academics took over the university scene. He found refuge in a position as accompanist and musical director at the Museum of Modern Art in New York where he composed more than a hundred film scores for classic silent films. His Broadway, film, and stage work has not stopped him from creating compositions commissioned by some of the major orchestras in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. This sense of drama and pathos and innate tonality infuses the pages of this concerto, a five-movement work dedicated to the first founding colony of America in Jamestown. With movements as “London 1606: The Virginia Company”, “Settlements Along River”, “The Long Winters”, “Pocahontas in London”, and “Jamestown: Four Hundred Years On”, the piece is pregnant with expressive possibilities, and Perry never disappoints. While there is no traditional cadenza here, the piece does open with a plaintiff cello solo, and the instrument acts as a Concertante foil for the always-involved orchestra. This is a wonderful work, very uplifting in every way.
William Schuman’s A Song for Orpheus, Fantasy for Cello and Orchestra is a little dimmer in emotional outlook. It was written for Leonard Rose and premiered in Indianapolis, based on the Shakespearian “Orpheus with his lute” from Henry VIII. The words of the song are written “into” the cello part in order to make the cello sing. The music is very intimate, quiet, and sad. Schuman specified that the poem should be recited before a performance (almost never done) and here Naxos contracted American actress Jane Alexander to do this.
Virgil Thomson’s music’s is rather passé these days, rarely played, and to some far too harmonically indulgent with little intrinsic interest. This is a naïve view if ever there was one, and it completely misunderstands Thomson’s incredible sense of drama and description, as apt and accurate as any American composer. He worked on this concerto from 1945 till 1950, with advice from cellist Luigi Silva, though the premiere took place by the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy, with its principal cellist Paul Olefsky as soloist (whose cello Hanani plays here). The three movements of piece, “Rider on the Plains”, “Variations on a Southern Hymn”, and “Children’s Games” take hymns and Southern Harmony tunes as its basis, with even a gratuitous quote from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 6 in the last movement. All of this is woven into a complex and richly varied amalgam of beauty followed upon beauty, in one of Thomson’s deepest and most rewarding scores, and my favorite on this fabulous disc.
The RTF orchestra plays wonderfully and with lots of enthusiasm, while William Eddins navigates the pieces with great skill and affection. This is a fantastic release, one of the four or five best I have reviewed all year. It would be criminal to ignore it!
The unifying purpose of Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn…