PAINE: Orchestral Works, Vol. 2 = Symphony No. 2 in A Major, Op. 34 “In the Spring”; Oedipus Tyrannus, Op. 35 – Prelude; Poseidon and Amphitrite – An Ocean Fantasy, Op. 44 – Ulster Orch./ JoAnn Falletta – Naxos 8.559748, 68:04 (3/10/15) ****:
Classical music in the United States flourished under the guidance of the so-called “Boston Six,” of whom John Knowles Paine (1839-1906) occupied pride of place as senior member. JoAnn Falletta rec. 1-2 March 2014) and the Ulster Orchestra present a colorful cross-section of Paine’s large orchestral canvases, including his last piece, An Ocean Fantasy of 1888, in its world-premier recording. When the publisher Arthur P. Schmidt brought out the 1879 In the Spring Symphony in Boston, the debut marked the first American orchestral score to appear in print. The evolution of themes proves Wagnerian, with cross-referenced leitmotifs infiltrating the character of the later movements.
In four traditional movements, the In the Spring Symphony suggests a kind of program that aligns it with various composers’ treatments of the subject – Vivaldi, Schumann, Glazunov – in terms of the departure of Winter and the oncoming of Nature’s awakening and rebirth. The dark viola tune of the Adagio sostenuto (in a minor) yields to an exposition based on a galloping motif reminiscent of the second movement of Schumann’s Overture, Scherzo, and Finale, Op. 52. The interior writing for the brass, tympani, strings and winds combines elements of Dvorak and Schubert in their pantheistic mode. Ingenuous and affectionate, the melodic tissue may not “move” us to Empyrean heights, but the effect remains fresh and original. The playful Scherzo in D Minor, entitled “May Night Fantasy,” combines effects from both Mendelssohn and Dvorak, deftly and energetically scored for strings, winds, brass, and tympani.
For the F Major Adagio, “A Romance of Springtime,” Paine clearly invokes his most natural predecessor, Schumann. The music seems veiled in pantheistic effects, among which French horn and oboe sing a reverie of the woods. The Allegro finale, “The Glory of Nature,” contrasts cut time with triple meter to invoke the “Winter” theme and its discontented trill to transform it into glorious summer. An inversion of the Scherzo tune adds to the compiled hymnal that Paine creates to serve as a reverential, contrapuntal paean to Nature, as though Walt Whitman had directed Paine to fashion this opus, which the contemporary Tribune labeled “a serious, important and totally beautiful work.” Falletta and her Ulster players certainly convince us – through some lush sonics courtesy of Engineer Phil Rowlands – that the piece warrants several hearings.
The 1880 Harvard production of Sophocles’ epic tragedy Oedipus the King inspired Paine to create incidental music comprising a prelude, six choruses for male singers, and a postlude. The Prelude (1882) contracts the tragic drama into eight minutes in the manner of a Liszt symphonic poem. The tension between C Minor and B Major rather projects a (Richard) Straussian dichotomy, the contest between human will and inevitable catastrophe; or if you prefer, the cosmic drama of Man, at first blind to the truth and then blinded by it.
A series of idyllic summer paintings by J. Appleton Brown motivated Paine’s 1888 Island Fantasy. The publisher Breitkopf & Haertel (1907) opted for the Greek myth of Poseidon and the mermaid Amphitrite as more evocative as a descriptive title of this colorful rondo. That Poseidon first espied the elusive Amphitrite on the island of Naxos does seem indubitably apt for this production.
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