Sunday 28 January 2024

It's not British, but...American Classics on Naxos

Aaron Copland’s only full-scale opera, The Tender Land, was written between 1952 and 1954: the libretto was by the artist Erik Johns. It had been commissioned by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the League of Composers. The opera was set on a midwestern United States farm during the 1930s. Copland himself suggested that the plot is “baby-simple, dealing with familiar family situations…” The score nods to Copland’s popular Appalachian Spring. Stylistically, it is “plain…comparatively uncomplicated and slightly folksy – direct and approachable.” It was premiered in New York on 1 April 1954 but was not an immediate success.

The Tender Land Suite (1958) is in three movements, which gives this eighteen-minute-long piece an almost symphonic feel. The liner notes insist that it is not a collection of “best bits” strung together, but “is a carefully worked-out, independent composition that restructures, re-orchestrates and, to some small extent, even re-composes important passages from the opera.” To be sure, a contemporary programme note insists that this Suite “stands as a lyrical distillation of the opera’s essence.” Much of it is slow and introspective: it is only in the middle movement that the vivacious “dance music” comes to the fore.

I was disappointed with Paul Creston’s Saxophone Concerto, op.26 (1941). I was expecting something post-Gershwin, with nods to jazz, swing, and big bands. What Creston has written is a neo-classical concerto that is nearer to French models than American.

The work is presented in three movements: Energetic, Meditative and Rhythmic. The finale comes nearest to my expectations, although there are bluesy moments in the slow movement. Certainly, there is nothing dull or boring in these pages. There are plenty of beguiling tunes and fetching harmonies, especially in the more relaxed passages. The playing by the soloist Timothy McAllister is perfectly judged and emotionally diverse, ranging from humour to profound reflection.

This is the premiere performance of this concerto in its version for full orchestra, as opposed to concert band.

African American composer Ulysses Kay’s Pietà (1950) is a deeply felt elegy, inspired by Michelangelo’s eponymous marble sculpture. This sacred work of art is safely ensconced in the Saint Peter's Basilica, Vatican City. The liner notes explain that “pieta” can also mean “mercy or compassion.” There is certainly no religious or liturgical impact in this music. Pietà is a “freely structured cantilena without obvious form,” however there is a melodic motif that occurs throughout, that gives it audible structure. It is scored for English horn and strings. Unbelievably, it has had few performances over the past 70 years. Anna Mattix, the woodwind soloist, gives a moving performance in this “concertante” piece. Hopefully, this premiere recording will make this beautiful, tragic composition better known to the public, both in the concert hall and on the wireless.

I have known about Walter Piston’s The Incredible Flutist for a long time but have never knowingly heard it. It was originally conceived as a ballet score and was first performed by Hans Weiner and his Dancers with the Boston Pops Orchestra on 30 May 1938. Shortly afterwards, Piston extracted a concert suite, which was premiered on 22 November 1940 by the Pittsburgh Orchestra under the baton of Fritz Reiner. The basic premise of the ballet features “a marketplace pulsating with activity and made colourful by the arrival of a circus.” Vendors and customers appear, we hear a Tango, before the flutist himself arrives. A widow flirts with a merchant, faints when she is discovered by her lover, and is then revived by the flutist’s playing. Among the characters danced were several amusing types, the Picture Peddler, Merry Dame, Busybody, and Blowzy Belle.

Piston has often been accused of writing “academic” music. It is fair to say that there is not a hint of the conservatoire here. He has created a witty score that is both colourful and entertaining.

The liner notes by Frank K. DeWald provide all the biographical and contextual detail required to enjoy this CD. The booklet is well-illustrated, including a production picture from The Tender Land and a rehearsal shot of The Incredible Flutist. There are resumes of the performers.

JoAnn Falletta, the soloists, and the National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic give sterling accounts of all four works, which express both their Americanism and universal appeal. The recording is vibrant and atmospheric throughout.

The liner notes are correct in suggesting that in the 2020s it is now possible to look back “at much music that failed to find traction with critics, academia, record companies and radio networks during those turbulent days” when the correct “ism” mattered more than the finished product.

Track Listing:
Aaron Copland (1900-1990)

The Tender Land Suite (1958)
Paul Creston (1906-85)
Saxophone Concerto, op.26 (1941)
Ulysses Kay (1917-95)
Pietà (1950)
Walter Piston (1894-1976)
The Incredible Flutist Suite (1940)
Anna Mattix (English horn), Timothy McAllister (alto saxophone)
National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic/JoAnn Falletta
rec. 16-18 June 2022, Elsie and Marvin Dekelboum Concert Hall, The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, College Park, Maryland, USA.
Naxos 8.559911

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

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