Robert S. Whitney
Recorded 1961, 1965 & 1966
FIRST EDITION FECD-0017
First Edition Records 1
Monday, February 27, 2006 As above
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
Back in 1948, Charles P. Farnsley, Mayor of Louisville, Kentucky, unveiled his plan for the rejuvenation of the town's struggling orchestra. This entailed reducing the personnel from 70 to 50 players (to a Classical size that many composers would use to advantage), the decision not to hire big-name soloists (even harder to imagine now than then!), and the embracing of radio broadcasts and the then-new LP record. This instigated an ambitious programme commissioning and recording new works by American and major European composers, a number of which were invited to conduct their music.
Ambitious, but successful as the facts confirm. Between 1952 and 1967, the Louisville Orchestra and its long-time conductor Robert S. Whitney (1904-86) issued 125 LPs of mainly commissioned works an achievement matched by no other orchestra of comparable standing. By 1995, the First Edition label tally stood at 158 LP and 10 CD releases of some 400 works by over 250 composers.
What better, then, than to launch a major reissue programme documenting this valuable legacy presenting the recordings as an inclusive and logically-coupled entity? Such is the intention of First Edition Music, administered by Santa Fe Music Group.
Two points need making from the outset. Firstly, the Louisville Orchestra, though not an ensemble of the front rank, is far from being the bunch of also-rans portrayed by certain commentators through the years. A mere sampling of these recordings demonstrates a capable and enthusiastic outfit, one that tackled the music at hand with an alacrity to defeat many orchestras of higher international standing. Secondly, the recordings not least those from the 1950s, many of which are one-track (!) mono masters if hardly state of the art, are rarely less than adequate in capturing either the music or the musicians' response to it. Those who remember the distinctly below-par sound quality of the Louisville recordings issued in the UK during the 1970s, on RCA's Gold Seal imprint, will be pleasantly surprised at the clarity and relative smoothness of the sound to be heard on the present reissues.
In catalogue number order, then, FECD-0002 is devoted to John Corigliano (born 1938) a composer with a considerable profile in the US (his 1991 opera The Ghosts of Versailles was the first to be commissioned from the Metropolitan in 25 years), but only a fitful reputation elsewhere. To be honest, there is little on this disc of early work to convince either newcomers or sceptics. Of the two pieces dating from 1965, Tournaments Overture is an assured curtain-raiser with antecedents only too obviously in Copland and Schuman, while the plaintive Elegy inevitably betrays a debt to Barber. More ambition is evinced in the Piano Concerto (1968) the coruscating Scherzo and deftly proportioned Andante compensating for the respectively prolix and perfunctory Allegros on either side. James Tocco does it justice, though there
is a lingering sense that Barber's concerto of six years earlier treads not dissimilar stylistic ground with greater overall conviction. Gazebo Dances (1974), inspired by town bandstands in rural America and with a ruminative Adagio amid the rumbustious nature of an Overture, Waltz and Tarantella, rather suggests that Corigliano's music may be most successful when not trying its hardest to impress.
FECD-0003 features four works by Henry Cowell (1897-1965) whose large output touches on the extremes of experimentation and conservatism, but whose openness to new stimuli is never in doubt. Hard to believe that the archaic modality of Hymn and Fuguing Tune No.3 (1954) and the startling 'translations' of Japanese Gagaku and Sankyoku music in Ongaku for Orchestra (1957) are so closely bound in time, but Cowell was nothing if not eclectic in his leanings and neither piece sounds in the least contrived. Two of his 16 symphonies are included here: No.11 (Seven Rituals of Music) charts a process of birth, experience and death in music that draws on elements of Occident and Orient to strikingly imaginative effect; while No.15 (Thesis) seeks to reinvent the formal proportions of the Classical symphony from a decidedly oblique perspective. As so often with Cowell, the results are more intriguing than convincing, but such does not lessen one's admiration for the composer's wilful individuality, nor for the Louisville Orchestra's conviction in getting to grips with his unorthodox musical vision. Now largely relegated to the histories of experimental Western music, Cowell deserves a better fate.
FECD-0005 focuses on Roy Harris (1898-1979) once the doyen of mid-twentieth century American symphonists, but whose music has likewise (and more inexplicably) disappeared from the programmes of American orchestras. Coming from a pioneer background, Harris wore his badge of naivety with pride but no mean resourcefulness; one could hardly decry the appealing pastoral evocation that is Kentucky Spring (1949) on account of any technical shortcomings. Also completed in 1949 but not heard in public until 1984, the Violin Concerto is an enterprising four-movements-in-one structure whose variation process places the soloist in a frequently concertante role one that Gregory Fulkerson fulfils with assurance, as he does the technical demands of the pivotal cadenza. If the piece exhibits something of the ambivalent expression that surfaced frequently during the composer's later works, then the Fifth Symphony (1942) is Harris the public composer with a vengeance (a work that Rafael Kubelik played in Chicago). An anticipatory first movement leads to a sustained and evidently commemorative funeral march, before the finale draws conflicting emotions together in a defiant conclusion a quality vividly conveyed in this performance.
FECD-0017 collects the Louisville recordings of Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991) a composer little heard in recent years, yet whose music unites heart and brain in a personal and convincing manner. There are few more passionate remembrances of the Second World War than Nocturne (1947) his biggest public (as opposed to 'official') success in post-war Poland, outlining a journey from numbed silence to implacable force and back with absolute formal poise. This Louisville account is only slightly
less assured than a later Unicorn recording with Jascha Horenstein and the LSO, and the remaining works have yet
to be re-recorded. Rhapsody (1956) is the first and, at this stage in the composers career, slightly tentative exploration
of geometric consistency in matters of form that became crucial to Panufnik's thinking a decade on; here combined with Polish dance inflections that find uneasy alliance with the abstraction elsewhere. Sinfonia Elegiaca (1957) is the second of the composer's ten symphonies, whose three movements centre on a savage scherzo that balances the plangent expressiveness of those movements either side. Just why so finely-conceived and deeply communicative a work remains so little known is hard to fathom.
FECD-0022 is devoted to Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) whose reputation was probably at its highest in post-war America, and of whom these works give a good account of his musical strengths at three distinct points in his career. Thus Kammermusik No 2 (1924) finds his more radical tendencies being leavened with a robust neo-classicism that gives a Bachian seriousness, enlivened by a Telemann-like whimsy, to the slow movement. If Concert Music for Viola and Large Chamber Orchestra feels less capricious, musical inventiveness is more evenly spread over its five movements while the finessing of concerto and concerto grosso forms is something of which soloist Raphael Hillyer is thoughtfully aware. The Piano Concerto (1945) is unambiguous in this regard, though Hindemith pointedly rings the changes by following his lively and reflective first two movements with a finale whose variations on a fourteenth-century dance combine elements of scherzo and finale en route to a teasingly provisional conclusion. Lee Luvisi evidently appreciates such understatement (not at all dissimilar to that of the contemporaneous Ninth Symphony by Shostakovich), such as makes this a performance to savour.
Finally, for the moment (!), FECD-0031 concentrates on Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) whose influence on emergent American composers of the 1950s and 1960s was considerable, and whose stylistic inclusiveness is well demonstrated here. Both the Ouverture Méditerraneénne (1953) and Kentuckiana are urbane and appealing concert-openers, while the Franckian sonorities of Cortège Funébre (1939) pay tribute to the dead of the Spanish Civil War with an unease that anticipates events soon to unfold. Quatre Chansons de Ronsard (1941), brief but vital settings of perhaps the most vocally-grateful of French poets, emerges piquantly if a mite unvaried at the hands of Paula Seibel, then the disc closes with the Sixth Symphony (1955) not the finest, but perhaps the most representative of his dozen works in the genre. Thus its first and third movements may be deep rather than profound, and the second and fourth energetic rather than exhilarating yet there can be no doubting the warm humanity that Milhaud brings to his music, nor of the expertise with which it is realised. Qualities that the Louisville Orchestra seizes on gratefully in what is a persuasive and finely-attuned performance under Jorge Mester.
It remains to add that these discs are stylishly presented, with extensive booklet annotations (many culled from the original LP liner notes and updated accordingly), and also full technical and recording details. Re-mastering has not adversely affected the 'feel' of the original masters; something not to be taken for granted in these days of over-zealous and poorly listened to digitalisation. If the Panufnik CD is undoubtedly the pick of the bunch, the Corigliano, Cowell and Harris releases are all worthwhile introductions to these composers, and the Hindemith and Milhaud reissues stand up well to later comparisons. A sense of recording history is seldom, if ever, absent.