John Knowles Paine
Symphony No.2 in A, Op.34 (In the Spring)
Oedipus Tyrannus, Op.35 – Prelude
Poseidon and Amphitrite – An Ocean Fantasy, Op.44
Recorded 1 & 2 March 2014 in Ulster Hall, Belfast, UK
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: March 2015
CD No: NAXOS 8.559748
Duration: 68 minutes
Courtesy of JoAnn Falletta, the Ulster Orchestra and Naxos, this second volume of orchestral music by John Knowles Paine – 1839-1906, one of the “Boston Six” – isn’t unfamiliar given that the New York Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta recorded some of it, albeit a while ago, but Falletta’s brace of discs is more comprehensive (complete in terms of published pieces) and here includes a premiere recording, Poseidon and Amphitrite.
Paine’s descriptive titles give much of a clue as to what might be expected in these selections of pieces. He’s a fine describer of scenes. The opening of the Second Symphony is an exact representation of ‘Departure of Winter’, gloomy, grey and chilly, but it’s not long before the music gladdens and becomes sunnier; the arrival of Spring is nigh. This first movement of a 50-minute Symphony isn’t totally inspired; pleasant, certainly, if at times note-spinning, solidly traditional music influenced by Germanic custom, owing quite a bit to Robert Schumann (with a ‘Spring’ Symphony of his own) if without emulating his greatness. No disrespect here to conductor and orchestra who between them fashion a committed performance, Paine done proud, and anyway the ensuing and dancing Scherzo swirls amiably and deftly, a ‘May-Night Fantasy’ indeed, music of spectral imagination, reminding of Saint-Saëns, and with a rather delectable Trio. The slow movement is a spacious Adagio, ‘A Romance of Springtime’, long-lined in its unfolding, perhaps not blossoming to its initial promise, but the central, darker and more-agitated section maybe tells that the course of true love doesn’t necessarily run smooth. The finale is joyous, ‘The Glory of Nature’, tripping uncomplicatedly and expanding into noble awe, somewhat Elgarian.
Of the remaining pieces, the Prelude to Oedipus Tyrannus is from Paine’s incidental music for a production of Sophocles’s play, given in 1880 by Harvard students, and in Greek too. The remainder of Paine’s score is for a cappella male choir. The eight-minute orchestral number makes plain that the drama is a tragic one, an unrelieved microcosm of what was to follow for the Boston audience. As for Poseidon and Amphitrite (1888), new to the gramophone, this was Paine’s farewell to the orchestra, even though he had another eighteen years to live. It’s a varied piece, rather Lisztian at times, living a story through sonorous and delicate scoring (plenty of harp and wafting horn solos), and is given with dedication; music that hardly if ever appears in a concert programme – true of all Paine’s output – and so this two-disc survey of his music is very welcome, for anyone curious of musical byways and of Paine’s place in the great scheme of things.