An American in Paris
Recorded in the S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, Washington – 14-17 June 2012 (Ives), 7-10 February 2013 (Carter) and 17 & 29 September and 1 October 2011
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: July 2014
CD No: SEATTLE SYMPHONY
Duration: 65 minutes
These live performances of music by American composers are very well recorded, and this disc is one of several concurrent releases involving the Seattle Symphony and its recently appointed music director, Ludovic Morlot (who follows Gerard Schwarz’s nearly three-decade tenure). If the other issues, and those to come, are as good as this one, then Seattle Symphony Media will be a label to follow.
Morlot keeps Charles Ives’s quirkily classical and adorable Second Symphony (1902, not performed until 1951, in three or five movements – your reviewer goes for three) on the move, yet yields with affection for some heart-rending moments and seems at one with Ives’s use of indigenous songs and marches while he at the same time utilises the template of European symphonic tradition. There is much beauty, wit and twinkle-in-the-eye daring in this music, from a composer who knew exactly what he was doing; he might have infuriated and baffled his teachers, but there is innate skill at work here. If Ives sometimes seems to be cocking a snook at time-honoured means, and maybe he was with some distorted references to other composers’ music, equally there is much that is soulful (Dvořák-like) and some that forces its way in from outside; yet ultimately it all seems to belong, for Ives 2 is a record of a composer who knew his way around the established repertoire (Tristan turns up in the slow central movement) and also wanted to celebrate the popular music of his own country; as such this work is a remarkable synthesis and also a wholesome masterpiece. Morlot conducts it with genuine fondness and sympathy and elicits a demonstrative, detailed and caring response from the Seattle musicians. Should you not know how the Symphony ends – very much a gesture – I won’t spoil it for you, suffice to say that Morlot makes the most of it.
There follow two very different pieces. First the premiere of Elliott Carter’s final orchestral work (and his penultimate opus), Instances, written for and dedicated to the Seattle Symphony and completed in April 2012, the year of Carter’s death at the age of 103. Recognisably throughout as being by Carter, Instances reveals the composer still at the height of his powers. Lasting eight minutes, and with a full orchestra employed, the many characters and colours to be savoured make for very good listening; such variety over a short space of time gives us a score to relish and return to. (One thing, though, the cue-point is taken to the bare bones of the piece starting; enough to wonder if a smidgen of it is missing. For music that fades to nothing, applause has rightly been removed.)
In George Gershwin’s An American in Paris, Morlot introduces a happy-go-lucky tourist care-freeing the sights and sounds of the French capital. If I am not entirely convinced by the timbre or pitching of the motor horns, this outing for a great piece is full of description and incident, plenty of swing and sophistication, and also with the performers’ devotion palpable.