CHADWICK: Symphony No. 2 in B flat, Op. 21. Symphonic Sketches.
National Radio Orchestra of Ukraine/Theodore Kuchar, cond.
NAXOS 8.559213 (B) (DDD) TT: 65:47

BLOCH: America (An Epic Rhapsody). Suite hébraïque.
Lucnica Chorus; Hagai Shaham, violin; Atlas Camerata Orch/Slovak Radio Symphony Orch / Dalia Atlas, cond
NAXOS 8.557151 (B) (DDD) TT: 62:43
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MILHAUD: La création du monde, Op. 81. Le boeuf sur le toit, Op. 58. Suite provençale, Op. 152b. L'homme et son désir, Op. 48.
Lille National Orch/Jean-Claude Casadesus, cond.
NAXOS 8.557287 (B) (DDD) TT: 68:00
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PERSICHETTI: Third Symphony, Op. 30 (1946). Fourth Symphony, Op. 51 (1951). Seventh Symphony, Op. 80 (1958).
Albany Symphony Orch/;David Alan Miller, cond.
ALBANY TROY 771/72 (F)(2 CDS for price of 1) (DDD) PT: 55:12 & 25:02
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All four of these composers were influential American educators: Chadwick and Persichetti native-born, Bloch a naturalized citizen in 1924, and Milhaud a resident immigrant from 1939 to 1971. Their combined teaching careers spanned almost a century, beginning with Chadwick’s return to Boston in 1880 from studies in Leipzig and Munich. Two years later he joined the faculty of the New England Conservatory in addition to his activities as organist, conductor and composer. In 1897 he became the director and made it into a modern conservatory until illness forced his retirement in 1918. Before the Postwar-One generation made the Parisian atelier of Nadia Boulanger their destination, with Walter Piston as the Pied Piper (followed by Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, et al), Chadwick was hailed as America’s foremost composer of “serious” music, especially for his Second Symphony (composed over a three-year period, 1883-86) and Symphonic Sketches (the first two on this disc dating from 1895, then A Vagrom Ballad the year after, and Hobgoblin in 1904).

Just two years before Chadwick’s debilitating illness, Ernest Bloch arrived in the U.S. as conductor of an orchestra for dancer Maud Allen. The Mannes School in New York City engaged him to teach (1917-19) before he moved to Cleveland as founder-director of that city’s Institute of Music (1920-25), and thereafter to San Francisco as director of the local Conservatory (1925-30). A private grant enabled his return to native Switzerland on the condition that he devote himself to composing, but World War Two brought him back to the states where he became professor of music at UC/Berkeley in 1939. Bloch moved to Oregon in 1943 and taught only summer courses there until his death in 1959, at the age of 79. His “epic rhapsody in three parts,” America, was created for a contest sponsored in 1926 by Musical America magazine, and not only won the $3,000 first prize but was premiered during a single week in December 1928 by five conductors who were his judges: Serge Koussevitzky in Boston, Leopold Stokowski in Philadelphia, Frederick Stock in Chicago, Alfred Hertz in San Francisco, and Walter Damrosch, whose performance on December 20 with the New York Symphony is officially credited as the first.

Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) was one of “Le Groupe de Six,” exploited following World War One by Jean Cocteau, but he’d earlier served as Paul Claudel’s secretary in Rio de Janeiro, where Brazilian popular music made a profound impression on his subsequent musical output. As a Jew, however, he left France in 1939 and settled in Oakland, California, where he taught composition at Mills College until 1971, when chronic ill health forced him to retire; he died three years later in Switzerland. Of the four works on his disc, three were inspired by Brazilian sources as well as North American jazz between 1919 and 1923. The Suite Provençale, incorporating melodies from the area surrounding his birth city of Aix-en-Provence, was created in 1936 from incidental music for a play based there.

Persichetti was born in Philadelphia in 1915 (the same year as the late David Diamond) where he died in 1987 of lung cancer. For 40 of his 72 years, however, at the behest of his elder contemporary William Schuman (1910-82), he commuted to New York as composition professor at The Juilliard School, where Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Peter (P.D.Q. Bach) Schikele and Jacob Druckman numbered among his students. He wrote nine symphonies, but like Schuman withdrew the first two and thereafter favored ordinal numberings. The three on Albany’s vividly played, brilliantly recorded discs (two for the price of one) were composed between 1947 and 1958 in Persichetti’s characteristically fluid yet spicily “traditional” style. Not for him the anti-tonal avant-garde that dominated European music-making after World War Two, crossing the Atlantic only to die within three decades.

The Chadwick pieces are genuinely inventive and comprehensively expressive despite their bygone time and place – ranging from serious subjects to genuine humor, one and all masterfully scored. The competition on discs is meager, however, which left Kuchar and his busy Ukranians the chance for a gold medal. But while they do handsomely by the Symphony, Symphonic Sketches tend to be heavy-handed, as if the idiom were altogether alien and not very interesting at that. Nothing is outright rancid, but it hasn’t the panache inspired by the Symphony. Still, the recording is solid and spatially honest, while Naxos’ price can’t be beat by the competition. Everything weighed, I prefer Kuchar to Neeme Järvi, but cherish Howard Hanson’s vivid way with the Sketches on a Mercury Living Presence CD still in the catalog.

Curiously, Bloch’s America sounds more dated than Chadwick’s Sketches, although his vocabulary was newer by a generation. He prefaced the work with a verbal tribute to this nation two years after becoming a citizen, and concluded with a choral anthem to his own text. Part One is subtitled “1620: The Soil – the Indians – England – the Mayflower – the Landing of the Pilgrims,” and includes Indian themes including a Chippewa mourning song, with “Old Hundred” at the end. Part Two is called “1861-1865: Hours of Joy – Hours of Sorrow,” then Walt Whitman’s “I hear America singing.” It’s a virtual pastiche of period music incorporating “Old Folks at Home,” “Pop Goes the Weasel,” “Hail Columbia,” “John Brown’s Body, “Dixie,” “The Battle Cry of Freedom” and “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp” before the Anthem subject (introduced at the end of Part One) grows in strength before the Chippewa song returns to commemorate Lincoln’s murder. Part Three is prefaced by the words “1926 – The Present – The Future,” with another Whitman quote: “As he sees the farthest he has the most faith.” Previous motifs are heard in syncopated variants along with Black folksongs until a new section arrives in a purportedly “mechanized” style, called “The Turmoil of the Present Time.” A climax leads to “Men, slave of the Machines,” then a return to the opening of Part One, culminating in the full Anthem (which never became a part of Americana as Bloch had hoped and planned). It lacks a distinctively simple melody, although Stokowski kept it in his repertory, recording it for Vanguard during the ‘60s, to which Gerard Schwarz added a brisker version for Delos in 1993. Dalia Atlas favors the rotundities of Stokowski with a heterogeneous assembly recorded four years ago in Bratislava. The Slovak Radio Symphony is competent to be sure, although other conductors have inspired finer performances, and the Luc╝inica Chorus is clear-voiced, although several combinations of consonants and vowels in English make it necessary to follow the text, which Naxos has thoughtfully provided. The recording is altogether satisfactory without gimmickry or spotlighting. But Vanguard did it better 40-or-so years ago, and the withdrawn Delos still takes the prize sonically.

Suite hébraïque was written in 1951 for either viola or violin with piano, to thank the Covent Club of Chicago for a festival in honor of Bloch’s 70th birthday, but he orchestrated it a year later, and violist Milton Preves played the premiere on January 1, 1953 with Rafael Kubelik conducting the Chicago Symphony. For a composer who inclined to be expansive (even long-winded at times), it is a brief work – the movements, “Rhapsodie,” “Processional” and “Affirmation,” last only 12:40 altogether. Atlas conducts her eponymous chamber orchestra in far more congenial repertory, lovingly recorded in Haifa with an excellent violin soloist, Hagai Shaham. This is no Bloch Violin Concerto from the ‘30s either in size or in substance, and ends rather abruptly, but does use Hebrew melodies and is a welcome encore after the patriotic effusions of America. It all depends, however, on whether you “like” the featured “epic rhapsody” or, as I do, find it reaching strenuously for profundity but falling short.

Milhaud was born a dozen years after Bloch, evident both in his subject-matter and musical method, which favored (if not rooted in) polytonality. The earliest work here is L’Homme et son desír, Op. 48 of the 443 to which he gave numbers. He composed it in 1917-18 to an Amazonian scenario based on a story by Claudel for four wordless singers, a dozen winds and strings, and 15 percussion. Although prompted by the Brazilian tour of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes during which Nijinsky danced publicly for the last time, the work waited three years for a failed Parisian premiere by the Ballets Suédois, although the music was highly and widely praised as Milhaud’s most “advanced” work. It is as fascinating as performances are rare, although this one – like the rest on this disc – is provincially played by the Orchestre National de Lille-Région Nord, and drily recorded to boot. Next came one of Milhaud’s most enduringly famous works, Le Boeuf sur le toit, Op. 58, composed in 1919 for a silent film but a concert success because Cocteau fitted it to an episodic scenario, nominally a ballet, with décor by Raoul Dufy. A randy Brazilian tune serves as a refrain throughout, but the substance is compositionally sophisticated, not only polytonal in part but encompassing all 12 major keys. La Création du Monde, Op. 81a, followed in 1920 after Milhaud heard an American jazz band in London, and later on explored Harlem during a visit to the U.S. He conceived it as a ballet based on African myth about the world’s creation, originally scoring it for 17 players featuring an alto saxophone solo. The Swedish Ballet had a Paris failure with this, too, in 1923 but the score took on a life of its own and remains Milhaud’s most played work. Interestingly, his own tempo was a minute under 16, but a 20-minute version by Kent Nagano and the Lyon Opera Orchestra on Erato is irresistible with its langorous pacing of a recurring lyrical melody, each time more richly scored, while the decade-old recording has a luster undimmed by the passing of time. Finally there is Suite provençale, Op. 152d, vastly more charming than this lumpish performance might suggest. No one who has heard Charles Munch’s RCA recording with the Boston Symphony – sadly out-of-print at this writing – will have a kind word for Jean-Claude Casadesus’ conducting or the lackluster playing of his northern orchestra shared by Lille and Calais. Not even a livlier acoustic could bring it to life, more’s the pity because orchestral Milhaud is under-represented in our current time.

Of Persichetti, let me say his music is beguiling if not quite indelible, but David Alan Miller and the Albany Symphony -- in another of those superb Troy Savings Bank Music Hall recordings -- do for these three symphonies what they have done in the past for Kurka, Thomson and a host of other American composers who wrote during the 20th century but have been, by and large, both overlooked and neglected since. Bravo, Albany!


R.D. (August 2005)