GOULD: Symphony No. 2, "On Marching Tunes" (1944). STUCKY: Son et Lumière (1988). GABRIEL IAN GOULD: Watercolors (1998). HARBISON: Cello Concerto (1993).
Robert Sheen, English horn (Watercolors); David Finckel, cellist (concerto); Albany Symphony Orch/David Alan Miller, cond.
ALBANY TROY 605 (F) (DDD) TT: 77:44
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The common denominators in this attractive combination of musical salad bar and two entreés are (1) the U.S. nationality of all four composers, (2) their commitment to tonality, (3) superb recorded sound, and (4) the zest and expertise of what may be the best orchestra in any of America’s moderate-sized municipalities. For this, David Alan Miller deserves praise aplenty for his music directorship in Albany (New York, that is – not Georgia) since 1992. Fittingly, he received Columbia University’s coveted Ditson Conductor’s Award in 2003. But one mustn’t neglect the expertise of both soloists: Robert Sheena, the Boston Symphony’s English horn player, and David Finkel, cellist with the Emerson String quartet since 1979 and the only American student of Mstislav Rostropovich. That said, on to the music.

Steven Stucky’s Son et lumière is a characteristic work – in is own words “orchestral entertainment whose subject is the play of colors, bright surfaces and shimmery textures.” The Baltimore Symphony commissioned and introduced it in 1989 during David Zinman’s tenure, but seems not to have recorded it during a flirtation with Argo Records that produced trivia such as “Dance Mix” and Michael Daugherty’s Metropolis Symphony and Bizarro. Stucky reminds one of Michael Torke without the amphetamines, and if Son et lumière doesn’t stick in the memory it is nonetheless a pleasure to meet and play occasionally. In contrast Gabriel Ian Gould’s Watercolors in four main sections for English horn and chamber orchestra, composed for its soloist and the Albany Symphony in 1998, offers a poetic contrast – ruminative, lucid, with a giocoso third movement before its quiet finale. I ended up liking it best on the menu.

John Harbison (b. 1938) remains an anomaly for me – a much-admired, frequently commissioned composer whose works tend, however, to get first but not often second performances. His 1993 Cello Concerto – commissioned by the Chicago and Boston Symphony Orchestras – was dedicated to and first performed by Yo-Yo Ma with Seiji Ozawa in Boston a decade ago, yet this appears to be its first recording, and a fine one. Harbison basically composes expressively laid- back music that gets very close to tunes most of the time, but avoids what one expects to be a consummation; instead, almost abashedly, he goes elsewhere in directions not so much surprising as disappointing. The Cello Concerto is a serious work that bears up under repeated hearings, but each time it ends one is left with a curious sense of basics withheld.

No such problem for Morton Gould (no relation to Gabriel Ian), although his Symphony No. 2, “On Marching Tunes,” was played only once for reasons I’m at a loss to explain before Albany reintroduced it in 1999. Its wartime date, 1944, befits the subject matter but does not pander to populism. This is basically a serious piece in four movements by a composer whose facility was legend, as comfortable in popular music as it was trenchant (at best) in serious works. The second movement scherzo is Gould at his rowdiest, but the work ends with a solemn “Memorial” and a quiet conclusion. Miller’s performance pays Gould belated homage and earns himself kudos for rediscovering and sponsoring a notable piece of Manhattan-Island Americana.

Kudos as well to Gregory K. Squires who produced and engineered this collection impeccably. It is recommended for all who listen to music without being self-preening about it, and like challenges as well as rewards.

R.D. (March 2004)