GRIFFES: Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan. The White Peacock. Poem for Flute and Orchestra. Three Tone Pictures. Three Poems of Fiona McLeod. Clouds. Bacchanale.
Barbara Quintiliani, soprano; Carol Wincenc, flute; Buffalo Philharmonic Orch/JoAnn Falleta, cond.
NAXOS 8.559164 (B) (DDD) TT: 56 min.
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Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920) died in his 36th year of emphysema complicated by pneumonia, arguably from the influenza epidemic that swept the western world in 1918-19. By concensus – including such notables as Virgil Thomson, John Tasker Howard, Marion Bauer and most recently Kyle Gann – he was America’s “first great composer.” In 13 years from the time Griffes decided to be a composer rather than a concert pianist, he composed 160 works, 81 of which were songs, and 40 more for piano. For orchestra he created 14, all but two of which were written between 1917 and his untimely death. Eight are included on this superbly recorded disc from Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo, conducted with surpassing sensitivity by JoAnn Falletta. (I still remember Thomson’s verdict that Kleinhans’ acoustics were remarkable with one exception – the podium, where he could hear virtually nothing; but one assumes that has been fixed in the half-century since VT guest-conducted the Buffalo Philharmonic, today a genuinely first-class second-tier orchestra, superior to Nashville’s on the same label.)

The repertory on this disc (with room for another 20 minutes of Griffes’ music – my only serious demurrer) includes his best known Impressionist pieces: The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan, The White Peacock and Clouds (from four Roman Sketches for piano), Poem for Flute and Orchestra, and a brief but boisterous Bacchanale. Falletta also conducts Three Tone Pictures for chamber orchestra inspired by the poetry of Yeats and Poe. Like everything else except Poem, this music was originally created for piano and subsequently orchestrated.

The single work he did not live to orchestrate was Three Poems of Fiona McCloud – the first of which, “Lament of Ian the Proud,” has been a recital staple of several distinguished American singers, a number of whom recorded it independently. I first heard the cycle on a Boston Symphony broadcast ca. 1976 with Phyllis Bryn-Julson as soloist and Seiji Ozawa conducting, but their recording for New World Records no longer includes Nos 2 or 3 – “Thy Dark Eyes to Mine” and “The Rose of the Night.” It is a marvelous cycle, and one wishes a tonally steadier singer than Barbara Quintiliani could have been recruited for the recording; she is not mediocre by any stretch, but her tone does become harsh and her vibrato intrusive. But then Bryn-Julson spoiled me for all others. It is music I’d still like to hear Jessye Norman sing, or Lauren Flanigan, and just perhaps by Renée Fleming full-out. A word about Fiona McCloud, which was the pen name of an English poet and novelist, William Sharpe (1855-1905), a contemporary of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Griffes was moved by his verse, nowhere more movingly than in the Three Poems which were orchestrated by one M. Dresser in 1918, the year of their composition.

The soloist in Poem is Carole Wincenc, one of the world’s preeminent flutists – why so you can hear on a disc that surpasses any current Griffes competition to the resounding credit of Falletta, the Buffalo Phil, and Tim Handley who both produced and engineered this disc. The depth of sound is astonishing, to the degree that one sits bolt upright and says “This is a Naxos recording?”

Get it!

R.D. (May 2004)