STRONG:  Le Roi Arthur.  Die Nacht.
Moscow Symphony Orch/Adriano, cond.

NAXOS 8.559048 (B) (DDD) TT:  67:06

STRONG:  Symphony No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 50 "Sintram."  Chorale on a Theme of Leo Hassler.
Moscow Symphony Orch/Adriano, cond.

NAXOS 8.559018 (B) (DDD) TT:  66:35

American composer George Templeton Strong (1856-1948) came from a highly musical family.   Both parents were amateur musicians; his father was president of the New York Philharmonic Society.  As a young man he studied piano, oboe and viola, occasionally playing in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.  After moving to Europe in 1879 for studies at the Leipzig Conservatory, he played viola in the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.  His friends included Wagner and Liszt and his 1883 symphonic poem Undine was dedicated to the latter.  After a few years of teaching at the New England Conservatory (at the suggestion of  Edward MacDowell), Strong returned to Europe settling in Switzerland where he lived the remainder of his life.  He took an active part in musical activities in Geneva, where Ernest Ansermet conducted the premiere of his symphonic poem King Arthur in 1918 as well as European premieres several of his other works.  Strong spent more time painting watercolors during the last three decades of his life than he did composing, to the loss of the musical world.  His style developed little from his earlier days and he was outspoken in his approval of Richard Strauss, Glazunov, Mahler and Ravel -- and his dislike of Stravinsky.

Both of these well-filled CDs offer world premiere recordings of several of Strong's major orchestral works.  Die Nacht, a set of four rather short symphonic poems (At Sunset, Peasant's Battle-March, In an old Forest, The Awakening of the Forest-Spirits) was written in 1913, first performed that year with Ansermet on the podium.  Arturo Toscanini led the NBC Symphony in the American premiere in 1939.  The first and third movements are romantic, nocturnal scenes, the second a jolly if rather simple march. With its suggestions of Berlioz' Queen Mab and Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream, the final movement is a delight, a frothy, imaginative and somewhat mysterious dance that fades into nothingness.

The rather gushy—but very informative—program notes by conductor Adriano call King Arthur Strong's Heldenleben, his homage to Richard Strauss.  Composition on this started around 1891and it was completed in 1916.  The three connected movements (with a total performance time of 40:56) depict various episodes in the life of King Arthur, the battles between Arthur and Mordred as well as Good and Evil, the magic sword Excalibur, and a funeral march.  There are some grand moments—particularly the majestic horn outburst at 6:03 into the first section—beautifully played by the Russian brass.

Strong's Symphony No. 2 (he wrote four; the score for the third was lost) is entitled "Sintram," who was the son of Bjrn, a Norse knight "of unbridled temper and relentless cruelty."  Sintram is cursed because of his father's misdeeds.  Completed in 1893, the symphony was inspired by Friedrich Heinrich Karl de la Motte Fouqus account of the story, as well as by an Albrecht Drer woodcut that shows a knight riding with Death through a valley filled with poisonous plants and populated with hideous creatures.  The first two movements of this hour-long symphony suggest in musical terms the normal development of life in human communities.  The first ("Ziemlich langsam, Rasch") opens with more than a minute of woodwind chords suggesting the opening of Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet.  The third movement is called "The Three Terrible Companions:  Death, the Devil and Insanity," and the fourth "The Victorious Struggle."  

At the premiere March 4, 1893 with the Philharmonic Society of New York conducted by Anton Seidl, the program book stated they were presenting this music because of its merit. The score surely doesn't approach the grandeur and imagination displayed by Glire 15 years later when he wrote his Ilya Mourometz, also a big-scale treatment of a folk plot and battles.  Even the third movement of Strong's symphony, with its colorful title, hardly suggests the topic, and the concluding "victorious struggle" is prosaic at best in both orchestration and concept.  However, the symphony is not without merit - it is always pleasant to hear and one could not call it boring.  Chorale on a Theme of Leo Hassler is a 7 minute somber work written around the time of the American stock market crash and the start of the Great Depression.  Jos Iturbi programmed it with the Rochester Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra saying it was, "a musical sermon, where the listeners were moved by the composer's utterance."  It consists of five harmonized sections concluding with a solo violin.  It's unfortunate, perhaps, that the composer didn't use this concise approach with his second symphony.

There is much of interest in these premiere recordings.  The Moscow Symphony plays with virtuosity and conductor Adriano leads convincing performances, very well recorded at Mosfilm Studios in Moscow. Adriano became a conductor at the suggestion of Ansermet and Joseph Keilberth. He already has to his credit many Marco Polo/ Naxos CDs of film music of Auric, Honegger, Ibert and Bliss as well as works of Respighi.  These new releases are fine additions to the Naxos American Classics series --and it does seem rather odd that these premiere recordings of American music are by a Russian orchestra with a Swiss conductor.  Naxos, in their usual enterprising way, plans on recording more music of Strong.

R.E.B. (Dec. 2002)