MacDOWELL:  Suite No. 1, Op. 42.  Suite No. 2, Op. 48 "Indian."  Hamlet & Ophelia, Op. 22
Ulster Orch/Takuo Yuasa, cond.
NAXOS  8.559075 (B) (DDD) TT:  63:50

Like the Chopin concertos and Beethoven's first two for piano, these suites were published in the reverse order of their composition. No. 2, subtitled “Indian,” was written in 1892 and played first; No. 1 followed in 1893. I've never heard the latter until now, nor have any memory of the "Indian" in live performance—or if I did, what I may have written about it (my entire career in daily journalism is filed in shoe-boxes, stored within moving cartons since 1978). The experience here has been both surprising and delightful, which is not to pretend that either work is more significant than a period piece. MacDowell was born the same year as Mahler, and predeceased the latter by just three years. What they had in common was a mastery of orchestral means and ends. How they differed was wider than the Atlantic, and by the time Mahler crossed it in 1907, MacDowell was a prematurely senescent invalid. He never recovered from an accident with a cab in 1904 that resulted in permanent brain damage, and died in 1908.

From 1896 until then, however, he was Columbia University's first professor of music—evidently a distinguished and innovative pedagog, but one who clashed with campus bureaucrats and the collective envy of colleagues, which led to his dismissal. He had studied abroad—first at the Paris Conservatoire, but principally with Joachim Raff, Liszt's man-Friday at Weimar, who claimed to have written some of his employers' music (and certainly did help with scoring until Liszt mastered that art). Raff brought MacDowell's First Piano Concerto to the attention of Liszt, who lobbied for its publication as he had for Grieg's. But MacDowell, a pianist of caliber as well, was basically a miniaturist in keyboard music that made him as famous in America as Grieg was in Europe.

Today, however, he is all but forgotten, except for a handful of piano pieces. The name has been kept alive by a colony that MacDowell's widow established in their Vermont summer retreat after his death. All the more surprising, therefore, the genuine charm of these two suites (Hamlet and Ophelia, two conjoined tone poems written a decade earlier, is adept but unoriginal) despite the obvious ghosts of Raff and Liszt. Neither suite has a movement longer than 6:31, and all five in the First last only 20:23. If they have any flaw, it is abrupt endings; they stop rather than culminate. But the ideas are solid, the workmanship polished, and the aftertaste agreeable.

How much we have to thank conductor Takuo Yuasa I can't certify, but his leadership here is first-rate and his musicianship enkindling. Beyond that, he makes the Ulster Orchestra play with a power and singleness of purpose that music director Dimitri Sitkovetsky has yet to demonstrate he can approximate, much less match. The bow on this gift-wrapped package is Naxos' recorded sound, produced by Bill Lloyd with engineers John Benson and Michael Davidson. It is spacious, resounding, and naturally balanced—a league better than Mercury's Living Presence remastering on CD of a vintage performance by the late Howard Hanson and his Eastman-Rochester student orchestra. I'd like to hear Yuasa live with one of North America's major orchestras.

Recommended severally.

R.D.(Feb. 2001)