Harbison - Symphony no.4; works by Ruggles & Stucky
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Label: Naxos - American Classics
Cat No: 8559836
Number of Discs: 1
Release Date: 15th June 2018
Second Concerto for Orchestra
ArtistsNational Orchestral Institute Philharmonic
ConductorDavid Alan Miller
This release brings together three American orchestral masterpieces in a program that will impress and delight in equal measure. The catalogues are not overwhelmed by alternative recordings of these works, through Carl Ruggles’ incredible early-20th-century score has justly been given wider attention.
Grammy Award-winning conductor David Alan Miller has established a reputation as one of the leading American conductors of his generation, his Naxos recordings including the recent release of Michael Daugherty’s Dreamachine (8559807). His work with the National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic (NOIP) has resulted in a recording of John Corigliano’s First Symphony (8559782) that was considered “mightily impressive” by Gramophone, with MusicWeb International stating that “David Alan Miller is an impressive guide to this work and to the entire disc.”
“Conductor David Alan Miller’s tempos are broad, letting the music breathe and allowing the composer’s clear textures and melodic warmth to be fully revealed. The NOIP plays magnificently.” – Audiophile Audition
1Carl Ruggles - Sun-Treader
2Steven Stucky - Second Concerto for Orchestra: I. Overture (with friends)
3Steven Stucky - Second Concerto for Orchestra: II. Variations
4Steven Stucky - Second Concerto for Orchestra: III. Finale
5John Harbison - Symphony no.4: I. Fanfare
6John Harbison - Symphony no.4: II. Intermezzo
7John Harbison - Symphony no.4: III. Scherzo
8John Harbison - Symphony no.4: IV. Threnody
9John Harbison - Symphony no.4: V. Finale
The disc kicks off with a brilliantly assured, sonically impressive and expressively intense account of Sun-Treader. This is a work that packs a powerful punch, taking its inspiration from a phrase in Robert Browning’s 1832 poem Pauline, and the young players of the National Orchestral Institute – which meets every June to shape the professional orchestral musicians of the future – clearly relish its challenges. Ruggles took 5 years to write this 15-minute work, composed in his own particular brand of quasi-serial atonality. There have been several fine recordings of Sun-Treader over the years, but this one, recorded in the warmly sympathetic acoustic of the Dekelboum Concert Hall at the University of Maryland, emphasises the piece’s Berg-like lyricism, without sacrificing the music’s over-arching power.
With Stucky’s Second Concerto for Orchestra, written for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, we enter a different world. Cast in three movements – ‘Overture (with friends)’, a long central ‘Variations’ movement and a Finale ‒ it is replete with deftly integrated quotations from and nods towards Stucky’s musical reference points: Ravel, Stravinsky, Debussy and Brahms are all seamlessly woven in, providing reference points for the listener in turn. Stucky was a master orchestrator in his own right, and though the timings suggest a lop-sided work, the overall shape feels perfectly judged. And it makes an ideal piece for the NIOP’s youthful musicians, with every section excelling in what is in effect a ‘celebration’ of the symphony orchestra as a medium.
Finally comes John Harbison’s five-movement Symphony no.4, composed ‘inside-out’, as it were, with the fourth movement ‘Threnody’ written first, inspired by the near loss of a loved one. It provides the emotional core of the work, which has the jazzy overtones that are so distinctly American. The opening ‘Fanfare’ movement is particularly enjoyable, mixing bombast with lightly-scored dance-like passages. The following Intermezzo provides a stark contrast, including magical gamelan-style passages for tuned percussion, while the Scherzo provides evidence of a keen wit, mischievous rather than overtly humorous. The Finale has about it a formal feel inspired by an Emily Dickinson poem (another root in the American cultural soil). Taken as a whole, this Symphony (originally composed for the Seattle Symphony) is in some ways more akin to a work like Janáček’s Sinfonietta, though the soundworld is completely different. But it’s a fine showpiece in its own right, and once again the NIO Philharmonic, under the expert direction of David Alan Miller, give it their all.
If you’ve not yet dipped into the American Classics series, this is an ideal starting point, combining the best of the past with two exceptional recent works. It certainly makes for a refreshing and instructive change from the ubiquitous Copland, Barber, Bernstein and Glass, and those who know this series already will readily snap it up. Highly recommended!
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