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New York Philharmonic: An American Celebration   Broadcast performances 1936-1999 NYP 9904 (10 Discs: TT 12 hours 58 seconds)

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This is the third multi-CD set the New York Philharmonic has released in as many years from its vast radio archives. The first set, "The Historic Broadcasts 1923-1987, concentrated on mainstream-ish European repertoire, with only Copland and John Corigliano providing a cursory nod to American music. The second release, on the other hand, was entirely devoted to Mahler, comprising all the symphonies and many of the orchestral songs under conductors ranging from Dimitri Mitropoulos and Sir John Barbirolli to Klaus Tennstedt and Leopold Stokowski.

Now, at last, comes the release which, in my view, should have come first. Over a century of American music is represented, with 49 works by 38 composers, all but three American (the exceptions bring Charles Loeffler, Edgard Varese [both French-born] and Ernest Bloch [Swiss-born]), under 20 conductors ranging from Barbirolli and Arturo Toscanini to Kurt Masur and Jahja Ling. Owing to the oncoming centenary of his birth, Aaron Copland is the most generously represented composer here, with 8 works spanning his career (including a few rarities). Among the others, only Howard Hanson, Samuel Barber and Leonard Bernstein have multiple entries, with 2 works apiece. Among the conductors, Leonard Bernstein dominates, with 11 performances (10 of which are of works he never commercially recorded), but Masur, Mitropoulos, Artur Rodzinski and Pierre Boulez are also handsomely served. Out of all these figures, only Bernstein and Hanson do double duty as composer and as conductor.

Here is a rundown of the contents:

Disc 1 starts in fine style with Masur's imposing take on Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man. Bernstein then takes over for George Chadwick's somewhat Lisztian overture Melpomene and 3 movements from Edward MacDowell's Indian Suite, music sufficiently evocative to make me wonder why the whole work wasn't included. Hanson regales us with a gorgeously shaded account of Charles Griffes' The White Peacock in excellent 1946 sound. A year earlier, Rodzinski was drawing the last ounce of unnerving drama from Ernest Schelling's A Victory Ball, a response to thoughtless celebration at the end of World War I which would not lack relevance even today. Masur's unusually sensitive traversal of Ives' Three Places in New England rounds off the disc.

Disc 2 brings Copland's Music for the Theatre in a rumbustious performance under Erich Leinsdorf in 1985. It is followed by Bernstein's brave 1966 memorial performance of Varese's Integrales (the composer had died the year before). Loeffler's impressionistic Memories of My Childhood appears in the oldest recording of the set, from 1936, with Barbirolli lavishing his usual tender, loving care on it. Charles Munch comes next, with a muscular performance of Bloch's Concerto Grosso no.1 from 1948. Bringing up the rear is Gershwin's An American in Paris, in a vigorous 1944 rendition where Rodzinski betrays his involvement by singing along in the central Blues and by grunting at climaxes, to startling effect!

Hanson returns in Disc 3, this time in his own music: his big-hearted Symphony no.2 Romantic gets a splendid workout in this 1946 performance. Following this, Bernstein proceeds to whittle down Acts 3 and 4 of Virgil Thomson's opera Four Saints in Three Acts to a mere 14 minutes, but what there is is quite beautiful in its homespun way. The tragically short-lived Guido Cantelli pops in with a cracking performance of Copland's El Salon Mexico from 1955. Masur then treats us to a rugged performance of Carl Ruggles' granitic Sun-treader in state-of-the-art 1994 sound. To end the disc, a Copland rarity in the shape of his Prairie Journal (1942), zestfully rendered by Zubin Mehta in 1985 on the composer's 85th birthday.

Disc 4 starts with Bernstein's 1957 performance of Roy Harris's great Symphony no.3. Full of unbuttoned passion and conviction, it is superior to either of Bernstein's commercial recordings. Barber's First Essay for Orchestra is tautly delineated by George Szell in 1950. Bernard Herrmann's suite from his film score to The Devil and Daniel Webster comes up fresh as new paint under Stokowski in 1949. The old magician then proceeds to charm us with Hanson's little Serenade for flute, harp and strings. Pierre Monteux works the same magic in William Grant Still's likeable little tone poem Old California. But the prize of the disc is Bernstein's blazing performance of Copland's Lincoln Portrait, recorded in 1976 in the vast expanses of our very own Royal Albert Hall, with William Warfield's dignified narration the icing on the cake.

Disc 5 brings yet more riches, with the world premiere of Copland's Appalachian Spring, no less (a taut, athletic performance under Rodzinski). Paul Creston's marvellous, richly coloured Symphony no.2 is given the performance of a lifetime under Monteux, with the finale's propulsively dancing rhythms fairly leaping out of the speakers. Henry Cowell's spacious Hymn and Fuguing Tune no.2 unfolds regally under Paul Paray in 1956. But the best is kept for last: William Schuman's Symphony no.6 of 1948 (my nomination for the Greatest American Symphony), in an incendiary, go-for-broke 1958 performance under the one-and-only Bernstein: in his hands one really savours the harrowing tragedy of the closing pages.

With Disc 6, we briefly flirt with jazz courtesy of Duke Ellington, whose Tone Parallel to Harlem, recast for jazz band and orchestra by Winton Marsalis, makes a rousing opener under Masur. Glenn Dicterow's and Leonard Slatkin's performance of Bernstein's great Serenade for violin and orchestra is an especially highly-charged affair: not surprising since it was given just days after Bernstein died: there may be more polished performances about, but none as searingly dedicated. Following this, Gunther Schuller's early Dramatic Overture truly lives up to its title in Mitropoulos' electrifying performance. Peter Mennin's intransigent, sinewy Concertato "Moby Dick" has a similarly galvanic effect under Bernstein, who then rounds off another splendid disc with Copland's hard-bitten Orchestral Variations in typically whole-hearted fashion.

Once past the conductorless 1992 performance of Bernstein's evergreen Candide Overture (another memorial to the great man), Disc 7 consists wholly of World Premieres. Morton Gould's Dance Variations for 2 pianos and orchestra are diverting but unmemorable, for all of Mitropoulos' obvious commitment. Such conviction works to far stronger effect in Barber's fire-breathing Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance. David Diamond's The World of Paul Klee, a finely-wrought set of orchestral miniatures in an excellent performance under Seymour Lipkin, serves to lower the temperature before Bernstein jacks up the thermometer once more by tearing with gleeful abandon into Ned Rorem's Symphony no.3, which is entertaining and memorable to a degree that Gould's Dance Variations cannot even dream of!

On Disc 8, both Bernstein and Copland bow out of this collection. The former does so with Lukas Foss's witty little 9-minute opera Introductions and Goodbyes (to a libretto by Giancarlo Menotti). The latter signs off in an altogether more dour manner with his Nonet for strings (1960), heard here in its version for expanded string orchestra under William Steinberg. For the rest of the disc, it's Boulez's show all the way, with a surgically accurate performance of Elliott Carter's Concerto for Orchestra which reveals much of beauty amidst its labyrinthine thickets of notes. It's followed by the World Premiere of George Crumb's lavishly extravagant Star-Child, whose huge forces require 4 conductors. Sadly, this is the one sonic letdown of the whole set, for the bone-dry Avery Fisher Hall acoustics do the piece no favours at all, and the odd recording balances, unduly emphasising the percussion to the expense of much else, simply compound the damage (Thomas Conlin's new Warsaw studio recording on Bridge 9095 is superior in every way).

Disc 9 is a mixed bag. Andre' Kostelanetz does what he can with Alan Hovhaness' To Vishnu, a 1967 reworking of his Symphony no.19, but his brand of mysticism tends to pall after a while. By the same token, I can't muster up much enthusiasm for Steve Reich's interminable Tehillim, despite what sounds like a spirited performance under Mehta. He puts this enthusiasm to better use in Joan Tower's muscular Sequoia (1981), which, after nearly 20 years, remains her best orchestral work. But it is Jacob Druckman's kaleidoscopic Lamia which is the strongest work in this disc, with mezzo soprano Jan de Gaetani in inspired form under Boulez's lucid direction (taylor-made for this music).

Apart from the two short works which act as bookends, the 10th and final disc consists of World Premieres, all from the early 90s. The first of these, Christopher Rouse's Trombone Concerto (with Joseph Alessi a terrific soloist under Slatkin's blazing direction) is the most impressive, a dark memorial to Bernstein with a demonic scherzo at its centre and an intense funeral cortege which resolves in inspired fashion in a theme from the older composer's Kaddish Symphony. Next to this, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich's Symphony no.3 in pretty thin stuff, never going anywhere, and with a final major-key peroration as arbitrary as it is unearned. A lost cause, and a waste of a fine conductor in Jahja Ling. Slatkin turns up one last time with clarinettist Stanley Drucker for William Bolcom's Clarinet Concerto, which is simply good, straightforward knockabout fun. And the bookends? At the start, Masur, in his inaugural concert as Music Director of the orchestra in 1991, lets loose John Adams!' Short Ride in a Fast Machine, weightier and more purposeful than usual, And, to round off the whole collection, Arturo Toscanini sets Madison Square Garden ablaze with a rousing performance of Sousa's Stars and Stripes Forever in 1944, with the audience clapping along as if this was the Transatlantic version of the Last Night of the Proms!

The presentation of the set is a model of its kind: a cardboard sleeve enclosing two hefty boxes, each with 5 CDs and a fat 250-page book stuffed to bursting point with information on all of the pieces represented as well as the conductors and soloists involved and much else besides. Now, this is doing things properly.

So, at the end of this American Odyssey, what are my final impressions? Well, I do have the odd carp or two: Principally, I would have willingly traded some of the weaker pieces for works by composers who have been left out. I would not have lamented the loss of the works by Zwilich, Gould, Reich and Hovhaness if they had been replaced with something from, say, Roger Sessions, Walter Piston, George Rochberg, Shulamit Ran or Stephen Albert.But now I'm nit-picking, and the pros of this fabulous set don't just outweigh the cons, they literally obliterate them. So, go on, treat yourself to this Aladdin's Cave of Americana, all 13 hours of it! It belongs in every serious music lover's collection.


Paul Pellay

Review contributed courtesy of Malcom Galloway Classical London


Paul Pellay

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