Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Suite No. 1, Op. 42
Suite No. 2, Op. 48 "Indian"
Hamlet and Ophelia
, Op. 22.

Ulster Orchestra/Takuo Yuasa
recorded 2-4/12/99, in the Ulster Hall, Belfast. DDD
NAXOS 8.559075 [63.50]
Crotchet   AmazonUK   AmazonUS

With the exception of a handful of piano miniatures such as To a Wild Rose, the music of Edward MacDowell (1860-1908) has long sunk virtually without trace. Yet 100 years ago his music was highly regarded; not only were those miniatures to be heard in every Edwardian drawing-room, but his orchestral music was equally well-known, at least in his native America.

Was the fame he enjoyed in his day merited? (his music was championed by no less a person than Liszt, for whom MacDowell played some of his early compositions) Nicolas Slonimsky observed (a touch waspishly) in the seventh edition of the Concise Baker's Dictionary of Musicians (1988): '... Musical America at the time was virtually a German colony, and MacDowell's German training was a certificate of his worth. ... He was the first American whose works were accepted as comparable in quality and technique with those of the average German composers of his time.' In that barbed word 'average' lies the clue to MacDowell's rapid descent into oblivion. As Slonimsky goes on to point out: MacDowell's music betrays a 'lack of musical strength and originality' and 'his romanticism was apt to lapse into salon sentimentality.' Moreover he left no significant imprint on the later development of American music.

Slonimsky's strictures are amply borne out by this disc. MacDowell's music is expertly crafted, his fertile melodies exude charm and elegance, and there are the occasional flashes of unexpected orchestral colour - but that's about it: of powerful musical argument there is little. Perhaps the best of these pieces is the simple, affecting Dirge from the Indian Suite (improbably hailed by one contemporary as 'the most profoundly affecting threnody since the Funeral March from Götterdämmerung') and the symphonic poem Hamlet and Ophelia (in which the influence of Liszt is clearly evident).

Like so many forgotten composers whose music is currently being exhumed MacDowell is here revealed as a striking example of why they have fallen by the wayside: being pleasant and competent is just not enough. Still, it might be worth spending £5.00 or so to find out if I'm simply being churlish!

Performance and recording are excellent.

Adrian Smith

See also review from John Phillips

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