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Ferde GROFÉ (1892-1972)
Grand Canyon Suite (1931) [32:25]
Mississippi Suite (1926) [13:05]
Death Valley Suite (1949)* [17:11]
Grand Canyon Suite – Cloudburst*
Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra/Felix Slatkin
Capitol Symphony Orchestra/Ferde Grofé *
rec. Stage Seven Samuel Goldwyn Studios, Hollywood, CA, 5 & 12 March, 1956, Stereo ADD; Capitol Studios, 25 November, 1954, Mono ADD *
Experience Classicsonline

If you know just one thing about Ferde Grofé, it’s almost certainly the fact that he orchestrated George Gerswhin’s Rhapsody in Blue; by the time that Gershwin came to write his less successful Second Rhapsody, he was able to do the job himself.  If you know one more thing about Grofé, it’s probably that he composed the Grand Canyon Suite.
The Grand Canyon is certainly likely to be the main attraction of this CD.  It may be banal, but it’s also very colourful – almost Technicolor-ful.  The two, in fact, go hand in hand, as in On the Trail (track 3) where the imitation of the bucking bronco is colourful and amusing at first but, at over seven minutes, rather out-stays its welcome.
The opening movement, depicting sunrise, is much more subtle – it’s almost worthy of comparison with Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloë – and the second movement, Painted Desert, is also attractive.  If you like Respighi at his quietly evocative best, you’ll like these two opening movements, and probably also Sunset (track 4).  These three movements are reminiscent of the old-fashioned travelogue film at its best.
Unfortunately, Grofé, like Respighi, also has his more blatant moments.  The closing section, Cloudburst, beginning softly and working up through a predictable crescendo, certainly would win no prizes for subtlety, though it matches Respighi’s more colourful moments (tr.5).  EMI clearly – and probably rightly – regard the Cloudburst movement as the major appeal, so they offer it twice: more about that second version later.
If you’re going to bring out the whole range of colour in Grofé’s music, you need a recording that does it full justice.  EMI have dug deep into the archives of their US Capitol associates for Slatkin senior’s 1956 recordings of the first two suites.  They still sound quite well in their 1997 digital re-mastering, but they have been transferred at rather too high a volume.  They benefit from a volume cut of 3 or 4 dB, and they still sound rather shrill at times, even on my Arcam/Monitor setup which usually mellows strident recordings. 
This Slatkin version of Cloudburst is effective enough, but if you want all the Technicolor effects, you’d be better served by the mid-price Telarc recording (CD80086, Cincinnati Pops/Kunzel) with ‘real’ thunder effects or the SACD re-mastering of the classic Bernstein recording (SS89033 – but apparently currently available in the UK only in CD format on SMK63086).
Tim Perry recently gave a strong recommendation to the Eloquence reissue of Antal Doráti’s performance (442 9496).  It’s less expensive than the EMI, is coupled with an equally recommendable version of the Mississippi Suite (derived from a Mercury recording with the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra/Howard Hanson) and the Gershwin/Bennett Porgy and Bess Symphonic Picture, and is ‘stunningly well recorded’ – see review.
The Mississippi Suite looks like an attempt to repeat the successful formula but, in fact, it predates Grand Canyon.  In any event, it’s attractive enough music but it lacks the appeal of the better-known work.  Mardi Gras (tr.9), the most appealing movement, comes close to sounding like a blend of Gershwin and Copland in places.  Otherwise, only Huckleberry Finn (tr.7) really captures the attention.  If you want to hear music which truly evokes a great river, try Duke Ellington’s The River (Chandos CHAN9154, Detroit SO/Neeme Järvi, coupled with William Grant Still’s equally fascinating Symphony No.1 – or CHAN9909, where the same performance is coupled with Solitude and Harlem and William Levi Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony).
The Death Valley Suite really was an attempt to recapture the spirit of the Grand Canyon but it doesn’t have the appeal of the earlier work.  The braying donkey joke wore a little thin in the Grand Canyon Suite – here, its (mercifully brief) repetition on tr.11 (49er Emigrant Train) is thinner still.  No doubt the music would make a good accompaniment to a film about the 49ers, whose experiences of 100 years earlier it celebrated.  (On second thoughts, that’s a little unfair – the pictures are actually inherent in the music itself.)  It’s hardly likely ever to receive a more authoritative performance than the one given here by Grofé himself, but the 1954 mono sound is much thinner and drier than the stereo recording of two years later on the earlier part of the CD.  The sonic transition from track 9 to track 10 is very noticeable.  The EMI is tolerable but the more recent Naxos recording of this work is more attractive sound-wise and Rob Barnett also found the performances full of glee and zest (8.559017 – see review).
It was a nice touch to end with Grofé’s own more frenetic performance of the final, Cloudburst, section of Grand Canyon, especially as the music benefits from shaving half a minute off Slatkin’s time, but here the limitations of the recording in this 3-D music are even more noticeable.
The notes, as usual with this series, are brief but informative and the whole presentation is attractive, with stunning photos of the Grand Canyon.
I had high expectations of this CD; in the event, those expectations were only half met.  Stay with TP’s recommendation of Doráti if you want an inexpensive version of the Grand Canyon Suite.
Brian Wilson


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