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William Levi DAWSON (1899-1990)
Negro Folk Symphony (1932-34 rev. 1952) [33:01] Ulysses Simpson KAY (1917-1995)
Fantasy Variations (1963) [17:53]
Umbrian Scene (1963) [13:37]
ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/Arthur Fagen
rec. 2019, ORF-Funkhaus, Grosser Sendsaal, Vienna NAXOS 8.559870 [64:42]
Given its immediate melodic appeal, skilful orchestration and cogent use of the musical material, it comes as something of a surprise that William Levi Dawson's Negro Folk Symphony has not been more often recorded. This new recording would seem to be only the third after Stokowski in 1963 and Järvi in Detroit for Chandos in 1992.
From its title alone, it can be gleaned that Dawson drew on his African-American heritage but this is much more than a compendium of folk-songs or spirituals in orchestral garb. Frank K. DeWald, in his short but informative liner, makes the case for this being a carefully structured work which makes recurring use of motifs and melodic fragments - often drawn from 'folk' material - to create a musical impression of the experience of Africans in America. Across its half-hour span, this is an impressively condensed and well-proportioned score. The opening movement is entitled The Bond of Africa, near the beginning of which Dawson introduces a theme that binds the whole work together. According to DeWald, Dawson labelled this the "missing link" to represent "the link [that] was taken out of a human chain when the first African was taken from the shores of his native land and sent to slavery". This is powerful but not overtly tragic music with Dawson incorporating fragments of less familiar spirituals and rhythmic references to African dances to create a compelling musical picture.
The performers here are Arthur Fagen conducting the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. These same artists - at the same sessions I see - produced a recent disc for Naxos of Morton Gould's Symphonettes. I must admit I found those performances to be competent rather than compelling, mainly because of Fagen's preference for steady tempi and less than razor-edged rhythms. On first glance, the direct comparison to Järvi's reading would suggest much the same. Fagen takes 33:01 for the complete work as opposed to Järvi's 28:31 - a four-and-a-half-minute difference in a roughly half-hour work is substantial, but, as ever, timings alone tell only half the story. The Järvi performance very much epitomises that conductor's approach to much of the repertoire he has recorded. On one level it is very exciting - driven tempi, wide dynamics, rhythms and accents sharply defined. But the price for this often visceral experience can be a loss of warmth or nuance. Certainly there are several occasions in this work where I find Fagen's broader more thoughtful approach pays emotional dividends. The central movement Hope in the Night is a case in point. Without access to a score it is impossible to know whether Fagen or Järvi are more scrupulous in following the composer's markings. Järvi is powerful and rather epic - helped greatly by typically lush Chandos sound and first rate playing by the Detroit orchestra - but Fagen - almost three minutes slower in this movement alone - finds a kind of dignified tragedy which makes for a more compelling story. In an ideal world I would like Fagen's emotional weight and Järvi's dynamism and rhythmic snap.
These qualities in the Järvi performance help with the closing pages of the work. The third and final movement is titled O, Le' me shine, shine like a morning star. This is the shortest - and probably least impressive - section of the work, and it is here that Järvi's energetically thrusting style pushes the music through to a conclusion which in the Fagen performance feels a touch underwhelming. Järvi is helped by the opulent and rich Chandos recording which still sounds remarkably fine. The new Naxos recording is perfectly good and certainly the ORF Vienna are an accomplished group of players but few would deny that Chandos create a more 'glamorous' sound stage for their recording.
After a celebrated first performance in 1934 and early acclaim, this symphony rather fell off the radar until the 1963 recording. In part, this was due to the fact that just a single set of performing parts existed and also because Dawson chose to return to the college where he had studied in Alabama and focus on education, choral performance and arranging. So sadly for the musical world, this symphony represents a path not trodden. Hard not to think that good though this first symphony is, had Dawson chosen to write more works in this vein they would have been even finer and more individual.
Seventeen years younger than Dawson, Ulysses Simpson Kay was a more prolific composer than his older colleague. Frank DeWald mentions some 140 works for ensembles across all genres including five operas and film scores, but on disc he is disappointingly poorly represented. I have his Six Dances as part of an old VoxBox of American Orchestral works which are charming and brief but hardly significant. Like Dawson, Kay pursued a career in education although he did study with the likes of Howard Hanson and Paul Hindemith and won the prestigious Prix de Rome more than once. On the strength of the two works presented here the neglect of his music is inexplicable. His musical language is more advanced and abstract than Dawson's. Both scores were written in 1963 and they are serious, indeed often sombre works which eschew orchestral effects. DeWald characterises the Fantasy Variations as "variations in search of a theme". In the course of its seventeen-minute duration, Kay writes and introduction and thirteen variations with the theme finally making a complete appearance at the end of the work. This is a very skilfully constructed score with the variations flowing seamlessly from one to another as Kay adapts his harmonic palette and instrumental textures as they proceed. I have never encountered this work before in any form or version but it seems that Arthur Fagen is wholly attuned to the idiom - perhaps more so than in the other music he recorded at these sessions. Likewise, the ORF Vienna players play with skill and sensitivity.
Similarly, the Umbrian Scene which completes the disc. Again, this is spare and rather sparse music - at times it had me thinking in spirit of an Egdon Heath-like landscape rather than any kind of verdant Italian vista. The liner quotes the composer as saying the music is "an evocation of the wonderful time I spent in that part of Italy." I found that I enjoyed the music most by not trying to evoke any particular landscape but simply enjoying the work for its subtle palette and restrained emotional compass. Again, I have to say I enjoyed the poised and nuanced performance given here.
Overall, this is a valuable disc of music by composers whose work is rarer on disc than it deserves to be. Certainly it is to be hoped that Naxos will investigate further the catalogues of both.