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This is, I think, the third album devoted entirely to American music that Carlos Kalmar and the Oregon Symphony have recorded for Pentatone. An earlier release featured Copland’s Third Symphony along with other works (review), while another disc, which I’ve not heard, also entitled ‘Aspects of America’ contained music by five composers including Samuel Barber and Christopher Rouse (PTC 5186 727). Here are some more ‘Aspects of America’ and this time the programme focuses on works which won their respective composers a Pulitzer prize.
Walter Piston’s Seventh Symphony won him a Pulitzer prize in 1961. This was his second such accolade: he’d earlier won a Pulitzer for his Third Symphony (1947). The Seventh was commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra who premiered it with Ormandy in 1961. I have a recollection that they made a recording, though I’ve never heard it. I have encountered the symphony before in Jorge Mester’s 1974 recording with the Louisville Orchestra. I have it in its Albany Records incarnation, though the performance was later reissued by First Edition (review). Mester’s performance is a good one but Kalmar’s has the edge, not least in sonic terms. The first movement is purposeful, energetic and, apart from a couple of short episodes, always forward-moving. The longest of the three movements is the central Adagio pastorale. This is music with a serious tone and initially it’s fairly subdued. The music strikes me as something of a ‘dark pastoral’; Piston is definitely not portraying a bright, sunlit rural scene. The argument becomes tense and a powerful climax is achieved at around 7:00. The last couple of minutes relaxes into a more tranquil vein with solo flute and cor anglais to the fore. The finale is marked Allegro festevole. Here, Piston makes virtuoso use of the orchestra, writing with plenty of rhythmic drive. The movement has a celebratory feel to it. If I’m honest, this is music that I respect rather than love, and the notes accompanying my copy of Mester’s recording indicate that the work received a mixed critical reception when Ormandy unveiled it. Carlos Kalmar and his orchestra show it in a very good light, though, with their excellent performance.
Stringmusic is one of Morton Gould’s last works and it won him a Pulitzer in 1995. He wrote it for his friend, Mstislav Rostropovich and, though the notes don’t mention this, it was commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra, of which ‘Slava’ was Music Director from 1977 to 1994. They premiered it in Washington D. C. in March 1994. This suite for strings is in five movements. ‘Prelude’ is a serious-minded start to the work and exploits the cantabile aspect of string playing through long melodic lines. ‘Tango’ is a nod to Rostropovich’s liking for that dance form. The dance is established after an astringent opening; it’s a witty movement. ‘Dirge’ is the longest movement (it actually plays for two minutes longer than the time stated on the track list). According to Gould, the movement reflects “not only the intensity but in particular the sense of sorrow, loss, and even anger that must be associated with so much that Slava has experienced in consequence of his ideals and his loyalties.” From a quiet, sepulchral start in which the double basses play a crucial anchor role, the music becomes more animated. The intensity is retained from start to finish. ‘Ballad’ is described by the composer as “a Lied for string orchestra, a sort of love note”. The music is slow and lyrical but there’s a constant edge to the harmonies which, to my ears, spices up the “love note”. Finally, ‘Strum (perpetuum mobile)’, which is full of vitality, brings the work to an extrovert close. Stringmusic is a strong piece and its very well done here.
I got to know Howard Hanson’s Fourth Symphony many years ago through the 1991 Delos recording by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony, which is now available on Naxos (review). That’s a very good performance but it provides an interesting contrast with Kalmar’s account. The symphony won Hanson a Pulitzer in 1944. The Delos notes tell us that this was the first Pulitzer awarded for music; given the theme of this Pentatone release I’m rather surprised that their liner notes don’t mention that. Another very relevant fact picked up by Delos but not by Pentatone is that the symphony was inspired by the death of Hanson’s father, to whose memory the score is dedicated. It’s cast in four movements, each of which bears a title taken from the Catholic Mass for the Dead.
The opening movement is Andante inquieto (Kyrie). From the outset, powerful emotions are expressed and two Hanson trademarks – full, Romantic orchestration and melodic nobility – are much in evidence. Schwarz takes a broader approach overall than Kalmar; the Schwarz performance plays for 9:35 and Kalmar’s for 7:22. Comparing the two, I’d say that perhaps Schwarz’s tempo is closer to ‘Andante’ but Kalmar better conveys the ‘inquieto’ part of the marking. I should also say that the Pentatone sound has much more impact: I had to play the Delos disc back at a much higher volume setting to get comparable results. The second movement is Elegy: Largo (Requiescat). At the start we hear a melody, initially on bassoon, against a walking string bass. I hadn’t listened to the symphony for some time and I had forgotten how reminiscent is the opening to the comparable passage in the slow movement of the Sibelius Second Symphony. The music is deeply felt and Kalmar responds to it very well. Once again, Schwarz is the slower of the two, taking 5:37 against Kalmar’s 4:41. On balance, I think the greater sense of flow in the Kalmar performance is to be preferred. There follows a short movement, Presto (Dies irae). This may not snarl and fizz in quite the same way as the ‘Dies irae’ movement in Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem but it’s still music that snipes at the listener. The mood is very dynamic and agitated. Kalmar’s incisive and powerful performance is accentuated by the excellence of the recorded sound. Finally, Hanson presents a radiant finale, Largo pastorale (Lux aeterna). Much of this is broad and lyrical, the music offering solace and instilling confidence. No doubt this movement, perhaps even more than the others, reflects Hanson’s Christian beliefs - as a young man he considered becoming a Lutheran minister, I believe. In the middle of the movement the music becomes more urgent before falling back to a tranquil conclusion. Overall, Kalmar takes 21:50 for the symphony compared to Schwarz’s overall timing of 25:56. There’s a lot to admire in the Schwarz account – he gives the music plenty of space – but I think the tauter approach of Kalmar is better.
This is a fine and stimulating collection of American orchestral music, all of which is well worth hearing. The performances, all stemming from concerts in the Oregon Symphony’s home hall, are excellent and engineer John Newton and producer Blanton Alspaugh have captured them in terrific sound which is vivid and truthful. Elizabeth Schwartz’s notes are good in many ways but I was disappointed that a few pieces of what I would regard as key information were not included.
It’s recently been announced that Carlos Kalmar will step down as Music Director of the Oregon Symphony at the end of the 2020/21 season, having held the post since 2003. I’ve now heard several of their recordings and they indicate, as this latest release does, that theirs has been a fruitful partnership. I hope that before he leaves the orchestra there’ll be one or two additions to their joint discography.