November 22, 2013

  • Give Thanks! Falletta Takes on America's First Symphonist


    Paine: Symphony No. 1; As You Like It Overture; Shakespeare’s Tempest
    Ulster Orch./JoAnn Falletta
    Naxos 8.559747
    Total Time:  70:38
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    In a recent NPR interview, JoAnn Falletta mentioned that she had recently finished recording some music by American composer John Knowles Paine.  Such a passing announcement diminished what is undoubtedly an event in American music.  For those American music fans who continue to hope that our 19th-Century symphonic history will get its due, this present release has certainly been a long time coming.  When Naxos first announced an “American Classics” series for their label it seemed as if the New England School of composers would be the logical place to start, but instead the label tantalized and teased with a mix of premieres by composers whose work had never appeared on disc coupled with more commercial ventures of familiar names like MacDowell.  The surprise is that the recording was made overseas and not with the conductor’s home orchestra in Buffalo.

    The late 19th Century featured a group of American composers, sometimes called the “Boston Six” that included more than competent creative talent that set about to create some of the first serious concert music.  Of these, George Chadwick, Amy Beach, and Edward MacDowell have managed to eke out some minor places in orchestral repertoire over the past century.  The work of John Knowles Paine (1839-1906) and Horatio Parker still tends to languish.  Paine was the oldest of this bunch of new composers but each, except for Beach, would shape the American musical landscape at the East Coast music schools and conservatories that appeared as the century came to a close.

    In order to better understand why this music tends to be ignored, it is important to understand the odd historical aspects of music in this period.  The first of these is that in the latter 19th Century, anyone who wanted to be a great composer headed to Germany, usually Leipzig, to learn their craft.  (We see parallels in other countries as well where similar Germanic claims about resulting pieces can seem dismissive.  Grieg and Delius for example both followed similar educational paths.)  The other is that in the early 20th Century, there was a shift for young composers to head to Paris and the result was a sort of reaction against Germanic-sounding music (fueled by political developments that would lead to WWI).  Paine would gain the attention of Clara Schumann who asked him to play some of his works for her.  He would return in 1861 to begin teaching organ at Harvard University.  The following decade he developed the first music curriculum in the United States advocating that all music students should be well grounded in music history and theory.  He would create a number of chamber works, an opera, and several orchestral works, seven in all of which three appear here (and one can hope the rest will soon come!).

    The opening two works on the disc are great examples of the burgeoning cult of Shakespeare that blossomed throughout the 19th Century and was particularly part of American culture.  It was not uncommon for traveling actors to do whole shows consisting only of monologues and many plays were staged such that they would be more well known to audiences than one might otherwise think, at least to the “cultured” society that attended orchestral concerts.  The first of these is the delightful overture As You Like It inspired by Shakespeare’s play.  It was intended as a stand alone overture and premiered by Theodore Thomas at Harvard.  (Thomas would go on to found the Chicago Symphony Orchestra).  This is in essence a fine 19th-Century diversionary overture with good lyrical lines and a sonata-allegro second section.  The themes are all quite interesting but not necessarily terribly memorable.  The work though demonstrates that Paine had learned his craft well.  Thomas would also conduct the premiere of the second Shakespeare-influenced work, Shakespeare’s Tempest, in New York in 1877 with Paine himself conducting a revised edition with the Boston Symphony in 1883.  Here we see the composer adopting the symphonic poem approach of a large scale work with six dramatic sections connected to characters in the drama.  The roots of this appear in music of Liszt and Saint-Saens (Phaedra, Danse Macabre).  There is again some great orchestral writing with nice solo ideas to create interesting dramatic flair and humor.  The melodies are certainly engaging and the work is a nice surprise.

    Most of the time, those ignorant of musical history will be dismissive of Paine’s first symphony as being Brahms-like.  One could be in worse company and what else would any knowledgeable person expect from a German-trained composer writing in the same decades?!  The reality is that Paine’s first symphony was composed between the years 1872-75.  This was a very fruitful musical period that saw Brahms working on his first symphony as well, both men finding Beethoven as their inspirational launching point.  Both would even cast their work in the same key as Beethoven’s fifth symphony, c-minor.  For context it is worth noting that this is the same period of Bruckner’s fourth symphony, Dvorak’s third-fifth symphonies, and Tchaikovsky’s third with Wagner’s Ring cycle receiving its first performances.  None of which would have been heard by Paine.

    Paine tended to more closely follow the Beethoven’s motivic devices, sometimes far too much, which perhaps keeps it from rising above to assert its own voice as it  tends to imitate them frequently.  The thematic ideas are quite engaging and the orchestration is equally accomplished.  As a piece written for an 1870s American audience equally enamored with Beethoven it was certainly an entertaining work.  The four movements are well-balanced with an opening “Allegro con brio” and concluding “Allegro vivace” both cast in sonata form.  The ending of the symphony is especially powerful.  The interior movements include a brisk second-movement scherzo and truly gorgeous “Adagio”.  The latter is perhaps worth the price of admission to this symphony and Falletta makes sure it does not languish or wallow but allows the beauty to unfold gracefully.  In the midst of this movement, Paine’s mood tends to shift to subtle darker colors.  It always feels as if this is a troubled historical moment that rejoices in current beauty while still recalling recent horrors of Civil strife.  But any program one adds to this work is purely coincidental as this is an absolute essay in its purest form.

    Though it is not noted on the release, the Tempest recording appears to be a premiere, at least on CD.  Any of these works alone would warrant this being a must-have CD though.  The other two were paired on a 1992 New World release performed by the New York Philharmonic with Zubin Mehta conducting.  It would seem as if that performance took some cuts as its overall playing time is around 37 minutes while Falletta’s runs to 40.  Here tempos are really spot on.  The first movement is a breezy allegro that works quite well and the scherzo movement has the sort of playful drive that one can find parallels in in the Dvorak symphonies of this period.  Both slow movement performances are fairly similar.  Falletta appears to have restored cuts in the final movement as well.  Regardless, her performances here are simply wonderful allowing the music to embrace the style and thrust of 1870s symphonic music with embarrassment and the result is a truly gorgeous set of performances cast in amazing sound.

    It would be relatively easy it would seem to program any of these works on modern concerts.  The Tempest work features some great solo ideas that would engage performers and audience alike and the overall musical style is quite accessible.  Of course, even Liszt’s tone poems are rarely heard in concert these days.  As to the symphony, there is no excuse why this is not part of the standard American orchestral repertoire, though the second is an even better essay.  It is a work that certainly anyone could point to as a significant essay in the genre for the period.  Here’s to the next installment hopefully that will bring the second symphony and a few more Paine orchestral gems as well.

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