GOULD: Fanfare for Freedom (1942). Saint Lawrence Suite (1958). Jericho Rhapsody (1941). Derivations for Clarinet and Band (1955). Symphony No. 4 "West Point"(1952).
Stephanie Zelnick (clarinet); University of Kansas Wind Ensemble/Scott Weiss.
Naxos 8.57269 TT: 62:00.
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At least two classics. Morton Gould wrote a lot of music for band and wind ensemble, mostly because patrons commissioned him, but sometimes out of personal desire. At least one of his children played in the Florida State University marching band. His work in this area spans a wide range, both in ambition and in style, and a lot of it has entered the American band repertory. This disc represents only a small proportion of his output in the genre, and two items on the program -- Jericho Rhapsody and the Saint Lawrence Suite -- were previously unknown to me.

Gould was one of the most prodigious musicians since Mozart. He published his first piece of music at the age of six. By his mid-teens (it was the Depression), he found a lucrative career as a musical director at Radio City Music Hall in New York and as a composer, arranger, and conductor on the radio. The pressures of radio increased his natural facility. He wrote some of his most popular works in a single night, directly into full score. People have stuck him with the label of "light composer," but he could do many other things. He wrote for Toscanini, Balanchine, Robbins, and DeMille. He early on beat the drum for Charles Ives and, to some extent, absorbed the older man's influence. He was Leonard Bernstein before Bernstein was out of high school. Incidentally, the two feuded from the Forties on, and Bernstein effectively kept Gould's music out of the main venues in New York. Gould usually recorded his concert works in Chicago. Despite the fact that through his popular work (he helped developed the instrumental "concept" LP) he earned an income most other composers could only sigh over, he had the respect and friendship of a good many of his peers. He currently awaits major critical reassessment.

During World War II, conductor and composer Eugene Goossens commissioned major American composers for fanfares. Most of these have been totally forgotten, although one -- Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man -- is one of that man's biggest hits. Jorge Mester recorded the complete set on Koch once upon a time (deleted, but still available through Amazon). Almost every fanfare was dedicated either to an ally (Virgil Thomson's Fanfare for France) or to some branch of the service (Hanson's Fanfare for the Signal Corps). Copland and Gould were the only two who chose to celebrate the values we fought for. The Copland, of course, has long become a deserved classic. It re-imagines the fanfare in a way that fits brass and percussion like a Saville-Row suit. The Gould doesn't soar quite so high. Instead, it steps quick and lively, putting out brilliant variations on simple triads (do - mi - sol; C-E-G, for example). Harmonically, one hears some Prokofieff side-slipping, but the rhythm is pure American.

Gould wrote the Saint Lawrence Suite on commission from the U.S.-Canadian regional power authorities near Niagara Falls (the work premiered on the Canadian side). It features for half of its four movements two "dueling" solo trumpets -- that is, placed antiphonally left and right of the orchestra, which some have seen as the separation of the two countries calling to one another. The last movement symbolically joins them. In the evocative first, the trumpets trade phrases from either shore of the orchestra. In the second, "Quickstep," they rattle off quasi-military fanfares. Reeds come to the forefront in "Chansonette." The "Ceremonial March" finale raises the marching band to a whole other level. It's not a particularly profound work, but it's pretty as hell. "Prettiness" is a strong part of Gould's music, which leads many to dismiss it, as if a pretty girl can't also be smart or deep.

Jericho Rhapsody exemplifies Gould's fascination with jazz and spirituals. He has written many pieces that take off from the music of African-Americans. This one, essentially a program piece, portrays Joshua's victory at Jericho. If you know other works by Gould inspired by these sources, you may recognize little bits. Motives from the Spirituals for Orchestra, perhaps his greatest work in this genre and written in the same year as the rhapsody, dominate the opening sections. The piece overflows with amazing counterpoint and brilliant orchestration and rhythms.

Gould wrote Derivations as a mini-concerto for Benny Goodman. Along with Bernstein's Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs, this concert gem comes closer to the improvisatory spirit of jazz than any other I can think of. I call it a Perfect Piece: every note necessary and no note out of place. It's also a lesson in spectacular counterpoint. Solo clarinet and a "ten-tet" of instruments (various saxes, two trumpets, bass, piano, and two percussionists) play mainly as soloists or in pairs. The sound is mostly sparse, which emphasizes the counterpoint. The work consists of four movements: "Warm-up," "Contrapuntal Blues," "Rag," and "Ride-Out." The composer provides a note on the character of each movement, but this piece deserves a heavier analysis, more than what I can do here. Throughout the entire work, players just seem to blow whatever comes to mind, influenced by what they've already heard. This reaches its peak in the slow and smoky "Contrapuntal Blues" -- more counterpoint than blues, although the lines are based on different blues modes. "Ride-Out" evokes the "killer-diller" arrangement (think the Goodman Orchestra's "Sing, Sing, Sing") and an evening of inspired soloing. To me, one of the best works by an American, it makes me think of Stravinsky with a jazz beat.

Impressed by William Revelli's University of Michigan band, Gould began to think of a more sophisticated band music. He wrote two symphonies for this type of ensemble (Scott Weiss's liner notes claim only one; Grove mentions two): the "West Point" and the "Centennial" (1983). The work has two movements: "Epitaphs" and "Marches." For its first two-thirds, "Epitaphs" moves like an Elizabethan fantasia, although he does contrast two main ideas, as in a conventional symphony. Nevertheless, lines weave in and out, and "Taps" seems never very far away. The argument then moves to an unusually quick passacaglia, with the tuba taking up the bass line. Gould kicks the counterpoint into even higher gear and raises the level of pure animal spirit. Also in this section, one of Gould's most controversial orchestral effects appears. He specifies a "marching machine," usually rendered by the instrumentalists stamping their feet while they play. I think it cheapens the music, turns it laughable. He would have done far better with snare and bass drum. At any rate, the passacaglia breaks up for the return of the opening material, and we end on a fragment of "Taps." This would have been a highly poetic movement, if only we didn't have to hear Those Marchin' Feet.

The modest title, "Marches," sells the second movement short. Gould starts out with a pert march that evokes a smart 19th-century parade ground, and then you suddenly find yourself in the middle of a complicated fugue. The fugue settles into a "fife-and-drum" section featuring canon (rather than cannon). Gould then gives us the most conventional march music yet, but he's just setting us up. Suddenly, the march pulls itself up short, and we plunge into one of the most breathless finales I've ever heard, based on the movement's opening material. Brilliant.

Some of these works have received previous recordings, including those led by Gould himself, by no means a shabby conductor. In the Fanfare for Freedom, I can't find a ha'penny's-worth of difference between Weiss and the kids from Kansas and the composer leading the London Symphony. The Saint Lawrence Suite comes across as capable and Jericho as brilliant, if a trifle loose (to me inherent in the score). On the other hand, Derivations is available on a classic Sony recording with Goodman as soloist and Gould leading the "Columbia Jazz Band," obviously a group of superb, anonymous studio guys. The LP, titled "Jazz at the Summit," presented Bernstein's Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs, Stravinsky's Ebony Concerto, Copland's Clarinet Concerto, the Gould, all with Goodman and all conducted by the composers. The CD (Sony 42227) adds Bartók's Contrasts, with Goodman, Szigeti, and Bartók -- the original performers in, necessarily, a mono account.

The Columbians offer a slicker Derivations than the Kansans. They're rhythmically sharper, and they have a stronger jazz "feel." On the other hand, the Kansans (by the way, almost always slower), emphasize the contrapuntal basis of the work, which Gould's own performance often slights and takes for granted. In both cases, the soloists -- Goodman and Zelnick -- seem way too reticent, Goodman more so. I don't know whether this is bad microphone placement, Gould's miscalculation (I doubt it), or soloist jitters. Naxos has recorded the piece much more clearly than Sony.

The Kansans' "West Point" competes with the classic performance by Fennell and the Eastman Wind Ensemble (see my <a href=" http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/m/mrc34320a.php">review</a>). They split the honors. Weiss does far better than Fennell in clarifying the narrative of "Emblems," while Fennell and his band blow off the roof in "Marches." On the other hand, the Kansans have nothing to reproach themselves for. All in all, a wonderful disc.


S.G.S. (July 2011)