VINCENT: Symphonic Poem after Descartes. Symphony in D. DELLO JOIO: Variations,
Chaconne, and Finale.
The Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy.
Pristine Classical PASC 336 TT: 63:44.
NOW FROM PRISTINE CLASSICAL
Handsome scores. The end of World War II took the lid off the European
avant-garde after a long period of repression. They broke through and acted
out, both aesthetically and polemically. Boulez famously characterized
music not in a dodecaphonic or post-Webernian idiom "useless." Of
course, now he conducts that music. The establishment took it mostly on
the chin. They tried to counter with one Fair-Haired Lad (as far as I know,
no girls) after another as the next big thing. Unfortunately most of the
best talent wasn't writing their kind of music, and the previous generation
still active seemed played out and repetitive. The best of this generation,
we see now, gives the lie to that assertion, but nevertheless people saw
things this way at the time.
John Vincent and Norman Dello Joio had the misfortune of the old guard
taking them up. John Vincent, now almost unknown, had a name in his day,
becoming Schoenberg's successor as professor of composition at UCLA. Norman
Dello Joio, a student of Hindemith, wrote much for amateurs and kept a
following among choristers and bandspeople. He also won a Pulitzer Prize.
I have heard only three works by Vincent, including the two here. They
all seem of a piece, as if channeling Walter Piston's works of the Forties.
Back in the day, critics made a lot of Vincent's Southern origins (born
in Alabama), but I could never hear anything specifically Southern in his
work. Indeed, he studied both with Piston in Boston and with Nadia Boulanger
in France, and his work doesn't counter those expectations. Both scores
here display considerable invention and craft. I find the Symphony a bit
more interesting, first, because it is rare example of a true one-movement
symphony, rather than a three-parter with transitions. It takes a theme
of stacked thirds and, a bit like Roy Harris (though not as single-mindedly)
expands the theme to generate all the other ideas. The symphony strikes
me as grown from a single seed, rather than constructed, and it packs a
punch. Its subtitle, "A Festival Piece in One Movement," gives
you some idea of much of its character, with neat massed brass. Incidentally,
the Louisville Orchestra also recorded this work, but Ormandy was the first
to use the composer's revisions made two years after the premiere. I prefer
the Ormandy both for the version used and for the performance.
Hindemith instilled an ethic of craft in his students. However, probably
recognizing a basic impulse in his student, he also advised Dello Joio
not to be afraid of melody. Dello Joio's very early work sounds like Hindemith
lite, but he very quickly found an individual voice, particularly in regard
to melody. Dello Joio loves to sing, with almost pop sweetness, particularly
in his harmonies. He begins with a favorite tune -- favorite, because he
uses it in at least three other scores, as well as in the finale of this
one. It may have been a plainchant, once upon a time, but here it simply
sounds tender and almost naïve, Mendelssohnian in spirit. The liner
notes refer to the movement as an orchestration of his Piano Sonata No.
1, but having heard that piece, I can say that the amount of new material
takes the Variations way beyond that of just orchestration. The Chaconne
is both original and surprising. The Finale does really seem like an orchestration
of the comparable movement in the Piano Sonata. The variation theme comes
back all hopped up and jazzy. Overall, a very fetching work.
People don't normally think of American music as Eugene Ormandy's calling
card in the same way as they do Bernstein, but in reality Ormandy conducted
quite a bit of it. Indeed, the first all-American concert I ever heard
was with Ormandy and the Philadelphia, and the program hadn't one warhorse
in it: Roger Session's Black Maskers Suite (2nd movement), Henry Cowell's
Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 3, Paul Creston's Symphony No. 2, and Aaron Copland's
Suite from The Tender Land. I remember that concert in detail more than
forty years later -- the first time I ever considered American music as
such. For me Ormandy's great strength -- one which overrode most of his
weaknesses -- was his grip on musical narrative. Details might have gotten
lost, but you never doubted where you were in a piece. Here, the Philadelphia
has one of its better days rhythmically, particularly in the Vincent Symphony,
where the music just pops, and conductor and players convey the excitement,
intellect, and lyrical beauty of all these works. I wonder why nobody plays
them any longer. They're too good to lose.
Pristine's engineer Andrew Rose tells us that the recording was state-of-the-art
in the Fifties, and on disc, Ormandy's Philadelphia always sounded best
of all the big American orchestras. Rose's ministrations give even more
presence to the original sound. The Vincent is in stereo. I dimly remember
that the Dello Joio appeared in both monaural and stereo formats, but Rose
could find only a mono recording. It's only a slight disappointment, however.
More important, these scores have returned to the general catalogue.
S.G.S. (April 2013)