DIAMOND: Symphony No. 1 (1941). Violin Concerto No. 2 (1947). The Enormous Room (Fantasia for Orchestra) (1948).
Ilkka Talvi, violinist; Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz, cond.
NAXOS 8.559157 (B) (DDD) TT: 71:01

PISTON: Symphony No. 2. Symphony No. 6.
Seattle Symphony Orch/Gerard Schwarz, cond.
NAXOS 8559161 (B) (DDD) TT: 50:56

The Diamond disc contains the same program previously available on Delos DE 3119, whereas Piston’s 15-minute Sinfonietta from 1941 has been removed from Delos 3074, leaving the Second and Sixth Symphonies with a playing time of just under 51 minutes. As Irving Kolodin once wrote with inimitable irony, “Ours is not to question why; ours is but to go and buy.”

Both of these CDs have music worthy of purchase and assimilation. Personally, I care least for Diamond’s First Symphony, composed in 1940-1 when he was 25 and just home from France. It is dissonantly diatonic in all but the slow movement, which not surprisingly is the most beguiling—structurally formalized music in a period before most of the rules were stomped on by an ill-bred, bad-mannered avant garde after WW2. It has all the basics except for one big hole in the center: unmemorable subject matter. The Second Violin Concerto was created on commission in 1947 yet had only one performance before its revival in 1991 (through the persuasive agency of Gerard Schwarz). One is reminded historically if not musically of a similar fate suffered initially by Diamond’s elder contemporary, Samuel Barber, whose violin concerto was commissioned, only to be rejected by the teen for whom it was intended. Diamond’s is a virtuoso piece (he was after all a violinist himself) but not very ingratiating, although I’ve tried several times to digest its message. The soloist is Seattle’s longtime concertmaster, not a Heifetz but technically and musically adroit.

The prize is Diamond’s work that followed the concerto chronologically, a tone poem based on E.E.Cummings’ first book (about incarceration during WW1 in a French detetention camp). It is a lyrical work without pretention but rich in feeling, mood and insinuating melodism. Small wonder that it was played by Szell/Cleveland, Monteux/San Francisco, and Thor Johnson/Cincinnati in a two week period. The big wonder is its neglect until Schwarz rescued it with affection and authority.

The Piston Second had been recorded most notably in the past by Tilson Thomas in his early incarnation as associate conductor of the Boston Symphony, a more balletic performance in the light-footed sense than Schwarz’s more sanguine, eloquent statement, although the Seattle SO will not be mistaken for the BSO of Commonwealth Avenue. The Sixth is a four-movement work commissioned by the Boston Symphony for its 75th anniversary season, but more recently espoused by Leonard Slatkin in Saint Louis (an RCA version can be found only in cut-out bins) and Schwarz in Seattle. The latter’s 1989 recording was engineered by John Eargle, the wizard of Seattle’s opaque Opera House acoustics—no longer a problem with creation of (Benaroya Hall).

Oddly, Naxos has remastered what were sonic treasures for those with playback equipment to let them bloom—assigning the task to Albert G. Swanson, the former apprentice of Eargle’s sorcerer. As in the recent first release of Diamond on Naxos, the sound is brighter by a degree, but edgier too with some sacrifice of nuance, missing Delos’s depth of sound. On the decisive hand, however, these performances are now restored to circulation.
And that, I’ll close by saying, rates a double salute.

R.D. (July 2003)