GOULD: Show Piece for Orchestra. Piano Concerto. StringMusic
Randall Hodgkinson, pianist/Albany Symphony Orch/David Allan Miller, cond
Albany/Troy 300 (F) (DDD) TT: 70:12
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Morton Gould's importance to the American musical scene is unquestioned, both as a composer and as president of ASCAP. When he died in February 1996 at the age of 82, composer John Duffy wrote: "Somehow he seemed like a combination of Bach, Victor Borge and Joe DiMaggio. He had the commanding craft of Bach, he had the witty sense of a man like Borge, and he had the elegance and professionalism of Joe DiMaggio." All true, but the fact remains that Gould was at his best in miniatures. He received numerous commissions for occasional pieces, which he fulfilled admirably. His music is invariably highly entertaining, wonderfully orchestrated but, unfortunately, often rather forgettable. His best-known works are the ballets Fall River Legend and Interplay ; the short orchestral showpiece called American Salute, based on When Johnny Comes Marching Home; Latin American Symphonette No. 2 (which contains the famous Pavanne); Spirituals for Orchestra and the West Point Symphony. He also wrote music for a number of films including Windjammer and Cinerama Holiday.

This new Albany CD offers three recording premieres. Showpiece for Orchestra was composed in 1954 on a commission from Columbia Records to be included on an LP that would show the company's ability to reproduce orchestral sounds on the then-new long-playing record. Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra recorded it, but it never was issued as the conductor was not satisfied with the performance. The 20-minute work is a theme and variations with different titles, including March, Serenade, Ballad and Toccata. Indeed, it does display the instruments of the orchestra in virtuoso fashion.

The Piano Concerto has had only two performances since its premiere the year it was written, 1938, at which time the composer was soloist, and had to wait until a concert to celebrate Gould's 80th birthday, in 1993 at Queens College, for its next appearance. The soloist was Randall Hodgkinson, who is soloist on this new recording, and the conductor was Maurice Peress. Gould was present at the rehearsal and commented to the pianist after the first movement, "That guy Stravinsky's been stealing from me ever since I was a kid," and, after the second movement, "That shows I was just as miserable in 1938 as I am today." There are three movements to the concerto: Fast - Vigorous; Chant, and Fast - With Gusto. One can easily understand why it is seldom performed. Craftily written, it has little to say, nor is it a virtuoso display piece for the soloist. Randall Hodgkinson is to be commended for doing what can be done for the concerto.

An important work of Gould fills out this CD: StringMusic (on purpose there is no space between the two words), composed for Mstislav Rostropovich and the National Symphony, who premiered it March 10, 1994. Gould said of this work: "StringMusic is a large-scale suite, or serenade, consisting of five movements, using such devices as col legno (tapping the strings with the wood part of the bow) and playing without vibrato. Basically, StringMusic is a lyrical work." There are five movements to this 28-minute piece: Prelude, Tango, Dirge, Ballad and Strum. The score won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995, Gould's only such award.

David Alan Miller leads his Albany Symphony in splendid performances of all three works. How fortunate they are to have available to them the acoustically-acclaimed Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. Engineering could not be bettered, with particularly outstanding bass.

R.E.B. (Oct. 2000)