PISTON Symphonies: No. 5; No. 7; No. 8.

by Walter Simmons



PISTON Symphonies: No. 5; No. 7; No. 8. • Robert Whitney, Jorge Mester, conductor; Louisville Orchestra. • ALBANY AR011 [AAD]; 65:50. Produced by Howard Scott and Andrew Kazdin.

For those who missed them during their days as Louisville LPs, this CD provides the opportunity to become acquainted with three of the later symphonies of Walter Piston. Piston, who belonged to the generation that also included Virgil Thomson, Roy Harris, Howard Hanson, and Aaron Copland, was the foremost symphonist of the group—at least according to the highest standards of the genre as articulated convincingly by such specialists as the brilliant musicologist-composer Robert Simpson and his followers. Indeed, in “The Symphony in America,” included in The Symphony from Elgar to the Present Day (Penguin Books, 1967), a most valuable compendium of essays edited by Simpson, Peter Jona Korn writes, “Piston is without question America’s most mature composer. … He is a composer of moderation, in the most positive sense of the word— moderation that is the result of discipline and control, not of limitation. . . . There is . . . nothing extraordinary about him—except, perhaps, the strong possibility that his symphonies may well turn out to be the most durable written in America today.”

While I am not ready to embrace this assertion to the letter, this CD has given me the opportunity to refresh my thinking about a composer whose works have often left me rather lukewarm. Piston’s earlier symphonies, such as Nos. 2 and 3, which launched the composer’s stylistic profile to the listening public, are characterized by an exuberant optimism propelled by vigorous syncopated rhythms, set off by slow movements displaying a tender lyrical warmth. A hearty extroversion pervades, epitomizing both the strengths and weaknesses of the American symphonic “sound“ of the 1940s: solid, well crafted, engaging, but essentially glib, facile music of limited psychological or spiritual depth. 

However, with the Symphonies Nos. 5 (1954) and 6 (1955), Piston began to probe more deeply. The ingratiating lyrical flow and congenial bounce at times gave way to more serious moments of introspection. Of the two symphonies, I prefer No. 6, a work commissioned, premiered, and recorded (brilliantly) by the Boston Symphony under Charles Munch. The Fifth Symphony, a fine work nevertheless, seems somewhat less fully consummated. Perhaps this impression is weighted by the fact that the Louisville Orchestra during the mid-1960s (their weakest period, when this recording was originally made) was a far cry from the BSO. Yet their performance, while lacking panache and flair, does represent the work adequately. 

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Symphony No. 7 of 1960 represents a significant step forward from the two-dimensional provinciality of the earlier works to a universal utterance of the highest stature. Here is displayed not only the consummate mastery of compositional technique for which Piston was renowned, but revealed also are noble vistas of sober grandeur, articulated through the graceful and spontaneous yet logically controlled unfolding of abstract musical ideas. This is the work of a symphonist of the highest order, the kind of music that justifies the assertions of Peter Jona Korn quoted earlier. However, lacking overt drama or sentimentality, a work like this can easily appear impersonal and emotionally detached to the general listener. It is inevitable, perhaps, that such music must remain limited to a relatively small audience, although there is nothing in it that is the least experimental, “avant-garde,“ or antagonistic to the listener. In fact, the third movement, though treated with considerable sophistication, recalls the characteristically American exuberance of the finales of the composer’s earlier symphonies. Those patient enough to become familiar with this work are likely to agree that it is one of the great American symphonies of the mid-twentieth century. 

The Symphony No. 8 was composed five years after its predecessor and shares with it many stylistic features. As strong as it is, it does not, I find, match the earlier work’s elevation of content or concentration of design, falling at times into a drab monotony. There is, however, much to admire in it for those who are willing to devote the necessary concentration. 

By the mid-1970s, when this recording was originally made, the Louisville Orchestra had become a more polished group. Hence, the performances of Piston’s last two symphonies, under the direction of Jorge Mester, show a greater confidence and expressive flexibility than the Whitney-led reading. 
Albany Records, under the leadership of the delightfully feisty and indefatigably ambitious Peter Kermani, is to be recommended and encouraged for reviving some of the landmark recordings from the Louisville series, which was responsible for the first and only recordings of many of the finest American orchestral works. Future reissues are eagerly awaited.