PISTON: Symphony No. 6; Three New England Sketches; The Incredible Flutist

PISTON: Symphony No. 6; Three New England Sketches; The Incredible Flutist. Leonard Slatkin conducting the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. RCA VICTOR 60798-2-RC [DDD]; 57:02. Produced by Joanna Nickrenz

The ongoing reconsideration of mid-century American symphonic music has brought a deepening respect for the contributions —  the eight symphonies, in particular — of Walter Piston (1894-1976). At one time Piston was viewed as the epitome of the 20th-century American academic neoclassicist; today he has emerged as a master symphonist whose earlier essays in the genre are personable, meticulously wrought representatives of their time and place, and whose later contributions probe depths of abstract expression with a majestic dignity that transcends national limitations. (See my comments on Piston’s last two symphonies in Fanfare 13:4, pp. 257-8.) Piston’s reputation as an “academic” led some to view his work as “unemotional” or “inexpressive.” Howard Hanson he wasn’t, sure! However, his slow movements always unfold with a heartfelt lyrical warmth, and, as formally precise as his work may be, its technical intricacy is always in the service of an authentically expressive musical initiative.

Interestingly, despite his “academic” reputation, Piston came to music informally and relatively late (age 17):  he was self-taught and initially played in restaurant and theater bands. It was only some time later that he went to Paris, studied with Nadia Boulanger, and was appointed to the Harvard faculty, where he remained for most of his life.

Piston belongs to the remarkable group of Italian-Americans that comprise many — if not most — of this country’s finest symphonic composers (remarkable in view of the insignificant role played by the symphony in Italian music).   Indeed, along with another Italian-American, Peter Mennin, Piston probably ranks as America’s premier symphonist. But the two composers share little in common beyond their commitment to a formal ideal that is both abstract and international. (Though each is recognizably American, neither has an overtly nationalistic component to his work. While Mennin relentlessly pursued an ever-grimmer, ever-wilder vision of chaos and violence, Piston was guided by a more Apollonian concept, as a sober, lofty reflectiveness gradually enriched his initially exuberant and vivacious musical character.

Royal S. Brown recently wrote, “They simply don’t write symphonies with more energy, atmosphere, angularity, and mood than [Piston’s Sixth].” The work was composed in 1955 specifically for Charles Munch and the BSO, with the particular characteristics and strengths of that orchestra and conductor in mind.   Their fine pioneering performance (RCA AGL1-3794) loomed for years as its definitive representation. The work’s outward virtuosity should not be construed as superficial or meretricious, as the Sixth is a work of true symphonic brilliance — tremendously assured and masterfully crafted.

In Royal Brown’s review (quoted above) of Gerard Schwarz’s fine recent recording of Piston’s Sixth (Delos DE-3074) in Fanfare 14:1 pp. 333-4), he continued, “Gerard Schwarz…has tuned in to precisely those elements of the music that give it its greatest strength… [and] gives the work the clarity and spaciousness it needs in order to communicate its musical and extra-musical complexities.” I would say that Leonard Slatkin’s new recording with the Saint Louis Symphony is even stronger and more incisive, with more precision, punch, and solidity than even the Munch/BSO recording.

The other two works on the Slatkin disc — Three New England Sketches and The Incredible Flutist — are remarkable in being Piston’s only major programmatic pieces. Three New England Sketches, dating from 1959, is no peaceful, bucolic tone poem. Though colorful and picturesque in its way, the music is as angular and uncompromising as Piston’s abstract works, the programmatic references existing as conceptual characterizations epiphenomenal to the music’s purely formal aspects. “Seaside” is rather harsh and foreboding; “Summer Evening” suggests a subdued yet continuous auditory undercurrent; “Mountains” presents a portrait both muscular and majestic.

The ever-popular early ballet, The Incredible Flutist (1938), is a far cry from its companion pieces — and from Piston’s other music in general. In fact, there is little in the music that is recognizably from the composer’s pen. Although the score doesn’t really hang together as an abstract entity, there is much that is delightful. Indeed, the opening sounds as if it were taken right out of Daphnis et Chloe, while the “Tango of the Merchant’s Daughters” is probably the loveliest melody Piston ever wrote and is absolutely unforgettable. The suite receives a splendidly virtuosic performance on this recording.

In conclusion, along with the Albany recording of the 5th, 7th, and 8th symphonies (AR011), this new RCA disc offers the definitive orchestral representation of Piston currently available.