CRESTON: Symphony No. 4. Violin Concerto No. 2. Janus

CRESTON Symphony No. 4. Violin Concerto No. 2. Janus • David Alan Miller, cond; Albany SO; Gregory Fulkerson (vn) • ALBANY TROY-737 (62:14)

This new release offers excellent performances of several major works, all never-before recorded, from the canon of Paul Creston. The three works in question all date from the years 1951-60, when the composer’s name was at its most prominent—a brief period when he rivaled even Copland and Barber in frequency of performance. By this time Creston had codified a style so absolute in its parameters, divaricated into several sub-genres, that these sub-genres often seem more like “formats” than “forms.” The CD at hand represents three of the most characteristic of these: the symphony, the concerto, and the prelude and dance, which—rooted though it may be in Daphnis et Chloé, Le Sacre, and Debussy’s Fêtes—is one of Creston’s most distinctive contributions.

Therefore it is not surprising that the most striking work on the disc is the 12-minute Janus. Above a fabric of lush chords in the strings, an oboe introduces an exotic-sounding melody, which is to be the work’s main theme. Typical of Creston’s approach to the prelude and dance—which dates back to the Two Choric Dances of 1938—this theme is developed along with a gradual increase in tension, which finally culminates in an expansive epiphany. At the point of climax the music suddenly shifts to a snarling, orgiastic dance based on the original thematic idea, its character now entirely transformed. Against a background of irregular ostinato patterns, fragments of the theme are tossed among the different instruments and sections with great rhythmic ingenuity, suggesting the spontaneity of jazz riffs. The music ebbs and flows in intensity, finally coming together for a dazzling finish, underscored by percussion fireworks. Although not very well known, Janus is one of Creston’s most effective and fully developed works in this vein; admirers of his Invocation and Dance and Second Symphony will surely want to make its acquaintance. The title, incidentally, is simply a means of identification suggesting a duality of some sort.

Creston composed six symphonies. The first five were written between 1940 and 1956. No. 6 did not appear until 1982, and was the composer’s last major work. Although Creston usually turned to the symphony for his most serious statements, the Fourth, which he later cited as his own favorite, might be seen as something of an apotheosis of his sunniest, most playful vein. (Fanfare colleague Paul Snook has called it, “Creston’s answer to Shostakovich’s Ninth” [1945].) Yet despite its light-hearted character, its formal structure is deeply coherent, while its developmental processes are never less than cogent. New themes seem to pour forth, one after another, throughout the work’s four movements, yet most are subtly linked via clever intervallic relationships. Composed in 1951, the language of the symphony often reminds me of the musical style heard on the TV “variety shows” of the period. Whether one finds pleasure in a work like this is a matter of individual taste. For me the saving grace of Creston’s exuberantly festive vein is the way it often seems to push its rather pedestrian sense of good cheer over the line into an almost manic hysteria, although this often depends on the insight of the conductor or soloist. The fourth movement of the symphony provides an excellent example of this quality. Miller and the Albany Symphony offer an excellent interpretation and execution, with the exception of some shaky string playing during running passages with rapid enharmonic shifts.

Creston composed six concertos, as well as five additional concerto-like works. All are high-spirited virtuosic display-pieces. Violin Concerto No. 2 is one of his stronger pieces of this kind—far better than its predecessor. It is primarily lyrical—the first two movements, in any case, rather like the Barber Concerto. But its flashy, extroverted solo writing and ingratiating overall character suggest the Korngold Concerto far more than the melancholy Barber. Creston’s Concerto was commissioned by the Ford Foundation for Michael Rabin, who gave the first performance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Georg Solti in November, 1960, and a number of subsequent performances around the country. Familiar with an aircheck of the premiere for decades, I can say with some confidence that Fulkerson’s performance far surpasses Rabin’s along virtually every dimension, although Rabin fans may find this hard to accept. Yes, of course the new recording was produced with the advantage of retakes and editing (—to some extent: It was all done in one day). But this is not just a matter of technical accuracy; Fulkerson’s concept is more coherent, and reveals greater subtlety and insight. And I understand that he learned the concerto in just a few weeks, specifically for this recording and the associated live performance the evening before. A listener to this recording would never guess it.

Creston aficionados will certainly consider this an important release, while those whose enthusiasm for the composer is more qualified should be forewarned that the two larger works do not represent him at his most inspired. Performances, as noted, are largely excellent. Program notes by Ray Bono are intelligent, informative, and well-written. And the crystal-clear acoustic of the Troy Music Hall serves to leaven Creston’s dense, brass-heavy textures.

Top-quality Creston works that remain unrecorded: Three Narratives for piano, the symphonic poem Walt Whitman (no longer available), and Chthonic Ode.