CRESTON: Symph. No. 2. String Quartet. Suite for Viola and Piano. VILLA-LOBOS: String Quartet No. 6. IVES: Symph. No. 2. RAVEL: Intro & Allegro. DEBUSSY: Danses Sacree et Profane. HEIDEN: Sonata for Viola and Piano. Music by Rochberg, Turina & Carter.

CRESTON: Symphony No. 2. IVES: Symphony No. 2. Neeme Jarvi conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. CHANDOS CHAN-9390 [DDD]; 56:37. Produced by Ralph Couzens and Charles Greenwell.

CRESTON: String Quartet. VILLA-LOBOS: String Quartet No. 6. RAVEL: Introduction and Allegro. DEBUSSY: Danses Sacree et Profane. TURINA: La Oracion del Torero. Hollywood String Quartet; Ann Mason Stockton, harp; Arthur Gleghorn, flute; Mitchell Lurie, clarinet; Felix Slatkin conducting the Concert Artists String. TESTAMENT SBT-1053 [ADD]; 72:35. Reissue produced by Stewart Brown; originals produced by Richard Jones and Robert Myers.

CRESTON: Suite for Viola and Piano. HEIDEN: Sonata for Viola and Piano. ROCHBERG: Sonata for Viola and Piano. CARTER: Elegy. Lawrence Wheeler, viola; Ruth Tomfohrde, piano. ALBANY TROY-141 [DDD]; 57:13. Produced by John Gladney Proffitt.

The big news here is the new recording of Paul Creston’s Symphony No. 2 — perhaps his most fully consummated work and one of the most distinguished fruits from the bountiful crop of American symphonies that appeared during the 1940s — a crop that also includes Schuman’s Third, Piston’s Second, Copland’s Third, Barber’s Second, and Hanson’s Fourth. What places Creston’s Second near the top of this list is its remarkable individuality and originality. Composed in 1944, the work was first performed by the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Artur Rodzinski, and was subsequently received enthusiastically by audiences throughout the world, until the late 1950s, when American symphonic music largely disappeared from concert programs . The symphony is a bold and uncompromising illustration of Creston’s aesthetic priorities: the primacy of song and dance as the fundamental musical gestures. This manifesto is expressed through a rich and robust language derived from the harmonic colors of Impressionism and the rhythmic emphasis of Le Sacre, and executed with a logical linear clarity stemming from years of reverential study of the works of Bach. Part of what makes Creston’s Second so remarkable is the compositional sleight-of-hand by which its tightly focused developmental metamorphosis of a long-arching twelve-tone theme is embodied within a warm hearted, generously-spirited, kinetically infectious musical shape whose design is sui generis. The effect is spontaneous and immediately engaging, while increasingly satisfying with greater familiarity.

The work is structured in two movements, each divided into two parts. A sensuously long-spun, contrapuntal exposition of the bas: theme is followed by a lush extroverted, full-throated “song” treatment. The strongly contrasting second movement begins with a defiant, ominous “interlude” that leads directly into the “dance, a kind of Creston specialty in which a single theme is developed through an array of improvisatory, jazz-like variations bouncing over syncopated polyrhythmicostinato patterns, finally culminating in an ingenious recapitulation of all significant prior elements. Despite the immediacy of its impact, the work’s appeal is abstract and choreographic, rather than emotional or dramatic.

This is the third commercial recording of Creston’s Second Symphony. The first was a solid reading from the early 1950s, featuring the National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Howard Mitchell. That Westminster disc, paired with Creston’s Third, re-appeared in a variety of incarnations for many years the work’s second recording (Koch International 3-7036-2H1 Fanfare 14:6, pp. 143-4) did not appear until 1999. That rendition — part of an all-Creston disc featured the Krakow Philharmonic under the direction of David Amos, and suffered from the Polish orchestra’s inability to grasp the intricacies and nuances of this quintessentially American work, at least within the time available. In this new Detroit Symphony recording Neeme Jarvi moves the first movement along rather briskly, with some loss of the rich, organ-like bass-lines. However, his lighter tread also mitigates some of the movement’s more heavy-handed moments. The second movement is played with considerable precision, the rhythmic intricacies delineated with great transparency.  But the “dance” never really cuts loose and swings into the exuberant Dionysian orgy it is intended to be. The result is a solid, sober performance, considerably more accurate and refined than the Polish reading, but not yet the full realization that the work still awaits.

Creston’s String Quartet is an early work, dating from 1936, before he had arrived at his mature language. At this time Creston’s music was a rather strange amalgam of Baroque textures and patterns and Impressionist harmony. (The String Quartet strongly resembles the as-yet-unrecorded Piano Sonata which followed it sequentially but is a superior work, owing to more individual character and more imaginative material.) The first and last movements are rather mechanical, with little expressive content, while the second movement is a jocular scherzo. The high point of the work is its third movement, a heartfelt “Andante ecclesiastico“, alternately solemn and tender with a poignant warmth. This movement is often played alone in an arrangement for string orchestra, under the title Gregorian Chant (see Fanfare 17:4, p. 168). The tight, accurate, and energetic performance by the Hollywood String Quartet dates from 1953. Unavailable for many years, its reissue is most welcome, since the work has never been recorded since then, although, for some reason, the sound quality, with restricted frequency and dynamic range, seems more primitive for the Creston than for the other pieces on the disc. 

The Albany disc offers the premiere recording of Creston’s Suite for Viola and Piano, Composed only one year after the String Quartet, this work shows a considerable advance in maturity sophistication, and self confidence, exemplifying the warm, good-humored, French style neoclassicism of such rather chamber works as the well-known Saxophone Sonata, the Violin SuiteCello Suite, and Piano Trio. Again the slow movement, entitled “Air,” is the strongest, and is reminiscent of the “Gregorian Chant” movement from the String Quartet. Unfortunately, violist Lawrence Wheeler and pianist Ruth Tomfohrde, play this movement too quickly to fulfill its intended effect, although the remainder of their performance is quite adequate.

The Detroit Symphony disc also contains a rendition of Ives’ Second Symphony. Although I will leave a thorough comparison of recorded performances to James North, my impression is that Jarvi has shaped a solid, European-style reading of the work, emphasizing its roots in the syntax of Brahms and Dvorak, despite exuberant and mischievous intrusions of vernacular elements of Americana.

John Wiser’s comments about the Hollywood String Quartet disc appear in Fanfare18:5 (p. 217). I will add that the remainder of the program presents a most suitable context within which to consider the Creston Quartet. Debussy’s Danses Sacree et Profane and Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro were two of Creston’s favorite pieces, and each exerted a strong and clearly audible influence on his stylistic development. Both Turina and Villa-Lobos also evolved from a Debussy/Ravel stylistic foundation, Turing in a gently Iberian direction and Villa-Lobos toward his own Bach/Impressionist/Brazil amalgamation, as idiosyncratic in its way as Creston’s. In fact, there is a tropical exoticism to some of Creston’s music — the Invocation from the Invocation and Dance — for example — that veers very close to Villa-Lobos’ aesthetic realm — an affinity remarked by other commentators as well. The Brazilian’s 1941 Quartet No. 6 is a lively, tuneful work, with contrapuntal intricacies that add depth to its appeal. These performances, all recorded between 1949 and 1953, are excellent, although many listeners may prefer more luxuriant, modern-sounding recordings of such sensuous music.

The Wheeler-Tomfohrde disc offers a handsome program of American music for viola and piano. Lawrence Wheeler is a professor at the University of Houston School of Music and a member of the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra. His performances are generally competent, but rather cautious and under-characterized, with some passages that suffer from intonation problems.  George Rochberg’s 1979 Viola Sonata is one of his strongest pieces known to me — straightforward and free of gimmicks. It opens with a brisk vigor reminiscent of Hindemith, but contains attractive moments of sweetness arid warmth as well. Alas, Hindemith’s name is never far away when Bernard Heiden’s music is discussed. This is a little sad, because Heiden, active at the University of Indiana for almost half a century, was a highly skillful composer whose music is thoroughly satisfying, in its earnest, contrapuntal manner, from which poetic moments are not altogether absent. But his creative voice seems never to have emerged from behind the mantle of his teacher as this 1959 Sonata illustrates. Elliott Carter’s 1943 Elegy is perhaps better known in its arrangement for string orchestra. Dating from his Coplandesque, populist period, it is attractive and innocuous.