G. READ: Night Flight, op. 44. Symphony No. 4, op. 92. Toccata Giocosa, op. 94. Los Dioses Aztecas, op. 107 · Robert Whitney, cond; Louisville O. Lorin Maazel, cond; Cleveland O. Paul Price, cond; Paul Price Percussion Ens · CRI CD-742, mono, analog (66:57)
G. READ: Piano Concerto, op. 130. The Hidden Lute, op. 132. By-Low, My Babe, op. 138. Epistle to the Corinthians, op. 144· Randall Hodgkinson (pn); David Effron, cond; Eastman Philharmonia. Helen Pridmore (sop); Jennie Oh (alto fl); Kathryn Rees (hp); Brian Bennett (perc). Sanford Dole, cond; Sanford Dole Ens. Thomas Sokol, cond; Cornell Chorale, Brass, Organ · ALBANY TROY-245 (70:50 &)
Gardner Read, now in his mid eighties, has been an active figure in American musical life for many years as teacher and theorist, as well as a prolific composer. Born in Illinois, he studied with Hanson and Rogers at the Eastman School, spending most of his long academic career at Boston University. Read’s music has been represented rather scantily on recordings over the years. But having heard what was available and encountering a few more works, including all four symphonies, along the way, I had developed the hunch that Read might be a first-rate composer, whose output might hold some real masterpieces. However, the gradual expansion of his discography has been rather disappointing, I’m sorry to report (see Fanfare 20:2, pp. 342-3), leading me to wonder whether I haven’t been a bit too generous in my extrapolation. Here are two recent releases that offer eight pieces, covering a period of some forty years and quite a range of musical styles.
The earliest work is Night Flight, a brief tone poem composed in 1936, then revised in 1942, inspired by a novel by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Much is made in the program notes of Read’s use of instrumental effects to simulate certain electronic sounds (there is a similar usage in Barber’s Symphony No. 2). But that is beside the point; the piece is a haunting and highly evocative bit of scene-painting — and perhaps the most fully realized piece of those discussed here.
Toccata Giocosa, written in 1953 on a commission from the Louisville Orchestra, sounds exactly like routine early-1950s American neoclassicism. Conceived along the lines of a perpetuum mobile, it is surprisingly uninteresting.
Read’s Symphony No. 4 is the major work on the CRI disc. Composed in 1958 (yet bearing a lower opus number than the Toccata), it inhabits what I suspect is Read’s authentic mature language: an extension along the lines of what Howard Hanson might have written had he continued in the vein of his Sixth Symphony but abandoned his fondness for warm melodies and lively rhythms — i.e., portentous in mood, with solemn proclamations and menacing gestures in the brass that can be traced back to Sibelius (with whom Read studied for a time). The symphony is certainly a serious, “major statement”-type of piece, but, unfortunately, only occasionally goes beyond gestures, which after a while seem analogous to empty threats, as they never take flight either melodically or rhythmically. As a concept, the work is well organized and integrated structurally, but its effect is not realized in the music itself, aside from some interesting developments in the second of its two movements. The performance is pretty good, but one might have expected a more polished reading from the likes of Lorin Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra.
Los Dioses Aztecas, composed in 1959, is Read’s attempt to create a large-scale, structurally integrated work for large percussion ensemble. The score, in seven movements, was inspired by ancient Aztec sculptures, and calls for sixty instruments to be played by six players. To sustain interest, a percussion work must compensate for diminished melodic and harmonic opportunities by concentrating on the rhythmic element. Focus on timbre alone is not enough–for me, at any rate. From this standpoint, Los Dioses Aztecas is a total disappointment, its 26 minutes feeling interminable. Not even as a musical picture-postcard can it be deemed a success. Furthermore, several of the movements were recorded at such a low volume level as to be virtually inaudible.
The Albany disc offers us several of Read’s more recent efforts. The major work here is a large four-movement Piano Concerto, composed during the years 1973-78. Though its sense of tonality is more attenuated, the concerto resembles the Fourth Symphony in a number of aspects. A similarly portentous, stress-filled mood prevails throughout, conveyed through vehement, explosive gestures. But again the music seems to snarl and fume inarticulately, unable to elaborate its content with any semblance of eloquence. Unlike the symphony, however, its shape is sprawling, creating an improvisatory effect. A constricted rhythmic flow seems responsible for part of the problem, as it does in much of Read’s work. A comparative listening with, say, the 1962 Piano Concerto of Vincent Persichetti reveals a good deal of what is missing here.
The Hidden Lute is a setting of three poems by the 8th-century Chinese poet Po Chü-i. Composed in 1978, the piece is scored for soprano, flute, harp, and percussion. Pieces like this — angular, quasi-atonal settings of ancient Chinese poetry for vocal soloist and small chamber ensemble — were — like short pieces for unaccompanied flute–among the eyeball-rolling clichés of American music during the 1970s. I’d be happy never to hear another one of them and, I’m sorry to say, Read’s offers no redeeming qualities.
Read composed his short choral setting of By-Low, My Babe, to an anonymous early Anglo-Saxon text, the following year, in 1979. You have to credit Read for being able to run the full stylistic gamut within a very short time. Here we have a poignantly pretty setting of this sad, folk-like lullaby in a manner that could easily be mistaken for Samuel Barber.
The most recent work is a warm and pleasant setting for chorus, brass, and organ of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians, composed in 1985. For this Read returns to the solemn late-Hanson mode. It is fascinating that this veteran and extremely cosmopolitan composer can write such relatively old-fashioned music so sincerely at such a late date.
All the performances on the Albany disc are adequate to display the quality of the music, but all reveal the imperfections and compromises of amateur or school musicians and/or live-concert tapings.