STRONG: Symphony No. 2 in G minor, op. 50, “Sintram”. Chorale on a Theme of Leo Hassler

STRONG Symphony No. 2 in G minor, op. 50, “Sintram”. Chorale on a Theme of Leo Hassler – Adriano, cond; Moscow SO – NAXOS 8.559018 (66:35)

George Templeton Strong (1856-1942) was born in New York City to an affluent and culturally sophisticated family that, however, disowned him when, at age 18, he announced his intention to pursue music as a career. Prepared to earn his living as an orchestral oboist, he went to Leipzig in 1879 to continue his musical studies. There he met Franz Liszt, who looked favorably upon Strong’s creative efforts. Liszt’s aesthetic ideas exerted a profound influence on Strong’s subsequent compositions. While in Germany, he also became acquainted with Edward MacDowell. The two became quite friendly, and maintained an active correspondence that lasted until MacDowell’s death in 1908. Aside from several brief sojourns back to United States, where he became convinced that he would never be taken seriously as a composer, Strong remained in Europe for the rest of his life, settling in Geneva. In 1897 he took up painting, which occupied his full attention for some 15 years, before he resumed musical composition as well. By the time of his death, he was regarded as an important creative figure by the Swiss.

In view of Strong’s voluntary exile, viewing him as an “American” composer is somewhat misleading, as it would be to think of Bloch as a “Swiss” composer or Stravinsky as a “Russian” composer. Indeed, there is nothing about either of these works that might be identified as “American.” Strong is probably best known to record collectors through his Chorale on a Theme of Leo Hassler. Composed in 1929, this 7-minute piece for string orchestra was included as a filler on one of the last releases in Mercury’s Eastman-Rochester series (a disc mostly devoted to excerpts from Howard Hanson’s Merry Mount). Although Strong’s Chorale might readily be dismissed as a minor afterthought to Vaughan Williams’s justly beloved Tallis Fantasia — not only shorter, but also more somber and conceived on a much more modest and reserved emotional scale — it is really quite an appealing and heartfelt piece in its own right.

According to the interesting, informative, and copious program notes by Marina and Victor Ledin, Strong’s magnum opus is the hour-long Symphony No. 2, whose full subtitle is “Sintram — The Struggle of Mankind Against the Powers of Evil.” Explicitly indicated as sources of inspiration for the work are the famous Dürer woodcut, Ritter, Tod and Teufel, a passage from Goethe’s Faust, and, most of all, Sintram, a chivalric romance by Friedrich Heinrich Karl de la Motte Fouqué. The common theme seems to be the triumph of humble Christian virtue over the evils of pagan barbarism. The work was composed during the years 1887-88, receiving its first performance five years later by the New York Philharmonic, under the direction of Anton Seidl, who launched the work with a published statement of unqualified admiration.

Listening to the work and attempting to place it in an appropriate context — for myself as well as for readers — a number of composers come to mind for a variety of reasons, which I will try to share: First of all is Tchaikovsky, because the opening of Sintram cannot help but remind one of  Romeo and Juliet. Beyond this, one thinks of Liszt’s Faust Symphony, a precedent whose aesthetic correspondence is readily apparent. One is also reminded of the symphonies of Saint-Saens, Raff, and Swiss composers like Brun and Juon–desperate attempts by mediocre talents to reach, within the constrained rhetoric of pre-Wagnerian propriety, for an intense and stormy grandeur far beyond their grasp. One also thinks of the 25-years-younger, American-born, German-trained John Powell, who attempted similarly grand metaphysical mega-statements beyond what his limited imagination and threadbare post-Brahmsian syntax could achieve. The musically sophisticated listener can probably conjure up in his mind pretty much what Strong’s “Sintram” sounds like from these general points of reference. After the turbulently Tchaikovskian opening movement follows a slow movement of Brahmsian/Elgarian solemnity. The most notable and most strongly characterized movement is the third, entitled, “The Three Terrible Companions: Death, the Devil, and Insanity,” an example of the “macabre scherzo” — another well-worn romantic genre. However, this one offers some inspired moments, especially during the trio and coda sections. The finale, “Struggle and Victory,” predictably tries to arouse triumphant passions, but the effort runs out of steam before its 18 minutes have elapsed, so that by the time it is over, one’s attention has already wandered elsewhere.

The performance by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Adriano, is adequate to present the work’s essentials, but doesn’t offer much polish or interpretive conviction.

Naxos’s “American Classics” series has been launched with grand ambitions and the sort of bold and daring attitude utterly alien to today’s major record companies. But the danger with bold ventures like this is the insufficient application of prudent, discriminating judgment. Too much unfamiliar music of inconsistent quality leaves listeners feeling overwhelmed, misled, and — most important — less willing to take a chance. If Naxos really wants to draw listeners to “American classics,” they should come up with some real unknown masterpieces (and don’t worry — there are plenty) — soon, before people lose interest. For someone like me, with a voracious interest in the history of American symphonic music, Strong’s “Sintram” Symphony satisfies curiosity about an ambitious major effort by a forgotten figure. But it is no “neglected masterpiece,” worthy of election to the pantheon.