CRESTON Symphonies: No. 1; No. 2; No. 3, “Three Mysteries”

CRESTON Symphonies: No. 1; No. 2; No. 3, “Three Mysteries” – Theodore Kuchar, cond; Ukraine National SO – NAXOS 8.559034 (72:39)

The years from 1940 to 1950 represent a fertile period in the development of the American symphonic repertoire, during which a wealth of distinctive and compelling new works appeared, reflecting a variety of musical personalities. The most notable examples include William Schuman’s No. 3 and No. 6, Aaron Copland’s No. 3, Walter Piston’s No. 2 and No. 4, Samuel Barber’s controversial No. 2, Howard Hanson’s No. 4, Peter Mennin’s No. 5, and Vittorio Giannini’s No. 1. Among this company also belong the three symphonies by Paul Creston (1906-1985) brought together on this new release in Naxos’s ambitious “American Classics” series.

Creston rose to national prominence with remarkable rapidity. Not until 1932, when he was 26, did he produce his Opus 1, a group of short piano pieces, and thereby commited himself to a career as a composer. In 1940, he completed his Opus 20, the Symphony No. 1, which won the New York Music Critics Circle Award shortly thereafter (having been chosen over such works as Copland’s Lincoln Portraitand Gould’s Spirituals). His Symphony No. 2 was introduced by the New York Philharmonic under Artur Rodzinski in 1945, and the Symphony No. 3 by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy in 1950. (But his fame disappeared as quickly as it had appeared: By 1965, his major works, like those of so many other accessible American symphonists, had gone into eclipse. For the next 20 years, i.e., the rest of his life, his reputation rested on rousing overtures for concert band and pieces for odd instruments, such as accordion, trombone, and saxophone. It is only during the past ten years that his more serious works have undergone something of a revival.)

Largely self-taught, Creston developed his own highly individual aesthetic—and the unique and unmistakable “sound” that was its outgrowth—within a few years of his Opus 1, and he deviated very little from this approach throughout his career. Considered in its entirety, Creston’s musical output suffers from considerable unevenness in quality. Like other composers who prided themselves on their own uniqueness of approach, he became hermetically impervious to outside influences, his creativity suffocating in a self-protective vacuum. Thus, much of his music seems to have been produced through the routine application of rather trite compositional formulas that served his modus operandi. But a dozen or so of his works represent his most ambitious aspirations and their most successful fulfillment; each constitutes an individual creative response to a particular compositional challenge or premise, with a result that is both original and utterly characteristic. Into this group fall the three symphonies presented here; together on one disc, they provide an excellent opportunity for listeners to become truly acquainted with Creston’s compositional personality, and to validate Henry Cowell’s assertion, “There is no one known to me who handles more expertly the traditional types of development of a musical germ [than Paul Creston].”

Creston’s Second and Third Symphonies were released together on a Westminster LP during the mid 1950s, in performances by the National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Howard Mitchell. (Mitchell was a vigorous advocate of Creston’s music, and the composer endorsed his interpretations whole-heartedly.) Both symphonies have also been recorded subsequently. But the Symphony No. 1 is presented here in its first-ever recording, and it is welcome indeed. The work may be seen as a bold statement of self-definition, as well as an ambitious young composer’s presentation of his compositional “credentials,” offered confidently within traditional guidelines that allow no ambiguity or subterfuge of interpretation. Each movement represents a mood or character that Creston was to elaborate and develop further in subsequent works. The marvelous first movement, marked “With Majesty,” is relatively conventional in form, if quite distinctive in its content: a proudly Whitmanesque assertion of self, as a brash primary theme is offset by a more subdued secondary theme whose sense of urgency is barely suppressed. The second movement, “With Humor,” is a scherzo, playful in character, with unexpected, off-kilter rhythmic tricks. The third movement, “With Serenity,” is a typically Crestonian fusion of sensual and spiritual yearning, reminiscent of the “Gregorian Chant” movement of his String Quartet. The finale, “With Gaiety,” is a rondo of joyful exuberance. It is not hard to imagine what so impressed the critics at the time of its premiere. As the work of a composer new to the scene, it is seemingly without dogma, pretension, or self-indulgence. Instead, it is direct, concise, straightforward, and clear as to its intentions.

The Second Symphony is a further, more profound statement of self-definition. In this work Creston elaborates his belief that song and dance represent the two essentials of musical expression. He propounds this notion in a work of two movements, each based on a single long theme of 27 notes that embrace all twelve tones, and each an “apotheosis” of its respective element. The theme is developed exhaustively and with remarkable ingenuity, first in a rich and beautifully serpentine contrapuntal Introduction, which blossoms into the warmly luxuriant Song. The second movement opens with a bold and defiant Interlude that explodes into the Dance, a wild orgy of syncopated polyrhythms, a device that became one of Creston’s trademarks. The symphony is a masterpiece of conceptual polarization and integration, executed with fluency, clarity, and economy. In its consummation of an abstract idea through a work that is utterly individual, while displaying great immediacy of appeal, the Second Symphony looms as Creston’s most important composition, and is arguably the most notable American symphony of the 1940s.

If the Second Symphony is a musical representation of Creston’s aesthetic principles, the Third may be seen as an expression of the spiritual side of his character. Subtitled, “Three Mysteries,” the work presents the composer’s expressive commentary on the Nativity, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. With characteristic conceptual orderliness, Creston turned to Gregorian Chant for all the work’s thematic material, subjecting these haunting melodies to the most thorough developmental processes. Although each movement follows an explicit program, the entire work is an autonomous, fully coherent formal structure. One of the symphony’s most salient aspects is its unabashedly robust, visceral, and earthy  treatment of content usually presented with ascetic reverence. The treatment is certainly reverent enough, but it is Creston’s brand of reverence, and ascetic it is not. The other notable aspect of the work is its ingenious development of the thematic material. The second movement, for example, is one of the composer’s most deeply inspired creations, centering around a mournful passacaglia that weaves two Gregorian melodies contrapuntally, one of which is presented in several metrical denominations simultaneously, building to a dramatic climax of great emotional intensity. Yet despite its immediacy of effect (which at times has prompted the contemptuous epithet, “Hollywood!”), the movement’s formal articulation follows an unerring logic.

The performances on this new Naxos release are quite adequate in conveying the import of the music, although the Ukrainian orchestra cannot offer the precision or refinement of a truly virtuoso ensemble, and its handling of some typically American rhythmic figures is a little awkward. Theodore Kuchar, who seems to divide his time among the Ukraine, Colorado, and Australia, is, at age 40, one of Naxos’s most favored conductors. How deeply he knows and understands this music is hard to determine, but he certainly delves into it with suitable gusto; some of the results are more convincing than others. On the whole, his reading of the Symphony No. 1 is quite satisfactory, displaying the requisite fervor and energy. The only problem involves the scherzo, which Kuchar seems to perceive as a waltz, but which strikes me as requiring a lighter, livelier approach; the melody that appears in the “B-section” of the movement gives the clue to the right tempo. Kuchar seems to have looked more deeply into the Symphony No. 2, which is presented in a highly convincing interpretation. This work is currently available in some pretty impressive readings: Pierre Monteux with the New York Philharmonic (on their recent American Celebration set [Fanfare 23:3]) and Neeme Järvi with the Detroit Symphony (Fanfare 19:3). While the Ukrainian orchestra cannot match their sharp precision and suave refinement, Kuchar’s shaping of the phrasing—in the first movement, especially—reflects a sympathy with and understanding of the music’s focus and direction that the more illustrious figures fail to capture fully; he also effectively reigns in Creston’s tendency toward overblown rhetoric. The performance of the Third Symphony is the least satisfactory of the three. Here Kuchar is less successful in restraining Creston’s moments of bombast. In addition, the Third’s radiant and—at times—ethereal orchestration makes the relative crudeness of the Ukrainian orchestra more clearly apparent. One suspects that perhaps this work received less rehearsal time than the other two, as the players often tend to sound as though they are unaware of what is happening two or three measures ahead, and there are passages when accompanimental patterns overbalance primary thematic material. Here I would have to give the nod to the Seattle Symphony recording (Fanfare 16:2), conducted by Gerard Schwarz, who tailors the work more smoothly and tidily (although that rendition too has some of the same defects).

Nevertheless, these quibbles about the performances cannot negate the obvious value represented by this recording: three truly engaging but relatively obscure American symphonies, one a recording premiere, in adequate-to-good performances, available on one budget-priced CD—an indispensable release for anyone who wishes to be acquainted with some of the best American symphonic music of the mid-20th century.

One assumes that a subsequent disc will follow, presenting Creston’s Symphonies Nos. 4 through 6. That should also be a valuable document, as neither Fourth nor Sixth has ever been recorded; both are relatively weak, however (although the Fifth is great). But several of Creston’s most important other orchestral works have never been recorded adequately or, in some cases, even at all. One is the Chthonic Ode, an aptly compelling musical commentary on the sculptor Henry Moore; another is Janus, the best of the composer’s pieces in the prelude-and-dance format (neither of these has ever been recorded); and Walt Whitman, a symphonic portrait of Creston’s favorite poet, who was a major inspiration throughout his compositional career.