by Walter Simmons
CRESTON: Gregorian Chant. HARRIS: Symphony No. 4 (“Folksong “). Arthur Lief conducting the New York Chamber Orchestra. Vladimir Golschmann conducting the American Festival Chorus and Orchestraz. VANGUARD OVC 4076 [ADD]; 48:33. Produced by Seymour Solomon.
CRESTON: Fantasy for Trombone and Orchestra. WALKER: Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra. SCHULLER: Eine Kleine Posaunenmusik. ZWILICH: Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra. Christian Lindberg, trombone; James DePreist conducting the Malmo Symphony Orchestra. BIS CD 628 [DDDJ; 67:41. Produced by Ingo Petry. (Distributed by Qualiton.)
Gregorian Chant is Paul Creston’s arrangement for string orchestra of the slow movement from his string quartet of 1936 — his answer, in a way, to Barber’s Adagio from the same year. (Older discophiles may remember that the famed Hollywood String Quartet recorded Creston’s complete quartet for Capitol back in the early 1950s — its only recording.)Gregorian Chant is based on an original melody in modal chant style, which is developed in alternation with a tender sicilienne. The material is treated in a rich, warm harmonization, giving Creston’s spiritual aspirations a heartfelt romantic immediacy. This is sweet, gentle music that many will enjoy. However, simply stated, the performance is poor in every way, probably accounting for the fact that it has never been released before, sitting “in the can” for more than thirty years. Nevertheless, the piece is worth knowing, this is its first recording (aside from the aforementioned quartet version), and it is simple enough music for its virtues to shine through the dreadful reading.
The performance of the Trombone Fantasy is another story, however.
Creston’s compositional output is somewhat compartmentalized, with a distinct formal and stylistic character for each different category of work, and with considerable uniformity within each category. Virtuoso pieces for solo instrument with orchestra form one such category. Often featuring instruments not customarily given a solo role, these works tend to be lively, robust, and extroverted, with a cheerful exuberance that verges on the manic. Their ingratiating sunniness of disposition, uncomplicated by emotional ambiguity of any kind, combined with Creston’s love of syncopated rhythmic manipulations, give the music a jazzy, almost slick quality, at times reminiscent of the commercial music of its time. However, this impression was quite unintentional: Creston, a creatively solitary character who formed his own idiosyncratic compositional procedures in something of an aesthetic vacuum, concerned himself primarily with abstract formal matters and, indeed, these virtuoso works are neatly and coherently constructed, with meticulous attention to motivic development and transformation. In contrast to, say, Morton Gould, Creston had no experience in — and little knowledge of — jazz, and responded with some indignation to the notion of vernacular implication or any other sort of artistic compromise in his work, unless explicitly indicated. In light of this, it is interesting to wonder how he would have reacted to trombonist Christian Lindberg’s characterization of him as a composer “who was at home in jazz, light music, and classically-trained composition technique.” In any case, the Trombone Fantasy of 1947 is (along with the soon-to-be-released Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra) among Creston’s most successful concerted works, owing to its relative concision, to its infectious kinetic immediacy, and to a slightly dark undertone that evokes (for me, anyway) the brashness and bustle of New York City in the 1940s.
Although this is really its first official, commercial recording, Creston’s Trombone Fantasy isthe pioneer concert work for the instrument. It is so difficult that it was barely playable when first composed, but is now heard regularly all over the world. Having experienced many different performances over the years, I can state without hesitation that Lindberg’s performance far exceeds any of them. It is not just a matter of accuracy, but of sufficient technical headroom to allow for the articulation of a real musical statement, as opposed to an athletic achievement. With solid support from the Malmö Symphony, which provides the requisite swing and swagger under the knowing direction of James DePreist, this is clearly the finest performance of any Creston work to appear thus far on CD.
Roy Harris’s “Folksong Symphony” was composed in 1940 and is a quintessentially representative example of the populist American symphony that enjoyed a brief currency during the years of the Great Depression. In seven movements, including two instrumental interludes, it is built around choral settings of well-known American folk songs, and was intended for performance by local amateur groups. The settings are generally direct and straightforward, though harmonized in Harris’s personal manner. It is pleasant enough music, but one cannot help but consider comparable works by Aaron Copland whose rhythmic and textural aspects reveal an originality and sophistication that lend them an enduring freshness without in any way diminishing their accessibility. This is why Copland’s music survives, while Harris’s appears more and more to be a historical curiosity. The venerable 1960 performance is perfectly adequate.
Christian Lindberg’s disc is entitled American Trombone Concertos, and joins this extraordinary virtuoso’s growing discography of definitive recordings for the trombone enthusiast. Such listeners will undoubtedly enjoy the variety of challenging works presented here.
George Walker’s concerto was written in 1957. It is a solid, substantial, and fully satisfying three-movement work, largely sober in character, in the mainstream tonal style of its time and place — somewhat comparable to the music of, say, Bergsma and Lees, but with a more relaxed finale that recalls the music of Robert Kurka.
Gunther Schuller’s Eine Kleine Posaunenmusik dates from 1980, but is already well known among trombonists. In five short movements and scored for winds, percussion, and a few extras, it offers flashy gestures and sonorities but very little underlying substance or musical meaning. The brief central scherzo has the most character, along with some cute effects, but the slow sections are hopelessly dull and aimless.
Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s 1988 concerto is the most recent work on the disc. With no paucity of tonal implications, it is easier on the ear than the Schuller, but for me lacks a sense of expressive purpose. The work seems built around a sort of major-minor triad, orchestrated a la Stravinsky, but never builds a convincing sense of direction, either melodically, harmonically, or rhythmically. Lindberg performs each of these pieces with a mastery that, I would imagine, is deeply gratifying to those composers still alive to hear them. Highly recommended to those interested in the instrument and/or its repertoire — and to Creston enthusiasts.