CRESTON: Symphony No. 3, “Three Mysteries”; Invocation and Dance; Partita for Flute, Violin, and Strings; Out of the Cradle. Scott Goff, flute; Ilkka Talvi, violin; Gerard Schwarz conducting the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. DELOS DE-3114 [DDD] 67:05. Produced by Amelia S. Haygood.
For an overview of Paul Creston’s career and place in American music, see my review of Koch International’s recent all-Creston disc (3-7036-2Hl) in Fanfare14:6 p. 143-44). Gerard Schwarz’s new release adds significantly to the recorded representation of this composer’s unique contribution.
The Third Symphony was composed in 1950, during Creston’s heyday, and was first performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy’s direction. Its subtitle refers to the fact that each movement expresses the composer’s emotional reaction to a key episode in the life of Jesus: the nativity, the crucifixion, and the resurrection. Although its entire thematic basis is drawn from Gregorian chant, there is nothing austere about the work. Rather, the modal chant material is subjected to rigorous development in Creston’s characteristically robust, exuberant, and opulent manner. The result is likely to suggest the score of a Hollywood religious epic to the average listener. The approach and impact of the work is so visceral — almost to the point of vulgarity — that at its premiere some listeners were reportedly offended by its treatment of sacred themes. However, the symphony is a personal statement, and the flesh-and-blood treatment truly reflects Creston’s individual conception of the subject matter. Indeed, the integration and development of the Gregorian themes is quite intricate and ingenious — moreso than its immediate effect may suggest. The central “Crucifixion” movement is probably one of the composer’s most eloquent and moving creations.
The sole previous recording of the work was a muddy-sounding Westminster disc from the early 1950s, featuring a fine, sympathetic performance by the National Symphony Orchestra under Howard Mitchell. As good as that performance was, it is exciting to have a new recorded interpretation of the score. Schwarz’s approach is somewhat restrained and understated, effectively toning down the work’s extravagance and bombast. Furthermore, the modern recording allows for vastly greater detail and transparency of texture, highlighting Creston’s expert orchestration. My only complaint involves the fugue in the first movement: here the tempo is so slow that the spirit of the music is distorted; also, accompanying figurations are sometimes overly prominent, overshadowing thematic elements.
Invocation and Dance is another piece from the early 1950s, and is one of Creston’s most popular works, exemplifying what is probably his most distinctive format: the prelude and dance, the latter a lively rhythmic development of material introduced in the prelude. This recording appears on the heels of a new Louisville recording, reviewed an issue or two ago with considerable reservations. This Seattle performance is richer and more vital than the recent Louisville version (there was an old Louisville recording as well), and Schwarz gives Creston’s all-important rhythmic accents the dry punch they require, rather than the heavy-handedness they usually receive. But again, his tempos are sometimes too slack, and accompanying figurations often dominate thematic elements in the texture, although transparency of detail is welcome. Invocation and Dance is an appealing work, but Janus is Creston’s best essay in the prelude-and-dance format, and has never been recorded. I hate to be overly demanding, but I do wish conductors would sometimes look beyond the most obvious choices.
Creston’s Partita for flute, oboe, and strings is another work that is already available on CD — in this case in an excellent performance, part of Harmonia Mundi’s “Modern Masters” series (HMU 906011), featuring the City of London Sinfonia under the direction of David Amos. The Partita, composed in 1937, is a sort of Creston-style Brandenburg Concerto, as the notes state. In this work, the composer’s unmistakable fingerprints are somewhat hidden by neo-Baroque camouflage. Three lively, cheerful movements are set off by two lovely, lyrical slow ones. Although this too is one of Creston’s most popular pieces, it is a little too tepid in emotional content for my taste. Here Schwarz provides a refined, precisely detailed reading, but prefer Amos’ heartier, more spirited, yet no less accurate rendition.
Out of the Cradle is a 10 1/2-minute tone poem inspired by the famous verses of Walt Whitman, one of Creston’s favorite writers, presented here in its first-ever recording. It is a very early work — the composer’s Opus 5 — written shortly before Creston’s style attained its final crystallisation during the late 1930s. Although I cannot discern its relationship to the poem, it is an attractively moody, exotically-flavored piece, more episodic in form than the composer’s mature norm
This disc makes an important contribution to the continuing revival of American orchestral music from the middle decades of this century. One looks forward to further installments from Gerard Schwarz and Delos, who are making some of the most exciting inroads into this long-neglected repertoire.