Classical Reissue Reviews
WILLIAM GRANT STILL: Symphony No. 5 “Western Hemisphere;” Symphony No. 4; Poem for Orch. – Fort Smith Symphony/ John Jeter – Naxos ARTHUR FOOTE: Francesca da Rimini; Air & Gavotte; Four Character Pieces; Suite in E Major – Seattle Sym./Schwarz – Naxos
Published on July 6, 2010
WILLIAM GRANT STILL: Symphony No. 5 "Western Hemisphere;" Symphony No. 4 "Autochthonous;" Poem for Orchestra (1944) – Fort Smith Symphony/ John Jeter – Naxos 8.559603, 56:24 ****:
ARTHUR FOOTE: Francesca da Rimini, Op. 24; Air & Gavotte from Serenade, Op. 25; Four Character Pieces after the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Op. 48; Suite in E Major, Op. 63 – Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz – Naxos 8.559365, 59:20 ****:
Music of two lesser but most interesting American composers, and both at bargain prices. Still was known as the dean of African-American composers. He lived until 1978 received many honors for his work for concert series, film and TV. He studied composition with both George Chadwick and Edgar Varese. His quite conservative style shows no influence of the latter. Still actively participated in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, and established his reputation with this first symphony, the “Afro-American.” His neo-romantic idiom includes such forms as blues, jazz and spirituals.
In his Symphony No. 4 Still sought to “represent the spirit of the American people.” In four contrasting short movements, the work – composed in 1947 – gives a generally optimistic vision of postwar America. The Fifth Symphony continues the optimistic viewpoint, expanded to the whole Western Hemisphere. The four movements deal with “the life-sustaining forces of the Hemisphere,” “the natural beauties,” “the nervous energy,” and “”the overshadowing spirit of kindness and justice in the Hemisphere.” Its third movement is a jazz scherzo.
These are all three world premiere recordings, and were made just last year in the Performing Arts Center in Fort Smith, Arkansas. The Fort Smith Symphony was founded in 1923 and is the oldest orchestra in the state.
Arthur Foote, who lived until 1937, didn’t travel to Europe for his musical training in the Germanic style like most late-19th-century American composer, but got most of it right here in the U.S. His distinctive style, however, owes a major debt to Brahms and the European romantics, though reveling in more exotic harmonies and colorful orchestrations. John Knowles Paine, who was a music professor at Harvard, was one of his teachers. Foote’s output of works was voluminous, and he was fortunate in having had about two-thirds of it published during his lifetime.
The earliest of Foote’s four works here is his “Symphonic Prologue” Francesca da Rimini, based on the same story from Dante’s Inferno of the doomed lovers Francesca and Paulo as used by Tchaikovsky. Foote departs from the accepted tonal schemes in his powerful and evocative musical language. The Character Pieces after Omar Khayyam were orchestrated from an original set of piano pieces, and have become the composer’s most popular work. They add harp and percussion to the standard orchestra and are full of exotic tone-painting inspired by the tales of the Persian mystic.
The much later Suite in E Major is for string orchestra and has similarities to string works by Dvorak, Tchaikovsky and Elgar. Two shorter movements bookend a longer Pizzicato and Adagietto central movement, and a gutsy fugue concludes the tuneful work. These recordings were originally made for the Delos label in 1997 thru 2005, and are here reissued by Naxos.