Classical CD Reviews

WILLIAM GRANT STILL: Symphony No. 2 in g, “Song of a New Race”; Symphony No. 3, “The Sunday Symphony”; Wood Notes – Fort Smith Sym./ John Jeter – Naxos

The third and final installment of an excellent series.

Published on September 26, 2012

WILLIAM GRANT STILL: Symphony No. 2 in g, “Song of a New Race”; Symphony No. 3, “The Sunday Symphony”; Wood Notes – Fort Smith Sym./ John Jeter – Naxos

WILLIAM GRANT STILL: Symphony No. 2 in g, “Song of a New Race”; Symphony No. 3, “The Sunday Symphony”; Wood Notes – Fort Smith Sym./ John Jeter – Naxos 8.559676, 61:39 ****:

This is the concluding release of the complete symphonies of William Grant Still on Naxos. This is the first release Audiophile Audition has covered, but they have been critically very well received in other places. This disc is no exception. While his first symphony, “Afro-American” is probably his most famous, I think the Third Symphony recorded here is one of his best even though it is not well known at all.

But we start with a wonderful suite called Wood Notes. This piece takes its inspiration from the poetry of American Southerner Mitchell Pilcher. The piece is very pastoral and subtly evocative, and got praises at its inception for its “pleasantness”. If I had to issue a description I would say sit back and imagine the folksiness of Dvorak coupled with the descriptive prowess of Delius filtered through an elemental American harmony. Well, I tried. But the piece is quite lovely and very satisfying to hear.

The Second Symphony, “Song of a New Race”, was received after the Stokowski premiere in 1937 in rapturous terms. I don’t think time has been kind to it; while the idea of associating jazz and more popular idioms with Negro identity might have been characteristically identifiable at the time, today it feels contrived and a little shallow. Despite the plethora of fine string writing and easily followed tunes, and the obvious advancements in form and substance, one cannot help but disassociate the title of the work from its intended meaning and instead listen to the music as a feint and quite less substantive American in Paris. There are some memorable moments, like the very moving slow movement, and the whole symphony is hardly a failure, just not living up to initial expectations.

But when we get to the Third Symphony many things begin to fall into place. The sense of dramatic urgency beginning with the daybreak of a Sunday progressing through a church service, joy at the gathering of family and friends in relaxation, and the steady and heady resolve to conclude the day and find the strength for the next one. Though the program itself seems trite and uninteresting (and is the only symphony not performed in the composer’s lifetime) the music is anything but, a model of energy and repose, carefully wedded to the most intimate moments of life on a day very important to the composer, and joyously optimistic—anyone hearing it will come away better for it.

John Jeter and the Fort Smith Symphony (Arkansas) conclude their trilogy of discs with excellent performances of all three works here, sumptuously recorded at Arkansas Best Corporation Performing Arts Center. This series surpasses the polished but somewhat superficial Jarvi recordings on Chandos and should be an easily affordable way to collect the Still symphonies at a very digestible price.

—Steven Ritter




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