Classical CD Reviews

GEORGE W. CHADWICK: Adonais: Elegiac Ov.; Cleopatra; A Pastoral Prelude; Sinfonietta in D Major – BBC Concert Orch./ Keith Lockhart – Dutton Epoch

With three premiere recordings, this is mostly the unknown George W. Chadwick. As a dedicated Chadwickian, it makes me very happy.

Published on December 12, 2012

GEORGE W. CHADWICK: Adonais: Elegiac Ov.; Cleopatra; A Pastoral Prelude; Sinfonietta in D Major – BBC Concert Orch./ Keith Lockhart – Dutton Epoch

GEORGE W. CHADWICK: Adonais: Elegiac Overture; Cleopatra: Symphonic Poem; A Pastoral Prelude; Sinfonietta in D Major – BBC Concert Orch./ Keith Lockhart – Dutton Epoch CDLX 7293 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi USA], 68:46 ****:

Of the six composers who made up the Boston Six or Second New England School of composers, I find Chadwick the most consistent and for me, the most appealing. Of the remaining five, Horatio Parker is almost exclusively famous (or infamous) today for being the stick-in-the mud teacher of Charles Ives at Yale. The other composers all wrote significant music and should certainly be heard more often in concert (which almost never happens) today.

Born in 1839, John Knowles Paine is the oldest of the group. He wrote the earliest important symphonies written by an American; his First Symphony anticipated Brahms’s by a year. Like Parker and Chadwick, he was an important teacher of composition as well. Amy Beach is the only woman in the group; as a female composer, she was a great rarity at the time. She was also a piano virtuoso, and her piano compositions, including the Concerto in C-Sharp, are an especially important part of her output. Arthur Foote, Paine’s pupil, is most noted for his chamber music; he probably gets the most exposure today simply because out-of-favor composers have a better chance of having their chamber works performed than their orchestral or vocal works.

Edward McDowell was born and died in New York, so he stretches the Boston Six moniker, though his establishment of the famous McDowell Colony in Vermont is one reason for placing him in the New England School, I suppose. He wrote a couple of works that are still on the edges of the repertoire, and has, unlike the others, one Greatest Hit to his credit: the piano miniature “To a Wild Rose.”

I hope this long-winded introduction didn’t bore you. It was intended to orient you a bit to the musical world that Massachusetts-born, Boston-based George W. Chadwick (1854–1931) inhabited. Like the other composers mentioned above, Chadwick was important in his day (his day, unluckily ending well before his death). Many of his orchestral works were premiered and then taken up by the most prominent American orchestras at the turn of the century. For example, the Sinfonietta, my favorite work on the program, debuted in 1908 with the Philadelphia Orchestra.) His Second and Third Symphonies and Symphonic Sketches, Chadwick’s most important works, all show an inclination to mine American thematic materials or at least produce a particularly American sound. Symphonic Sketches, probably the finest and certainly the most recorded of his works, has material that seems to reference American musical theater and vaudeville from around the turn of the century.

In fact, Chadwick has been very lucky on disc; there are fine (fairly) recent recordings of his tone poems by José Serebrier (Reference Recordings), Thomas Schermerhorn (Naxos), and Neeme Järvi (Chandos), and of his symphonies by Theodore Kuchar (Naxos) and Järvi (Chandos again). But with three world-premiere recordings, the present disc from Boston Pops Conductor Keith Lockhart and the BBC Concert Orchestra is a happy occurrence for dedicated Chadwickians, including me. Indeed, while Sinfonietta has been recorded before, it’s currently available only on Serebrier’s two-CD album on Reference Recordings. So along with first-time recordings, you get a very attractive rarity.

Of the other works on the program, I find Adonais the most compelling. Written in 1899 as an elegiac tribute to Chadwick’s young friend, the Boston music teacher Frank Fay Marshall, the piece was inspired by Percy Shelley’s tribute of the same name to his colleague John Keats, who died aged 25. It includes some noble and stately music and develops its materials well, filling its fifteen-minute duration better than some of Chadwick’s orchestral works (including the one next on the program, Cleopatra). Adonais shows the influence of Brahms in its deep seriousness and complex architecture.

Cleopatra of 1904 was Chadwick’s attempt to engage more contemporary musical influences, in this case Richard Strauss, whose tone poems were getting heard in America. Indeed, Strauss conducted a number of them in Boston around that time, so Chadwick’s interest is understandable. The results are mixed. The composer shows he’s capable of dealing with huge late-Romantic forces, and the scoring is expert, very colorful, from airy delicate music for celesta and harp (Cleopatra’s love music) to martial music for Marc Antony that uses the whole of the big brass and percussion sections. I find the melodic invention less interesting, and I’m not able to follow the program with the same clarity as in the finest tone poems simply because Chadwick is not as melodically gifted as a Tchaikovsky or a Strauss. I put this work in the same bracket as Chadwick’s even longer Aphrodite (1910–11). There’s beautiful and powerful music here but not enough to sustain its length or pretentions.

I like the 1890 Pastoral Prelude a good bit more. True to its name, it has a bucolic easiness about it that’s very attractive, but it’s no shrinking violet. According to the notes to this recording it was written at a very hopeful time in Chadwick’s life, when he was achieving increased success as a composer and teacher; a new marriage must have influenced the work as well. It’s bright, perky, optimistic, a fine little work.

In these performances, Keith Lockhart makes the BBC players Americans for a day (or three) and gets wonderfully vibrant, committed results—must be the effect of new discovery. Dutton’s big bright recording, with an especially robust bass, is an excellent showcase for Chadwick’s talents of orchestration. If you want to explore this worthy American composer, the present disc may not be the absolute best place to start, but once you latch on to Chadwick’s appeals, you’ll want to hear this excellent collection of his lesser-known work.

—Lee Passarella




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