Giorgio Koukl | 4 DEC 2023
Among the many offerings the Naxos label produces, this American Classics line is one of the most valuable. Generally, it is considered an endless source of very well-recorded scores of American composers, much of it as world premiere recordings. Here, the National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic is directed by JoAnn Falletta, who is definitely a star among the Naxos artists.
The two lesser-known pieces, Paul Creston’s Saxophone Concerto and Ulysses Kay’s Pietà for English horn and string orchestra, are placed amid well-known classics by Aaron Copland and Walter Piston.
The disc opens with The Tender Land Suite (1958) by Aaron Copland (1900-1990), an orchestral adaptation of music from the opera The Tender Land, which premiered in 1954. With a libretto by Horace Everett, the opera explores themes of love and self-discovery in the American Midwest. The Suite comprises selected instrumental movements from the opera, showcasing Copland’s characteristic style with hints of folk and traditional melodies. The music is spectacular, and in the hands of Falletta, it transforms into a kaleidoscopic show of orchestral color rarely seen. To be mentioned once again is the fabulous brass section. The three movements are: “Introduction and Love Music,” “Party Scene,” and “Finale: The Promise of Living.”
The following piece is the Saxophone Concerto Op. 26 by Paul Creston (1906-1985), a significant work in the saxophone repertoire. Composed in 1941, it showcases his mastery of orchestration and ability to integrate the saxophone into the classical concerto tradition. The concerto is in three movements: “With vigor,” “With tranquility,” and “With gaiety.”
The composer explores a wide range of emotions and technical demands for the saxophonist throughout the piece. The saxophonist Timothy McAllister plays in all aspects in a more than satisfactory way. He is at his ease in the short, staccato notes but also delivers notable melodious lines in the second movement. Rhythmic drive and bold melodic lines characterize the first movement, often featuring intricate interplay between the soloist and the orchestra. The second movement provides a lyrical contrast, with expressive and contemplative saxophone lines supported by a well-written orchestration. The final movement introduces a lively and playful character, demonstrating Mr. McAllister’s agility and virtuosity well.
One notable aspect of Creston’s concerto is his effective use of counterpoint and thematic development. Themes are introduced and explored, creating a cohesive structure that ties the movements together. The saxophone is given opportunities for expressive lines as well as technically demanding passages, demonstrating the instrument’s versatility.
Definitely, the most interesting score of the whole disc is Pietà by Ulysses Kay (1917-1995). Superbly played by the English horn player Anna Mattix, it is a slow, meditative score, easily acceptable by any concertgoer.
The composer employs expressive melodies that communicate a range of emotions, possibly reflecting the theme of “Pietà” by Michelangelo, which the composer had seen while in Rome, Italy.
The harmonic language involves a mix of tonal and modal elements, capturing the stylistic diversity of the time. Kay experimented with dissonance and resolution to create tension and release within the piece. Considering Mr. Kay’s background as an African-American composer, elements in the composition reflect his cultural influences, manifest in rhythmic patterns, melodic motifs, and thematic content.
The use of dynamics plays a vital role in producing the emotional nuances of the piece. Kay’s detailed dynamic markings, rigorously respected by the interpreters, provide the intended intensity and emotion.
The last piece is the well-known suite The Incredible Flutist by Walter Piston (1894-1976). This score consists of several movements, each highlighting different facets of the orchestra. From playful dances to lyrical passages, the suite captures the capricious atmosphere of the ballet for which it was originally composed. Piston’s ability to blend traditional forms with modern elements is evident throughout, making it a captivating piece for both performers and listeners alike. Known for his neoclassical style, Piston combines melodic richness and rhythmic vitality in this composition, showcasing his skillful craftsmanship. The suite is often cited for its delightful and engaging musical language.
Here again, Falletta delivers a real firework of different orchestral colors in a refined canvas of great delicacy but also strong rhythmic pulsation.
It’s definitely a CD worth maximum recommendation. ■
- JoAnn Falletta: joannfalletta.com
- National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic: theclarice.umd.edu/noi/Philharmonic
- Anna Mattix: bpo.org/staff-members/anna-mattix
- Timothy McAllister: timothymcallister.com