What a wonderful find is this new Naxos! It's hard to believe this particular coupling is unique, and that these delightful American symphonettes are so rarely recorded. Only #4, 'Latin-American Symphonette', has any real presence in the catalog.
I raised an eyebrow seeing these recordings were made with the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. But not to worry. American conductor, Arthur Fagen, has this music securely in his DNA. He draws such idiomatic and authentically "American" playing from this great orchestra, I can't imagine these readings being bettered.
And what wonderful music it is! I had not heard #2 & 3 before, and only vaguely remember having heard #4 at some point. All three are similar in flavor and mood. And they are instantly recognizable as being "American", but mercifully don't sound like Copland. No, nothing wrong with Copland. But often times American music from around this time (30s, 40s, 50s) just can help but sound like Copland. This does not. If anything, it sounds more like Charles Ives and Don Gillis. But it's a unique voice and sounds like...well, Morton Gould. So perhaps I should say Ives and Gillis sound like Gould!
Spirituals is much better known and receives a warmly sympathetic reading here, filling out the disc to a most satisfying close and an impressive 66" playing time.
Playing and conducting are absolutely first rate. And so is the sound. Naxos has really mastered the art of recording the symphony orchestra in the past decade or so, and this one is simply outstanding. The orchestra is natural in perspective, clean and clear in a warm acoustic, with a brilliant "presence" and effortless dynamic range. It helps bring these performances thrillingly to life. This is one of my favorite discs of the year so far. I enjoyed it enormously.