This new CD instantly caught my eye. With a title "American Discoveries", played by an orchestra I've never heard of before, and on a label completely new to me, this is exactly something I would be most interested in.
And to clarify any confusion right up front - this sadly is not an SACD, as Amazon's listing describes it. It is CD only. I admit being further enticed by this release because of the SACD designation and was disappointed it was not, especially given its price (more on this later). I don't know if this is an Amazon blunder, or an incorrect product listing provided by the record label.
I couldn't resist reading up on this release before listening. All three composers whose works are featured here are 20th Century American women. These scores are part of a collection of over 22,000 titles in the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia. The Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra (a suburb of Philadelphia) was originally founded in 1946 to provide music for the First Presbyterian Church of Lansdowne, PA. Subsequent conductors along the way have "raised its capabilities" and elevated it into a "distinguished community orchestra". (I'm summarizing the booklet notes).
And what a marvelous collection of music we have here. And it is, for the most part, reasonably well played and recorded. This community orchestra cannot match the lofty standards we hear from professional orchestras, particularly with regard to polish and beauty of tone. But the playing is accomplished and Reuben Blundell is a confident leader.
The shortest work, at just under 5', starts us off. Priscilla Alden Beach's City Trees paints a serene and majestic landscape, unmistakably reminiscent of Howard Hanson. It's interesting to learn that Hanson actually conducted its premier, in 1928. It is creative, pleasant and expressive, and sets the tone perfectly for this concert.
Following it, Linda Robbins Coleman's For A Beautiful Land is more substantial (lasting 10'), but displays a slightly less unique compositional voice. It sounds distinctly "American", with a feeling of wide open spaces and the great outdoors. Yes, there are hints of Copland, but not too much. Its memorable tunefulness, colorful scoring and sprawling, descriptive nature would make it a splendid ballet. The orchestral playing here reveals its "community" origins a bit more than in the preceding work. There is some exposed violin playing here and there, and the orchestral blend overall is a bit rough. But it isn't too serious and didn't inhibit musical enjoyment.
The final work is the real find. Alexandra Pierce's Behemoth, in five short movements is certainly the most assured, accomplished, substantial and musically interesting of the three. And it is expertly orchestrated. She possesses a unique voice, sounding neither particularly "American" or "outdoorsy". It's more overtly "modern" and demonstrative, with a rather restrained use of melody. It's more about color, texture and atmosphere. And the orchestration is impressive all through, particularly her skillful use of the percussion. I especially enjoyed the 4th movement, which features percussion predominantly. My only reservation of the work is with the final (5th) movement, with its unfulfilling, non-climactic ending. It simply just ends, as if in mid-sentence - without resolve or a sense of "arriving". I also don't hear this movement sounding at all "jazzy", as its tempo indication specifies. Nor does it sound even remotely like a "burlesque", as it's described in the booklet. It sounds to me more like very dramatic movie music. (Is the orchestra playing the right piece?) Criticisms aside, it is a masterful work which I greatly enjoyed. The orchestra plays it well and the recorded sound is good.
(I do wish this fine composer would take a stab at revising that final movement. With a more purposeful direction toward a satisfying ending, it would deserve to be played often, alongside other great works from modern composers, such as Jennifer Higdon.)
As to the production, let's get the one negative out of the way. My only complaint about this CD is the extremely short overall playing time of just 30 minutes. For a full-price release, this is simply unacceptable, especially knowing it's not an SACD, as Amazon incorrectly lists it. However, taking into account the adventurous repertoire and the humble origins of the musicians involved, I obviously decided to buy the disc anyway. And it is so rewarding musically, I'm really glad I did.
As to the recorded sound, it is pretty good. In the first two works (recorded in 2019), the sound is a bit 2-dimensional, with a close-up perspective in a rather dry acoustic, which, frankly, does this orchestra no favors. I wonder if that bit of exposed string playing I noted earlier may very well have been partly due to unflattering microphone placement. But it is sufficiently colorful and pleasant as to not hinder the music. The final work, recorded several months later, in 2020, is slightly better. It is a bit more 3-dimensional, and spacious, with the orchestra placed at a more natural distance from the listener. It affords the orchestra just a touch more color, blend and luster, which is all advantageous.
The label, New Focus Recordings, is one I had not encountered before. I read on its website: It is an "artist led collective label...started because we wanted to have creative control over all elements of the recording and post-production process." This is exactly the type of project I love to support. There is a well-written booklet, with lots of information about the composers, the music and the musicians. This disc is highly recommended, despite its short playing time and less than perfect orchestral playing.