I'll admit to not being at all familiar with two of these works (by Jones and Albert), and only somewhat familiar with the third (by Piston). But they have instantly become some of my favorite American symphonies and this disc is certainly one of my favorites of the year so far.
I will start by saying this is one the finest-sounding SACDs yet to come from BIS. It features silky, sweet string tone, glowingly golden brass, colorful woodwinds, and a gorgeous, spacious acoustic. And the playing of the LSO throughout is simply magnificent.
Beginning with what is arguably Piston's most famous (and most often heard) of his 8 symphonies - the 6th is certainly a masterpiece. I have two recordings of it on my shelves - from Slatkin/St. Louis (RCA) and Schwarz/Seattle (Delos, recently reissued on Naxos). But it had been so long since I listened to those, the music was only vaguely familiar. And this glorious reading from Lance Friedel proved to be a revelation. How can this symphony not be played and recorded much more often? It is utterly wonderful. The majestic 1st movement is so full of soaring, sweetly singing melodies, it is unforgettable. The second movement is a quicksilver scherzo, played effortlessly vivace and light-as-a-feather by the LSO; the slow movement a very moving adagio, beginning with a rapturously gorgeous solo cello, followed soon thereafter by the flute; and ending with a very energetic Allegro. From start to finish it is engrossing, endlessly imaginative and expertly scored.
The Samuel Jones "Symphony #3" is a one-movement symphonic poem, subtitled Palo Duro Canyon. I'm not sure why Mr. Jones calls it a symphony, because it really isn't one (at least not in the traditional sense). But it doesn't really matter, for it substantive and enormously inventive. It begins, curiously, with a pre-recorded sound of wind. Yes...wind. If there is one moment of criticism of this disc, it is this very wind sound. It actually sounds nothing like wind! As a matter of fact I was so baffled by what I was hearing, I had to look in the booklet to determine what it was supposed to be. At first I thought it sounded like the old wow-and-flutter of the good-old days of warped LPs and I wondered if something had gone wrong in the recording process (or my equipment!). But once I learned it was supposed to be wind, then it began to sound more like the electronic white-noise machines on a beside table to help one fall asleep. Why Mr. Jones didn't simply ask for a wind machine (like many composers before him have, including Richard Strauss and Ferde Grofe) is a mystery. That "instrument" sounds far more realistic than whatever recording BIS used here. But, be that as it may, it is a glorious work, in six varied, continuous sections, superbly orchestrated and marvelously played.
Finally, Stephen Albert's Symphony #2 returns us to a more traditional symphony. This sounds the most "Copland-esque" of the three included on this disc and, in fact, does in many ways remind of that composer's 3rd Symphony. Its movements are not given titles or musical expression/tempo markings - but simply I., II., and III.
I cannot praise strongly enough the playing of the LSO. Nor can I compliment Mr. Friedel more highly but by saying these readings are magnificent and I have already listened to this disc 3 times straight through. I really can't enough of it. And BIS must garner much of the praise, as well, for their SACD sound is stunning - some of the most natural, richly colorful and atmospheric recordings I've heard in a long time. As a matter of fact, I found it much more pleasing and natural than the orchestral sound heard on BIS's other recently released collection of American music (that of Leonard Bernstein favorites, conducted by Christian Lindberg, and recently reviewed by me on this blog). The sound of the two recordings could not not be more different. I refer readers to that review for further details.
This disc is not to be missed by anyone wanting to explore some expertly crafted, "serious" American symphonic works. It is simply magnificent in every way.