And the interest in Florence Price continues with this important and very impressive recording from no less than DG and the Philadelphia Orchestra. And if anyone can make a convincing case for these works, it's Yannick Nezet-Seguin. (Although after hearing the recent CD of Kellen Gray conducting the Still and Dawson Symphonies on Linn Records, how I'd love to hear him perform/record this music.)
To have two pioneering symphonies composed by an overlooked African-American woman, played by a major symphony orchestra conducted by an openly gay man, recorded by a major German label, is really quite a momentous event which just doesn't happen very often. And is cause for celebration.
Price, though unjustly neglected, is a composer of notable historical significance. And I'm thrilled to see the plethora of her music appear on CD lately, and I have acquired a few of them. (A couple reviews of her music appear elsewhere here on my blog.) Certainly much of her music is absolutely wonderful. However, the compositional inspiration (and sometimes proficiency) can ebb and flow. But these symphonies are monumental achievements.
The first movements of both symphonies are glorious - filled with sheer musical inspiration and creativity, expertly crafted and richly orchestrated. And it is here that Nezet-Seguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra are absolutely brilliant - helped by gorgeous, luminous recorded sound from the DG engineers. (I don't believe I've heard DG's "house sound" so positively sumptuous.)
In the 1st, I smiled at hearing hints of Delius in the opening Allegro ma non troppo. And even at a whopping 18+ minutes, it never for a moment felt long or musically inconsequential. At every turn, its sweeping melodies, musical phrases and adventurous harmonic progression are richly engaging and delight the senses with incredibly colorful expression, fully developed thematic material, and dazzling orchestration. The Largo second movement, in comparison, clocking in at 13+ minutes, does perhaps seem a little too long for its material, but is still quite enjoyable.
In the 3rd Symphony, there is an evolved, more firmly established compositional voice even more uniquely Price's, which is most winning. This piece is really her crowning achievement. The opening Andante sets the stage with pensive woodwind passages, followed by an energetic, dramatic Allegro introduced by the strings. The second subject unabashedly quotes Dvorak's New World Symphony which perhaps sounds a bit too conspicuously deliberate. However, Price incorporates it rather cleverly into the overall fabric, developing it into something rather endearing.
The 2nd movement Andante is even better. Price reaches full maturity here with aching, deeply felt phrases and harmonic expression. Scriabin came to mind a time or two. Its opening passage presents delicate motifs passed around among various woodwinds (oboe, English Horn, flute), which are exquisitely played by the Philadelphia's principal players.
I must point out here that all through this recording, the DG engineers allow rich, vibrant, glowing woodwind tone and tender, silky strings to shimmer with vibrancy. The playing in this section, in particular, is simply ravishing.
It is at this point in both symphonies, though, that I hear the creativity and interest begin to wane. As in her marvelous Piano Quintet, Price inserts a short "Juba Dance" in place of a true Scherzo in both symphonies, and in all three works it is instantly, distinctly out of place - sounding rather frivolous and, frankly, a little corny for "serious" symphonic music. (Though to be fair, Nezet-Seguin does his utmost best to make them sound substantial - and nearly succeeds). Moreover, after these trifles (and in a different context, as fun as they might be), the finales become a bit of an afterthought and don't quite attain the loftiness heard in the opening 2 movements of either symphony.
The Presto finale of the 1st curiously sounds a bit like the English countryside rather than the great American outdoors. It's a merry jaunt, sounding not at all presto. It's a bit too lightweight and folksy to serve as a proper finale of a symphony, and somewhat repetitive too in its thematic content. Pleasant enough, then, but nowhere near the achievement of the 1st movement.
The potpourri "Scherzo/Finale/Allegro" of the 3rd is a much more satisfying concluding movement. And Nezet-Seguin is absolutely masterful in preventing it from sounding too grandiose after the whimsical Juba, while providing it all the gravitas it deserves.
All through this CD, one is reminded over and over how important these works are. And how thoroughly rewarding too, especially as played here so rapturously by one of the world's best orchestras - which has at last been restored to its former glory after floundering so many years before Nezet-Seguin arrived. (Whenever my non-Classical-loving friends ask me: "Does a conductor really make a difference?", I tell them the tale of America's "top 5" orchestras, particularly the Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, New York and Los Angeles - and their ill-chosen conductors in recent years/decades. But I digress.) So I am thrilled to hear such excellence from Philadelphia again. (And I've given up all hope for Chicago and New York at this point.) The Philadelphia recording of Rachmaninoff's 1st Symphony last year gave us much hope for a sustained revitalization of this orchestra, and this new recording confirms it. And it certainly helps that their current concert hall enhances them so beautifully and that DG has perfected the art of recording them there, providing such luxurious sound.
In closing, these Symphonies are amazing achievements. Period. I have not intended to be critical in this review, but merely detailed in what I hear. At the end of the day, as purely symphonic/orchestral music, for me this CD is worth it for the opening movement of the 1st Symphony and the Andante of the 3rd, both of which are simply magnificent in this recording. And the rest is nearly as gratifying.
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