Please see review text for composers and repertoire
Benny Goodman (clarinet) [Nielsen Concerto]

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Morton Gould

Recorded between February 1965 and January 1968 in either Orchestra Hall or Medinah Temple, Chicago
CD No: RCA RED SEAL
88875120702 (6 CDs)
Duration: 4 hours 40 minutes
Reviewed: March 2017

Few musicians of his generation enjoyed such a varied career as Morton Gould (1913-1996), his activity over a range of genres taking in classical and crossover pieces (rapping and tap-dancing not excepted) as well as a lengthy association with RCA Red Seal as saw numerous releases with ‘his’ orchestra that set the standard by which such collaborations were judged.

Unlike most such conductors, however, Gould was equally at home at the more serious end of the spectrum and was duly recognised for such on both sides of the Atlantic – not least the Chicago Symphony, with whom he worked regularly in the post-war era; most notably that fascinating interregnum between the retirement of Fritz Reiner as music director in 1963 and Georg Solti’s assuming the post in 1968. Five years that saw Jean Martinon at the helm for what was a rough ride critically but a successful one artistically, and with Gould in a brief yet productive studio relationship that resulted in the half-dozen LPs reissued here.

The first, released in October 1965, features two “Contemporary American Masterpieces” as complement each other ideally. Gould’s own Spirituals for Orchestra (1941) is among the most durable of his serious works, its five movements setting out strong emotional contrasts which merge into a viable symphonic entity. The composer’s account has a degree more expressive flexibility than Howard Hanson’s reading (Mercury), with definition between the string choir and orchestra more fully conveyed. As retrieved from his ‘vampire’ ballet Grohg, Copland’s Dance Symphony (1925) is essentially a concerto for orchestra such as typifies his virtuosic early manner. When compared to the composer’s version (CBS/Sony), Gould draws greater suspense and also excitement from music whose continuing neglect is hard to explain.

The second LP, released in May 1966, was of importance in featuring the first recording of Charles Ives’s First Symphony (1898), premiered only thirteen years earlier. Subsequently overshadowed by Eugene Ormandy’s trenchant reading (CBS/Sony), Gould’s slightly faster tempos arguably undersell the Adagio’s pathos and the Scherzo’s charm, but keep the sprawling formal designs of the outer movements more securely in check; not least the latter’s coda, whose ‘Pathétique meets American march-past’ amalgam is truly uproarious here. Topping and tailing the main work are Variations on ‘America’ (1891), with William Schuman’s bracingly inventive 1962 orchestration given its head, and The Unanswered Question (1908) in which the solo trumpet is balanced too forwardly vis-à-vis strings and flutes so as to rob this music of its ‘otherness’.

Released one month later is “The Wonderful Waltzes of Tchaikovsky”. Behind the Disneyesque schmaltz is as engaging a collection of such ‘lollipops’ as could be wished. The Waltzes from The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ from The Nutcracker are given with tremendous zest, these latter two with a closing accelerando of irresistible verve, while the latter’s ‘Final Waltz and Apotheosis’ has exuberance without undue histrionics. No less stylish are appropriate selections from Serenade for Strings, Eugene Onegin and Fifth Symphony, with the less familiar ‘Valse bluette’ and ‘Valse des Cygnes’ from Swan Lake rounding out this sequence whose unity in diversity is a tribute to the sheer creativeness of this composer.

The fourth disc, released in February 1967, remains a signal addition to the making available of Carl Nielsen’s music when it was still little known outside of Denmark. Benny Goodman could be overly cautious in Classical repertoire, and if the Clarinet Concerto (1928) has some arresting playing (notably in the cadenza passages) its pacing feels sluggish next to the impetuosity of Stanley Drucker and Leonard Bernstein on their combative account (CBS/Sony). Very different is the Second Symphony (The Four Temperaments, 1903). The ‘choleric’ and ‘sanguine’ outer movements have a headlong dynamism, with the ‘phlegmatic’ intermezzo and ‘melancholic’ slow movement hardly less keenly characterised. Gould’s idiomatic arrangement of Fred Fisher’s Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town), previously released on a fundraising LP, makes for an unlikely yet infectious bonus.

May 1967 saw a return to Ives for an even more ground-breaking collection – an alternately raucous and mystical ‘Putnam’s Camp’ (1914 – the central movement of Three Places in New England) framed by what were first recordings. The Second Orchestral Set (1919) is Ives at his most uncompromising: ‘An Elegy to Out Forefathers’ lacks a degree of raptness, but ‘The Rockstrewn Hills…’ is a riot of cubist discontinuity and ‘From Hannover Square North…’ (with the Chicago Symphony Chorus) yields a cumulative fervency not yet surpassed. Leopold Stokowski (CBS/Sony) and Harold Farberman (Vanguard) had already set down the Robert Browning Overture (1914), but the cohesion and impact of Gould makes this the ‘first generation’ recording of choice.

Finally, June 1968, another welcome foray into Russian music. At various times, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Antar (1868, twice revised) has long been eclipsed in popularity by Scheherazade, but its thematic understatement arguably makes for a more unified work and Gould has the measure of its vividly contrasted four movements – not least a Finale which, in the deft recollection of earlier ideas, is among its composer’s most affecting statements. Miaskovsky’s Twenty-First Symphony (1940) had been a Chicago commission (the then music director, Frederick Stock, had steadfastly upheld Miaskovsky’s interwar reputation in the West), and while other recordings evince greater emotional weight, Gould’s poise underlines the sincerity of the composer’s ingenious single-movement design.

Further recordings were planned, notably the first Western recordings of Shostakovich’s Second and Third Symphonies as had been scheduled only to be postponed then made with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra later in 1968 (and inexplicably never yet reissued); but, the 1985 commission for his Flute Concerto aside, Gould’s association with the Chicago Symphony was effectively over when a change in management ushered in the Solti era then the rapid falling-off of the offbeat programmes as had been a feature of those previous five years.

Each of these discs has been re-mastered from source so as to emerge with appreciably greater clarity and depth, often startlingly so, than the vinyl releases. The retaining of the original LP sleeves adds a pleasingly period touch, even if liner notes are difficult to read unaided when this reduced in size, while the (from a present-day perspective) questionable cover design for the LM imprint of the Gould/Copland disc has unsurprisingly been passed over. The booklet includes full track-listings, recording details and an informative essay from Alan G. Artner.

Half a century on and while few of these recordings would today constitute an automatic first choice, a sense of frequently unfamiliar music being rediscovered and presented to advantage comes through in abundance, making this a mandatory purchase for anyone who is interested in Gould, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or what was a ‘golden era’ of classical recording. Sony, on behalf of RCA, could do worse than to reissue Gould’s other recordings for the label, extending one’s appreciation of a composer and conductor whose stature remains undimmed.

 

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