Florence Price: Two Symphonies

Review by: David Hurwitz


Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 7

Florence Price (1887-1953) was the first African-American woman to have a symphony played by a major American orchestra (the Chicago Symphony in 1933). This was her Symphony No. 1 in E minor, recorded here. Price, who studied at the New England Conservatory, composed four symphonies in all, three of which survive, and much other music besides. For a review of her Third Symphony and other orchestral pieces, click here. Her idiom, as the notes suggest, mixes Gershwin with Ellington, and I would add Dvorák and Vaughan-Williams (for the recourse to modal harmony), not that she had any of those composers in mind necessarily. Her language was her own.

That said, she wasn’t much of a symphonist. Price sounds most comfortable when she gets away from the strictures of sonata form–that is, her first movements. These are an uncomfortable patchwork of disconnected ideas, repetitiously restated, especially in the Fourth Symphony. Her slow movements, though, are lovely, and while the First Symphony follows the conventional order of movements, with a “Juba Dance” replacing the third movement scherzo, in the Fourth Symphony the finale actually is a scherzo, preceded by another “Juba Dance.” All of this is to say that there’s both thought and originality here despite her discomfort with symphonic form, and you will have to decide if it’s enough to compensate for those long, stiff opening movements.

The First Symphony has been recorded previously, for Albany, not quite as well as here, but the Fourth is a world premiere. The Fort Smith Symphony hails from Price’s home state of Arkansas, and was founded in 1923, although it operates on a “fee for service basis.” In other words, it’s a full-size, pick-up ensemble, and it plays very well under conductor John Jeter. The engineering, though, is diffuse and a bit lacking in dynamic range, with an “empty hall” quality that soaks up some of the music’s color and impact. Not a perfect release, then, but a welcome one that draws attention to a distinctive musical voice deserving of more systematic attention on disc.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: None

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