Morton Gould’s Symphonettes: Wonderful Music, Unidiomatic Performances

Review by: Jed Distler


Artistic Quality: 7

Sound Quality: 8

Morton Gould’s Symphonettes from the 1930s and ’40s are quintessential examples of his “crossover” style. They bear out Gould’s natural and unpretentious flair for fusing popular idioms and classical structures, along with his skillful, ingenuous, and effective orchestration. Take, for example, Symphonette No. 3’s madcap finale, with its restless darting melodic lines and unpredictable silences, or the “Latin-American” No. 4’s vivacious concluding Conga. Few of Gould’s American contemporaries were writing comparably upbeat and inventive music during that time (okay, Copland and Ellington, perhaps, but not all that many!).

By contrast, the Spirituals reveal a more seriously sustained persona. In the first-movement “Proclamation” recitative-like passages transpire between loud chordal thunderbolts, while gentle dabs of dissonance prevent the touchingly plaintive melodies in “Sermon” from sounding cloying. The latter movement plays to conductor Arthur Fagen’s strengths and the Vienna ensemble’s excellent strings in regard to its broad and beautifully sustained tempo.

Elsewhere, Fagen’s capable performances never quite swing, nor match the incisive spark that others have brought to this music. His relatively logy reading of the Second Symphonette’s darting and witty “Fast and Racy” finale pales next to the Louisville Symphony’s quicker pace and stinging accents, and the aforementioned “Conga” lacks both the unfettered joy and airtight ensemble distinguishing Felix Slatkin’s classic Hollywood Bowl Symphony recording. In other words, idiomatic flair is in short supply. For more convincing examples of Fagen’s work, investigate his fine Martinu symphony cycle, also on Naxos. Good sound, and first-rate annotations by Frank K. DeWald.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: None for this collection

    Symphonettes Nos. 2, 3, & 4; Spirituals for Orchestra

    ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Arthur Fagen

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