Slatkin’s Leroy Anderson Cycle Bundled

Review by: Jed Distler


Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 9

Naxos has bundled the five individual CDs in its Leroy Anderson cycle in a slipcase. If you missed any or all of these volumes, several of which were reviewed here (see reviews archive), take advantage of the label’s reasonable asking price, and grab the set as soon as you can.

It’s an injustice to say that Anderson (1908-1975) was a great composer of light musical miniatures. He was a great composer, period. After all, his irresistible melodies, impeccable craft, imaginative orchestrations, and faultless sense of proportion remain as fresh today as in his mid-20th-century heyday. Furthermore, Anderson clearly subscribed to the old adage “know thyself”. He knew his strengths and his gifts, and he knew what he did best. Within this niche, Anderson managed to create works that are deliciously varied in mood and character, yet always to the point, always full of little surprises, never formulaic, and chock-full of humor.

Once past the surface novelty of The Typewriter soloist’s clicking keys and carriage-bell interjections, notice Anderson’s refusal to adhere to simple 8- or 16-bar phrase units. Listeners from a certain generation may remember The Syncopated Clock’s first theme used to introduce television’s The Late Show (or was it the Late, Late Show?), but not necessarily the simple yet crucial transitional bars of music building into the loud central episode.

Sleigh Ride, of course, is one of Anderson’s most ubiquitous and justly popular masterpieces. Yet many other Anderson gems remained unknown or obscure until Leonard Slatkin recorded them for this series, such as A Harvard Festival (a kind of Americana take on Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture), Lullaby of the Drums, and the admittedly lightweight but super-fun three-movement Piano Concerto. Had the composer lived to hear Jeffrey Biegel’s incisive shaping of the solo part, along with the BBC Concert Orchestra’s shipshape rhythmic precision, perhaps he wouldn’t have withheld this work from publication.

Then there’s The Classical Jukebox, where themes of Wagner and Liszt provide a platform upon which Anderson interpolates the Teresa Brewer novelty pop hit “Music Music Music” (aka “Put another nickel in, in the Nickelodeon”). What’s wonderful about this piece is how Anderson’s clever use of quotations never sounds forced, nor belabors the obvious.

Perhaps the songs from Anderson’s 1958 Broadway musical Goldilocks are a little too clever for the purpose of creating character or moving the story along. That said, Kim Criswell and William Dazeley sing them better than anyone, even if I have a soft spot for the young Elaine Stritch’s “actor/singer” interpretations on the original Broadway cast album.

Leonard Slatkin understands Anderson’s style perfectly, and elicits consistently superb playing from the BBC Concert Orchestra. You’ll never hear the demanding brass antiphony in Bugler’s Holiday tossed off with such brisk insouciance, or such euphonious soft woodwind tuttis in The Phantom Regiment. However, certain performances on Slatkin’s earlier St. Louis Symphony Anderson collection have the edge, such as Plink, Plank, Plunk!, where the St. Louis pizzicato strings are crisper and cleaner than their BBC counterparts. And nothing beats the sheer joy and nervous energy of Anderson’s own performances that were briefly available on CD in MCA’s Double Decker series; these are desperately in need of reissue. But this is nitpicking. In all, the Naxos Slatkin/Anderson cycle does full and loving justice to one of America’s most beloved and enduring composers.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: This one; Slatkin (RCA); Anderson (MCA)

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