American Classics - Gallagher: Orchestral Music / Falletta, London Symphony

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GALLAGHER Diversions Overture. Berceuse. Sinfonietta for String Orchestra. Symphony in One Movement, “Threnody” JoAnn Falletta, cond; London SO NAXOS 8559652 (63:47)

For those who do not know about Jack Gallagher and the genesis of this recording, I refer you to the feature/interview elsewhere in this issue. The four works offered here are an overview of most the American composer’s career so far, from the 1977 Berceuse , written when he was 30 years old, to the Sinfonietta, completed in 2007 and revised the next year.

There probably is no better introduction to Gallagher’s beautifully crafted, accessible music than Diversions Overture , the opener for this CD. The concert overture seems to evoke the open prairies of the old West, complete with sunrise, sunset, and the excitement of discovery. I mean no irony; it is very much in the style of the American school created by Aaron Copland and Gallagher’s first composition teacher, Elie Siegmeister. If there is any irony, it is that Copland and Siegmeister were city boys from New York, and Gallagher was, too, before he took his university job in Wooster, Ohio. It doesn’t matter. In 1986, when Gallagher wrote this, he showed himself a natural heir to the style that his predecessors created. There is poignancy, explosive energy, good-natured humor (love those harp interjections in the middle section), and a warm-hearted directness that is tremendously engaging. This is a feel-good music in the very best sense of the expression.

On the other hand, the earlier Berceuse is so beautiful it could make you cry. How many times does a critic get to say that when reviewing a piece by a living composer? And it works because there is no sense that the composer is trying to make that happen. As is true of all of Gallagher’s music, there is unaffected honesty, the sense of being allowed to look into the composer’s heart. This gentle little lullaby, based on a piano work written for the daughter of friends, is one of Gallagher’s most played and recorded works. I have not heard it better done.

Originally a set of two pieces for orchestra, and expanded in to a full five-movement suite in 2007, the Sinfonietta is occasionally reminiscent of chamber-orchestra works by British composers like Moeran. At other times Britten’s more anxious string works are brought to mind. This is a different side of Gallagher’s art, emotionally more contained—though no less vigorous—and sparer in sound. Throughout there are surprises: an unexpected interval, an unusually timed rhythmic pattern, or a chord that deliciously refuses to resolve. In the Intrada, he uses the octatonic (diminished) scale to create a feeling of uneasy anticipation. In the Intermezzo he frames the melancholy, slowly shifting movement with a concertante opening and closing that is like murmured conversation against the sound of the night. The lively, slightly unsettling central Argentinean Malambo serves as a scherzo, but the bustle never seems joke-like. The Pavane is reminiscent of the Berceuse of 30 years previous, though now the innocence is bittersweet, and the gentleness a touch reserved. The pizzicato opening of the concluding Rondo Concertante brings us back to English pastoral, and the folk dance. Throughout there is a quality of understatement that is deceptive, as greater familiarity with the work reveals a deep complexity that isn’t immediately apparent; very like getting to know the composer, and very moving.

So is Gallagher’s Symphony in One Movement, subtitled “Threnody.” Written, in part, in memory of his mother, who died unexpectedly during its composition, this is understandably the darkest of the works here. The opening section may well remind you of Shostakovich’s wrenching adagios, and echoes of Bernard Hermann will come later, but the way this lament explodes into sudden anger in the second part is clearly Gallagher’s usual kinetic energy, agonized and held too long in check. It subsides eventually, played out in sinister snatches of manic solo violin, and racing piano chromatics, and the roaring of the brass. An eerie harp cadenza provides a release, but no sense of consolation, and the work dissolves into a fractured madness of spent rage and poignant remembrances before collapsing into despair.

As I have said before, this is a most welcome release of some absolutely fantastic music. It is not cutting-edge, nor self-consciously emotive as some neoromantic music is. It is richly and directly communicative. Naxos is to be commended for offering an opportunity to hear these four major works by a composer who richly deserves to be better known. JoAnn Falletta clearly loves these pieces, and brings them vividly to life. The LSO—need I say this?—plays with great conviction and energy. Only an occasional unevenness of ensemble in the swirling figurations of the Sinfonietta, or a moment or two of tentativeness in the brass, hint at any lack of familiarity. The sound is lovely, fully capturing the bloom of that great Abbey Road Studio One. Urgently recommended.

FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames

On evidence here, Jack Gallagher (b. 1947) is a composer of considerable ability. He wrote the notes to this release, not necessarily a good idea, since they read like a job resume and have about as much personality as stale bread, but the music happily says otherwise. The two big works, the Sinfonietta for strings and the Symphony "Threnody", have considerable substance. Among the five movements of the former work is an Argentine Malambo (think of the final dance of Ginastera's ballet Estancia), and a very good one too. The symphony manages the difficult task in a modern work of being turbulent and emotionally affecting without ever sounding petulant or gratuitously miserable. It's also very cogently structured in one movement, part of a long and distinguished lineage stretching back through Samuel Barber and Roy Harris to the Seventh Symphony of Sibelius.

Diversions Overture opens with some lovely modal harmonies in the woodwinds, and for a moment you might feel that you are listening to a lost work from the English pastoral school--not quite Vaughan Williams, but possibly E.J. Moeran or John Ireland. Gallagher's individuality soon reasserts itself, however, in the music's quick sections. The Berceuse is a slight but pretty little intermezzo.

As you may have guessed, this music is harmonically traditional and falls gratefully on the ear, but it never comes across as merely facile or clichéd. JoAnn Falletta and the London Symphony play it all with notable confidence and technical security, as we have every right to expect, and they've been well recorded at Abbey Road Studios. Gallagher is definitely worth getting to know.

--David Hurwitz,

Product Description:

  • Release Date: September 28, 2010

  • Catalog Number: 8559652

  • UPC: 636943965221

  • Label: Naxos

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Jack Gallagher

  • Conductor: JoAnn Falletta

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: London Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra members