Gould: Concerto Grosso, Formations, Cinerama Holiday / Schwarz, Seattle Symphony

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An enjoyable reissue offering glimpses of some of the many sides of an underrated composer. The music of Morton Gould is rarely, if ever, boring....
An enjoyable reissue offering glimpses of some of the many sides of an underrated composer.

The music of Morton Gould is rarely, if ever, boring. He seems to have been equally happy, and equally proficient, whether writing for the concert hall or a TV series, for Broadway or for a marching band, whether providing the music for a film or a ballet or, indeed, demonstration pieces for new audio systems. In all these and more genres he wrote prolifically and inventively, with remarkable fertility. He also had a gift for recycling his own music, so that music written for one medium served as the material for works in another idiom or genre. In doing so he was continuing a long and distinguished tradition, doing nothing more than many a great baroque composer, for example, had done before him. In his willingness to write with equal commitment both ‘pure’ and ‘functional’ music there was also something of the baroque about his attitude - such thoughts are prompted by the fact that the most substantial piece on this rather bitty anthology of his work is his Concerto Grosso which is, in some ways, an archetypal Gould composition, with its successful fusion of musical languages. Always omnivorously eclectic, Gould had a remarkable capacity to create coherence out of his eclecticism.
In 1952 Gould was commissioned to write the music for a new ballet, to be choreographed by the great George Balanchine. For a whole lot of reasons - none of them Gould’s fault - the ballet never materialised. Undeterred, Gould mined the various drafts he had written for the ballet - which, after many transformations, was to be about the great American painter of birds, John James Audubon, with whom Balanchine had a great fascination - to produce no fewer than ten (!) works for the concert hall. Among the best of these was this Concerto Grosso for four violins and orchestra. Its four movements - Prelude and fugue, Air, Variations, Rondo - are approximately baroque in shape, but the materials are quintessentially American. Gould described the work as “a transformation of hoedown tunes”. The result is striking and satisfying, tuneful, rhythmically intriguing and unexpected, full of harmonic surprises. The outer movements are rapid and often - especially in the first movement - refreshingly astringent; the central movements are slower, the second tenderly lyrical with a long and attractive melodic line over a pizzicato accompaniment, the third a scherzo both wistful and playful. This is the undoubted highlight of the disc.
The only other complete work included is Formations Suite, written for the University of Florida Marching Band. Its eight short movements are full of invention, from a splendidly festive and fanfaric opening to the delightful lilt and rhythmic shifts of its final movement; in between Gould’s use of silence (as in Slink) is very effective, and everywhere the use of percussion is beautifully judged; Alma Mater has a pleasing dignity and Twirling Blues some sinuous phrasing and sophisticated harmonies. This is a thoroughly enjoyable piece which Elliot Feld made use of in his 1978 ballet Half-Time.
Elsewhere, somewhat frustratingly, we get only excerpts and individual movements, though some of them are rewarding. Best-known is the Pavanne from the second of Gould’s American Symphonettes. This arrangement features the muted trumpet of the excellent Jeffrey Silberschlag, who catches its mood very well, with Gerard Schwarz drawing some politely jazz-inflected playing from the Seattle Symphony. Still, the piece undoubtedly sounds better when heard in the context provided by the two other movements of the Symphonette. Silberschlag is also given a prominent solo role in much of the rest of the music on the CD. The music of Cinerama Holiday was written at the introduction of Cinerama, when Gould was commissioned to write music to accompany a demonstration film, a travelogue. From his score he later created a suite of fifteen movements, only two of which are played here. Souvenirs of Paris and On the Boulevard again reflect Gould’s magpie-like eclecticism, with their echoes of Françaix, Milhaud and Gershwin, echoes which never entirely swamp his own voice and manner, since Gould speaks his French with an American accent. Three tracks are devoted to excerpts from music Gould wrote for a CBS television documentary on World War I. The Prologue and Drum Waltz is evocative of a society sliding into war, waltzing its way onto the battlefield with an initially romantic idea of what war might be like, the interplay of rhythms beautifully crafted; Sad Song - where Silberschlag plays particularly well - makes one think of Hans Eisler and Kurt Weill, bringing to mind a kind of cabaret of melancholy. Royal Hunt is contrastingly upbeat - one wonders what images it accompanied. Another TV series for which Gould wrote the score was Holocaust, which many will remember from the 1970s. Again we are given just two excerpts from the music, Theme and Elegy - once more heard in Gould’s arrangement for trumpet and orchestra - and in both pieces Silberschlag’s trumpet is poignant and lyrical. Better than any of these, however, is the Interlude from Festive Music, a three movement work written for the Tri-Cities Orchestra of Davenport, Iowa. Again we are missing the outer movements; what we have is Silberschlag playing a slow moving melody of great poignancy over the strings of the orchestra in a recreation of that distinctively American quality of loneliness, of the human dwarfed by the landscape.
This CD was previously issued on Delos DE3166. It is an enjoyable, if at times slightly frustrating, sampler of Gould, concentrating more on his ‘popular’ than his ‘classical’ side (when issued on Delos it was called The Music of Morton Gould, but above that the cover read ‘Film and TV hits including CINERAMA HOLIDAY’). Probably no single CD could adequately represent so heterogeneous a composer, but there’s plenty to be going on with here, plenty to enjoy.
-- Glyn Pursglove, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Release Date: May 29, 2012

  • UPC: 636943971529

  • Catalog Number: 8559715

  • Label: Naxos

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Morton Gould

  • Conductor: Gerard Schwarz

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

  • Performer: Jeff Silberschlag, John Weller, Maria Larionoff, Mariel Bailey, Mikhail Schmidt