Fans of the classic Mercury recordings of the Eastman Wind Ensemble under Frederick Fennell, along with longtime players in concert bands, are likely to know the name of the Philadelphia-born Vittorio Giannini, whose Symphony No. 3 is an admired staple of the symphonic wind ensemble. Naxos (which recorded that work in 2006) now offers us a chance to hear a pair of true rarities: an early Piano Concerto from 1934 and the Fourth of five numbered symphonies, premiered in 1960. Neither seems to have been played since its premiere, until the ever-zealous Naxos producers recorded the present performances. The works provide an interesting contrast in styles: though composed 25 years apart, their musical idioms make them seem considerably more distant from each other. While neither is likely to enter the standard repertory, fans of the Romantic piano concerto will certainly want to check out Giannini's contribution, and the Fourth Symphony is a fine addition to the imposing but far too neglected body of mid-20th-century American symphonies.
Composed in 1934, the piano concerto was premiered in 1937 by no less than Rosalyn Tureck (later a famous Bach specialist) with Leon Barzin leading his National Orchestral Association. It got respectable reviews, Olin Downes in the New York Times finding it "significant of an unmistakable talent... a very creditable piece of work," and the New Yorker critic enjoying its "opulence and expansiveness" and its "orchestral coloring... warm and vivid," as quoted in Walter Simmons' program notes for Naxos. But it became a lost work, until conductor Daniel Spalding's considerable research in library archives. Pianist Gabriela Imreh (Spalding's wife, incidentally), contributing her own note to Naxos, raves about the "heady, passionate score" with its "fearless, youthful energy, abandon, and an irresistible feel of technical danger," its "themes that are haunting and beautiful — at times heart-wrenchingly so," with a "luscious richness of the harmonic palette" recalling "the intoxication of young love" and yet with "complex architectural lines" holding it all together.
Imreh certainly plays with abandon and commitment to the concerto, a grand-scale (41-minute) 3-movement work in the Romantic tradition. The Naxos back cover calls it "redolent of Rachmaninov," but it's really much more late-19th Century in style than the Russian master's works, and there is nothing as immediately arresting as the opening of Rachmaninov's First Concerto, let alone the astonishing originalities of his later three. Still, there is a great deal to enjoy in Giannini's work. Some listeners might find some of the elaborate passage work and even a couple of the "big themes" a bit banal rather than thrilling — a bit more going through the gestures of the late-Romantic piano concerto rather than dazzlingly original. But there are some memorable tunes — including the grandly somber opening theme and a sweet slow-movement melody first elaborated by the pianist, then picked up by solo winds, then given the grand treatment. And there is a considerable amount of swagger, carried out with panache by both the soloist and Spalding's forces, well recorded by Naxos' engineers, though I would have preferred to hear more distinct wind lines behind the piano sound at times.
The Fourth Symphony, written in 1959, was first performed by Jean Morel and the Julliard Orchestra. (Giannini taught composition at Julliard for many years before becoming founding president of the North Carolina School of the Arts in the early 1960s.) It's a compact 23-minute work in three movements, most of its musical material derived from an opening 12-note theme, including all notes of the chromatic scale, as Simmons points out, though the piece is not in any strict way a 12-tone (serial) composition in the Schoenberg manner. Though this theme, "restless and tonally vague," moodily opens the piece, the work is overall quite tonal and should appeal to listeners who enjoy, say, the symphonies of David Diamond or Walter Piston. The slow movement is quite lovely, with its clarinet and French horn duet to open, a passionate full-orchestra climax, and a violin and oboe duet near the end. Listeners might hear an occasional echo of Howard Hanson or perhaps Samuel Barber. The finale has a scherzo rhythm but its dramatic climax returns us to the material of the slow movement, before a fleet ending. It might be revelatory to hear the work performed by one of the great American orchestras, but the Bournemouth Symphony under Spalding acquits itself very well indeed.