Barber: Symphony No. 1
Copland: Appalachian Spring
Higdon: blue cathedral
Theofanidis: Rainbow Body
Review by Karl Lozier
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CD Number: Telarc CD-80596
This review is developing in a somewhat unusual way. Though the disc's title is
Rainbow Body it is very obvious that the first composer listed is the well-known American composer Samuel Barber. There is certainly a reason why his well-known name tops this list of four American composers. I am, however, deliberately starting off with
As time erodes many things it becomes evident that it is possible to at least temporarily become sated or tired of old and familiar things. Why, is not important, or it may be important that we are either created or develop that way. Perhaps you, as I, often knowingly or not, are searching for something new in the arena of classical music composition. Here then is something new. It would be rare if you have heard
Rainbow Body previously unless your good fortune allows you to attend performances of a good symphony orchestra whose director has the foresight to program new American compositions. This relatively short composition (almost thirteen minutes) has intrigued and fascinated me while whetting my appetite for more. I hope you wind up as enamored as I have with repeated hearings, almost demanding more. The scoring is a bit unusual if you pay attention to such things. It is scored for three flutes, three oboes, three clarinets, three bassoons, three trumpets in C, three trombones (do you notice a bit of a pattern developing here?), but four horns, a tuba, piano, harp, timpani and strings.
Composer Theofanidis has been listening to and influenced by the medieval mystic Hildegard von Bingen whose music was composed in the twelfth century! She received great notoriety a very few years ago and all classical music lovers have probably heard some of her music. Here I am taking the easy way as I am unable to improve on the composer's description of
Rainbow Body and I now quote some of his comments, "Hildegard's melodies, simple and direct, have very memorable contours which set them apart from other chants of the period. They are very sensual and intimate, a kind of communication with the divine. This work is based on one of her chants, "Ave Maria, Oautrix
vite" (Hail Mary, source of life).
Rainbow Body begins in an understated, mysterious manner (very beautifully so in my opinion,
K.L.) calling attention to some of the key intervals and motives of the piece. It has a very different sensibility from the Hildegard chant, with a structure that is dramatic and developmental, but I hope that it conveys at least a little of my love for the beauty and grace of her work." That should be sufficient to entice our gentle and inquiring readers. Spano's conducting seems to bring the score to life with beauty, melody and power and the accompanying sound quality is essentially "as good as it gets".
Jennifer Higdon describes her composition blue cathedral (no capitalization, I know not why)" as blue-like the sky, where all possibilities soar. Cathedrals - a place of thought, growth, spiritual expression serving as a symbolic doorway into and out of this world. Blue represents all potential and the progression of journeys. Cathedrals represent a place of beginnings, endings, solitude, fellowship, contemplation, knowledge, and growth. As I was writing this piece I found myself imagining a journey through a glass cathedral in the sky. The recent loss of my brother, Andrew Blue, made me reflect on the amazing journeys that we all make in our lives, learning and growing each step of the way. In tribute to my brother, I feature solos for the clarinet (the instrument he played) and the flute (the instrument I play)".
The flute is heard first near the beginning of this attractive composition, blue
cathedral. Near the end as the instruments continue their interplay and dialogue, the flute drops out and the clarinet continues as in that upward journey that Hidgon mentions in my quotation of the cathedral's doorway into and out of this world. This work grew on me as I listened to it repeatedly though it had not intrigued me as quickly as
Rainbow Body had. I certainly sensed most of the emotions she mentioned in my quotations of her, particularly solitude, contemplation, journeys and growth. Indeed, I eventually came to appreciate it almost equally as with
Theofanidis. How fortunate we are to have Telarc present us with two new compositions that should have great appeal and staying power. Try to get your local symphonic orchestra to program both of these this jewels in the near future. In the meantime, enjoy both with this particularly fine recording.
Now for the first of the two well known American composers on this disc, Samuel
Barber. He wrote this, his first symphony when he twenty-five years old. He had won the Pulitzer Fellowship and the American Prix de Rome. The latter prize enabled him to study in Rome where he wrote his initial symphony. He then had the distinction of being the first American composer to have a work performed by the legendary Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony. If you are relatively new to the world of classical music enjoyment you need to find out about Arturo Toscanini (and that NBC group also) or your background will always be sorely lacking. There are quite a few concertgoers that believe that certain compositions have never been performed better than Toscanini's efforts. Very few are available in even fairly good sound quality unfortunately.
Barber has never become famous for his symphonies. In fact, in much of the musical world little regard is given to American symphony composers. Probably Aaron Copland and Roy Harris come closest to grudging respect from the rest of the world. It is okay for Dvorak to write a nationalistic symphony with roots in Americana ("New World Symphony", #9), but not an American. Barber's beginnings were in the vocal realm as he studied voice and gave Lieder recitals and so on. It would be expected that with a singer's background that many of his compositions would contain flowing and sustained melodies. This does often become obvious in many of his compositions but not to a great degree in this symphony. The symphony is relatively short (just a bit over twenty minutes) time wise and short movement-wise (only one instead of the traditional four). That single continuous movement does contain four sections. So what is the difference? Really none, just more "modern" that way while containing at least three themes. It is a propulsive, outgoing work without being overly aggressive. It is a bit of an orchestral showcase and conductor Spano does not hold back in any manner. If you are not familiar with Samuel Barber, perhaps a better introduction would be his even shorter work,
Adagio for Strings. It is a truly beautiful work with a sustained melody as would be expected of a composer who is a vocalist at heart.
Copland is one of possibly three people eligible for the title of "America's greatest composer". He was prolific and far ranging, composing vocal music to opera, solo instrumental to concertos to symphonies and large-scale ballet music based on Americana such as
Rodeo and Billy the Kid. His melodies are often known for and recognized by their simplicity -
Fanfare for the Common Man is a fine example. Internationally Copland is far and away best known for his ballet music,
Appalachian Spring. For anyone interested, simply go to Enjoy the
section, then click on music and scroll down to find Copland (various works with Minnesota Orchestra) Reference Recording
label [RR 93CD]. I gained a degree of notoriety by discovering/figuring out that there must be at least four different versions or suites of his
Appalachian Spring as I researched Copland for that review article. Briefly, books and most musicologists ascribe two versions to the composition. The first, "the original" version was arranged for thirteen instrumentalist - period. The following year Copland arranged the better passages into an orchestral suite for full symphony orchestra, which won the Pulitzer Prize for 1945 - period.
Eventually the entire original score was arranged for full orchestra but not noted in most musical reference books - that made for three versions. I uncovered at least one more version that stirred up a controversy with some musicologists and recording company officials. The author of Aaron Copland's biography, "The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man" Howard Pollack got into the fray and vindicated me by stating that there were even more than the four versions I had found. Enjoy this fine version on Telarc with fine conducting, recording and performance - true for the entire CD of four composers. The Reference Recording of
Appalachian Spring is an extremely competitive version but does not contain any performances of the other works found on this Telarc recording. As you realize by now, my top recommendation accolade goes to this fine recording and as become common with Telarc the clean and powerful reproduction of the tympani and clarity of the percussion instruments is particularly noteworthy. The SACD layer does offer even smoother, sweeter and subtly more detailed sound than the regular CD layer of this hybrid recording. It does not offer surround sound for some unknown reason.