Piston's "French" Symphony
Thomas F. Bertonneau | Oswego, NY United States | 06/06/2001
(4 out of 5 stars)
"How to place Walter Piston (1894-1976)? He bears mentioning in company with Roy Harris and William Schuman and wrote music as meritorious as that of Peter Mennin or David Diamond. But why, on the other hand, has he enjoyed greater currency than Paul Creston or Nicolas Flagello? (He belonged, as did they, to the East Coast Italian-American coterie of serious composers.) The answer might lie in the consistency of Piston's considerable production. Harris made a big impression with his Third and Seventh Symphonies, Schuman with his Third and Sixth. While any given individual symphony by Piston might seem less distinctive than Harris' Third or Schuman's Sixth, Piston's symphonic oeuvre excels that of Harris or Schuman in overall merit. As for Creston and Flagello - each wore his heart on his sleeve; Piston, by contrast, reserved his emotions. Repressing any Italianate impulse for expression that he might have felt thus endeared Piston to Brahmin sensibility for whom, as a Bostonian and a Harvard professor, he composed. People likely know Piston best by his Second Symphony (1943), with its jazzy second subject in the First Movement. The Third (1947), not nearly as current as the Second or the Fourth, has received only one recording prior to James Yannatos' interpretation on the Albany disc. Howard Hanson committed it to monophonic master-tape for release on a Mercury LP in the mid-1950s. That item of the Mercury catalogue has unfortunately never made it to CD. With Yannatos' performance, we have an opportunity to catch up with the score. John Canarina once wrote of Piston that "he was one of the American composers who made the trip to Paris to study with the by now legendary Nadia Boulanger" and added that his music showed "a particularly Gallic fastidiousness of workmanship... in which every note tells." In the Third Symphony, it is more than just the "fastidiousness" of the music that speaks in a French accent. The slow First Movement (Andantino), for example, raises the simple elegance of that Satiesque genre, the Gymnopédie, to the level of symphonic seriousness. I have remembered this movement vividly from the old Hanson recording since I last listened to it over twenty years ago. Piston dedicated the Third to the memory of Natalie Koussevitsky. I'd bet that it's also an homage, a requiem, to Boulanger and to the French ethos. The First Movement certainly gives the impression of commemorating tragic events, like the French defeat and the cultural and spiritual havoc wreaked by the Nazi occupation (not to mention the Vichy Government) on "la belle France." The Second and Fourth Movements revert, however, to an American style. Indeed the Finale comes as close to Copland as Piston would ever get, not quite rodeo-like but mildly rollicking in a nuancedly "out west" sort of way. The disc includes two substantial works by Yannatos, his own Third Symphony (1989) and his Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra (1995). Quartet Concertos are not in oversupply. Julian Orbón wrote one; Bohuslav Martinu (of course) wrote one. So (I think) did Benjamin Lees. It's a tricky proposition to involve all four soloists in a meaningful way and to balance the concertino against the ripieno, but Yannatos does it persuasively, weaving in a chorale from Bach's E-Major Violin Partita and motifs from Beethoven's Opus 74 and Opus 135. The Symphony, like the Concerto, speaks a straight-forward language, sometimes quite warm and sweet, related to that of Piston; the Symphony also works in allusions to Bach and Beethoven. Tight performances from the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra and from the Mendelssohn String Quartet. Highly recommended for both Piston and Yannatos."
Get it for the Piston Symphony
R. Lieblich | Arlington, VA USA | 07/28/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I'll try not to repeat what Mr. Bertonneau posted several years ago, but some additional points might be useful.
The Piston symphony is my favorite from among his eight and deservedly won the Pulitzer prize the year it was published. To me, the most important and persuasive movement is the third, slow like the first, which is a near-lament that never tips over into bathos. The fourth movement is perhaps a bit too populistic, in the manner of some of the finales of Shostakovich's symphonies, but it's good of kind. I, too, grew up with the Hanson recording, but it's in hissy mono and not really all that much of a performance. And frankly, this Yannatos performance, though satisfactory, also leaves a bit to be desired. Someone sent me a tape of a long-ago Boston Symphony performance (probably recorded off-air) that really captured the broad emotional range of this symphony. It's a revelation -- but don't expect ever to see it on the market.
Maybe some day a major American orchestra will give this symphony the recording it truly deserves. Meanwhile, we should be grateful to Yannatos for this undertaking. And let's not begrudge his piggy-backing a couple of his own works on the CD with the Piston. They are substantial compositions and quite enjoyable in their own right. If they seem lesser works in the context of Piston's Third, so do a lot of other better-known compositions. Piston set a very high standard in this symphony.
In today's market you can never be sure of the continued availability of any recording, certainly not this one. If you've read this far and haven't read Mr. Bertonneau, please do so. Then BUY THIS DISC."
Oliver Frick | Oxnard, CA United States | 01/06/2007
(4 out of 5 stars)
"This was my favorite Piston symphony when I bought the LP. Since then I have collected all the other symphonies of Piston but never found this on CD until recently. It's fairly simple music. The first movement reminds me of Harris. But the last movement has so much rythm, it is a fine ending."