On record: Morton Gould – The Complete Chicago Symphony Orchestra Recordings (RCA)

morton-gould

RCA bring together six discs of largely unavailable recordings made by composer / conductor Morton Gould and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra between 1965 and 1968. The varied repertoire ranges from Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov to Ives and Gould himself.

What’s the music like?

Colourful. If you want a slightly random introduction to some very different styles of 20th century music then this is an excellent place to start. Charles Ives heads the bill, with the fiercely patriotic Three Places In New England and bracing Symphony no.2 exploring hometown themes in modernist settings.

Nielsen’s Symphony no.2, The Four Temperaments, is revealed as an emotional tour de force, while Gould’s own Spirituals are heart on sleeve and all the better for it. From the previous century comes a selection of Tchaikovsky waltzes and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Antar Symphony, whose insistence on an exceptionally catchy tune burns it into your consciousness.

Does it all work?

Yes. These are edge-of-the-seat performances. One of the shortest pieces here, William Schuman’s orchestration of Ives’ Variations on America, is also one of the most entertaining and humourous. The Russian repertoire is punchy and powerful, and including a rare performance of Myaskovsky’s Symphony no.21 a bonus, but it is the bigger Ives works that make this set so worthwhile.

The Three Places In New England are brilliantly played, bringing the homespun melodies through the complicated but invigorating textures, while the two symphonies make the strongest possible impact – even the first, where Ives was still writing conventionally. Here it is fresh and charming, channelling the spirit of Dvořák. If you have not heard the Symphony no.2 before, make sure you listen right to the end, as there is a surprise in store!

Is it recommended?

Yes. It’s a bargain – and nicely packaged too, with RCA using the original artwork and some interesting documentation of a brief but meaningful relationship between conductor and orchestra.

Listen on Spotify

You can judge for yourself by hearing the album on Spotify here:

Road Trip

Featured recording: Aurora Orchestra – Road Trip (Warner Classics)
road-trip

In which London’s Aurora Orchestra head for the open prairies of America, sampling folk and pop song in between modern classical music from John Adams, Charles Ives and Aaron Copland. The folk and pop arrangements are done by Nico Muhly.

What’s the music like?

Very accessible. There are folk tunes arranged by Nico Muhly, who has worked with US bands like Grizzly Bear in the past, as well as establishing himself as a talented composer blending a love of old church music with a tuneful modern style, and the orchestra’s viola player Max Baillie,

The classical pieces are nicely contrasted – from the hectic Chamber Symphony by Adams to the luminous Appalachian Spring, Copland’s ballet. This features American folk tunes in fresh, open-air orchestral scoring, peaking with an arrangement of the song Simple Gifts.

Added to these we have a piece by Ives, The Housatonic at Stockbridge, taken from his Three Places In New England. Ives is incredibly difficult to describe, as he operates with so many different orchestral styles, but there are always tunes – and the slow beginning to this piece brings a tear to the eye.

Does it all work?

By and large, yes. The performances are excellent, expertly marshalled by Nicholas Collon, and are closely recorded to get the intimacy of the Copland in particular. The Adams is brisk and punchy – a good listen while running, no doubt! – and has bags of rhythmic interest. The Ives is unlike anything else, though, packing into its short duration a lifetime’s worth of feeling.

Sam Amidon and Dawn Landes sings the folksongs well but I found Nico Muhly’s orchestrations had too much going on – in part a deliberate tactic from the composer – but the ear was often distracted from the tunes themselves. The subjects are a bit macabre, too – especially The Brown Girl, with its dark tales of death and divorce.

Is it recommended?

Yes, overall. The Aurora Orchestra do these sort of themed presentations very well, and as a starting point for modern American music this can be either self-contained or open out into further exploration of the composers on the disc.

Listen on Spotify