Still Afro-American Symphony; Beach Gaelic Symphony

Author: 
Andrew Achenbach

Still Afro-American Symphony; Beach Gaelic Symphony

  • Symphony, 'Gaelic'
  • Symphony No. 1, 'Afro-American'

I must say I’ve enjoyed renewing acquaintance with Amy Beach’s fine Gaelic Symphony of 1896, whose nobly elegant progress, sumptuous orchestration and resourceful use of Irish folk melodies ‘of simple, rugged and unpretentious beauty’ (to quote its creator) were relished to the full by Neeme Jarvi and the Detroit SO on their exemplary 1991 Chandos account. Karl Krueger, founder of the Society for the Preservation of the American Musical Heritage (for which he masterminded this pioneering pairing), draws a sturdy, mostly enthusiastic response from the RPO, but he makes damaging cuts in both the opening Allegro con fuoco (why truncate the recapitulation so?) and finale, and it would be foolish to pretend that the performance seriously challenges its digital successor in terms of intoxicating sheen and affectionate sensitivity. The 1968 sound is still pretty vivid but tends to tire the ear after a while.
Fortunately, Krueger makes a far better fist of William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony of 1930 (a landmark composition, being the first symphony by a black American composer), and his approach contrasts strikingly with that of Jarvi (who is, again, the only current rival). The latter takes a comparatively lightweight view of this endearing music (and gets some superbly svelte playing into the bargain); Krueger is far more patient (his overall timing is 30 minutes as against Jarvi’s 24), earthier and altogether more probing than our prolific Estonian, especially in the gravely poignant second-movement Adagio (subtitled ‘Sorrow’). Rhythmically the RPO may be a little stiff by the side of its transatlantic counterparts, but its hard-working strings extract just that crucial bit more passion and pain from Still’s bluesy inspiration. The 1965 recording is more pleasing than in the Beach Symphony: sonorities are less hard-edged and more full-bodied. An enterprising reissue, certainly, if perhaps only partially successful.'

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