CD Reviews

Music Library Reviews: William Grant Still, Florence B. Price, Xavier Montsalvatge

In this series, Classical 91.7's music librarian Chris Hathaway reviews new additions to our ever-growing CD library. This month, Chris reviews two important new recordings of music by African-American composers and an exciting new disc of music by Spanish composer Xavier Montsalvatge.

WILLIAM GRANT STILL: Wood Notes (1947).  Symphony No. 2 in g minor, The Song of a New Race (1937).  Symphony No. 3, The Sunday Symphony (1958).  John Jeter conducting the Fort Smith Symphony. Naxos 8.559676

A hallmark of the music and musical thought of African-American composer William Grant Still (1895-1978) was his steadfast commitment to tonality and, in a kind of personal manifesto penned in 1950, a no less resolute commitment to musical form.  His friend and contemporary Howard Hanson shared those ideals; indeed, Hanson took responsibility for the first performances of many Still scores. 

William Grant Still Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3, Wood NotesThis recording is the final installment in a Still orchestral cycle by John Jeter (rhymes with better, not Peter) and the Fort Smith (Arkansas) Symphony.  It includes the first recording of Wood Notes (1947), a four-movement orchestral suite evocative of the forest, embodying Still’s mostly folk-oriented idiom.  The orchestra plays musically, with great unity of ensemble and a fine sense of phrasing, dynamics and blending, and with a great deal of assurance.  This is very expressive and colorful music, with many solos within the orchestra and many shades of piano to mezzo-piano.  It is the kind of playing a first hearing deserves.  Why no one undertook to record Wood Notes in the more than sixty years since it was completed is incomprehensible.  It is an expansive and fascinating aspect of Still the miniaturist.

Jeter and his forces are no less sympathetic in the two symphonies presented here.  The first movement proper of Song of a New Race has a wonderfully relaxed impetus, and Jeter admirably holds the brass—which, by their nature, have a tendency to penetrate rather than to blend—in check. Brass are more important to Still as a means of expression than percussion, and a lyrical element dominates his work.  He reserves the percussion battery for the last movement. The second movement of this second symphony is an intricately developed sonata movement disguised as a song. Each of the four movements seems to flow into the one after it.  Still came to his lyrical style by way of a variety of disparate influences: teachers as dissimilar as George W. Chadwick and Edgar Varèse, jobs as an arranger and boyhood exposure to generous doses of both “serious” music and early jazz. 

Twenty-one years separate the second and third symphonies.  The style, melodic and harmonic language are still the same.  Again, Jeter and his forces offer a completely sympathetic reading with careful attention to everything that makes for a good orchestral performance. 


FLORENCE B. PRICE: Concerto in one movement for piano and orchestra (1934).  Karen Walwyn, piano; with the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble conducted by Leslie B. Dunner.  Symphony No. 1 in e minor (1933).  Dunner and the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble.  Albany 1295.

Chicago-based composer Florence Price (1887-1953) was born in Arkansas and took both an Artist’s Diploma in organ and a teaching diploma in piano from New England Conservatory in Boston. For a few years, she held teaching positions in the South and briefly returned to her native Little Rock before moving to Chicago in 1927.  She amassed an impressive catalogue of over 300 compositions — works in all media except opera — and wrote songs and made arrangements of African-American spirituals that were featured by luminaries like tenor Roland Hayes, contralto Marian Anderson and soprano Leontyne Price.  She was an acknowledged prominent figure in Chicago’s musical life while she was still alive.   Today, she is a neglected composer who is coming back into her own.

Both works on this CD were premièred in Chicago—the concerto with the composer as soloist; shortly after that, there was another performance with Price’s protégée Margaret Bonds (a composer in her own right) as soloist.   A problem in reviving this concerto was that no one apparently performed this concerto after the 1930s and, worse still, there were no copies of Price’s manuscript of the orchestral score to be found.  The Center for Black Music Research commissioned composer Trevor Weston to reconstruct the orchestration, which was presented a year ago in Chicago with pianist Karen Walwyn, the soloist in this recording. 

Florence Price’s style is unabashedly romantic and (to an extent) self-consciously Afro-centric, though she is not as intimate with jazz idioms as William Grant Still.  The concerto begins somberly in d minor and concludes in B-flat with a vigorous dance-finale that seems to have been inspired by an antebellum folk dance called Juba.  Walwyn plays with a virtuosity and spirit entirely appropriate to the music.  The orchestra is first-rate. There are more than a few echoes of Dvorák in the music.  What is more important is that the score shows that Price herself was a fine pianist, although she is remembered primarily as an organist.  She also wrote more than capably for orchestra.

Price’s first symphony was the first-prize winner of the Rodman Wanamaker Music Contest in 1932.  It was presented for the first time the following year by Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony.  She had considered naming it Negro Symphony, but decided against it, believing that any extramusical associations would draw attention away from the work’s purely musical and artistic aims.  There are some more echoes of Dvorák; at the same time, there is the unmistakable presence of a skilled and wholly professional hand at work.  The second (slow) movement begins with a brass chorale which metamorphoses into a full-blown sonata movement. The third movement – a symphonic scherzo — seems to be another evocation of the Juba dance, with whistling ad lib. not quite in the manner of Leopold Mozart’s Bauernhochzeit symphony.  The finale is a vigorous minor-mode tarantella­-type piece in rondo form.  Dunner and the orchestra give a magnificent account of themselves.


XAVIER MONTSALVATGE: Poema concertante for violin and orchestra.  Rachel Barton Pine, violin; with the North German Radio Philharmonie (NDR Philharmonie) conducted by Celso Artunes.  Cinco canciones negras.  Lucia Duchonová, mezzo-soprano; with Artunes and the NDR Philharmonie.  A la española from Tres danzas concertantes.  Artunes and the NDR Philharmonie.  Concerto breve for piano and orchestra.  Jenny Lin, piano; with Artunes and the NDR Philharmonie.  Hänssler 98.642.

Xavier Montsalvatge's Canciones and ConciertosThe music of Catalan composer Xavier Montsalvatge (1912-2002) has plenty of “kick” to it, plenty of virtuosity, expressivity and dynamism, and he always had a knack of saying what he had to say without an excess of musical verbiage.  Violinist Rachel Barton Pine is an apt choice to resurrect Montsalvatge’s Poema concertante, a work requested by Polish-born, Mexican-by-adoption virtuoso Henryk Szerying as an alternative to Ernest Chausson’s Poème.  It was Montsalvatge’s first work for violin and orchestra: like Sibelius, the Barcelona resident had become an accomplished violinist but did not pursue a performer’s career.  Szeryng gave the Poema its first performance and took it on the road; but, thirty years after the work’s 1948 unveiling, the composer felt that it didn’t get the exposure it deserved.  One hopes that this recording will help fulfill that desire.

The Cinco canciones negras for voice and orchestra, sensuously and lovingly sung by mezzo Lucia Duchonová, are a more overt expression and manifestation of Montsalvatge’s Cuban-influenced style.  One is amazed, in listening to her pour forth these songs, that she is Slovak and not Spanish. 

A la española is a spiky, polonaise-like dance for string orchestra. As it progresses, there is more a feeling of two-to-a-bar than three.  It has a lyrical middle section but the elements of carefully-balanced dissonances and very original chordal sonorities are never far away.  The strings of the German radio orchestra are absolutely first-rate. 

Montsalvatge’s Concerto breve, a work from the early 1950s, was enthusiastically greeted by two pianists—each of whom offered to give the work its première: Gonzalo Soriano and the more eminent Alicia de Larrocha, then celebrating her 25th year before the public.  She became the choice of Monsalvatge, who as a result became permanently alienated from Soriano. De Larrocha played it in all-concerto evening, between the Beethoven No. 5 and Schumann concertos.  After that, she took it abroad.

Jenny Lin, a young pianist with a pronounced affinity for 20th-century music, is a native of Taiwan who grew up in Austria.  Currently a resident of New York City, Ms. Lin was trained both in Europe and the United States.  Her playing of the Concerto breve is bold, incisive, rhythmical and full of poetry.  There is much of the spirit of Mozart in this striking and unmistakably mid-20th century work, with the pianist rapidly alternating between prominent and derrière-la-scène positions.  The slow movement opens with an extended cor anglais solo with the piano and strings in an accompanying role. The piano, in turn, takes over and elaborates on the cor anglais tune. Montsalvatge is essentially a lyricist who is not afraid of dissonance, and the NDR Philharmonie shows its ample strength as a virtuoso orchestra (likewise Artunes as a conductor) in its ability to blend and provide a wide variety of hues.  Again, the Mozartean spirit of alternating the spotlight on the piano and the wind choir is very much the driving force behind this exquisite middle movement.  Mozart may be a motivating force, but the fact that this is a twentieth-century work exploiting the full resources of the modern piano and the large orchestra is never lost.  Montsalvatge’s idiomatic writing for the piano is as expert and assured as his writing for the violin.  He ends the slow movement with a long, unaccompanied cadenza-like section that makes huge demands on the pianist — and this serves as a bridge (over a chain of rapid repeated notes) into the delightful, percussive, scherzo-like finale. 

A virtuoso German orchestra, a Brazilian conductor, an American violinist, a pianist from a truly international background and a Slovak mezzo-soprano combine to make this potentially one of the year’s best orchestral recordings. It is also a handsomely-rendered service to a comparatively neglected composer.