Randall Thompson Returns to Favour in BBC NOW’s Americana Series

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Copland, Randall Thompson, Hanson, Bernstein, Piston: Adam Walker (flute), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Carlos Kalmar (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff. 2.12.2013 (PCG)

Copland – El salón México (1936)
Randall Thompson – Symphony No 2 (1931)
Hanson – Elegy, Op.44 (1955)
Bernstein – Halil (1981)
Piston – The Incredible Flutist: Suite (1938)

This final concert in the BBC’s autumn season of ‘Americana’ given by the National Orchestra of Wales was predominantly a light-hearted affair, but it nevertheless had plenty of substance and like the earlier performances in the season it successfully mixed the familiar and the unfamiliar. The programme opened with Copland’s well-known El salón México, an evocation of a dance club to which the composer was taken by Carlos Chávez in 1932, where the players thoroughly enjoyed themselves. But the real highlight of the concert was the following performance of Randall Thompson’s Second Symphony, an absurdly and unjustly neglected work.

I myself took part in the first UK performance by Pendyrus Male Choir of Thompson’s choral symphony The testament of freedom in the Cardiff Festival back in the 1970s, and the music was thoroughly and unanimously dismissed by the critics then as banal and mediocre. I thought that judgement wrong-headed then, and I still think so now – as can be heard in the excellent CD recording of Thompson’s later mixed-choir version. At that time the only orchestral work by Thompson that was available in the catalogues was this Second Symphony, in a decidedly lacklustre performance and recording which did the music no favours at all.

But here the work was revealed in all its glory as a superbly orchestrated and thematically memorable piece which thoroughly deserved its initial success (several hundred performances in its first decade, including Bernstein’s conducting debut in 1940) and most certainly does not merit the obscurity that has since descended on the composer’s music, with only his choral Alleluia at all generally known. True, the lyrical warmth of the Largo slow movement could be more extended to its advantage; but the cheeky scherzo is an absolute delight, and the finale with its Largamente conclusion has all the romantic richness of Elgar. Kalmar and the players were clearly enthralled by the writing, and the excellence of their performance surely should help to re-establish the work in the repertoire.

After the interval Hanson’s heartfelt Elegy in memory of Koussevitsky also had bundles of passion and warmth, rather like a more expansive and richly orchestrated Barber Adagio. Bernstein’s Halil, written in memory of an Israeli flautist killed in the 1973 war in Sinai, is similarly elegiac in its overall mood despite some violent eruptions of protest and a somewhat inconsequential dance section in the middle. It was beautifully played here by Adam Walker, who mastered the difficulties of the percussion-accompanied cadenza with deceptive ease.

The solo flute in the suite from Piston’s ballet The incredible flutist devolved to the orchestra’s principal flautist Matthew Featherstone, who was no means outclassed by Walker in his limpid delivery of the enchanting central solo. Again the orchestra thoroughly enjoyed themselves, shouting out with gusto in the circus march complete with a barking dog supplied from the piano by Catherine Roe Williams. This uproarious ballet is Piston’s best-known work, but the performance earlier in the season of his Sixth Symphony was a revelation to rival that of the Thompson here, and one of the highlights of these Americana programmes.

One is grateful to the BBC and their American co-producers for the opportunity to hear such a variety of music during these four concerts, and although there have been some duds – such as William Schuman’s frankly dull Third Symphony and Roy Harris’s over-inflated Ninth – there have also been some welcome discoveries of unfamiliar pieces such as Ned Rorem’s exciting Eagles and Virgil Thomson’s quasi-impressionist Three pieces for orchestra. This concert is available on the BBC i-player until next Monday, and I would urge listeners to make an effort to hear the Randall Thompson in particular. The players covered themselves in glory throughout. Fred Childs, who has been presenting the programmes for American radio, was present in person in Cardiff to enjoy their playing.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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