Album review: The CSO and Louis Langrée explore Gershwin, Varèse and Stravinsky with perfection

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With their new album Transatlantic, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and their Music Director Louis Langrée have created something unique, and with perfection. 

In terms of programming, Transatlantic is simply brilliant. Each of the three composers featured, George Gershwin, Edgar Varèse and Igor Stravinsky inhabit the transatlantic realm between Paris and the US, with musical inspirations and influences traveling back and forth between the continents. 

In addition, there are personal relationships between the Cincinnati Symphony and the composers and works included. The orchestra gave second-ever performances of both Gershwin’s An American in Paris (1928) as well as Stravinsky’s Symphony in C (1938-40), the latter conducted by the composer himself. Varèse, in his turn, guest-conducted the orchestra in the 1920s.

The album features premiere recordings of the original and standard abridged versions of American in Paris, based on a new edition of the score by Mark Clague, published by Schott. In contrast to the earlier printed edition by Frank Campbell-Watson, the new edition restores Gershwin’s original orchestration in every detail. 

As a well-meaning pragmatist, Campbell-Watson made several adjustments in the bowings and instrumentation of Gershwin’s original score. Most notably, he rewrote the original three saxophone parts (calling for eight instruments in total) into one substantially simplified part. In addition, Gershwin’s intriguingly sharp rhythmic patterns were turned into sweeping swing. As a result, American in Paris became a tamed version of itself. 

In addition to reviving Gershwin’s original spirit, Clague had a revelation concerning the taxi horns used by the composer. In order to evoke the sonic identity of urban Paris, Gershwin bought a wide selection of car-horns, which he then studied in his hotel room, in order to find the ones best suited for his tone poem. 

After choosing the four horns, Gershwin labelled them A, B, C and D in the autograph score. As years went by, the musicians began to assume that the letters indicated the pitches of A minor scale. Yet this was not the case. Instead, the original taxi horns were pitched A flat, B flat, high D and low A, resulting in a more edgy, chromatic sound. 

In its original guise, American in Paris is a dazzling cityscape, with bright harmonies, sharp rhythms and most imaginative instrumentation. A case in point of the significance of a historically informed performance practice

Transatlantic opens with the unabridged version of American in Paris, featuring a hundred-or-so bars of music, cut from the standard performing version. Within these bars, all omitted from the closing minutes of the score, Gershwin takes his musical material on inspiring detours, featuring most fascinating harmonic scapes. 

Coming full circle, the shorter standard version closes the album. 

Both versions are exquisitely performed, with the CSO and Langrée embracing the Gershwin realm with dedication, joy and profound understanding of the composer’s idiom. Be it the ravishing colours, the ever-enchanting melodies or those uplifting rhythms, these performances of American in Paris are nothing short of an epiphany.     

Between the two Gershwin tracks, Varèse’s Amériques and Stravinsky’s Symphony in C are heard, in equally standout performances.

Varèse’s Amériques (1918-21) is given in its vast, original version for 147 musicians. With nineteen percussionists and offstage brass section, Amériques is one of the most massive scores in the repertoire. 

For Varèse, the New World, with its sounds and spirit, heralded a fresh start, firs manifested in this utterly enthralling 25-minute canvas of unearthed sonic discoveries. Though inspired by Stravinsky and, to some degree, Debussy, Varèse was threading a path very much his own. 

Opening with an alto flute in its lowest registers, the music gradually builds momentum as the vast orchestral forces are woven together. As from an another dimension, the offstage brass sound their primordial summonings. The raw, almost primitive rhythms are contrasted with the most sophisticated harmonic textures, resulting in unique sonorities.     

In preparation for this recording, and the live performances at the CSO Music Hall, the Cincinnati Symphony percussion section took great care in finding instruments most suitable for the very special demands of the Varèse score.

These included hand-made Zildjian cymbals from the early 20th century Constantinople, a Lion’s Roar made out of a small bass drum, as well as an antique air raid siren, with a baritone horn bell affixed to lower the pitch and direct the sound.  

In terms of performance, the account of Amériques recorded here is unparalleled in clarity and spatial touch, with Varèse’s sonics clad in breathtaking hue, ever perfectly balanced. Marvellously paced by Langrée, it is an absolutely enchanting performance, with its charm deepening on repeated listenings.     

Igor Stravinsky began writing his Symphony in C in France and Switzerland, finishing the two first movements before emigrating to the US. While in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he composed the scherzo, and then finished the symphony in Hollywood. Thus, the symphony became a traveling parter for Stravinsky in one of the major turning points on his long career. 

Musically, Symphony in C was inspired by the late symphonies of Haydn as well as the first symphonies of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. Yet, the symphony is unmistakably Stravinskyan at every measure, with its relentless rhythmic profile and signature orchestration. 

A solid performance of Symphony in C calls for rhythmic agility, clarity and carefully elaborated tempi, all realized with flying colors on this recording. Opening with a tour-de-force introduction, followed by a luminous oboe solo, the music is set in motion with captivating presence. As the movement proceeds, the musical material travels from one instrumental combination to another with seamless sense of continuity. 

The larghetto concertante is an instant charmer, with the orchestra providing memorable solo and ensemble performances of Stravinsky’s sensual, and unsentimental, orchestral writing. 

Displaying the fabulous dexterity of the CSO players, the scherzo is another delight, with Stravinsky’s distinctive textures sounding out in their full brilliance.  

A gorgeously grunting introduction for bassoons, with low brass interjections, opens the finale, leading to a sweepingly upbeat workout for full orchestra. The symphony closes with a haunting chorale, clad in wondrously calm beauty the the orchestra and Langrée.  

All things considered, Transatlantic is one of the most important releases of the year. A joyous discovery, with the Cincinnati Symphony and Maestro Langrée at the very top of their game.  

 

Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra 

Louis Langrée, conductor

 

Transatlantic

George Gershwin: An American in Paris (1928) – A tone-poem for orchestra (critical edition by Mark Clague, original unabridged version)

Edgar Varèse: Amériques (1918-21) – Original version (edited by Chou Wen-Chung) 

Igor Stravinsky: Symphony in C (1938-40)

George Gershwin: An American in Paris (1928) – A tone-poem for orchestra (critical edition by Mark Clague, standard version)

 

Cincinnati Fanfare FC-016 2CD (2019)

Recorded at the CSO Music Hall 

© Jari Kallio

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