American composer George Whitefield Chadwick (1854-1931), renowned in his day as the "dean of American composers," is all but unknown today. Reference Recordings has championed his large-scale orchestral works with two award-winning discs of his music performed by the Czech State Philharmonic, under the direction of José Serebrier. This value-priced two CD set combines both discs is a definitive set of Chadwick's best-loved orchestral showpieces: Aphrodite, Suite Symphonique, Symphonic Sketches, Elegy, Tam OShanter (long an audiophile favorite), and Melpomene.
I have to confess that I was not crazy about the Symphonic Sketches, Melpomene, and Tam OShanter when those pieces were first released, but I was mildly smitten with the disc that contained Aphrodite, Suite Symphonique, and Elegy. If given a choice, I would rather pay half price for RR-74 alone rather than "full-price" for it and a CD I do not consider compelling.
This is not to say the material I don't care for is without appeal to lovers of the genre, especially fans of American composers. However, to my ear, the Symphonic Sketches are episodic, humorous to the point of frivolity, and overly familiar. Listening to this piece reminds me of scores from movie Westerns I loved as kid, which is odd since Chadwick probably never went west of the Hudson. In the absence of Technicolor visuals, most of Chadwicks Sketches sounds clichéd. I attribute this to the efforts of movie and television theme composers to achieve the same "feel" for America in their commercial overtures. The irony is, Chadwick was the first one to write this kind of music, but the last one to be noticed, at least by me. Perhaps Chadwicks version of Americana has been recycled too many times for my taste.
Melpomene was Chadwicks youthful attempt to emulate German composers with its seriousness of tone. This is not typical Chadwick though it made his early fame. The real Chadwick is the "scary movie soundtrack" writer of the Hobgoblin sketch or the Hawthorne-like storyteller of the Tam OShanter work. In both those cases, Professor Chadwick indulges his sense of humor, which reminds me of academic word play rather than insightful irony.
RR-74 consists of more somber pieces that I prefer. The Suite Symphonique develops its themes with a fulfilling deliberation, filled with great flourishes. Aphrodite, a contemplation of sea, wind and love by a 60 year-old romantic, is a Chadwick work I would pay to hear in concert. The fourth movement, "The Lovers," indicates a tempo of "Andante amoroso." It certainly sounds amorous to me. I suspect that Chadwick was capable of a greater depth of romantic feeling than he displayed in most of his composition. Perhaps he confined himself to the ivied halls of the New England Conservatory for 33 years to avoid exploring the real depths of his creative compulsion.
The symphonic performances here are surprisingly authentic in their Yankee semi-seriousness, given the Uruguayan conductor and the Czech orchestra. The sound on the reissue -- like that on the originals -- is ravishing, especially that of massed violins. Dynamics are first-rate.
If you love American classical music or need a new sonic spectacular to test your systems dynamics, this double dose of orchestral Chadwick just might be what you've been looking for.
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