VINCENT: Symphonic Poem after Descartes. Symphony in D. DELLO JOIO: Variations, Chaconne, and Finale.
The Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy.
Pristine Classical PASC 336 TT: 63:44.

Handsome scores. The end of World War II took the lid off the European avant-garde after a long period of repression. They broke through and acted out, both aesthetically and polemically. Boulez famously characterized music not in a dodecaphonic or post-Webernian idiom "useless." Of course, now he conducts that music. The establishment took it mostly on the chin. They tried to counter with one Fair-Haired Lad (as far as I know, no girls) after another as the next big thing. Unfortunately most of the best talent wasn't writing their kind of music, and the previous generation still active seemed played out and repetitive. The best of this generation, we see now, gives the lie to that assertion, but nevertheless people saw things this way at the time.

John Vincent and Norman Dello Joio had the misfortune of the old guard taking them up. John Vincent, now almost unknown, had a name in his day, becoming Schoenberg's successor as professor of composition at UCLA. Norman Dello Joio, a student of Hindemith, wrote much for amateurs and kept a following among choristers and bandspeople. He also won a Pulitzer Prize.

I have heard only three works by Vincent, including the two here. They all seem of a piece, as if channeling Walter Piston's works of the Forties. Back in the day, critics made a lot of Vincent's Southern origins (born in Alabama), but I could never hear anything specifically Southern in his work. Indeed, he studied both with Piston in Boston and with Nadia Boulanger in France, and his work doesn't counter those expectations. Both scores here display considerable invention and craft. I find the Symphony a bit more interesting, first, because it is rare example of a true one-movement symphony, rather than a three-parter with transitions. It takes a theme of stacked thirds and, a bit like Roy Harris (though not as single-mindedly) expands the theme to generate all the other ideas. The symphony strikes me as grown from a single seed, rather than constructed, and it packs a punch. Its subtitle, "A Festival Piece in One Movement," gives you some idea of much of its character, with neat massed brass. Incidentally, the Louisville Orchestra also recorded this work, but Ormandy was the first to use the composer's revisions made two years after the premiere. I prefer the Ormandy both for the version used and for the performance.

Hindemith instilled an ethic of craft in his students. However, probably recognizing a basic impulse in his student, he also advised Dello Joio not to be afraid of melody. Dello Joio's very early work sounds like Hindemith lite, but he very quickly found an individual voice, particularly in regard to melody. Dello Joio loves to sing, with almost pop sweetness, particularly in his harmonies. He begins with a favorite tune -- favorite, because he uses it in at least three other scores, as well as in the finale of this one. It may have been a plainchant, once upon a time, but here it simply sounds tender and almost naïve, Mendelssohnian in spirit. The liner notes refer to the movement as an orchestration of his Piano Sonata No. 1, but having heard that piece, I can say that the amount of new material takes the Variations way beyond that of just orchestration. The Chaconne is both original and surprising. The Finale does really seem like an orchestration of the comparable movement in the Piano Sonata. The variation theme comes back all hopped up and jazzy. Overall, a very fetching work.

People don't normally think of American music as Eugene Ormandy's calling card in the same way as they do Bernstein, but in reality Ormandy conducted quite a bit of it. Indeed, the first all-American concert I ever heard was with Ormandy and the Philadelphia, and the program hadn't one warhorse in it: Roger Session's Black Maskers Suite (2nd movement), Henry Cowell's Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 3, Paul Creston's Symphony No. 2, and Aaron Copland's Suite from The Tender Land. I remember that concert in detail more than forty years later -- the first time I ever considered American music as such. For me Ormandy's great strength -- one which overrode most of his weaknesses -- was his grip on musical narrative. Details might have gotten lost, but you never doubted where you were in a piece. Here, the Philadelphia has one of its better days rhythmically, particularly in the Vincent Symphony, where the music just pops, and conductor and players convey the excitement, intellect, and lyrical beauty of all these works. I wonder why nobody plays them any longer. They're too good to lose.

Pristine's engineer Andrew Rose tells us that the recording was state-of-the-art in the Fifties, and on disc, Ormandy's Philadelphia always sounded best of all the big American orchestras. Rose's ministrations give even more presence to the original sound. The Vincent is in stereo. I dimly remember that the Dello Joio appeared in both monaural and stereo formats, but Rose could find only a mono recording. It's only a slight disappointment, however. More important, these scores have returned to the general catalogue.

S.G.S. (April 2013)