GROFÉ:  Mississippi Suite.  Grand Canyon Suite.  Niagara Falls Suite.
Bournemouth Symphony Orch/William T. Stromberg, cond.
NAXOS 8.559007  (B)  (DDD)  TT:   67:45

Ferde GrofÈ (1892-1972) was of  French Huguenot  parentage,  born into a musical family (his father a baritone and actor, his mother a cellist and music teacher).   In his youth he studied piano and violin, played for dances, parades and picnics and began composing. In 1909 he wrote his first commissioned work, The Grand Reunion March, for an Elks Clubs convention in Los Angeles, continued his musical studies and for a decade played viola with the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra.  In the evenings he played in nightclubs where he became popular for his original arrangements and jazz improvisations. It was there he met Paul Whiteman,  joining Whiteman's orchestra in 1917 as pianist,  assistant conductor,  orchestrator and  librarian.  GrofÈ's big break came in 1924 when he orchestrated Gershwin's  Rhapsody in Blue.   From  that  point he began to compose seriously, often with a sense of humor. A friend suggested GrofÈ  could even write music about a bicycle pump which resulted in Theme and Variations on Noises from a Garage (1926) and Free Air (1929). GrofÈ went on to a distinguished many-faceted career composing many programmatic works,  teaching orchestration and composition at Juilliard,  fulfilling commissions and appearing as conductor.

This Naxos CD couples three of GrofÈ's best-known works. The earliest is Mississippi Suite dating from 1926,  in four-movements that celebrate the history of the mighty river beginning with " Father of Waters," followed by "Huckleberry Finn," " Old Creole Days" and ending with a sparkling "Mardi Gras."  Next is the famous Grand Canyon Suite written in 1934, inspired by Grofe's travels in the desert and mountain country.  Each of the five movements ("Sunrise," "The Painted Desert," "On the Trail," "Sunset" and "Cloudburst")  describes an episode of life in the Canyon.  First  performed by Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra in Chicago in November 1931, it soon became a national favorite. Arturo Toscanini and his NBC Symphony Orchestra made a recording in 1945 that quickly became a best-seller.  Finally on this CD we have Niagra Falls Suite composed in 1961 on a commission from the New York State Power Authority to commemorate the opening of the largest  power plant at Niagara Falls, the Robert Moses Power Plant,  premiered in February 1961 with GrofÈ  conducting the Buffalo Philharmonic. It surely is Grofe's LOUDEST music, beginning with "Thunder of the Waves,"  describing the masses of cascading water,  and  continuing with  "Devil's Hole Massacre"  in which the Indian ambush  of  a British wagon train in September 1763 is described quite vividly. "The Honeymooners" gives listeners a respite before " Power of Niagara - 1961"  in which the composer, rather in the style of Mosolov's The Iron Foundry and Honegger's Pacific 231, represents the sound of a hydro-electric plant,  replete with sirens and massive percussion.

William T. Stromberg, who has conducted many fine Marco Polo recordings of film music, leads the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in superb performances of these colorful scores. They may not eclipse earlier classic recordings  (AndrÈ Kostelanetz  and Felix Slatkin in Mississippi Suite, Toscanini in Grand Canyon) but they are splendid in their own way. Sonic quality is exemplary, if a bit cavernous, with plenty of low bass and high-frequency sizzle.  Recommended. This is also available on a multichannel DVD Audio disk.

R.E.B. (Jan. 2000)