Another wonderful ‘American Classics’ collection from Naxos

The ‘American Classics’ series from Naxos is an amazing and invaluable treasure trove of musical riches. From women composers, to music from black composers, to wind band music, and so much else, often utilizing local musicians and orchestras, Naxos continues to give and give. I can think of no other label which consistently offers such a wealth of diversity and musical innovation.

This newest release is another terrific example. What a marvelous composer was William Grant Still! And this collection gives us another insightful look at his musical genius.

Naxos proclaims all these selections as “world premier recordings”. However some of this music has been recorded before, but in different versions than these. Some were originally written for piano, or soloist and piano, and have subsequently been transcribed for various instruments and recorded. For example, there is a collection of arrangements for flute and piano of Summerland, Quit Dat Fool’nish, Pastorela and portions of the Violin Suite, recorded for Koch Records in 1994. On this Naxos CD, they are presented in versions for violin and orchestra, and they are glorious in this guise. All the remaining works are indeed, to the best of my knowledge, completely new to the collector, never before heard.

Every time I hear the music of William Grant Still, I find myself drawn into it in a way not usually associated with American music. I am reminded of another side of Americana, completely different from that of Aaron Copland, and much more similar to George Gershwin. Still’s music has less of the wide open spaces of Copland, and none of his characteristic “hoe-down” evocations. It is more songful and mournfully expressive, reminiscent of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Indeed the selections here which feature the violin were written around the same time as Porgy (1938).

There are also hints of the jazzier side of Gershwin (his American in Paris, for example) in the opening track, Can’t You Line ‘Em, and the Dance movement of American Suite.

If Copland is most known for his use of folksong, Still, in his own distinctive compositional voice, favors the deeper emotions of Spirituals, with endless singing lines which are sometimes hopeful with anticipation, other times mournful, with the burden of anguish. And in general, there is less of the jazz and blues influences heard in Gershwin. 

For this Naxos release, mother and daughter (violinist Zina Schiff and conductor Avlana Eisenberg) team up to provide a thoroughly enjoyable concert, full of variety and imagination, in expressive and thoroughly idiomatic performances. The program is equally divided between the purely orchestral and those for solo violin and orchestra.

The opening piece for orchestra is lively and outdoorsy, before settling in for the more contemplative thoughtfulness which follows. Solo violin is featured in Summerland and Fool’nish, which are perfect companions, delightfully contrasted in mood – the former songful, the latter animated and cheerful. Pastorela and the Violin Suite are substantial works for the violin, with endless tunes, much variety and expansive development. Schiff plays all this music with a natural expressiveness which doesn’t become overly passionate or dramatic, but displays a simple, sing-song sweetness of tone which is just perfect for this music.

Conductor Avlana Eisenberg takes control for the delightful American Suite and Serenade for orchestra, both of which invoke the very essence of American music, with beautiful, memorable tunes and colorfully descriptive atmospheres. The final work is an impressive tribute to Sibelius, which is indeed reminiscent of that composer. I loved how Still invokes Sibelius while infusing it with his own unique sound. 

Many listeners will be familiar with William Grant Still via his fantastic Afro-American Symphony, which is probably his most famous (and most frequently recorded) work. Naxos has released several discs of his Symphonies, but this latest program provides a glimpse into Still’s lighter side. What impresses me most about this music is not only its creativity and heart-felt tunefulness, but its symphonic splendor. Still was a highly skilled orchestrator, showcasing his melodic prowess to great advantage. 

Overall, this composer could not have better advocates than what we have here. The playing of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra is, as ever, superbly accomplished and musically involving, and they are expertly led by Avlana Eisenberg. Violinist Zina Schiff met Still in her youth and brings an obvious love and authenticity to the proceedings. And the ever-reliable Naxos label provides excellent recorded sound throughout. I did note a more relaxed and atmospheric spaciousness to the purely orchestra works, and a decidedly more upfront immediacy to those with violin soloist, which is perhaps too closely mic’d. (Track 10, for instance, jolts one alert with quite a volume level boost after the serene Serenade). It’s not serious, just unnecessary. 

In sum, this is a thoroughly delightful and musically enriching CD. I enjoyed it so much I’ve listened to it, in its entirety, 3 times already! And that almost never happens with a new release. I recommend it with the utmost enthusiasm.

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