William Grant Still's first Symphony, presently known as the "Afro American", is a rather stirring and attractive work. It has fared relatively well on disc, but this disc is most welcome for the excellent advocacy it receives and for the opportunity to hear some of Still's other, hitherto unrecorded works. Tuneful, sometimes even memorably so, Still's first symphony was a success at its 1930 premiere and rather successfully weds the spirit of the blues (and jazz and spirituals) to a generally conservative classical idiom. Still was the pupil of George Chadwick and Edgard Varése, and - interestingly - seems to have picked up a trick or two from both of them, even if his own music never ventures far in the direction of the latter composer. Still's background also included jazz and a rich African-American heritage, which he skillfully integrated into his otherwise relatively classically oriented compositional language.
The first movement of the symphony, `Longing', is the most obviously bluesy movement, but apart from that reminded me almost of Dvorak in American mode. The second, `Sorrow', draws rather successfully on spirituals and the third, `Humor', looks towards ragtime as well as jazz (it even employs a banjo - quite effectively, even). The final movement, `Aspiration', pulls together the themes from the previous movements into a symphonic whole (even though it is, in the end, probably the weakest movement). Overall, this is a very fine work (though calling it 'great' or 'a masterpiece' as some reviewers do is stretching it) that surely deserves to be heard by anyone with even the slightest interest in American music.
A bonus is the inclusion of world premiere recordings of the stirring In Memoriam and the colorful symphonic poem Africa. `In Memorian: The Colored soldiers who died for democracy' dates from 1943 and is a restrained, rather hauntingly beautiful work. Africa was originally written for chamber orchestra (and is known in its piano version) but revised for full orchestra in 1930. It depicts Africa as mythical, imagined rather than actual place (Still probably never visited Africa). Cast in three movements, the first, `Land of Peace', is a vivid picture of the beauty and spirituality of the land, the second, `Land of Romance', evokes the yearning of those shipped away to slavery for their homeland, whereas the third, `Land of Superstition', colorfully (and ominously) describes the fears and terrors spurred by ancient myths and false notions (the downside of the spirituality, I surmise). It is overall a colorful work and quite individual in sound; it's an interesting listening experience even though I am less sure that it has much lasting merit (sometimes one does feel that being (self-)designated to bridge the gap between classical music and the African-American musical heritage was a limitation on Still's development of his musical language than anything else).
Performances are overall impressive, even if the Fort Smith Orchestra seems not to have the ideal tonal weight for the music - more body, depth and sheen would not have gone amiss in this music. Yet they make up a lot with spirit and flair, and John Jeter seems to have the measure of the music. Sound quality is fine, and overall this disc deserves a firm recommendation.