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Virginian folk songs from composer's collection form the thematic basis of the symphony and - since these songs mostly originated in the British Isles - explain symphony's distinctly British accent. The opening two movements are highly effective. The first movement's jaunty, modal flavour brings the lighter Vaughan Williams to mind; the tunes are infectious, memorable and confidently handled. The second movement is very beautiful: slow, reflective and rather mournful, with lovely passages for various solo instruments. Instead of the traditional scherzo third movement, Powell gives us another slow movement, and I for one missed the contrast a livelier episode would have provided. It begins with a wonderfully intense, strongly modal passage but thereafter the movement loses its way and rambles unmemorably for about twelve more minutes. Yet more slow music opens the finale which, though very ambitious and full of grandiose Elgarian climaxes, never quite achieves the confident coherence of the first movement.
The recording is good and the performance excellent. This is a record which many listeners will enjoy very much and I do hope Albany will record more of Powell's music.
His only symphony, written in late 19th century musical language and recorded here, was composed in 1945 and extensively revised in 1951. He called it the 'Virginia Symphony' and it is based in large part on tunes he collected in that state. Composers who base their works on folk melodies and dances usually have memorable tunes to work with, but that is not always the case here; only a few of them stick in one's mind. Not one of the tunes is familiar to me, and I gather that since his huge collection of folk music has never been annotated, they are unfamiliar even to specialists in the field.
It would probably be fairer to call this symphony a folk-song suite. That is to say, symphonic procedures are not in clear evidence here. Still, there are four movements - fast, slow, slow and slow/fast - as in many symphonies and I guess Powell could call the piece whatever he liked. In practice, however, what we have is a number of tunes strung together--expertly, I'll grant you--rather like Vaughan Williams did in his 'English Folk Song Suite.'
The first two movements are by far the strongest of the four. The first movement is based on lively Scottish-sounding tune, sometimes accompanied by Brucknerian horns; late Romantic harmonic sequences are much in evidence, and there is some contrapuntal combination of a couple of themes. The second movement is a set of variations on a slow 6/8 strathspey with a middle section that uses a tune with a Scotch snap. That middle section has some delectable wind solos and I would particularly single out the playing of the English horn and principal oboe. The third movement, also slow, starts propitiously with a long mournful melody in the violas, but then introduces one unmemorable melody after another building again and again to overheated climaxes. The fourth movement has a long slow introduction that eventually leads to a series of quick reels that are ultimately combined, sometimes 6/8 against 2/4. It is interesting enough but overstays its welcome with some mechanical-sounding climaxes.
For what it is--namely a late Romantic piece using procedures that would not have been out of place fifty years earlier--it works reasonably well. But it is not a masterpiece by any means. And it is probably fifteen minutes too long.
The performance here, conducted by the extremely talented JoAnn Falletta, is all one could ask. The level of musicianship in regional American orchestras amazes me again and again. I've recently heard terrific performances by orchestras from Delaware, San Luis Obispo [California] and Albany, and now this one from Hampton Roads, Virginia. We really are in a golden age of American orchestral playing.
The disc ends with a delectable (and straightforward) arrangement by Carmen Dragon of 'Shenandoah.' It is played gorgeously by the Virginia Symphony's strings. (The players of the orchestra are listed--a move I applaud--and I noted that the entire first violin section in the Virginia Symphony is composed of women. All right!)
Review by Scott Morrison