Still Unkown: World Premieres of Stunning Music
Still: Summerland Zina Schiff, violin. Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Avlana Eisenberg Naxos 8.559867 Total Time: 60:03 Recording: ****/**** Performance: ****/****
Naxos’ American Classics series has been gifting advocates of this music a host of recordings mining some of the rich repertoire that has been relegated to mere mentions in music history. Music both from the earliest days of American music to more contemporary works have increased awareness of many ignored or neglected composers. The label was one of the first to get some of Florence Price’s music recorded and they have also brought to light a great deal of other music of African American composers. This is even more important with their ongoing recordings of music by the great William Grant Still (1895-1978). Still is often considered the “Dean of Afro-American Composers”. His music was at the forefront of the Harlem Renaissance and melds classical models with blues and jazz gestures as well as exploring the tradition of African American spirituals. He did this in a way that infused all those aspects into his own musical language and style creating a quite accessible collection of works that encompasses 5 symphonies, 9 operas, and many chamber pieces. His music was performed by conductors Pierre Monteux, Leopold Stokowski, Sir John Baribirolli and Arthur Fiedler. Many of his pieces certainly deserve to be taken up again by a new generation of conductors.
The current release is a compilation of a host of Still’s smaller orchestral works. Pieces that reflect on his contribution to the Americana trends of the 1930s and 1940s often reflecting African American culture. The miniatures here include a great blend of his compositional style and as one listens, there will likely be a wish that many of these pieces were far more often programmed. They tend to be beautifully lyrical works with engaging melodies and gorgeous harmonic writing. The sequencing here includes several brief pieces with some longer suites to delineate the programming.
Still’s work has a decided filmic quality to it at times and this quality should also enhance its appeal. This comes to the fore in the opening Can’t You Line Em (1940) which was premiered by the CBS Radio Orchestra for their American School of the Air. This commission by the network is a depiction of the construction gangs working on the railroad. It has a light quality with fun syncopations. The American Suite (c. 1918) is Still’s first symphonic piece which he sent originally to Frederick Stock, the famed Chicago Symphony conductor. The parts were rediscovered by his daughter in 1998 and Dana Paul Perna has helped create a performable score edition. Premiered by Stokowski and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1945, Fanfare for the 99th Fighter Squadron is one of the rare overtly patriotic works in Still’s oeuvre celebrating the service of the Tuskegee Airmen. Perhaps one of the most delightful of surprises is the 1957 Serenade. This lush work is certainly among the composer’s finest pieces with gorgeous writing across the orchestra and a beautiful melodic line. The cello writing makes this such a compelling piece with the harmonic shades adding to its engaging qualities. (Why it is not programmed—and recorded—more often is a travesty!) The album closes with rather unique piece commissioned to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Jean Sibelius’ birth. The Threnody: In Memory of Jean Sibelius (1965) is a fascinating piece with Still exploring some of the colorful writing of the Finnish composer integrated into his own musical language.
Violinist Zina Schiff is featured in three shorter pieces and a three-movement suite here. Her gorgeous lyricism provides the contrast to the opening number “Summerland” which is a wonderful arrangement Still made from the piano suite 3 Visions (1936). Here one can marvel in the orchestral colors he pulls from the orchestra. A bassoon and violin duet is particularly compelling here. Quit Dat Fool’nish (1936) is another piano work presented here in a new arrangement for this recording. Dana Paul Perna captures the orchestral style of Still well in this jazzy number (one might think it came from a comedy of the era). Pastorella (1946) sits in that category of musical landscape painting of America. Still’s work is a sort of tone poem moving us through California. This is a version for violin and orchestra. It features some striking harmony and orchestral color as well with moments that seem almost Korngoldian. The other work here is a Violin Suite (1943) that takes its inspiration from three art works by African Americans. These had all been mentioned in Alain Lock’es The Negro in Art and Still’s piece is inspired by them. Here he translates into music the visual aspects of these three pieces in often stunning music.
The RSNO is captured in a really full sound that makes these recordings a real pleasure to listen to as well. The album lists these as “world premiere recordings” (itself some what sad but hopefully it will encourage these works to gain more attention now!) and there is a sense that everyone is involved in something quite special. Conductor Avlana Eisenberg guides and shapes this music with great conviction and with great attention to articulation and detail. The recordings were made back in 2018 and for whatever reason have only just now appeared on this excellent new release.
The current album provides a nice snapshot of Still’s lyrical writing and orchestral skill. There are a host of gems here and while one might hear a bit of that Hollywood film style of the era as a distant echo, it only increases ones appreciation even more for these miniatures and the performances. Grab this release now and toss in the earlier releases of the Still symphonies that Naxos has so far released. It will lead to hours of great music and deep reflection as to why this music still languishes mostly forgotten.