Composer, pianist, and author Michael G. Cunningham, (b. 1937) is also a Professor of Theory and Composition, holding a Bachelor of Music degree (1959) from Wayne State University in Detroit, a Master of Music (1961) from the University of Michigan, and a Doctor of Music (1973) from Indiana University. Between 1967 and 1973 he taught theory and composition at universities in Michigan, California, Kansas, and Indiana. Since 1973 he has been in residence at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire. The present disc contains a gallery of four of his works: three ballets and the Gastein Masterwork, each of them performed by one of the ensembles listed above.
According to his biography, “Cunningham has written several books on theory and composition, including The Inner World of Traditional Theory, Technique for Composers, Steps Towards Bach's Counterpoint, Medieval Creativity and Renaissance Counterpoint, and The Romantic Century. Considered an expert in the area of American popular song, 1920-80, he occasionally teaches a General Education course on that subject. As a composer, he has created music for nearly every medium, having written over 160 works, with over 100 instrumental compositions published by five different publishers. These pieces include thirteen works for orchestra, four operas, four other works for the stage, many works for voice and chorus, as well as a number of arrangements, and he has been a member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers since 1969.”
First up on the album’s program is the brief, single-movement ballet Nyadina, performed by the Prague Radio Orchestra. Cunningham based the story on a 1938 film ballet about a beautiful nymph, and, in fact, like most of the music on the disc, it has a mysterious, impressionistic, cinematic feel to it, a sort of Debussy quality, very pleasant as it floats gently along. The conductor and orchestra handle it lightly, retaining its wispy, willowy, ethereal charms, increasing the tension toward the end.
Next is the three-movement ballet She, performed by the Moravian Philharmonic. This one the composer based on the celebrated adventure novel by H. Rider Haggard about the beautiful, ageless queen. You may remember the 1965 movie version of it with Ursula Andress. In any case, Cunningham’s music feels ruggedly venturesome, well representing the melodrama of the story. The players appear to take the work quite seriously, too, without exaggeration, and offer up a presentation of program music worthy of any Hollywood blockbuster.
After that is the single-movement ballet Chrysalis at Mardi Gras, performed by the St. Petersburg State Symphony. It’s a moralistic fantasy tale, a Cinderella-like story, rather more rambunctious than the rest of the selections but quite enchanting in its telling. With its relentlessly throbbing rhythms, it tends to come off the weightiest on the disc, with the St. Petersburg musicians doing their best to make it seem as eloquent as possible.
The disc ends with the four-movement symphonic work Gastein Masterwork, performed by the Moravian Philharmonic. Here, Cunningham offers a fanciful arrangement of what Franz Schubert might have written had he completed a proposed symphony he was working on while in Gemunden-Gastein in the Tyrolean mountains. Schubert probably turned it into a piano sonata, which Cunningham uses as a launching pad for his own music. It’s easily the best thing in the album, sounding very classically Romantic in structure, mood, and gesture. But could any composer or orchestra go wrong working from Schubert? Only in the finale did I find any small lack of Schubertian lilt in the playing.
OK, you might ask, if Cunningham has written so much material, why don’t people know him better? The short answer: Life is unfair. There is a delightfully meandering quality about some of his music that may remind one of the works of early twentieth-century English composer Frederick Delius, and even Delius’s music, championed by no less a proponent than Sir Thomas Beecham, was never all that popular. Anyway, Cunningham’s music, at least on this disc, is imaginative and easily accessible. It’s worth a listen.
Navona recorded the album over a period of several years from 2008 to 2012 at Radio Studio in Prague, Czech Republic; Reduta Hall, Olomouc, Czech Republic; and Studio 1, House of Radio, St. Petersburg, Russia. The sonic results, nonetheless, are fairly consistent.
The sound of the Prague Radio Orchestra displays a good separation of instruments, without appearing compartmentalized. There’s a sweet, natural, fairly clear air about it. The Moravian Philharmonic sounds like a bigger ensemble than the Prague group, the pieces they play probably scored for a larger group. It’s not quite as transparent a sound as the Prague Orchestra, being a bit warmer and softer, but it produces a solid dynamic thrust and wide frequency extensions at both ends of the spectrum. Although the St. Petersburg State Orchestra tends to sound the loudest and somewhat less smooth than the others, it’s still quite good in a more modest way.
One thing I didn’t particularly like: Navona decided not to include a printed booklet with the disc, electing instead to put all the information on the CD itself. So if you place the disc in your computer, you can find text notes on the works, study scores of the music, even some wallpaper and ring tones. While this may be all fine and dandy, I’d rather have had the text notes in my hand to read and enjoy without having to go to the computer screen or print everything out.
To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here: