My introduction to the suite by American composer Walter Piston (1894-1976) from his Incredible Flutist ballet came in the old days of vinyl LPs with Howard Hanson and the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra on Mercury Living Presence. The piece impressed me all those years ago, and it continues to impress me in this remastered Naxos recording from Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony.
Piston wrote the ballet in 1938, and while the longer, complete dance work may not have caught on, the orchestral suite Piston arranged from it has been in the basic repertoire ever since. Critics have long considered Piston more of an academician than a full-blooded composer, but The Incredible Flutist is good enough not only to stand the test of time but to stand up against the very best American compositions.
It is the composer's only programmatic music, telling the story of a carnival that comes to a small village and the effects of the carnival on the local populace, especially the effect of its star flutist on the love lives of his audience. The work, performed in eleven movements and lasting about eighteen minutes, conveys a rapturous joy as well as an uncommon melancholy as it explores various aspects of a small-town American scene. At one point during the "Circus March" the composer calls upon the actual orchestra performers to shout and laugh and carry on as though they were the villagers. It's a charming and wholly entertaining piece of music, which Schwarz and his ensemble play fetchingly.
The sound is pretty good, too, recorded, incidentally, for Delos in 1991-92 and remastered in Naxos's "American Classics" line. You'll hear some realistically strong dynamic thumps, a smooth frequency balance, and a deep bass line. It isn't quite as transparent, however, as the old Hanson recording I mentioned earlier, available on CD in the Mercury Living Presence line; nor is Schwarz's performance of the Flutist music quite as vivid or spicy as Hanson's; but the Naxos disc is still plenty good, and it's remarkably inexpensive.
To listen to a few brief excerpts from this album, click here: