Piston: The Incredible Flutist, ballet suite (CD review)

Also, Fantasy for English Horn, Harp & Strings; Psalm and Prayer of David; Concerto for String Quartet, Wind Instruments & Percussion. Gerard Schwarz, Seattle Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.559160.

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.

Gerard Schwarz
I wish I could say the same for the other Piston works represented on the disc, but despite their splendid lines and fine performances, they don't quite measure up to the Flutist; or, at least, they're not quite as accessible. You see, the Fantasy for English Horn, Harp & Strings and the Psalm and Prayer of David are more-staid affairs than the Flutist music, and in a few stretches they may seem deadly dull by comparison. Nevertheless, there are some lovely moments in them, and one should not judge too harshly at first listen. Then, there is the Concerto for String Quartet, Wind Instruments & Percussion, augmented by no less than the Julliard String Quartet, which is quite appealing all the way around and should keep almost anyone's interest throughout.

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:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa