Grofe: Death Valley Suite (CD review)
While the reputation of American composer, arranger, and pianist Ferde Grofe (1892-1972) lies squarely with the Grand Canyon Suite from 1931, he composed any number of other such pictorial pieces of music, most of them coming after the success of the Grand Canyon Suite and most of them either less inspired or more imitative. The three works on this disc, the Hollywood Suite, the Death Valley Suite, and the Hudson River Suite, dating from around 1939, 1949, and 1955 respectively, are typical examples.
The Hollywood Suite is, in my opinion, the least winning of the three. Like Hollywood itself, the music is flashy and flamboyant, starting out with a rather silly movement called "On the Set--Sweepers," complete with the sounds of sweeping brooms, and ending with "Director-Star-Ensemble," a big, largely forgettable production number. Nevertheless, Maestro William Stromberg and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra give it their all, and while the music may be rather lightweight, it is undeniably fun.
The Death Valley Suite is supposed to be the disc's big attraction, but it, too, is rather overambitious. It attempts to be another Grand Canyon affair, adding local color with the sounds of wagon trains, whinnying horses, dust storms, and the like. Sorry, I wasn't buying it. Again Maestro Stromberg injects as much vigor into the proceedings as one might expect, even if it's all a bit over-the-top.
For me, the Hudson River Suite was the prize of the lot, especially the "Rip Van Winkle" movement. In this suite, the composer adds color to support the tone pictures he's drawing and not color for the sake of color alone. The Hudson River music includes a lovely introduction called "The River," swings into "Henry Hudson" and "Rip" (Van Winkle), takes us on an "Albany Night Boat," and ends boisterously in "New York!" The music still may not possess any great substance, but it's probably the closest to Grofe's Grand Canyon work represented on the album, with Stromberg providing all the show, nuance, and imagination it needs.
The music-making under Stromberg's direction is, as I say, excellent as usual, the conductor having done this sort of thing for Naxos for years. Equally impressive, in this 2002 release Naxos provided Stromberg with one of their showcase audio editions, the sound clean and clear, with good detail, impressive percussion, and very wide dynamics. Indeed, the wide dynamic range may annoy some listeners because the difference in softest and loudest passages can make it difficult to find a compromise volume setting that won't blow you out of your seat. Still, the wide dynamics are what every audiophile looks for in a good recording.
Anyway, the Hudson River Suite may last only a little more than eighteen minutes, but with sound as good as this, it makes the disc worth its relatively inexpensive price.
To listen to a few brief excerpts from this album, click here:
William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer
Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.
The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.