MacDowell: Suites Nos. 1 and 2 (CD review)

Also, Hamlet and Ophelia. Takuo Yuasa, Ulster Orchestra. Naxos 8.559075.

There was a time just before the turn of the twentieth century when composer and pianist Edward MacDowell (1860-1908) was maybe the most-popular American composer in the world. But times change, and MacDowell's brand of high Romanticism has long been on the decline. This 2001 Naxos disc presents three of the man's orchestral works, none of which match the grace or beauty of his piano concertos but which make for pleasant, easy listening.

The program begins with the Suite No. 1, premiered in 1895. It is a series of tone poems, the names of which will give some idea of their content: "In a Haunted Forest," "Summer Idyll," "In October," "The Shepherdess Song," and "Forest Spirits." Obviously, these are pastoral pursuits, mostly calm and serene set pieces. They are remarkably unremarkable, and there is no particular order discernible in their arrangement. Nevertheless, Maestro Takuo Yuasa and the Ulster Orchestra take them at a sweet, lyrical gait, the orchestra playing with grace and sensitivity, the whole thing coming off pleasantly enough.

Takuo Yuasa
Less disjointed is the Suite No. 2, written several years before the Suite No. 1 but not performed until a year later. MacDowell subtitled it "Indian," and it hangs together better symphonically, using material attributed to various Native American peoples. The headings here are "Legend," "Love Song," "In Wartime," "Dirge," and "Village Festival." Of the five movements, "Love Song" and "Dirge" stand out for me as the most original and most affecting.

The disc concludes with another tone poem, the thirteen-minute Hamlet and Ophelia, which doesn't try to tell their Shakespearean story so much as simply describe the two characters. For what it's worth, I preferred MacDowell's description of Ophelia to that of the indecisive Dane. Maybe MacDowell didn't understand the young prince any better than the young prince understood himself.

I would commend the Naxos sound for its depth of field, its excellent dynamics, and its natural, concert-hall ambiance. Yet for all that, it surprisingly never seems to come to life. I suspect it's a bit more backwardly miked than a lot of other recordings, and while it provides a pleasing resonance, it sounds a trifle dull and veiled. Perhaps it suits the music, though, which also sounds a little laid back.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:

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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.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa