Florence Price: Symphony 4 - William Dawson: Negro Folk Symphony (Streaming Review)

by Bill Heck

Florence Price: Symphony 4; William Dawson: Negro Folk Symphony. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Philadelphia Orchestra.  DG CC 72970

A few weeks ago, I was first exposed to the music of William Dawson (1899 - 1990) in the form of a concert featuring the Negro Folk Symphony. What an introduction that was! This is the kind of work that, as the saying goes, brings down the house, and it certainly did that evening. Naturally I went looking for a recording of the piece only to find that it was part of a recent DG release, and thus an obvious choice for a review here. Nice coincidence, eh?

This release is the final one of a series of recordings produced by DG featuring orchestral music of Florence Price played by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Indeed, one of the CDs in this series (Symphonies 1 & 3) was already reviewed by our own KWN here. So, you may be wondering why this article is marked as a “streaming review”? What happened to the CD? Well, for whatever reason, DG saw fit to make this one a streaming-only version. Maybe they ran out of silver discs. So far, I've been unable to find a downloadable version either, and I’ve been unable to find a booklet or, as we used to say, liner notes. All this means that you will need to locate this recording through your favorite streaming service. But there's good news: it’s well worth the effort. Read on to find out why.

Let’s start with the Price Symphony 4, which is the first of the two works in this release. A few years ago, readers might have been mystified as to who Florence Price was, but now her music has been revived with multiple recordings. Please do check out KWN’s review for background information on Price; I won't repeat all that here.

Florence Price
Readers who heard some of Price's earlier orchestral works will not be surprised at the style of music presented here: incorporating themes from historically Black music, such as spirituals, as well as some jazz elements, while at the same time looking backwards in the sense of using traditional Western classical music forms. In this symphony, the first movement is built upon the motive of the familiar spiritual tune Wade in the Water. (Those of us of a certain age may be more familiar with that tune from the Ramsey Lewis Trio 1966 instrumental recording than from any more traditional presentations.) While the movement contains stretches of appealing music, I find that the “Wade“ motive is being asked to carry more than it can bear, so to speak, with the music beginning to be a little repetitious without clear progression. Things improve significantly in the beautiful second movement, in which multiple themes, mostly fragments of spirituals, intertwine and are punctuated by dramatic crescendos. The movement is spellbinding; when I first heard it, it seemed to drift by in a few moments, but it really is a leisurely seven minutes. The third movement, an even shorter five minute "juba", is where the jazz influence shows up most prominently, as Price plays with off beats and drifting themes. Quite a fun bit; my only complaint was that it ended too soon. Finally, the fourth movement is a jaunty scherzo, again short at just five minutes, which brought to mind on first hearing an Irish jig. Yes, that's just my idiosyncratic (or possibly idiotic) reaction, but the music really does dance along in a most captivating way. All in all, the symphony is more than worth a listen, although we might wish that Price had had the time to perhaps refine the first movement. Meanwhile, the recorded sound is excellent: full and natural, approaching demo quality, and of course the Philadelphia Orchestra is in fine form, as expected.

William Dawson
For me, though, the second work on the program is the real star of the show. Dawson also uses traditional tunes, but he tends to choose lesser known ones and weaves them subtly into the overall piece. His transformations, variations, and linkages are imaginative and yet seem perfectly logical as they emerge.

The first movement alternates between energy and struggle, between light and dark. Dawson intended this to reflect the struggles and travails of Blacks in America, but the music can stand alone without reference to that (or any) program. Energy is abundant: the musical twists and turns leave us gasping for breath but excited to be along for the ride. The second movement begins almost as a dirge but is harmonically inventive; had someone told me that it was written by, say, Rachmaninoff (perhaps a Rachmaninoff who had quaffed a couple of energy drinks), I might have believed it. The music accelerates with a theme that is reminiscent of something by Dvorak, then slows abruptly as if worried that misfortune will overtake us if we are too happy. The dirge theme reappears with a flute floating high above, the sun then breaks through again; life is complicated, with both highs and lows, yearning, striving; the themes come together and fade out dramatically to end the section. The third movement starts with turmoil, searching for stability until a quiet theme rises up in the woodwinds; the music still seeks restlessly, until all comes together in a burst of confidence for a joyous conclusion.

As to the sound here, I believe that this work was recorded in a different venue than the Price symphony. Although the sonics are good, the sound is not quite so natural and is a little on the diffuse and recessed side. For a work that should have major sonic impact, it's a pity that we don't have quite the level of sound reproduction as some other recent DG efforts.

Returning for a moment to my own reaction upon first hearing this work, the obvious question was this: where had this music been all my life, i.e., why had I not heard this work before, or indeed heard of Dawson at all? Surprisingly, the Negro Folk Symphony had been premiered by this very same orchestra, the Philadelphia, under Leopold Stokowski in 1934. By accounts of the time, not only was the critical reception positive but the audience was enthralled. There were a few more performances, also well received – and then the work effectively disappeared. There may have been multiple reasons, but at least one was that no publisher would take it on, and without a publisher – specifically one that could provide orchestral parts – performance could not happen. It's hard to know exactly what was going on, but presumably racism, and racist presumptions, were at work. (Surely the public would not want to hear that odd Black music; never mind that the public had heard and loved it earlier). Dawson went on to other things, never composing another such work, although he made some revisions to the original score in 1952.

If you want to hear some other approaches to Dawson's masterpiece, you now have choices. An early one was Stokowski's own with the "American Symphony Orchestra" in 1963, in stereo no less. (The ASO was formed by Stokowski and is not to be confused with the other, real American Symphony Orchestra – and no, I'm not going down that rabbit hole.) This performance appeared on multiple labels over the years and is still available as part of a DG two CD set (477 6502). The sonics aren't bad for the time: a little harsh in a few spots and with a lot of spotlighting, which actually brings out some of the nuances of orchestration. The Neeme Jarvi / Detroit Symphony on Chandos seems to me just too fast, not allowing the music to bloom. But the Arthur Fagen / ORF Vienna Radio SO release on Naxos gives us excellent sound and is sort of between Stokowski and Nezet-Seguin interpretively.

So am I recommending the performances actually under review? Yes, but with a qualifier: if you find the Dawson work a little laid back, check out one of the other performances mentioned above; it may be the recorded sound that’s letting you down. Meanwhile, if you spot the Negro Folk Symphony coming up on a live concert program, go for it!

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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 Jon 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 for 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.

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me — point out recordings that they think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I occasionally do some listening through pair of Sennheiser 560S headphones. I miss the excellent ELS Studio sound system in our 2016 Acura RDX (now my wife's daily driver) on which I had ripped more than a hundred favorite CDs to the hard drive, so now when driving my 2022 Accord EX-L Hybrid I stream music from my phone through its adequate but not outstanding factory system. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has tolerably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom II Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can’t imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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 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. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet II DAC/preamp/crossover, dual Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.

Ryan Ross, Contributor

I started listening to and studying classical music in earnest nearly three decades ago. This interest grew naturally out of my training as a pianist. I am now a musicologist by profession, specializing in British and other symphonic music of the 19th and 20th centuries. My scholarly work has been published in major music journals, as well as in other outlets. Current research focuses include twentieth-century symphonic historiography, and the music of Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Malcolm Arnold.

I am honored to contribute writings to Classical Candor. In an age where the classical recording industry is being subjected to such profound pressures and changes, it is more important than ever for those of us steeped in this cultural tradition to continue to foster its love and exposure. I hope that my readers can find value, no matter how modest, in what I offer here.

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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. --John J. Puccio

Contact Information

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

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa