By Richard S. Ginell
DIGITAL REVIEW – Under Gerard Schwarz, the Seattle Symphony established a solid foothold in the recording market with a long string of discs for Delos, Naxos, and Artek, carving out its own special place by championing out-of-fashion, unfairly neglected American symphonies. Now, falling into line with the trend of symphony orchestras breaking their ties with traditional record labels and going it alone, the orchestra has started its own label – Seattle Symphony Media.
Already, the emphasis in repertoire has shifted under Seattle’s current music director, Ludovic Morlot: two of the label’s first three releases, released simultaneously, are devoted to French music. Yet Morlot intends to keep his hand in Americana, as a third CD gathers together three American works spanning more than a century and a lot of stylistic ground.
One thing this disc has that no other does is Elliott Carter’s last composition for orchestra (and second-to-last of anything), Instances, written for the Seattle Symphony at the unbelievable age of 103. Only seven and three-quarter minutes long, it’s a series of disconnected, epigrammatic, sometimes spiky episodes (as per the title) that briefly gather some steam before trailing off in a surprisingly lyrical coda – about as tender-hearted as this crusty composer could get. Carter’s vitality in extreme old age is astounding, and Morlot’s Seattle Symphony captures it with bite.
Morlot surveys Ives’ Symphony No. 2 – with its exuberant European treatment of all-American tunes – in elegant, relatively fleet fashion, but compared with Leonard Bernstein’s lavish range of expression in this piece, the performance sometimes comes off as a little bland. Fortunately, Morlot the modernist has the sass to give that rowdy, concluding dissonant chord a big, fat, held-out razz-berry.
As for Gershwin’s An American in Paris, there is a local precedent: Schwarz recorded it in Seattle for Delos in 1989, restoring for the first time on recordings about three fascinating minutes of cuts from the original manuscript. Morlot reverts to the usual revised score in a good performance with some idiosyncratic balances and bluesy phrasings and not much else to set it apart from the pack.
Interestingly, Schwarz received fuller, brighter, more open-sounding engineering in the Seattle Opera House a quarter-century ago than Morlot does in Benaroya Hall. Yet the atmosphere of a live performance can be felt, and the cross-programming of three very different totemic figures of American music (it’s not too often that you’ll find Gershwin and Carter on the same disc) strikes me as a fulfillment of the current Seattle Symphony slogan, “Listen boldly.”
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide.