Fine Compendium Revives Forgotten Orchestral Gems

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By Robert Moon

Irving Fine: Complete Orchestral Works. Toccata Concertante; Notturno, for Strings and Harp; Serious Song, A Lament for String Orchestra;  Blue Towers; Diversions for Orchestra; Symphony. Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose, BMOP1041, 66:56

DIGITAL REVIEW — American composer Irving Fine (1914-1962) died of a stroke at the age of 48, only days after he conducted the premiere of his Symphony at the Tanglewood Music Festival. In a memorial statement about his friend and colleague, Aaron Copland said of Fine’s music: “There is an intensity and movement in all his music, and sometimes a surprising pathos, yet always one is aware of the craftsmanship that shapes the composition with a sure hand.” This new disc celebrates the centennial of one of America’s forgotten composers, and, save for one critical caveat, is a superbly recorded and well performed compendium of his complete orchestral music.

Fine CD Cover 350Fine was born in Boston and, along with Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Lukas Foss, Harold Shapero, and Arthur Berger, became a member of the “Boston School” of composers. He studied with Walter Piston at Harvard, where he earned BA and MA degrees. After graduation, Fine traveled to Paris — along with many American composers — to study with Nadia Boulanger. Serge Koussevitzky was his conducting mentor at Tanglewood. During his tenure at Brandeis University from 1950 to 1962, Fine taught music, and founded and chaired its School of the Creative Arts. The Irving Fine Society, representing the composer’s family, was established in 2006 to maintain his legacy.

My introduction to Fine’s Symphony was the 1962 live performance of the composer conducting the Boston Symphony (reissued on Phoenix PHCD 106). The fervor of that performance made an indelible impression on my young ears. In the Symphony, Fine integrated the tension of modern serialism with the melodic gift of his warm personality and his neo-classical upbringing to create an American masterpiece. Of it, Copland wrote, “It is strongly dramatic, almost operatic in gesture, with a restless and somewhat strained atmosphere that is part of its essential quality.”

In the BMOP recording of the Symphony’s first movement, “Intrada,” conductor Gil Rose revels in lyrical and instrumental details that are fully revealed by the SACD sound, but his interpretation is missing the drama that explodes into “a lyrical climax for full orchestra” that the composer describe in his notes to the work. Rose’s “Capriccio” also misses the exciting, almost manic hysteria that Fine elicited. In the final, rhapsodic “Ode,” Fine contrasts the slow development of fragments from the first movement with the rhythmic thrust of the second movement. Rose eschews the contrasting tempo variance in a performance that’s two minutes faster than the composer’s. Some of the tension between the two structural strands is lost, and the ending is less than thrilling. Yet the dark mystery of the “Ode” is captured in stunning clarity. Both recordings illuminate different aspects of one of America’s best symphonies.

Irving Fine.
Irving Fine.

Fine is remembered as a neo-classical composer, but some of the music on this disc is neo-romantic. While the Toccata Concertante (1947) is a Stravinsky-influenced neo-classical update of the Baroque toccata and concerto, with bold fanfares, lyrical interludes, and orchestral solos, Notturno for Strings and Harp (1951), is a luminous neo-romantic chamber piece that uses the harp to add richness to the strings rather than as a solo presence. Here, the detailed SACD sound adds to the music’s atmosphere.

Fine called Serious Song: A Lament for String Orchestra (1955) “an extended aria for string orchestra.” It has a combination of warmth, refinement, and sorrow that makes the work memorable. The lean string sound emphasizes the modern aspect of the music. Blue Towers (1959) was written to be a fight song for the Brandeis University football team. It’s a peppy overture to the college spectacle that would have energized the game’s combatants and spectators.

Diversions for Orchestra (1959-60), is an orchestration of piano pieces that were dashed off as memories of random events in Fine’s personal life. “Koko’s Lullaby” is an affectionate tribute to the family poodle; “Flamingo Polka” and “The Red Queen’s Gavotte” were written as incidental music for a theatrical production of Alice in Wonderland in 1942. All are exuberant expressions of the composer’s regrettably brief life.

Kudos to the Boston Modern Orchestra Project for this disc, which confirms Bernstein’s claim that Fine’s music is “filled with radiant goodness.”

Robert Moon writes record reviews for Audiophile Audition and is the author of Copland, Gershwin & Bernstein: Celebrating American Diversity.