New CD Unearths Three Diamonds, All In The Rough

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The world premiere recording of David Diamond’s mid-century Symphony No. 6 is unconvincing. (Photo via Wiki)
By Paul E. Robinson

Diamond: Symphony No. 6 (1951-54)**. Rounds for String Orchestra (1944)*. Music for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1947)*. Indiana University Chamber Orchestra*. Indiana University Philharmonic Orchestra**. Arthur Fagen, conductor. Naxos 8.559842. Total Time: 65:38.

DIGITAL REVIEW – When I was a young conductor, honing my craft with a chamber orchestra, one of the works that caught my attention was Rounds for String Orchestra by David Diamond (1915-2005). The piece appealed to me because its refreshingly clever, contemporary but decidedly tonal idiom presented a challenge for a young conductor, and because – not the least of its merits – it was a crowd-pleaser.

My introduction to Rounds was via an old Capitol LP (P-8245) from 1953, featuring a New York pick-up orchestra conducted by Vladimir Golschmann. The work, which had been commissioned and premiered by Dimitri Mitropoulos, was soon taken up by other major conductors, so I was puzzled as to why there have  been only a handful of other recordings over the years – for example, one by Gerard Schwarz with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and again with the Seattle Symphony; another with Mario Bernardi conducting the CBC Vancouver Orchestra; a Concert Artists of Baltimore release; and, perhaps surprisingly, a broadcast from the 1940s conducted by Sergiu Celibidache (Audite 21423).

Given the paucity of recordings of Rounds, this new Indiana University version should have been a welcome addition. Unfortunately, it is not. The sound is dry enough to make me wonder if the recording was made in somebody’s basement. The performance is competent, but no more. Diamond opens his piece with successive entries by first violins, second violins, violas and cellos all playing the same musical idea; hence the title of the piece. Each entry is marked ff and intenso ed energico (i.e. intense and energetic), and the metronome marking (132 to the half note) indicates a very fast tempo. The tempo taken by conductor Arthur Fagen and his young musicians is too slow and neither intense nor energetic; in essence, they seem to be playing another piece. As dynamics are ignored and accents half-heartedly executed, the excitement of the music is totally unrealized.

In 1947, Diamond wrote a concert suite of short pieces inspired by Romeo and Juliet. Surely he could have picked a subject less exploited, and less wonderfully realized by the likes of Berlioz, Gounod, Tchaikovsky, and Prokofiev. Diamond’s music pales by comparison and a routine performance by Fagen and his players doesn’t help at all.

Arthur Fagen (Jacobs School of Music, Indiana University)

The primary incentive for this all-Diamond CD was probably the world premiere recording of the composer’s Symphony No. 6. In his prime, Diamond was one of the most esteemed of American composers and his new works were eagerly anticipated. Mitropoulos premiered his Symphony No. 1; Koussevitsky, No. 2; Munch, No. 3 and No. 6; Ormandy, No. 7; and Bernstein, No. 5 and No. 8. Diamond wrote eleven symphonies in all.

Again, Fagen and his orchestra don’t convince us that we have stumbled upon a long-lost masterpiece. They plod through Symphony No. 6. On the positive side, the sound quality is infinitely better than on the recording of Rounds and the playing is altogether worthy of students at this illustrious music school. That said, hearing this piece for the first time, I cannot say I am enthusiastic about it. While clearly tonal, its melodic invention is thin and its overall character is remote and forbidding. It even has one of those unresolved endings after which audience members invariably look at each other and whisper “Is it over?” This is Hindemith without the jokes, if you will. “Tough music for tough times,” Diamond’s admirers might say. Detractors might be less complimentary.

[A sonically deteriorated version of the Symphony No. 6, by Munch and the Boston Symphony, taken from a 1957 transcription disc sent to radio stations, can be explored on YouTube.]

For more about Diamond, visit www.daviddiamond.org. You might also want to check out the recordings of an enthusiastic champion, Gerard Schwarz. During his tenure as music director of the Seattle Symphony, Schwarz recorded many of Diamond’s orchestral works, several of which, including Symphonies Nos. 1-4, are now available on Naxos.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for theartoftheconductor.comwww.ludwig-van.com (formerly musicaltoronto.org)and
www.myscena.org.

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