Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Gramophone: Recording of the month: Price Symphonies: "Yannick Nézet-Séguin and his Philadelphia Orchestra are body and soul into the joy and resolve of this music"

Florence Price
Symphonies Nos. 1 & 3
Yannick Nézet-Séguin
The Philadelphia Orchestra
Deutsche Grammophon 

This has been a fascinating experience. I chose to come to this music – exhumed as it is from nearly a century of neglect – as new music. That’s how I wanted to hear it for the first time. I have only the bare outline of a back story and the now familiar headline that Florence Price was the first black woman to have a symphony – her First in E minor – performed by a major American orchestra. I’ve even chosen not to read what I am sure is an illuminating feature by Andrew Farach-Colton (see page 28), the better to come to these symphonies with absolutely no preconceptions. And (this surprised even me) I was never for a moment able to second-guess them.

Actually even the dates are deceptive because Price’s music – despite obvious models such as Dvořák’s New World Symphony – is clearly in the business of bucking trends and seeing things from her own unique perspective. It is music of great honesty and truth, full of hurt and sorrow but equally a joyous awareness of the spirit driving the black experience in her time.

In the opening paragraph of the First Symphony my mind cast back to the Second Symphony of Charles Ives, where European models such as Dvořák and Brahms underpin the emergent idiosyncrasies of the man and his musical ethos. Price sets out with a Dvořákian pastoral of sorts but one born and bred in the American Deep South. The second subject is infused with a homespun quality that in terms of authenticity makes even Dvořák sound like a tourist. The underlying ache is inescapable. But so too is an original musical voice. Some of the harmony is very much her own, as is her self-evident delight in the melodic development, where something as simple as offering the violas their moment in the sun can sound like a minor revelation. And who – not me – could have predicted the halting trumpet-led twist into the entirely unexpected coda, where the threat, the uncertainty, is so disarming? This is the first but not the last time in either symphony that storm clouds roll in unpredictably.

But it’s the second-movement Largo which immerses us for the first time in a music that resonates for the ages. This post-Mahlerian funeral procession, which might not be out of place on the streets of New Orleans today, is a trumpet and tenor-drum-led oration that speaks of sorrow but more importantly of dignity and resolve. Price loves her brass chorales, as we shall hear. But she also loves her Jubas, with their jazzy strutting cakewalk manner and rhythms celebrating the body-slapping improvisations that so defiantly substituted for confiscated drums. She even throws in a slide-whistle to wilfully coarsen the joyful noise.

It’s abundantly clear from this recording – download-only for now, but it will be issued on CD in January – that Yannick Nézet-Séguin and his Philadelphia Orchestra are body and soul into the joy and resolve of this music.


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