Ten orchestral works that deserve more love

The first installment of a series promoting unjustly neglected music – this time, symphonies, concertos and other orchestral works. Each selection is linked to a recording, with record label(s) in parentheses.

Ralph Vaughan Williams: “Job: a Masque for Dancing.” Many Vaughan Williams aficionados consider this to be his greatest orchestral composition; but it’s rarely performed outside Britain, and even more rarely as a dance production. Inspired by William Blake’s engravings on the biblical tale of faith, woe and restoration, introduced in 1931, “Job” is masterful storytelling in sound. It’s also best-of-both-worlds Vaughan Williams, echoing his earlier English-pastoral style, pre-echoing his more turbulent and challenging later music.

Adrian Boult conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (EMI/Warner Classics):

Bohuslav Martinů: Symphony No. 3. Czech-born but spending most of his adult life in France and the US, Martinů composed prolifically and was known for writing at speed. While living in New York during World War II, he produced five hefty symphonies in four years. The Third, from 1944, is the most tightly built among them, and the one that most vividly contrasts the anxiety of a wartime refugee with the energetic, can-do vibe of mid-20th century America. It’s a fine display of Martinů’s distinctive orchestral sound, full of shimmering colors, percolating harmonic asides and surging dynamism. His best-known and most sophisticated symphony is the Sixth (“Fantaisies symphoniques”) from 1953; but the Third is a more accessible and viscerally exciting introduction to Martinů the symphonist.

Jiří Bělohlávek conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Onyx):

– Amy Beach: Piano Concerto in C sharp minor. One of the first American female composers to win belated recognition, Beach wrote few works for orchestra without singers; this concerto and her “Gaelic” Symphony are the only major ones. She wrote the concerto for herself, performing as the soloist in its premiere in 1900 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Requiring a pianist with advanced technique and the stamina to negotiate a concerto as big as one of Rachmaninoff’s, this is one of the few American orchestral works from the romantic era worth hearing regularly.

Pianist Alan Feinberg, with Kenneth Schermerhorn conducting the Nashville Symphony (Naxos):

– Max Bruch: Serenade in A minor for violin & orchestra. A canonic composer for violinists, who play his Concerto No. 1 in G minor incessantly and his “Scottish Fantasy” a lot, Bruch produced this serenade, his last work for violin and orchestra, in 1899. The piece has been recorded in surveys of his concerted violin music, but is hardly ever played in concert. Its length, 35-40 minutes, may be one reason for its neglect. Violinists of romantic inclination, and fans of same, will find much to savor in this tuneful, atmospheric and richly sonorous music.

Violinist Salvatore Accardo, with Kurt Masur conducting the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig (Philips/Decca):

– William Grant Still: Symphony No. 2 (“Song of a New Race”). On the now more frequent occasions when we hear orchestral music by Still, the dean of Black American classical composition, it’s most often the First (“Afro-American”) Symphony, introduced in 1930. His Second Symphony, from 1937, is more interesting, thanks to its freer form and stylistic range. The First looks back to the spirituals and other Black folk music; the Second is less retrospective in its themes and rhythmic sensibility, and boasts a more colorful, eventful orchestration. Still’s experience in jazz – he played in the bands of W.C. Handy and Fletcher Henderson – and his association with Langston Hughes and other figures in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ’30s, resonate in “Song of a New Race.”

Neeme Järvi conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (Chandos):

Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky: “Festival Overture on the Danish National Hymn.” Acknowledging the inevitable comparison with the “1812 Overture” as both works were built on national anthems, Tchaikovsky considered the Danish overture to be “far better as music.” (Mind you, he disliked some of his best music.) Like “1812,” this piece is celebratory, but without the same degree of martial triumphalism. It was written for an event introducing Russians to the Danish fiancé of the future Tsar Alexander III. One of Tchaikovsky’s earliest orchestral efforts, dating from 1866, the “Festival Overture” is skillfully constructed and no less rhapsodic and dramatically paced than his later music. The Danish royal anthem, “King Christian stood by the lofty mast,” is as majestic as, and a bit livelier than, Russia’s “God save the Tsar,” quoted here as in “1812,” but less bombastically.

Geoffrey Simon conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (Chandos):

– Bernhard Molique: Concertino in G minor for oboe & orchestra. Post-baroque oboe concertos, other than those by Mozart and Richard Strauss, are the (barely) living embodiments of obscure classical music. Here’s one that warrants some love. Molique, a German violinist, conductor and composer, introduced this miniature concerto in 1829. Cut from the same stylistic cloth as works by Mendelssohn and Weber, the Molique concertino is an early musical example of the romantic era’s fascination with the lonely but resolute protagonist (here, unnamed).

Oboist Heinz Holliger, with Eliahu Inbal conducting the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra (Philips/Pentatone/Brilliant Classics):

– Florence Beatrice Price: Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major. Price has been a major discovery in the overdue exploration of music by Black American composers, with widespread programming of her symphonies (especially the Third) and Piano Concerto. The first of her two violin concertos, dating from 1939 and not performed in her lifetime, may be her least-known major work. Conventionally classical in structure and development of themes, the concerto is busily “violinistic” in its solo writing and late-romantic in its expressive language. The Black folk songs and dances that inform all of Price’s music are more subtle influences here.

Violinist Er-Gene Kahng, with Ryan Cockerham conducting the Janáček Philharmonic (Albany):

Mieczysław Weinberg: Fantasy for cello & orchestra. A Polish Jewish pianist and composer who fled Nazi genocide, which claimed his family, and settled in the Soviet Union in 1941, Weinberg was a friend and confidant of Dmitri Shostakovich, whose music audibly influenced Weinberg’s. This fantasy, completed in 1953, sounds somewhat like the slow movement of a Shostakovich symphony, but is less stark in orchestration and more bittersweet than bleak in tone. The oratorical yet singing quality of its cello solo reminds me of the instrument’s role in Ernest Bloch’s “Schelomo;” the two would make a compelling concert pairing (Weinberg preceding Bloch, preferably).

Cellist Pieter Wispelwey, with Raphaël Feye conducting Les Métamorphoses (Evil Penguin):

Hamish MacCunn: “The Land of the Mountain and the Flood.” When we hear Scottish-accented classical music, it’s almost always by outlanders. Here’s Scottish music by a Scot. A contemporary of Edward Elgar, MacCunn wrote in a similarly expansive, high-romantic style. This concert overture won high praise when it was premiered in 1887, and got a second wind in the 1970s as theme music for the UK television drama “Sutherland’s Law.” As a curtain-raiser, and a showcase for horns and brass, it’s hard to beat.

Alexander Gibson conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (EMI/Warner Classics):

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