Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Symphonies of Walter Piston: A Discography


In his 1967 essay, The Symphony in America, English musicologist Peter Jona Korn lauded Walter Piston (1894-1976) as “without doubt, America’s most mature composer”, going on to add that “there is virtually no such thing as ‘bad Piston.’” Far from that of a lone voice crying in the wilderness, Korn’s praise was typical of the critical adulation that greeted the composer throughout his long, productive life, a life distinguished by a forty-year tenure as professor of music at Harvard, by the publication of important and highly influential textbooks on harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration, and by a prodigious output of expertly crafted compositions, garnering numerous awards, including, on two occasions, the Pulitzer prize for music (for Symphony #3 (1947) and Symphony #7 (1960)). 

Piston was certainly one of the finest American composers of the twentieth century. Though far less well known than his younger contemporaries, Copland and Barber, his unfailing originality, monumental craftsmanship, and deep musical erudition set the standard for the "American Athletic" school of the 1930s and `40s, even as works such as Roy Harris' Symphony #3 became much better-known examples of the style. For many years Piston's influence as an educator eclipsed his reputation as a composer; Leonard Bernstein was his most famous pupil at Harvard, and his influence is clearly audible in the younger composer’s early "Jeremiah" Symphony.

It is, perhaps, not surprising that only a handful of Piston’s many compositions have received more than a few performances in concert or on record; possibly because of the demands the music frequently makes on the skill and virtuosity of those who would endeavor to play it. If one were to judge on the basis of available recordings, the most widely performed and popular of all the orchestral works is the suite from the 1938 ballet, The Incredible Flutist, with, possibly, the Symphony #6 (1956) a distant runner-up. Piston’s eight symphonies, composed between 1937 and 1965, are among the most shamefully neglected of his large-scale orchestral works, and, indeed, of the entire American symphonic repertory.

Piston’s symphonies are conceived on an expansive scale, often reminiscent of Copland’s “populist” style of the ‘30s and ‘40s, employing orchestral colors, harmonies, and rhythms that seem to evoke the proverbial “wide-open spaces” of the American West alongside the frenetic hustle and bustle of more urban landscapes. But with Piston, as with Haydn or Beethoven, the listener is always conscious of the workings of a singly classical musical mind, a mind that expresses only what needs to be expressed, directly and without excess. There is often great beauty and melodic grace in this music, which is never acerbic or inaccessible, but is, nonetheless, an absolute music, eschewing shallow romanticism and programmatic connections, its passions that of a well-honed and vigorous intellect.

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As of today, collectors who want all the symphonies, whether on CD or LP are forced to settle for a perplexingly diverse assortment of products ranging from the mediocre and the monophonic to the brilliant-but-badly re-channeled, the perpetually out-of-print and the next-to-impossible to find. Accurate discographical information has, until now, been scattered chaff-like hither and yon across the internet and in older print references. There is as much need for a consistent and comprehensive discography of these works as for new, committed performances and state-of-the-art recordings. (I hope the list accompanying this article will begin to fill at least one of those needs.) 

The best relatively recent individual recordings of Piston’s symphonies are probably Michael Tilson-Thomas’ 1970 rendition of the Symphony #2 with the Boston Symphony for Deutsche Gramophone (discography #s 7 and 19 below), and Leonard Slatkin’s 1991 reading of Symphony #6 with the St. Louis Symphony for RCA (#13). Now-historical performances of Piston’s Third and Fourth by Howard Hanson for Mercury, and the Sixth by Charles Munch for RCA have yet to appear on CD other than through small-scale independent “transfer services”. An MP3 of Hanson’s mono 1954 reading of the Third is available on-line, and Naxos has also issued Eugene Ormandy’s mono 1955 Columbia recording of the Fourth in the “disc-less” digital format. The effort of collecting these works can be a virtual scavenger hunt at times, but the best “finds” are no-less exciting. 

As far as possible, I have arranged the discography chronologically by date of release or re-issue. Dates of composition and first performances are as follows:  


Symphony #1 (1937) (Boston SO/Piston, 8 April, 1938)  
Symphony #2 (1943) (National SO/Kindler, 5 March, 1944)
Symphony #3 (1947) (Boston SO/Koussevitzky, 9 January, 1948))
Symphony #4 (1950) (Minneapolis SO/Dorati, 30 March, 1951)
Symphony #5 (1954) (Julliard Orchestra/Morel, 24 February, 1956)
Symphony #6 (1955) (Boston SO/Munch, 25 November, 1955)
Symphony #7 (1960) (Philadelphia Orchestra/Ormandy, 10 February, 1961))
Symphony #8 (1965) (Boston SO/Leinsdorf, 5 March, 1965)


DISCOGRAPHY

LPs



1.
American Recording Society ARS-1 (1953) (10” LP) (mono)
Piston: Symphony #2
Dixon/Eastman-Rochester SO

2.
Mercury MG 50077 (1953) (mono)
(American Festival Series #5)
Piston: Symphony #4
Hanson/Eastman-Rochester SO

3a.
Mercury MG 50083 (1954) (mono)
(American Festival Series #11)
Piston: Symphony #3
Hanson/Eastman-Rochester SO

3b.
Mercury MC 40010 (re-issue, date?)
Piston: Symphony #3
Hanson/Eastman-Rochester SO


4a.
Columbia Masterworks ML 4992 (n.d. 1955?) (mono)
Piston: Symphony #4
W. Schuman: Symphony #6
Ormandy/Philadelphia Orchestra



4b.
Columbia Special Products CSP AML 4992 (n.d.)
Piston: Symphony #4
W. Schuman: Symphony #6
Ormandy/Philadelphia Orchestra








5a.
RCA 24-192 (1957)
Piston: Symphony #6
Toch: Symphony #3
Munch/Boston SO

5b.
New World NW 286 (1977 compilation) (mono)
Piston: Symphony #6
Kirchner: Piano Concerto
Munch/Boston SO






5c.
RCA (Gold Seal) AGL1-3794 (1981 re-issue)
Piston: Symphony #6
Martinu: Fantaisies Symphonique (Symphony #6)
Munch/Boston SO

6.
Louisville (First Edition) LS 653 (n.d. 1965?)
Piston: Symphony #5
Whitney/Louisville SO











7.
DG 2530 103 (n.d. 1970?)
Piston: Symphony #2
W. Schuman: Violin Concerto
Tilson-Thomas/Boston SO

8.
Louisville (First Edition) LS 746 (1975)
Piston: Symphony #7
Mester/Louisville SO






9. (q.v. 2, 3)
Mercury Classics SRI 75107 (1978 re-issue)
Piston: Symphony #3
Symphony #4
Hanson/Eastman-Rochester SO

10.
Louisville (First Edition) LS 766 (1979)
Piston: Symphony #1
Mester/Louisville SO


CDs and MP3s



11a. (q.v. 6, 8)
Albany AR 011 (1988)
Piston: Symphony #5
Symphony #7
Symphony #8
Whitney/Mester/Louisville SO





11b.
First Edition FECD 0010 (MP3) (2002)
Piston: Symphony #5
Symphony #7
Symphony #8
Serenata for Orchestra
Whitney/Mester/Louisville SO

12a.
Delos DE 3074 (1990)
Piston: Symphony #2
Symphony #6
Sinfonietta
Schwartz/Seattle SO 






12b. 
Naxos 8.559161 (2003 re-issue)
Piston: Symphony #2
Symphony #6
Sinfonietta
Schwartz/Seattle SO
  





13.
RCA 60798-2-RC (1991)
Piston: Symphony #6
Three New England Sketches
The Incredible Flutist (Suite)
Slatkin/St. Louis SO




14a.
Delos DE 3106 (1992)
Piston: Symphony #4
Capriccio for Harp and String Orchestra
Serenata for Orchestra
Three New England Sketches
Schwartz/Seattle SO 






14b.
Naxos 8.559162 (2003 re-issue)
Piston: Symphony #4
Capriccio for Harp and String Orchestra
Serenata for Orchestra
Three New England Sketches
Schwartz/Seattle SO



15a. (q.v. 4)
Albany TROY 256 (1997 compilation)
Piston: Symphony #4
Harris: Symphony #7
W. Schuman: Symphony #6
Ormandy/Philadelphia Orchestra

15b
Naxos NS 0239 (MP3)
Piston: Symphony #4
Harris: Symphony #7
W. Schuman: Symphony #6
Ormandy/Philadelphia Orchestra

16 (q.v. 10)
Albany TROY 044 (1998 compilation)  
Piston: Symphony #1
Menin: Cello Concerto
Kurka: The Good Soldier Schweik (suite)
Whitney/Mester/Louisville SO


17.
Citadel CTD 88134 (1999)
Piston: Symphony #6
Concertino for Piano
Concerto for Orchestra
Strickland/Moscow Radio SO


18.
Albany TROY 400 (2000)        
Piston: Symphony #3
plus works of James Yannatos
Yannatos/Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra 




19. (q.v. 7)
DG (Originals) 289-463-633-2 (2001 compilation)         
Piston: Symphony #2
Ives: Three Places in New England
Ruggles: Suntreader
Tilson-Thomas/Boston SO

20. (q.v. 5)
Haydn House SDA 2001-270 (2001 compilation)
(music on this disc was transferred from original RCA LPs)
Piston: Symphony #6 (1956 recording)
Bloch: Schelomo (1957 recording)
Stravinsky: Jeu de Cartes (1960 recording)
Munch/Boston SO





21.
Audite 21423 (13-disc box set) (2013)
Celibidache--The Berlin Recordings (1945-1954)
Piston: Symphony #2 (live recording, 1950)
plus works of Barber, Beethoven, Berlioz, Bizet, Chavez, Cui, Gliere, Milhaud etc.
Serge Celibidache/Berlin Radio SO 


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