February 24, 2022


Leroy Anderson: Orchestral Music (complete). BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $39.99 (5 CDs).

Eric Coates: Orchestral Works—By the Sleepy Lagoon; Springtime Suite; Saxo-Rhapsody; Footlights Waltz; Four Ways Suite; The Eighth Army March; Lazy Night; Last Love; High Flight March. Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Penny; Kenneth Edge, saxophone. Naxos. $13.99.

     The middle of the 20th century was something of a golden age for light classical music, thanks in large part to two composers: Leroy Anderson (1908-1975) in the United States and Eric Coates (1886-1957) in Great Britain. New Naxos re-releases of first-rate performances of these composers’ music serve as a reminder that even when world events were darkest – many of these pieces were written in the aftermath of World War I and during and just after World War II – a few composers were creating music to help take people’s minds off their everyday struggles and bring them fresh, creative and unassuming pleasure. The five Anderson discs, interestingly enough, are played by the BBC Concert Orchestra, not an American ensemble – further testimony to the fact that Anderson’s music has international appeal, much as do the lighter works of Aaron Copland. This release includes discs that originally appeared in 2008 and were recorded in 2006-2007, and they have lost nothing of their sonic quality and overall verve in the ensuing decade and a half. Anderson, like John Philip Sousa, is extremely well-known for a tiny number of his compositions: in Anderson’s case those include Sleigh Ride, Bugler’s Holiday, Blue Tango, Belle of the Ball, The Typewriter, The Syncopated Clock, and Plink, Plank, Plunk! But – again as with Sousa – there is much more to Anderson than that. The comprehensive survey of his music, which includes a dozen world premiรจre recordings, shows that his interests and abilities went far beyond his skill at creating music to fit on a single side of a 78rpm record: it is those discs’ typical four-minute-per-side limit that explains the length of so many of Anderson’s pieces, making him a dedicated recording artist as well as a composer very well-trained in classical traditions (he himself said he wrote “concert music with a popular touch”). Even within the self-imposed four-minute length, Anderson could create highly interesting works, such as The Phantom Regiment, which has a genuinely strange sound, and Old MacDonald Had a Farm, one of those rare laugh-out-loud pieces of music, which includes not only barnyard exclamations but also a series of thoroughly inappropriate sounds. Anderson did write at greater length now and then, however. For example, he created three separate suites of Christmas carols – one each for strings. brass, and woodwinds – plus a separate seasonal work called A Christmas Festival. He orchestrated pieces by other composers, including To a Wild Rose by Edward MacDowell, Wintergreen for President (from Of Thee I Sing) by George Gershwin, Seventy-Six Trombones by Meredith Willson (from The Music Man), and even Song of Jupiter from Handel’s Semele. Each arrangement combines fine craftsmanship with, in several cases, some especially clever Andersonian touches, such as the incorporation of Sousa melodies into Willson’s work. Anderson even wrote a musical, Goldilocks, whose music takes up most of the fifth volume of his orchestral works; and he created a well-made piano concerto, which appears on the first volume. The very high quality of the playing and recording of these discs is unfortunately not matched by the rather lazy nature of the re-release, which is simply the five original CDs in a cardboard cover: remastering was not necessary, but there is nothing new at all in the presentation, the booklets, or anything else about this set. That also means the set perpetuates the biggest flaw of the five original single-disc releases: a capricious sequence of material that does not do full justice either to the music or to Anderson’s development as a composer. Everything is thrown together without any apparent rhyme or reason: the third disc, for example, includes – in this order – works from 1939, 1966, 1940, 1951, 1954, 1948, 1947, 1958, 1948, 1955, 1932, 1950, 1949, and 1945. However, the unfortunate arrangement, which seems more like a non-arrangement, does nothing to compromise the quality of Anderson’s music or the delights it brings in Leonard Slatkin’s bubbly and beautifully balanced performances. This is music that adeptly treads the line between classical and popular – indeed, Anderson’s works often topped the pop charts of his time – and it is music that we perhaps need now, in our own dark times, just as much as it was needed when Anderson created it. Despite its flaws, this re-release is something to celebrate.

     Interestingly, the BBC Concert Orchestra heard in Anderson’s music was originally called the BBC Theatre Orchestra, and under that earlier name, it was the ensemble that gave the first performances of many of Eric Coates’ works. But the re-release of Coates’ music conducted by Andrew Penny does not use a British orchestra – Penny conducts the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, whose idiomatic handling of Coates’ British music is as noteworthy (so to speak) as the British players’ handling of Anderson’s American creations. This Coates disc was recorded back in 1993, but it still sounds quite fine, and the music is as welcome as Anderson’s, compared to which it has similarities as well as differences. Coates did not focus on a particular length for most of his pieces, but he did mostly write short works, either self-contained or presented as movements of suites. Also, like Anderson, he was classically trained and quite capable of writing a concerto-like work: Anderson has his piano concerto and Coates his Saxo-Rhapsody, a very well-constructed single-movement piece for saxophone and orchestra, played here with considerable sensitivity by Kenneth Edge. Just as much of Anderson’s music was created in connection with recording capabilities of the time (and his relationship with the Boston Pops), so Coates’ works were created in large part because of an agreement with his publisher, Chappell, to which he promised one major orchestral work per year, such as a suite, plus one short piece, such as a march or waltz. This CD re-release shows just how well Coates fulfilled that commitment, with two suites and half a dozen shorter works. Springtime Suite is mostly on the moody side, a surprise for a spring-oriented work, and Four Ways Suite has movements intended to reflect the four compass directions from a British perspective, including a finale (Westward) that incorporates American jazz and dance music. The shorter pieces all show consistently strong creativity, firm rhythms and well-characterized moods – right up to High Flight March, which was written in 1956 and proved to be Coates’ last composition. It makes sense that that march concludes the CD, but the rest of the disc suffers from the same arbitrary arrangement of material as is present in the Anderson recordings: the works heard here are from, in this order, 1930, 1937, 1936, 1939, 1927, 1942, 1932, 1939, and 1956. Since there is nothing to be gained by this ungainly order of presentation, it would have made considerably more sense to offer the material chronologically. But like the Anderson recordings, this one of Coates’ music is simply a reissue – albeit with a different cover – of a previous release. On the whole, the shortcomings here are minor and the enjoyments major: the excellence of the music more than compensates for any awkwardness in its sequencing. It is a pleasure indeed to have these Anderson and Coates recordings available as re-releases.

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