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Albert: Symphonies No 1 & 2 / Paul Polivnick, Russian Po

Release Date: 03/27/2007 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 8559257   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Stephen J. Albert
Conductor:  Paul Polivnick
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Russian Philharmonic Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 4 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

ALBERT Symphonies: No. 1, “RiverRun”; No. 2 (orch. Currier) Paul Polivnick, cond; Russian PO NAXOS 8.559257 (64:24)

Let me begin by saying that this is one of the most fascinating and worthwhile issues in Naxos’s extensive “American Classics” series. Stephen Albert’s first symphony, subtitled “RiverRun” (reflecting the composer’s interest in James Joyce), won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1985. If there were any justice in Read more the world, it would have marked the beginning of a symphonic canon, reaching well into the 21st century. That was not to be: Albert was killed in a car accident at the age of 51 in December 1992, while working on his Second Symphony, a commission from the New York Philharmonic. At the request of Schirmer and Co, Albert’s publishers, his colleague Sebastian Currier completed the orchestration of the unfinished work. Schirmer knew their onions: Currier has become one of America’s significant compositional voices. If Mahler’s 10th had been completed by Alban Berg, that would be the equivalent. Now, at a time when Albert’s star has inevitably faded, Naxos puts us in their debt with a new recording of “RiverRun” and a premiere recording of the Second Symphony, expertly performed by the Russian Philharmonic (an orchestra formed specifically for recording purposes) under a conductor who is definitely a name to watch.

Albert’s First Symphony has been available previously in a performance conducted by Rostropovich, no less, on the Delos label. I have not heard that CD, which is now hard to find. (It appeared in the same month the composer died.) Judging from this excellent performance, the symphony is a vigorous work. Debussy, Bartók, and Sibelius (to a lesser extent in this case) inform Albert’s sound and his approach to composition. He relishes the big gesture, but while his mastery of orchestration equals that of current composers like Higdon and Danielpour, his music is more inherently symphonic, employing ostinatos and motivic development as the basis for organic musical argument. So, while there are many imaginative moments of color during its four movements, with their pictorial titles referring to the progress of a river—rain, for instance, is quite specifically depicted in the opening bars—the symphony nevertheless makes its main impression as a whole. In the course of 34 minutes of music, Albert creates a complete, discrete world.

In the CD booklet, Currier contributes an insightful essay on the amount and the nature of the work he had to do in order to complete Albert’s Second Symphony. Mostly it was orchestration, and he emphasizes the fact that he composed nothing from scratch, but had to make a composer’s instinctive choice at several ambiguous points. In the “unfinished” list, that would place the result nearer to, say, Bartók’s Viola Concerto than to Elgar’s Symphony No. 3.

Stylistically, the work resembles Albert’s First Symphony only in its brief central Scherzo, where the piano similarly represents a principal element of the texture. It is evident, though, that Albert was striking out in another direction in this final composition: it occupies a darker, bleaker landscape, more in the manner of Sibelius. In terms of tonality, the work is less dissonant than its predecessor. A theme in the lower strings, which is stated and then developed at certain points in the first movement, is something of a crowd pleaser in its post-Romantic memorability. So is the “big finish” (an atypical conclusion in Albert’s output). It was only during this concluding section, reputedly the least detailed of the composer’s sketches, that I sensed a certain reticence on Currier’s part. Everywhere else, this symphony sounds like the finished product; at times, a very moving one.

Albert believed that a composer did not need to be innovative to be original. His work bears this out: these are symphonies that should appeal to all music-lovers. Both works are colorful, assured, and arrestingly scored. Recording quality is very good, superior to some other Russian sessions from this company, and performances are absolutely first-rate.

FANFARE: Phillip Scott
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 1, "RiverRun" by Stephen J. Albert
Conductor:  Paul Polivnick
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Russian Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1984; USA 
Venue:  Studio 5, Russian State Radio & TV, Mosc 
Length: 33 Minutes 44 Secs. 
Notes: Studio 5, Russian State Radio & TV, Moscow, Russia (04/20/2005 - 04/24/2005) 
Symphony no 2 by Stephen J. Albert
Conductor:  Paul Polivnick
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Russian Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1992; USA 
Venue:  Studio 5, Russian State Radio & TV, Mosc 
Length: 30 Minutes 40 Secs. 
Notes: Arranger: Sebastian Currier.
Studio 5, Russian State Radio & TV, Moscow, Russia (04/20/2005 - 04/24/2005) 

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