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I love this guy! These two world premieres demonstrate that Don Gillis was as adept at writing larger, more serious works (relatively speaking) as he was in the lighter and shorter symphonies and orchestral pieces for which he's best known. The Fourth Symphony lasts nearly half an hour, the Second Piano Concerto closer to 40 minutes, and both are receiving world-premiere recordings direct from the composer's manuscripts. It says something for the wrong turn that music took after World War II that this delightful, immaculately crafted, life-enhancing music has been completely ignored in favor of so much ugly, academic, and otherwise trendily avant-garde crap foisted on long-suffering audiences by the legions of the tenured but talentless. What a crime that our arts organizations and institutions of (theoretically) higher learning support such nonsense.
The Fourth Symphony, subtitled "The Pioneers", has three colorfully scored and tuneful movements that reveal Gillis' talent at constructing larger structures from catchy themes and pointed rhythmic gestures that never turn simplistic or risk monotony. For example, after a slow introduction, its first movement alternates bright fanfares for brass and percussion with swift, "action music" for strings and winds. Its 11 minutes breeze by in a flash, while the ensuing slow movement and finale effortlessly sustain the listener's interest. The piano concerto (composed in 1966) is even more interestingly structured, a bit like Saint-Saëns' Second, in that it speeds up as it goes. It begins with a solemn prelude, moves on to a beautifully fluid and evocative waltz, and concludes in the highest of high spirits with a really grand finale that has more tunes than a Schoenbergian row has tones. What fun this would be to hear in concert!
It says something for Gillis' ability that Albany need have no fear of recording music never previously committed to disc (or in the case of Fourth Symphony, played at all). This is what it means to be a craftsman, with a truly individual voice. As in its previous Gillis release, Ian Hobson and the Sinfonia Varsovia deliver exceptionally lively, vivid performances, not quite as rhythmically razor-sharp as Gillis' own performances, but with a touch of old world warmth to the string tone that's not a bit out of place. As both soloist and conductor in the Piano Concerto, Hobson does himself proud, particularly in the lengthy and tiring finale, where his energy never flags. Albany's sonics are extremely natural and realistic, with resonant bass, plenty of the necessary brilliance on top, and an amplitude that never precludes rhythmic clarity. Tired of the usual tiresomely anonymous "modernity"? Then you owe it to yourself to hear this. [12/09/2004]
--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com