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Still: Summerland etc

Zina Schiff (violin), Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Avlana Eisenberg (Naxos)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

Still
Summerland; Violin Suite; Pastorela; American Suite; Threnody: In Memory of Jean Sibelius; Serenade etc
Zina Schiff (violin), Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Avlana Eisenberg
Naxos 8.559867   58:02 mins

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William Grant Still Jr (1895-1978) was a significant pioneer within and beyond the 1920’s Harlem Renaissance of Black culture. Dubbed the ‘Dean of African-American Composers’, among many groundbreaking achievements, in 1931 he was the first Black composer to be performed by a major US orchestra. The work performed remains Still’s best known today: the first of five symphonies comprising just some of the estimated 200 pieces he produced. Those performed here by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by Avlana Eisenberg and variously joined by her mother, solo violinist Zina Schiff, offer a beguiling portrait of his stylistic journey between 1918 and 1965.

Twin, three-movement pillars are the American Suite (c1918) – Still’s first-ever orchestral work – and Violin Suite (1943). Through these, one can see his development of an already confident melodic lyricism into a bold marriage of contrasts encompassing blues and hymnody in alternating lush, sweeping arcs and jaunty, asymmetric tunes.

From the short, romping Quit Dat Fool’nish (1935) and ballad-inspired Can’t You Line‘Em (1940) to the sumptuous orchestral Serenade (1957), each work has a yearning optimism that’s wrung to effect. Schiff, although a little coarsely recorded in Summerland(No. 2 from 3 Visions, 1936), is most captivating in the languid ‘violin poem’ Pastorela (1946) – while the 1965 orchestral Threnody: In Memory of Jean Sibelius is at once haunting and celebratory. Briefest but most poignant, the 1945 Fanfare for the 99th Fighter Squadron is a tribute to the 992 Black Tuskegee Airmen who served in World War II.

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Steph Power