Symphonies Nos 1 & 3
Philadelphia Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin
DG 486 1900 (digital only) 70:34 mins
Victory for Florence Price at last! Nearly 70 years after her death, this album, first of a planned Price series, may be a digital-only release, but the company involved, Deutsche Grammophon, couldn’t be more major. The Philadelphia Orchestra is scarcely a minor force either, and there’s a special joy in hearing its wind and brass sections caressing the soulful melodies generously strewn through these symphonies from both ends of the 1930s by this pioneering African-American composer, recently reclaimed from the shadows.
The Philadelphia polish helps to highlight one of Price’s most endearing qualities: those kaleidoscopic orchestrations, with piquant detailing from all corners, including celesta and slide whistle. The warm heart of her musical language, soaked as much in Brahms and Dvořák as the contours and rhythms of plantation songs and dances, emerges equally vividly.
None of conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s loving care can obscure the music’s structural kinks, as in the fidgety chatter that saps power from the over-long sonata-form movement that opens Symphony No. 1 – the largest example of a general tendency to strike a good tune or raise tension only to disperse the mood with an abrupt change to something else. But a listener has only to sink into the resonant brass chorales of that symphony’s aching slow movement, or the frolicsome heights of the ‘juba dance’ scherzo in the tauter Symphony No. 3, to be grateful for Nézet-Séguin’s commitment, Price’s individuality and her persistence faced with the two handicaps she mentioned to the conductor Serge Koussevitzky: her sex and her race.