Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums...

Ronald E. Grames
Fanfare, February 2009

The performance by Nardolillo and his presumably student orchestra is first-rate,” wrote critic “If I had not known, I would have assumed both the orchestra and chorus to be professional…The fourth CD of McKay’s music, issued as part of Naxos’s American Classics label, is arguably the most important to date. Forgotten since its highly successful premiere, Epoch, An American Dance Symphony was conceived as an ambitious theater piece evoking, through music, vivid staging, and dance, the work of four American poets: Edgar Allen Poe, Sidney Lanier, Walt Whitman, and Carl Sandburg.

William Kreindler
MusicWeb International, November 2008

This disc is a composite of several interesting elements. First, it shows a greater degree of substance than most of the McKay works that have been recorded up to now. Second, it demonstrates the fears that were evident in America after it had just come out of the Great Depression but slowly became aware of the growth of fascism elsewhere in the world at the same time. Third, it demonstrates that at this time Americans were realizing that the industrial aspects of the recovery were producing a country that was strange to many of its citizens. Finally, it harks back to a period when artistic works that crossed “traditional” boundaries were popular - this work is sometimes described as a ‘ballet’ and sometimes as a ‘symphony’. 

Though this work is meant to be danced from start to finish, the musical section is self-contained, being held together motivically. It is in the four movements of a symphony, each evoking the work of a famous American poet (Poe, Sidney Lanier, Whitman and Carl Sandberg). It does this more in atmosphere than in any autobiographical sense or through the setting of particular poems. The chorus is wordless, but is used very effectively. The evocations of the four poets more or less generate a history of America from roughly 1835 to 1935, the year of composition. 

Although each movement has an elaborate dance scenario, we hear only the music here, which hangs together perfectly well. Poe and his descent (Symbolic Portrait) into madness is an interesting place to start a symphony and the movement becomes progressively more jagged and eventually hysterical. In the ballet scenario various ghostly figures appear which would only add to the gloomy feeling. McKay’s writing in the last part of this movement is some of his best ever. Totally different is Sidney Lanier, a poet not much read today and even going out of style in 1935. He is the inspiration for a Pastoral that is more in the typical McKay manner. It is descriptive of nature’s wonders in North America and makes very effective use of the women’s chorus. The middle sections describing the great rivers and the coda with chorus are especially serene. 

After classic American literature and the native landscape comes the inevitable movement west in the Whitman section (Westward!). This starts with the growth of American cities and then the inhabitants steadily moving west. I found the music here not as original as that of the first two movements, although the variant of the opening theme from the first movement that is used to describe Whitman is quite good and the music improves slightly as the prairies are conquered. At the end of the movement the triumphal tone begins to show a slight edge, which will lead us into the fourth movement. 

The last movement, Machine Age Blues, is the crux of the symphony and was encored at the premiere. Here, Machine, not Man, is the master and the skyscrapers are scarier than anything in the famous work of Carpenter. Multiple troubles assail America: the machinery; jazzy music symbolizing decadence and a very different City from Whitman’s time. They combine musically to portray a swift slide towards destruction. These musical elements later combine with satirical blues and cheap dances leading to a frenzied combination of all these musical components. On the stage Poe’s ghost reappears and those dancing to the cheap music do so to their end. Musically this is quite effective and I’m sure the visual element would add quite a bit more. This is not the “classic” American 1930s symphony of vision and optimism and I’m sure Roy Harris or Walter Piston wouldn’t have known what to do with it.

We are greatly in the debt of all involved in the production of this recording for showing us not only another side of McKay, but also a different musical view of a time in American history from the one that we usually get—one that is perhaps due to the composer and perhaps to the locale in which he was living. John Nardolillo is especially to be commended for maintaining almost constant interest in a piece that goes on for over an hour and at the same time lacks the visual element of its overall conception. Occasional longueurs or drops in tension seem to be less his fault than that of the composer. The orchestra, while not professional, gives their performance a great deal of enthusiasm and as said above, the choral preparation is first rate. The Singletary Center was perhaps not the greatest choice for this recording—it has a rather cavernous sound. This disc is very much for those who continue to be interested in McKay and his magnum opus on disc and to those looking for a different view of American musical history of this time.

Richard Freed, November 2008

Musical Performance:
Sound Quality
Overall Enjoyment

Naxos has given us three earlier CDs of music by George Frederick McKay (1899-1970) of the American Northwest; this one brings us something quite different: not exactly a ballet, as the title might suggest, but an hour-long Depression-era multimedia work combining music and dance to represent the American character in references to four venerated poets. Edgar Allan Poe is the focus of the darkly dramatic opening movement; Sidney Lanier is evoked in a Pastoral with a wordless female chorus; for Walt Whitman, somewhat uncharacteristically, we have cowboy ballads in "Westward!"; Carl Sandburg is limned in jazz (in which McKay had early performing experience) in "Machine Age Blues."

This sprawling piece is perhaps longer than it needs to be, and is not burdened by an excess of subtlety -- but it is clearly from the heart, and is a valuable document of its time. McKay conducted the premiere, in 1935, at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he taught. Naxos’s revival makes good use of the very capable and committed forces of the University of Kentucky in Lexington, under a conductor who understands the score’s strengths and limitations. The sound quality is well tailored to the musical content, and the documentation, by the composer’s sons, is authoritative and detailed (though some editing might have been helpful).

In sum: an intriguing bit of American musical history, and if it provokes some curiosity about the more modestly proportioned McKay works on the earlier CDs, so much the better.

Film Music: The Neglected Art, October 2008

Talk about someone being under the radar and you’ll certainly include the name of George Frederick McKay. Until the recent releases by Naxos, in their ever-expanding American Classics series, McKay had gotten little or no airplay since his death in 1970. Perhaps it was due to the fact that George spent most of his life in the Pacific Northwest, not exactly the same kind of exposure Copland received in New York. Known as the “Dean of Northwest Composers”, McKay was a Professor of Music at the University of Washington for 41 years leaving the area only for a short time to study at the Eastman School of Music and short stints as a conductor in North Carolina, Missouri, and South Dakota.

Composed in 1935, Epoch: An American Dance Symphony was given an extremely favorable review at the premiere by both daily Seattle newspapers. The dance is based on American history as seen through the eyes of some of its greatest poets Edgar Allen Poe, Sidney Lanier, Walt Whitman, and Carl Sandburg, coincidentally all honored by the US Postal Service with stamps. The four sections of the work cover “Symbolic Portrait” (Poe), “Pastoral” (Lanier), and “Westward!” (Whitman), and “Machine Age Blues” (Sandburg) with the “Epilogue” the fifth episode unfinished with the comment from George that this is being prepared by time and will be written and enacted by us all.

“Symbolic Portrait” certainly touches upon the softer side of Poe as well as his curiosity of the ghastly side of life. The choreography ranged from romantic to the macabre (dance of death). While the music in parts is quite dark and dissonant (brass passages) George certainly maintained a melodic nature through the 14+ minutes with solos from harp, flute, and oboe, a struggle between good and evil.

“Pastoral”, featuring the University of Kentucky Women’s Choir, is a section of pure peace and tranquility. Lanier also played flute and composed, one of his works being Hymn of the Marshes (blackbirds) so the references to the birds could certainly have been one of the contributing factors when composing this second episode.

“Westward”, the third episode, is the Whitman section which depicts the beginning of the industrial age with timpani and brass type motif followed by the beckoning of the call of the mourning Cor Anglais to go west to the prairie to settle in the unknown and exciting new land. The episode also includes the movement of the wagons, a tom-tom Indian reference and a playing of the folk tune “Turkey In The Straw”, appropriate music as it was written in the early 19th century.

The fourth episode “Machine Age Blues” written about Carl Sandburg and likely in reference to his poetry in his book Smoke and Steel must have shocked the audience with its brash dissonant approach to the ’Steel Age’ of the early 20th century. Very much in the Gershwin style it includes riveting, jackhammers, and the sound of a very busy city. It also includes some slow blues, Charleston flapping featuring saxophones, and dance material of the era. Then it just suddenly builds to a loud crescendo and ends with the timpani motif, which started the beginning of the “Westward” episode.

Performed by the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra and Women’s Chorus the recording sounded fine especially given the fact that this is very likely made up of students. The music is overall very melodic, and very easy to follow after reading the liner notes from the McKay family. To hear the music is like listening to a separate soundtrack from a film never viewed and this reviewer would be very interested to see firsthand a performance of the dance. One can hope that there will be future recordings from this excellent American composer. Recommended.

David Hurwitz, October 2008

This is one interesting release! McKay's Epoch is a four-movement symphonic ballet dating from 1935, a sort of American equivalent to Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe, or Novak's Nikotina. It's very entertaining. Read full review at ClassicsToday

Rob Barnett
MusicWeb International, September 2008

McKay’s natural lyrical inclination is given full rein here in a work that explores in philosophical numbers the essence of four American poets. This is the listener’s first impression in Symbolic Portraits which is laced with some tart dissonances that rise once to yelp and howl. This pepper adds savour to the cantabile flow of a movement that tracks the life and spirit of Edgar Allen Poe. The orchestration is lucid, adept and generally transparent. It carries the redolence of Ravel, Bax in his more transparent textures, Patrick Hadley and George Butterworth. Pastoral (Sidney Lanier) includes a women’s choir with the orchestra. Their vocalise contribution is balmy and has some kinship with the vocalise in Vaughan Williams’ Oxford Elegy. The music has a warm Palladian outdoor air that radiates contentment: clover, benevolent insect-hum, the sun, cooling shade and birdsong. It is not quite as saturated as Bax’s Spring Fire but it is in that vicinity. Westward! (Walt Whitman) includes statuesque brass writing that shouts epic resolve, gritty determination and frontier defiance with a moment of writing that recalls Roy Harris at 12:07. Then about 2:23 the toe-tapping rhythm of city life emerges but by no means soulless and still in touch with rustic idylls which continue to enwrap the composer at the slightest excuse. The prominent and affecting song of the cor anglais and the oboe momentarily suggests a link with Aranjuez but the impression comes and goes in an instant. Folk Dance at 13:28 suggests the composer was familiar with Petrushka as well as turkeys in the straw. Machine Age Blues (Carl Sandburg) is vehement, sometimes iron-clad mechanistic, with sirens and corrugated rattles, rivet guns and jack hammers. It is not as wild as Mossolov’s Steel Foundry nor as overpowering as Honegger’s Pacific 231 but it belongs to the same literature. It takes a while to get to The Blues (5:10) but when they come they are disconsolate and heart-weary. There are some jazzy ululations and Gershwin-like piano articulation at 8:22 but McKay keeps returning to his lyrical True North as we hear even in this last movement. A phalanx of saxophones ruffle the Charleston velvet at 10:23 onwards as a metropolitan futuristic world strikes a dissolute meld with Jazz. An unnervingly iterated siren wail leads to a closing roll of drums.

The progress of the music has to be followed across clear pauses as the composer moves from episode to episode within the movements. Structurally it could have done with more variation but that is to criticise it for staying true to a consistent mood. The symphony was originally a multi-media event – not quite in the Scriabin sense but certainly one in which dance, singing, music and spectacle played complementary parts. Even so the music can be appreciated in its own right as a series of poetic tableaux. As a work it is predominantly reflective and evocative rather than dramatic. It is a fascinatingly distinctive yet low key revival skilfully presented and yielding its rewards in intensely pensive currency.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group