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, September 2011

Most readers will never have heard of these composers. In fact, I rather suspect that most collectors attracted to this release, The 18th-Century American Overture, will be so more out of historical curiosity than out of any prior knowledge of the music itself. Benjamin Carr (1768–1831) and James Hewitt (1770–1827) were both English-born and educated. Carr, who studied organ with Charles Wesley and composition with Samuel Arnold, the first great cataloger and editor of Handel’s music, was a prolific publisher, a driving force in the development of a music establishment in Philadelphia, and one of the founders of the Musical Fund Society. Hewitt, who made the questionable claim that he had played violin in London under the direction of Haydn, was similarly engaged in New York, where he bought an earlier publishing concern from Carr, and later in Boston, where he was a conductor, arranger, publisher, and of course composer. Scots-born Alexander Reinagle was a contemporary of Carr in Philadelphia, where he established a concert series and was involved in the theatrical life of the city. He was a favorite composer of George Washington, who not only attended many of Reinagle’s concerts, but arranged for Reinagle to give piano lessons to his adopted daughter, Nelly Custis.

I mention the credentials of the three composers, as one would otherwise never attribute these works to musicians of any serious standing. Of course, when listening to the initial track, the Hewitt Medley Overture, one may well assume that a disc of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 had been substituted. But wait a bit, for soon after follow quotes of reels, marches, and patriotic songs like Yankee Doodle. In many of these, transitions are minimal, and there is little or no attempt to create a coherent flow. Tunes are occasionally cut off in mid-phrase to make way for the next, and the sublime and the trivial reside incongruously together. These then are pops concert entertainments of their day, compendiums of common tunes that would be recognized by the audience, packaged occasionally with the latest works from Europe. (The Mozart piano concerto premiered but 13 years before its appropriation here.) Some, like Carr’s Federal Overture, have a political purpose, with La Marseillaise running roughshod over some English tunes, followed by Oh Dear, What Can the Matter Be? and Philip Phile’s Presidential March, now better known as The Itsy-Bitsy Spider. The intent would not have been lost on his audience in 1794. Others by Reinagle, the pragmatic man of the theater, lack pretensions musical or political, and are full of lively dance tunes.

Each of them, whatever the musical merit, gives insight into the culture of the new republic. These seven overtures are all that remain of many such works produced in America in the last two decades of the 18th century, and these have only survived in published piano reductions, or string parts without wind parts or score. The reconstructions were done by musicologist Bertil van Boer, professor of music history and theory at Western Washington University in Bellingham. He explains the historical background, and the detective work done in preparing the reconstruction, in his amusing and informative insert notes. Van Boer’s specialty is Scandinavian music of the 18th century, which explains, perhaps, the provenance of the recording. The Jyväskylä Sinfonia Finlandia is not an ensemble whose work often finds its way to these shores. Fanfare critics have reviewed only two releases: a disc of works by Rautavaara and another of Finnish tangos. That is about as broad a range as any ensemble I know. Now add obscure American popular potpourris to the mix. Who does their programming?

Whatever the story behind the recordings, kudos to van Boer, conductor Patrick Gallois, and the adaptable musicians of the orchestra for rescuing these curiosities and bringing them to our attention. The execution is polished and enthusiastic. The engineering is top-drawer. No one will mistake anything other than the Mozart quotes for great music, but the overtures are amusing, and this release adds an important tile to the mosaic of American music.

Steven J Haller
American Record Guide, July 2011

We tend to forget that at the same time Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven were writing their symphonies, we were fighting for our independence. Yet long before that music was an integral part of everyday existence in the Colonies; in major cities like Philadelphia, Boston, and New York public concerts, theater, even opera were all readily available to men of culture, including our Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson was an immensely learned man who practiced the violin three hours each day and regularly joined in string quartets with his cronies in Williamsburg, while Benjamin Franklin is credited with inventing the glass harmonica and even wrote his music (his quartet for three violins and cello has been recorded twice).

An Italian immigrant named Giovanni Gualdo wrote what may well be the first American symphony; it was played in Philadelphia in November 1769, nearly 20 years before the earliest piece here.

All three composers represented here were also immigrants. Only three years after the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, a young Scot named Alexander Reinagle arrived in Philadelphia and soon became one of America’s leading composers for the theater. He was a good friend of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, and his deft ear for melody and counterpart is immediately apparent in the three pieces offered here. England gave us James Hewitt—if you’re lucky, you may own the wonderful Goldman Band survey for EMI, “Greatest Band in the Land!”, which offers Hewitt’s best known piece The Battle of Trenton—and has Reinagle’s Federal March too. (Losing Hewitt may have infuriated George III almost as much as those Revolutionary upstarts, since Hewitt was his court composer.) And from England too came Benjamin Carr who along with Hewitt helped develop the “medley overture”, which proved highly popular with British and American audiences.

Unfortunately these seven pieces appear to be all that have survived the ravages of time, and none of them exist in full score. We owe this repast to the musicologist Bertil van Boer, who has fleshed them out from nothing more than a piano transcription printed for general public consumption, or whatever he could find in the library of the American Philosophical Society. Reinagle indicated the orchestration in his piano score, while in the case of Hewitt and Carr some idea of the forces involved could be gleaned from the violin parts and contemporary accounts of concert performances. Even so, this recording is a yeoman accomplishment for Van Boer (who also supplied the notes) and a boon for anyone interested in what we now call the Federal Era.

The composers expected audiences to know this stuff; maybe they applauded or stomped along. You’ll recognize ‘Yankee Doodle’ and ‘Hail, Columbia!’ many times over, while Carr in his Federal Overture quotes ‘La Marseillaise’ and there are popular Scottish and Irish melodies. (Reinagle was Scottish.) ‘Garry Owen’ shows up in his Miscellaneous Overture, while the familiar ‘Irish Washerman’ scrubs away furiously in the Occasional Overture. Hewitt’s New Medley Overture jostles a Scottish reel with ‘Governor Jay’s March’ resplendent in trumpet and drum; even more curious, his Medley Overture starts out with the introduction to Mozart’s D-minor Piano Concerto (No. 20). Hewitt takes the “medley” part seriously: his tunes stop on a dime and switch off at the drop of a hat, and just when you’re expecting the piano to come in he launches into ‘Hail, Columbia!’ instead. The big-hearted string sound of Reinagle’s Overture in G has a robust Handelian feel and is typical of the hearty hale-fellow-well-met attitude displayed by this Finnish band all through this thoroughly recommendable outing.

Lee Passarella
Audiophile Audition, May 2011

In 1820 English clergyman and critic Sydney Smith asked his famously tart question “Who reads an American book?” Within a few years, the answer came: the world was reading and even learning from the likes of Washington Irving and James Fennimore Cooper, soon to be followed by even more illustrious writers such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne. However, as late as the 1890s Dvoƙák could counsel American composers to look to their own native music for inspiration since the chief models for America were still the works of European composers. Go back a hundred years still, and American music was in its absolute infancy. Without Europe’s still-powerful system of noble patronage of the arts or its vast supply of musical talent, musical entertainment in America, understandably, was largely imported, and even when American composers finally got around to writing music, those composers were imports as well, including Englishmen James Hewitt and Benjamin Carr and Scotsman Alexander Reinagle.

The orchestral music they produced was based on a genre that both Hewitt and Carr had perfected in London before emigrating to America, the medley overture. As the name implies, the form didn’t offer rigorous development in the manner of the symphony or concert overture but instead cobbled together a series of melodies popular, classic, and patriotic. Hewitt’s Medley Overture of 1798, for example, the Irish quickstep “Garryowen,” the Scottish folksong “The Bluebells of Scotland,” the Anglo-American tune “Yankee Doodle,” the American patriotic song “The President’s March” (a.k.a. “The Itsy Bitsy Spider”) composed for the 1789 inauguration of George Washington, and of course the opening of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor. When I say “of course,” naturally I’m being facetious, but here is the essence of the musical grab-bag known as the medley overture.

The so-called Federal overtures of Hewitt and Carr are even more single-mindedly patriotic in their bent and appeared in the 1790s during the power struggle between the Federalists (represented by Hamilton and Adams) and Republicans (represented by Jefferson and Madison) over the reins of government. Since the idea in all of this music is to stitch the familiar melodies together as seamlessly as possible through the use of ingenious bridge material, there is some satisfaction in hearing the musical glue these composers used to hold their overtures together. None of this is great or even important music, but it is attractive and of course tuneful since it includes melodies that will be instantly recognizable even today, from The Marseillaise to “The Irish Washerwoman.”

Speaking of Irish tunes, perhaps the most refreshing of the compositions on offer here are those by Reinagle since they feature less-well-known melodies from the British Isles. They’re also more lightly scored—also refreshing after the more noisily jingoistic Federal overtures of Hewitt and Carr. As to instrumentation, to a large extent that’s a matter of conjecture since most of these works exist in scores with string parts only (and in the case of the Federal overtures, in piano reductions only). However, in some of the scores there are cues as to instrumentation, while a New York newspaper of the day advertised the Carr Federal Overture (1794) as being played by “the largest band of instruments heretofore assembled,” which would indicate an augmented Classical orchestra with trumpets and timpani. So arranger Bertil van Boer was not flying blind when he orchestrated these overtures, and he’s produced very convincing reconstructions that don’t stray from the sound that a well-staffed orchestra of Haydn’s day might have produced.

Conductor Patrick Gallois and his Finnish band play this music with energy and even more important, without an air of condescension. They take it seriously and so turn out performances that are fun, unstuffy, but respectful of the composers’ intentions. This is a very enjoyable recreation of music from a lively time in American cultural and political history. An attractively warm yet detailed recording from Hankasalmi Church in Jyväskylä completes the package.

John Sheppard
MusicWeb International, April 2011

This is another issue in the Naxos “American Classics” series. Even if you are doubtful about the relevance of the word “Classics” these Overtures most certainly are, and go out of their way to be, American. Each is in the form of a “Medley Overture”, a collection of popular tunes linked together with greater or lesser skill. Although this device originated in London the examples here are all intended to further particular political views at a time of intense debate in America between Federalists and Republicans. All of this is explained in the fascinating leaflet notes by Bertil van Boer who has also reconstructed these works, in some cases from limited evidence.

The tunes included in these Overtures almost invariably include “Yankee Doodle” and a large helping of Scottish and Irish tunes, presumably appealing especially to those coming from those countries. Other tunes used include the “Marseillaise”, William Shield’s “The Ploughboy”, “Oh dear, what can the matter be”, and, most surprising of all, the opening tutti from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 20 in D minor. The results are clearly of considerable historical interest even if musically to describe them even as second rate might seem an exaggeration of their qualities. However unless you insist on nothing but the best, as did a relation of mine whose entire reading of fiction consisted of “Ulysses” and “War and Peace”, there is much to enjoy here. This is due more than a little to the sprightly performances and clear recording but I think is primarily due to the very appealing self-confidence and ingenuous swagger of the music itself. Despite the political messages that their music is apparently intended to send, the three composers represented here were all British in origin—Reinagle from Scotland and Carr and Hewitt from England. These Overtures have much in common with the music of such composers as Michael Kelly, Charles Dibdin and Steven Storace. Hewitt is best known for a wonderfully naïve Sonata describing the Battle of Trenton, and the works by him on this disc are little more advanced musically. However like all the rest they have charm and curiosity value in abundance. Maybe it is overstating the case to describe them as “American Classics” but this is certainly a disc that I find almost always generates a contented smile in this listener at least.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, April 2011

Gathered under the title ‘The 18th Century American Overture’, the disc brings together music by English and Scottish emigre composers. Well away from European culture they devised scores based on popular melodies from their homeland, the song known in the UK as ‘Ten Green Bottles’ seemingly much in the minds of Benjamin Carr and James Hewitt. The eldest of the three was Alexander Reinagle born in 1756, the same year as Mozart, who brought with him popular Scottish dances as the basis for his compositions and shows a passing acquaintance with Germanic music of the early 18th century. He was to become the leading American composer of theatre music, his scores, and indeed all of the works on the disc, being written for an undemanding audience looking for a reminder of music ‘back home’. They have been passed down in piano transcriptions, some with orchestral cues, and, together with contemporary reports that spoke of the availability of musicians, the orchestrations have been reconstructed by the musicologist, Bertil van Boer. Historically they restore a long forgotten part of America’s musical heritage, and represent the only seven known works in a genre that had considerable popularity. The Sinfonia Finlandia, conducted by Patrick Gallois, bring a very studied approach to such lightweight scores, a couple of broken horn notes probably intentional. Unusual recorded sound to which ears soon adjust.

Cinemusical, March 2011

The title for this new Naxos CD might be the first of several things to make one pause. Musicologist Bertil van Boer has pulled together performing editions of the seven surviving works from three immigrants forging a life in the New World during the 18th century. In some respects, the music would seem to have more in common with English tastes of the period. Where the fun, and uniqueness, comes in these pieces though is in their collections of popular tunes and marches of the time. While there were some immigrant orchestras beginning to appear in primary city centers, the orchestra societies were still a ways off. The pieces here mostly survive in piano transcriptions for parlor enjoyment and Boer needed to examine period documents to arrive at an essential sound for these works.
The pieces on the disc are of a particular type that is similar to a pastiche. The overtures are essentially musical themes strung together from a genre that was in vogue in London during the period. These “occasional” or “medley” overtures were to the 18th century what pops arrangement of nationalist tunes might be to our own time. What is interesting is that the opportunity to hear these works helps create an early foundation for the sorts of nationalist music that would be an integral part of America’s musical heritage into the 19th Century as the nation forged its identity. The pieces reveal political intentions as well by using titles such as “Federal” or “Federalist.” Of course the real tantalizing pieces, like a battle work, have been lost to history. Instead, we do get to hear any number of permutations of “Yankee Doodle” which at times border on the hilarious.

The CD opens with the 1798 Medley Overture in D minor-major by James Hewitt (1770–1827) which begins with a quotation from Mozart’s Piano Concerto in d. Some adjustments include shifting oboe parts to clarinets. The piece then moves on to a series of dance-like segments featuring interesting dotted rhythms—including a popular Irish jig that breaks up a slow waltz-like section. The effect is perhaps intentionally humorous with a sort of Haydn-esque wit shining through. If you know your early American folksong and popular tune book, there are plenty of them here to test yourself. The appearance of “Yankee Doodle” is inevitable. Imagine it in a late-Classical dress and you will get a sense of what this, and other works on the recording will be like. Hewitt’s New Medley Overture (1799) is essentially more of the same now in C-major. After all why would you perform the same piece from last season! The little snap rhythms are in abundance here with often simple melodies played against string accompaniment.

Benjamin Carr’s (1768–1831) Federal Overture from 1794 has Mozart in mind as well and its little take on “Yankee Doodle” is part of a near-Beethoven like opening. It includes an arrangement of “Le Marseillaise” as well. Whether some of the woodwind work is Carr’s invention or Boer’s arranging of parts remains to be seen, but they are in that late-18th century style that was at least in the air. Imagine the song, “Oh, Dear, What Can the Matter Be” in this serious sounding clothing alongside “The Irish Washerwoman” and again you will get a feel for the thrust of the piece. Coming a couple years later, Hewitt’s New Federal Overture still inserts some Mozart into the plethora of popular tunes heard also in Carr’s work.

The Scottish immigrant Alexander Reinagle is represented by three works all saved for the final portion of the CD. As one would expect, Reinagle’s roots are on firmer display with more music from his own homeland being integrated into the new found melodies of America. His string writing wavers between an early Classical style and that of the later period often within the same piece. But, again it is the rhythmic vitality that makes the pieces fascinating to listen to and in a couple of spots the harmonic and melodic movement of the tunes is quite unlike anything heard in European 18th century music. It creates room for more open harmonies and musical directions that seem rather odd for the period, though not in the context of the pieces themselves. At times, the suggestion of a drone appears briefly in the music as well. In the Miscellaneous Overture in D (1801—the “newest” work on the release), harmony surprises abound, especially in the first movement’s final folk tune. There is more work for solo strings and the paired winds have a greater function in this piece. The 1794 Occasional Overture and the Overture in G (1787) are cast more in a Mozart-ian orchestral style. All three of his works are cast in three movements. The 1794 work feels a bit more serious in tone but there are still those wonderful inclusions of Scottish and Irish folk songs that are simply fascinating to hear in this style. The transitions into and out of ideas is always well-handled in these pieces that feel less like strung-together medleys than the pieces that make up the first half of the CD.

If nothing else, this release is yet another reminder that what often makes American music unique is that the “popular” and what we would now term “classical” music were always on an equal footing when it came to borrowing a tune. The blurred lines may seem quaint when we hear what we think of as children’s songs are in such classical music. “Yankee Doodle” was a hugely popular song so much so that we forget that it was essentially new when these pieces appeared and hearing it alongside Mozart and Beethoven is truly fascinating. But, what a great way for orchestras to introduce classical music today to a younger generation! Boer’s performing editions would make the perfect complement to orchestras involved in bringing classical music to young audiences. And for music educators, this disc will provide a great entry point to helping young people appreciate the style of the 18th century and perhaps find some humor in the way familiar songs made their way into classical music.

Gallois and the Finnish orchestra are no strangers to the Mozart and Beethoven sounds being imitated in these works. It is in their fine performances of the folk rhythms that one notes how good this ensemble is and that the recording sessions must have been a bit of fun. Lest we be too dismissive, one is reminded that even in these early works America’s immigrant roots found ways to honor their heritage and their new home.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group