In the 21st century, one figure from the 20th who never fails to impress through his continued relevance and the wealth of discoveries to be made in his music is American composer Morton Gould. From a working-class background, Gould was a child prodigy whose talent was recognized early; nurtured at the Institute of Musical Art (later Juilliard) during the Great Depression, Gould was leading radio orchestras by the age of 21 and this set him on a career that led to a Grammy and, ultimately, a Pulitzer Prize for music, despite the fact that his work never gained serious consideration in academic circles. Few composers, however, had as much range as Gould, easily moving through big band charts, orchestral pop, serious, traditional extended works, avant-garde, and even, at the end of his career, incorporating hip-hop into his music. Gould was like a great big snowball, rolling along and picking up whatever musical idea or approach caught his fancy, much in the manner that has proved a regular working habit for 21st century composers.
Gould's worklist is enormous and a large part of it remains to be sifted through; knowing just what to target out of such a mass of material can be a challenge. More than most classical labels, Albany Records tried, and this is its fourth release devoted wholly to Gould. It features the Albany Symphony Orchestra under David Alan Miller with arch-Gould advocate Findlay Cockrell as piano soloist in the concerted work Interplay (1943), once known as the "American Concertette No. 1." A one-time schoolmate of Raymond Scott at Juilliard, Gould ultimately moved away from self-made, cutesy-pie titles once he realized they were considered rather de rigueur by the classical musical establishment, but he never lost his sense of playfulness and interest in thematic ideas that combined the rigorous discipline of the classics and the ear-catching immediacy of the popular. This is no more directly apparent in works dating from the first decade of his professional career, which is what is covered -- perhaps for the first time in their right historical context -- on this Albany disc.
Gould's American Symphonette No. 2 (1938) was the piece that first made his name among the American public on radio, and although the second-movement Pavanne is a pop orchestral standard, this is only the third recording made of the full work. If Gould's own recordings of the piece can be taken as a guide, the Pavanne seems taken too slowly here. One can completely understand the temptation to drop the tempo as it functions as a slower movement in between two fast ones. However, it is marked Allegretto -- "a little allegro" -- and here the tempo falls below even Andante. Moreover, the sound of the disc is a little uneven; the session that produced the American Symphonette No. 3 (1938) and Chorale and Fugue in Jazz for two pianos and orchestra (1934) sounds a good deal more present than the rest, made in Albany's Palace Theater rather than the oft-so-employed Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. Also, jazz-tinged works such as these always present a challenge to modern orchestras; just witness many to most of the countless recordings of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. It's not a matter of just getting some swing into the thing as an additional concern of inflection and special kinds of jazzy performance accents that were second nature to the radio musicians at the Mutual Broadcasting Network on which these pieces were premiered. Miller and the Albany Symphony have a bit of a rough time negotiating some of these curves, but they do a bang-up job for most of this disc, particularly in the never-before-recorded Chorale and Fugue in Jazz. That work, the Concerto for Orchestra (1944) and American Symphonette No. 3 (1938) are all recording premieres, and all contain plenty of the sass, wit, and dynamic excitement that endeared the American public to Gould in the first place. For fans of Morton Gould in the specific, and those who enjoy the grand American vernacular style of the 1930s and 1940s in general, Albany's effort here should be a case of love at first sight.