Music Library Reviews: Beethoven, Reinhard Schwarz-Schilling and Fernando Lopes-Graca
by: Chris Hathaway, June 1, 2012 11:06:00 am
FERNANDO LOPES-GRAÇA: Suite Rústica (Rustic Suite) No. 1 (1950). December Poem (1961). Festival March (1954). Symphony for Orchestra (1944). Alvaro Cassuto conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Naxos 8.572892.
Alvaro Cassuto was a composition pupil of Fernando Lopes-Graça in the late 1950s, during the nearly 40-year authoritarian régime in Portugal which hampered the composer's career and which finally came to an end in 1974. Lopes-Graça was self-consciously nationalistic in the same sense as Béla Bartók or Zoltán Kodály, taking the folk music of his native country as a basis of his own personal style. Cassuto — who wrote the liner notes for this album — gives Lopes-Graça's lifespan as from 1908 to 1993, although many reference works give the date of his birth as being in December of 1906 and his death in 1994. At any rate, he was forbidden to teach at the National Conservatory in Lisbon and, for a time, was drawn to Communism. He was a tireless though sometimes quiet opponent of the police state government of António de Oliveira Salazar, who served as prime minister for 36 years—forced by declining health to step down in 1968, two years before he died. Salazar has retained a curious popular following in the more than forty years since his death; at the beginning of his tenure, the somewhat star-struck journalism of Henry R. Luce hailed him as "the greatest Portuguese since Henry the Navigator". Salazar's Portugal was in on the founding of the United Nations and NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization); on the other hand, it came under attack for its colonial policies (its principal colonies during most of those nearly forty years were Mozambique and Angola in southern Africa).
Lopes-Graça, primarily a pianist and conductor in addition to his composition activities (he is especially remembered in some circles for his choral settings of Portuguese folk songs), is a completely tonal composer and an original in every sense of the term. In his music is the practice of what he preached in his composition classes: artistic results require attention to seemingly small details, and a sure technique is any composer's best friend in expressing himself.
The Suite Rústica No. 1 of 1950, fresh and exuberant and in six brief movements which might be described as character pieces, is the most "nationalistic" item on Cassuto's survey of his former teacher's oeuvre. He weaves folk material (or original material that resembles folk music) into transparent textures, using the large orchestra as a collection of many groups rather than all at once. A saxophone makes its only appearance in the sixth and last movement. The six miniatures form a chain with succeeding movements flowing unobtrusively into each other, and the entire suite is marked by a practiced command of form and orchestration.
Somewhat different is the wistful December Poem of 1961, which begins with an oboe solo ushered in by muted upper strings and brass. In its main section, the piece is built on strands of melody in the upper and lower strings, later punctuated by contributions from the brass, gradually building a near-climax which re-introduces the oboe solo, this time answered by a solo violin and later a flute, over an underpinning of the same muted strings heard at first. A second near-climax follows, with the string sound continuing to dominate (brass entries notwithstanding). The musical texture is more contrapuntal than layered throughout, and this avoids bombast and the temptation to have everyone and everything going at once. The last chord of the piece, "polytonal" in the sense of, say, Copland in Appalachian Spring, sounds neither major nor minor but is an unmistakable "resolution".
The Festival March (1954) is a kind of anti-scherzo, difficult to pin down as to mood: now jackbooted, now lyrical, now whimsical, now grotesque (the lower woodwind grunts and the col legno string effects just before the final fortissimo close come to mind).
The Symphony of 1944, the earliest work on the disc, is also the most "cosmopolitan" of Lopes-Graça's works presented here. Its asymmetrical opening, with the interest being more motivic than melodic, almost calls to mind the terseness of Arthur Honegger. His "relief" passages for winds alone are striking, as much as his contrast of brass and strings. The triplet-rhythm fugato toward the end of the first movement, most of the material taken by the strings against a unison chorale-like tune in longer note values which is given to the low brass. The fugato is not the final flourish before the end: there is effective use of contrasting colors using lighter textures and what this reviewer seems to sense is a Lopes-Graça personal trademark: the use of highly accessible melody that lives in a harmonic-contrapuntal edifice that might be described as "dissonant" by pre-twentieth century standards. The opening movement ends with the same material essayed at first by the strings taken up by the brass.
The second of the three movements of the Symphony (called Intermezzo) seems to be in the character of an aria with an agitato middle section that starts almost at once, then a more expansive return of the "aria" idea. A second agitated section, punctuated by slow triplet ostinati, leads into a dance (slow three to a bar).— first light-textured and then with some deliciously polytonal harmonies in the upper strings. It must be emphasized that Lopes-Graça's brand of "dissonance" is not abrasive but enticing, and he has a sense of voice-leading that marks almost any good composer—but that is always more intuitive than systematic. It seems to come from the same place as Darius Milhaud's freshening up the music by lapsing into using two keys at once and then coming out of it — non-harmonic tones, perhaps, that have a fresh piquancy.
The finale of Lopes-Graça's Symphony is a Passacaglia (variations on a ground bass) in duple meter, using an almost martial theme. There is enormous variety of texture, mood and color in this piece; and, as always, the orchestral style is contrapuntal. The coloration seems to be dictated by the contrapuntal nature of the music.
Cassuto, working in partnership with a proven virtuoso orchestra that has over the years more than acquitted itself in a variety of styles under a variety of conductors, leads with a disciple's fervor and effectively takes up his mentor's sense of balance and form. He imparts this sense with a noble eloquence, and that is what makes this disc especially worthwhile.
REINHARD SCHWARZ-SCHILLING (1904-85): Polonaise for Orchestra (1936). Partita (1934-35). José Serebrier conducting Staatskapelle Weimar. Violin Concerto (1953). Kirill Troussov, violin; with Serebrier and Staatskapelle Weimar. Naxos 8.572801.
Schwarz-Schilling is also distinctively individualistic and worked largely in what might be called traditional molds. The Polonaise, recorded here for the first time, has an immediate allure and has the same use of the orchestra predicated on a contrapuntal mentality — but the German heritage and accent are unmistakable. The Partita evokes the spirit of J.S. Bach in a highly personal way. This is the kind of music in which there is activity in every bar, but thankfully missing is the self-absorbed one-upmanship that characterizes much of Max Reger's work. The opening Entrata sounds almost like a solo violin or 'cello piece "dished up", as Percy Grainger would say, for full orchestra. Logic and subtlety rather than bombast drive this music. The late conductor Eugen Jochum was very fond of the Partita, and regularly performed it with the Berlin Philharmonic. The orchestra of the Partita is by turns diminished and expanded: the second movement, Tanz (Dance), is a veritable chamber music; in the third section (a song-like Canzona), a harp is added; eventually, a full percussion battery joins the orchestra that only has single winds.
The Violin Concerto of 1953 is not easy for the soloist, conductor or the orchestra. Much of the expert writing for the soloist is owing to the advice of Leon Spierer, who greatly helped Schwarz-Schilling when he reworked the cadenza thirteen years after the première. Spierer made the first commercial recording of the Concerto. The St. Petersburg-born violinist Kirill Troussov is a formidable exponent of this work, receiving sympathetic collaboration from Serebrier—long a champion of neglected repertory—and the Weimar musicians.
Reinhard Schwarz-Schilling was a protégé of Heinrich Kaminski (1886-1946), who introducted him to the Polish pianist Dusza von Hakrid, who became his wife. Only in recent years was it discovered that Mrs. Schwarz-Schilling was of Jewish descent: the couple were regularly and systematically targeted by the Gestapo for interrogation, and a friendly and courageous official in Upper Bavaria cleverly altered her documents to remove any palpable Jewish connection. The couple never joined the Nazi party, but — like a surprising number of other Germans of note — stood their own ground in their own way.
Schwarz-Schilling's creative life is the story of a flair for writing that turned into mastery. All of his music has the flavor of what the Berlin critic H.H. Stuckenschmidt called living "at once in a world of yesteryear and tomorrow". This is music is at once marked by skill, ingenuity and intense spirituality. Highly recommended.
BEETHOVEN: Die glorreiche Augenblick (The Glorious Moment: cantata), op. posth 136. Claire Rutter, soprano; Matilde Wallevik, mezzo-soprano; Peter Hoare, tenor and Stephen Gadd, baritone; with the Westminster Boys' Choir, the City of London Choir and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Hilary Davan Wetton. Fantasia in c minor for piano, chorus and orchestra, op. 80. Leon McCawley, piano; Marta Fontanals-Simmons, mezzo-soprano and Julian Davies, tenor; with Davan Wetton and the City of London Choir and the Royal Philharmonic. Naxos 8.572783.
The seldom-heard cantata—indeed, this reviewer's first exposure to it—begs the question: why did Beethoven write only one opera? Perhaps because the politics of musical theater were not anything with which he wanted to be involved (witness his initial refusal to revise Fidelio, which was called Leonore in the first place); but this cantata, the very early cantatas on the death of Emperor Joseph II and its companion piece celebrating the accession of Leopold after him, as well as several Italian arias, point up a knack for dramatic writing that is an integral component of the essential Beethoven style. The text of Glorreiche Augenblick is largely official rubbish, with the female soloists representing the city of Vienna (referred to in the text not as Wien, but by its Latinized name) and a Prophetess; the tenor is "Genius" and the bass is "Leader of the People"—Führer des Volkes. Beethoven gives it the kind of music it almost doesn't deserve, as accomplished and as solid as anything he ever wrote. The cantata, opening with the exclamation Europa steht! (Europe stands!), is a celebration over the Austro-German world's weathering the storms of Napoleonic imperialism, and belongs to the same period as the celebrated battle piece Wellingtons Sieg (Wellington's Victory), op. 91. It apparently wasn't published during the composer's lifetime, bearing the opus number 136. The orchestra is a large one by Beethovenian standards, including three trombones and (at the very end) the "Turkish" or "military" flavor of bass drum, cymbals, triangle and piccolo.
There are even echoes of the first version of Fidelio in this music—notably the violin and 'cello obbligati which decorate an aria with chorus, calling to mind a duet for two sopranos which Beethoven excised from the opera. Beethoven now seems to have gone beyond the mere "prettiness" of the abandoned duet. There is a real martial thrill in the dotted rhythms of the concluding choral proclamation Heil Vienna, dir und Glück! / Stolze Roma, trete zurück! (Hail Vienna, fortune and joy! Step back, proud Rome!). This music could have been written by no one else.
This is one of the most exciting and gratifying Beethoven recordings this reviewer has come across in recent years. Davan Wetton, who once held Gustav Holst's old job at London's St. Paul's School and a number of other teaching positions as well as the directorship of the Milton Keynes Orchestra (with whom he made some particularly outstanding recordings of not-so-familiar works of Cirpriani Potter, Samuel Wesley and Joachim Raff), enters more than fully into the spirit of the music. These are not the "polite" performances which seem to be so much in vogue today, but Beethoven without apology. British soprano Claire Rutter, in some ways, reminds one of Edda Moser in her heyday. She is at once a coloratura and a dramatic soprano. These are qualities that seem very close to what Anna Milder, the very first Leonore, must have had. Bass-baritone Stephen Gadd is also stellar; indeed, all the soloists are first-rate. The choral diction and overall sound are outstanding throughout, and the boys' choir puts its own stamp on the piece as well.
The Choral Fantasy is no less effective, no less ingratiating. Pianist Leon McCawley, already a seasoned veteran at not quite thirty years of age, captures the improvisatory nature of the writing as few pianists have done. His long trills ("shakes", in 18th-century British usage) all dynamic levels, especially in various shades of piano, are electrifying. The two soloists within the chorus, Ms. Fortunals-Simmons and Mr. Davies (respectively, mezzo-soprano and tenor) are a captivatingly effective semi-chorus to the larger group. Together, they sound like more than just two people. Again, the City of London Choir delivers faultlessly, both in terms of musicality and German diction. This is potentially one of the year's best recordings.
BRYAN JOHANSON: paraphrases of: My Funny Valentine (Richard Rodgers); On a Good Day (Joanna Newsom); Fly Me to the Moon (Bart Howard, incorporating a phrase from Franz Schubert's Piano Trio in E-flat); Tequila (Daniel Flores); Sleep Walk (Santo and Johnny Farina); All the Things You Are (Jerome Kern); Summer Saltarello (Vincenzo Galilei, interspersed with Eddie Cochran's Summertime Blues); Saint Thomas (Sonny Rollins, quoting the ca. 1770 Aaron Williams hymn tune Saint Thomas); Autumn Leaves (Joseph Kosma); Watermelon Man (Herbie Hancock) and Jesus Gonna Be Here (Tom Waits). The Oregon Guitar Quartet. Cubesquared Records C2R-603.
All of these are, of course, not arrangements but free paraphrases; like the OGQ's earlier album, Something Wondrous Fair (devoted mainly to American folk material and the songs of Stephen Foster and others), it is an unpretentious display of the compositional acumen of Quartet member Bryan Johanson. The songs are taken as points of departure, and for the most part the style is aggressively contrapuntal and (regardless of what textures, techniques or moods are used) always commanding the listener's full interest.
This reviewer has to confess, from the start, a kind of cultural illiteracy: he is not familiar with much popular music, and barely knows or does not know many of the tunes treated here. He has tried to follow them as best he could, knowing that the Johanson technique (like that of J.S. Bach, who seems to be at the core and center of the guitarist-composer's musical thought and feeling) is not always to give out the tune as people are accustomed to hearing it.
The piece founded on Richard Rodgers' My Funny Valentine is almost "orchestrally" conceived in places. The marvelously effective ending uses jazz-like harmonies and unusual ways of touching the strings. In many ways, the playing and handling the strings — not merely in this piece, but throughout the entire disc— make for the most colorful playing, perhaps, since the retirement of Julian Bream. The paraphrase of Fly Me to the Moon, with an invocation of a motif from the slow movement of the Schubert E-flat Piano Trio, is utterly marvelous. It was something of a shock to suddenly hear, toward the end of Johanson's paraphrase of Sonny Rollins' Saint Thomas (after the island bearing that name), a piece born of syncopation and asymmetrical to the core, something as square and symmetrical as Aaron Williams' hymn tune Saint Thomas, from about 1770. Johanson explains in his liner notes that he wanted to invoke "party music" (Rollins) on Saint Thomas Island and, wandering into a church, hearing the organist playing the Williams tune; then re-emerging into the festival atmosphere evoked by Rollins' music. In similar fashion, a saltarello by Vincenzo Galilei is juxtaposed with Eddie Cochran's Summertime Blues. Johanson's handling of Joanna Newsom's On a Good Day is in a more or less straightforward variation form. In his notes, Johanson illustrates giving the tune an "expanded living space" in his treatment, a simple song grown mature enough to live in a house instead of just one room.
One of the most striking of Johanson's creations is his treatment of Jerome Kern's All the Things You Are, which comes very close to sonata form. Johanson plays with the harmonies of the tune before letting the tune go forth. "I tried to take my time finding my way into the tune", he says. When the tune appears, it is surrounded by the "busy" arabesques which began the piece. Here counterpoint coexists with homophonic jazz and beyond-Alberti figurations which would not displease a French post-Impressionist. Joseph Kosma's 1945 hit Autumn Leaves (originally Les feuilles mortes) receives an idyllic, almost "pastoral" treatment, ending in a volley of triplets. Tom Waits' Jesus Gonna Be Here evokes the singer's image of living on the fringes, ending with a smoker's cough.
Bryan Johanson is a man of genius. One would hope that the Oregon Guitar Quartet will soon do a project involving original compositions by him, probably extended pieces. The title of the present album, Covers, refers to a term in the popular music world to describe a song being performed by someone other than the artist who introduced it to the public in the first place. Besides Johanson, the members of OGQ are John Mery, Jesse McCann and David Franzen.
MENDELSSOHN: Symphonies 3-5; Scherzo from Octet, op. 20 (composer's arrangement for full orchestra); Violin Concerto in e minor, op. 64 (Jascha Heifetz, violin); Capriccio brilliant in b minor, op. 22 (Gary Graffman, piano). BRAHMS: Symphonies 1, 2 and 4; Tragic Overture, op. 81; Piano Concerto No. 1 in d minor, op. 15 (Graffman, piano); Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat, op. 83 (Arthur Rubinstein, piano). SCHUBERT: Symphonies 2, 8 ("Unfinished") and 9 ("Great C Major"). SCHUMANN: Symphony No. 1 in B-flat, op. 38 ("Spring"); Manfred Overture, op. 115; Genoveva Overture, op. 81. Charles Munch conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra ("Charles Munch conducts Romantic Masterworks"). RCA Red Seal 8 86978 26732 0: 8 CDs.
WAGNER: Tannhäuser: Overture and Venusberg Music (Paris version); Tristan und Isolde: Prelude to Act I and Liebestod (Eileen Farrell, soprano, in Liebestod only); Die Walküre: Magic Fire Music; Die Götterdämmerung: Siegfried's Rhine Journey and Brünnhilde's Immolation (Farrell, soprano, in Immolation only). TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphonies 4 and 6 ("Pathétique"); Serenade for Strings in C, op. 48; Romeo and Juliet (Fantasy-Overture); Francesca da Rimini (Symphonic Poem after Dante), op. 32; Violin Concerto in D, op. 35 (Henryk Szeryng, violin). DVORAK: Symphony No. 8 in G, op. 88; Cello Concerto in b minor, op. 104 (Gregor Piatigorsky, cello). MAHLER: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) and Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) (Maureen Forrester, contralto). RICHARD STRAUSS: Don Quixote, op. 35 (Piatigorsky, cello); Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, op. 28. Charles Munch conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra ("Charles Munch: Late Romantic Masterpieces"). RCA Red Seal 8 86978 99792 0: 7 CDs.
RCA has favored us with some of the best of Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony (of which he was music director for thirteen seasons, 1949-62) in non-French nineteenth-century music. It would have been nice to have had the Franck d minor Symphony, which I do not think has appeared on compact disc, included in these collections. New to compact disc are the Schubert second symphony (the second of two times Munch and the BSO essayed this work), the Brahms First Piano Concerto (with Gary Graffman), the Mendelssohn Capriccio briliant (also with Graffman) and the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto (with Henryk Szeryng). Missing, alas, is another Munch collaboration with pianist Graffman: the Chopin e minor Concerto.
The Wagner excerpts featuring the gifts of Eileen Farrell are particularly choice, as are the Mahler songs with the generous vocal endowment of Maureen Forrester (who died two years ago at age 79). Munch is generally not thought of as a Mahler conductor, and there are the only Mahler works he ever recorded. Forrester was a young star in ascendance at the time these recordings were made.
Munch does not approach the Schubert No. 2 as a kleine sinfonie but as a robust, full-throated major work — a breath of fresh air that almost makes one curious as to the earlier Munch/Boston recording of 1950 (which exists in a privately-issued compact disc remastering). There is of course, the unusually poetic reading of the Unfinished, a remarkable early stereo recording from November 1955, which has essentially (and deservedly so) never been out of the catalogue since its initial appearance as a monaural LP.
The Mendelssohn third, fourth and fifth symphonies are here, as is that composer's own arrangement for full orchestra of the Scherzo from his Octet for Strings. Then-principal flute Doriot Anthony Dwyer shines in the finale of No. 5 (Symphony on the Protestant Reformation), leading the winds in the chorale; she and colleague James Pappoutsakis shine with an elegantly judicious though sumptuous vibrato in the slow movement of No. 4 (the Italian). The Schumann first symphony (Spring), the second Munch/Boston recording of this work (in stereo), is here, along with his Manfred overture which was paired with the symphony on the original LP release.
This reviewer was not familiar with Munch's August 1953 recording of Richard Strauss' Don Quixote with Gregor Piatigorsky (a player much admired, incidentally, by the composer) playing the solo ‘cello part. This is a monaural recording, but a very high-end and very vivid sound portrait that does not deserve consignment to oblivion because it isn't stereo. The best Munch monaural recordings with the BSO give the listener a kind of aural image that seems to suggest the catwalk over the stage. Every orchestral detail is captured with admirable clarity: Piatigorsky is at his best, playing with a really big tone that is reminiscent of Casals in his heyday; details like hard ‘cello pizzicati and the clicking of bassoon keys come through with astounding clarity. It is baffling why this recorded performance has been unfavorably compared, in some circles, with the stereophonic recordings of this score by Reiner and Szell that came less than a decade later. The variation dealing with the battle with the sheep, fairly early into the work, has almost a chamber music quality about it, and the articulation of the rapid bowed tremolo in the violins and the flutter-tongue effects in the winds and brass are clearly captured.
Less satisfactory (from a sonic point of view) is the Schumann Genoveva Overture, which is harsh and compressed (much as it sounded in the original 10-inch LP of sixty-one years ago); even so, it is a miraculous performance, full of fire and expressivity. This is its second appearance on CD.
If the monaural recordings conjure up an image of the stage from above, the stereo recordings have the effect of sitting in the center seats on the ground level, close enough to hear intimate detail but far enough to revel in the sound of the room. His second recording of the Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet overture-fantasy is included here (the second was justly praised as a "demonstration-class" example of how an orchestral recording should be done; the earlier one, also in stereo, was featured in part on an RCA Victor promotional film from the 1950s on how vinyl records are made— and it is no less passionate). A mid-1950s early stereo Munch recording of the symphonic poem Francesca da Rimini is included here. Strauss' Till Eulenspiegel (recorded about 1961, and originally paired on an LP with the second Romeo and Juliet) is also included here. Munch recorded, with the Boston Symphony, all of the Brahms symphonies except the third (he recorded No. 4 twice, first in 1950 in mono and in stereo toward the end of the same decade— and that second recording is included in this collection). The early 1950s recording of the Brahms second piano concerto, with Arthur Rubinstein, is also included here. Conspicuous by their absence are other mono-era collaborations, notably with Yehudi Menuhin and Nathan Milstein: perhaps these will appear in another Munch collection— one can hope.
The delights of these two boxed sets are too many to enumerate in this limited space. A suggestion for the people at Sony/BMG: how about two other Munch collections, one devoted to Beethoven (he and the BSO recorded all of the symphonies except Nos. 2 and 4, as well as all of the four Fidelio and Leonore overtures; the Violin Concerto with Heifetz and the first piano concerto with Richter) and the other to twentieth century music— -an embarrassment of riches which would include the sixth symphony by Walter Piston (having a sureness about it that first performances rarely have), the sixth of Martinu, the atonal but arrestingly dramatic first symphony by Easley Blackwood, the violin concerto by Gian-Carlo Menotti (with Tossy Spivakovsky), the Suite provençale and the jazz-inspired ballet Le création du Monde of Darius Milhaud (the latter, with a beefed-up string section sanctioned by the composer), the Poulenc organ concerto (with the late organist Berj Zamokochian and the BSO's superb then-principal timpanist, Everett "Vic" Firth), Stravinsky's Jeu de Cartes ballet, the Prokofiev second piano concerto (with his kinswoman Nicole Henriot-Schweitzer) and much else.
As Bernard Haitink, who in more recent years has developed a close association with the Boston Symphony, put it, "You can always learn a great deal from Munch".
STEVEN STUCKY: August 4, 1964 (opera). Indira Mahajan, soprano (Mrs. Chaney); Kristine Jepson, mezzo-soprano (Mrs. Goodman); Vale Rideout, tenor (Robert McNamara) and Rod Gilfry, bass-baritone (Lyndon B. Johnson); with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Jaap van Zweden (recorded at the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas on 6 May 2011). DSO Live 4.
Lyndon Johnson's potential as an operatic subject has yet to be fully realized; this new opera breve by Stephen Stucky comes very close to showing us how the mined goods will look and sound. There was a feeble effort, not long ago, by an amateur composer: while his tone-painting and technique were (to put it mildly) wanting, he opened his Johnsonian opera with a poignant scene that, in the hands of the right musical dramatist, might be something to rank with the Clock Scene in Boris Godunov: an insomniac Lyndon Johnson, mired in the escalating Vietnam war, wandering the corridors of a darkened White House and touching the portrait of the hypertensive Woodrow Wilson (something which actually happened). Every word of Stucky's extended lament, Johnson's big aria (Historians), was actually uttered by LBJ: it comes from an interview with (or, rather, a monologue delivered in the presence of) Doris Kearns Goodwin, as it appears in her book Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. Bass-baritone Rod Gilfry gets the Texas accent down pat without doing violence to his diction, and brings out the Lear-like aspects of the character of the thirty-sixth president. Even a fragment of a poem by Stephen Spender ("I think continually of those who were truly great…."), echoed and used as a point of reference by Stucky and his librettist throughout the opera, sounds eerily reminiscent of an editorial by the nineteen-year-old Johnson In the College Star, the student newspaper of Southwest Texas State Teachers' College, circa 1927: "Humanity, let us continue to have our heroes! Let us believe that there have been those who have been truly great." (Although, it may be noted, Spender speaks in a wistful voice and the young Johnson in a booming, pontifical and pretentious tone.)
August 4, 1964 revolves around two events: the investigation leading to the discovery of the remains, in a shallow grave near Philadelphia, Mississippi, of three young men fighting die-hard segregation in the Deep South; and the fabricated attack by North Vietnamese vessels on U.S. ships in the Gulf of Tonkin, the catalyst for the Congressional resolution giving Johnson special war-making powers.
The bodies of the three young men— James Chaney, a black Mississippian and white New Yorkers Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner — were found on August 4, 1964, the same date as the Tonkin Gulf incident. They had come to Mississippi to investigate the torching of a black church where civil rights meetings were held. In late June, Neshoba County police pulled their station wagon over on trumped-up speeding charges. The three men spent five hours in the county jail and were denied permission to make telephone calls. They were fined $20, released and ordered to leave the county. Not much later, the charred remains of the wagon were found— but no trace of the young men. Meanwhile, the historic Civil Rights Act was signed into law on July 2. Though FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was an open enemy of the civil rights movement, President Johnson was adamant that the Bureau devote all of its energies to finding the three men.
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara is portrayed by tenor Vale Rideout, who has distinguished himself in modern and bel canto roles, including the part of liberal Congregationalist-turned-Unitarian minister Frank Shallard in an operatization of Sinclair Lewis' Elmer Gantry and as Edgardo in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor and as Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni, among many other roles. The cast is rounded out by soprano Indira Mahajan (Mrs. Chaney) and mezzo Kristine Jepson (Mrs. Goodman).
Jaap van Zweden lives up to his growing reputation in leadership of the executive forces. This is an auspicious beginning to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra's following the lead of many other orchestras, American and European alike, in producing its own line of recordings.