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African American Voices (RSNO/Gray)

Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Kellen Gray (Linn Records)

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

African American Voices
WL Dawson: Negro Folk Symphony; Still: Symphony No. 1; G Walker: Lyric for Strings
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Kellen Gray
Linn Records CKD699   61:01 mins


The very title of William Levi Dawson’s only symphony, premiered by Leopold Stokowski in 1934, speaks of a different time and place. So does its dogged attempt to reflect the African-American experience by fusing established European musical forms with the folk material of his heritage, as famously encouraged by Dvořák in the 1890s (when the Czech composer wrote his Symphony ‘From the New World’). William Grant Still’s earlier symphony (1930) pursues the same tactic, but with a wider sphere of reference, the spirituals and ‘juba’ dances (also a specialty of Florence Price) mingling with the smoky and lanky lines of the blues. There are some jaunty jazz rhythms, too.

Both works, of clear historic interest, need special pleading if they’re to be considered symphonic masterpieces. Equally, both have attractive moments. Dawson’s chiefly feature in the second movement’s haunting end stretch, where quiet gong strokes and drum beats happily replace the often crude use of percussion elsewhere. Still’s symphony, far more sturdily constructed, is often pleasantly melodious, but with insufficient fibre to make a deeper impression. For music of lasting and genuine quality, the listener’s consolation remains George Walker’s relatively familiar Lyric for Strings from 1946: absolute music with a heart.

Under the baton of their assistant conductor, Kellen Gray, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra skilfully buckle down to their task, though the synthetic air hanging over the symphony performances suggests that players are following more of the music’s letter than its spirit. The slightly shrill and shallow recording emanating from Glasgow’s new state-of-the-art ‘Scotland’s Studio’ may be a factor too.


Geoff Brown