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CD Review

"Burchfield Gallery: A Tribute to Charles Burchfield" Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra's musical salute to the great watercolorist.

After a year's absence, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra has re-entered the recording field with the release on its private Beau Fleuve label of a CD titled "Burchfield Gallery: A Tribute to Charles Burchfield." The new recording is now available in Kleinhans Music Hall and at select music retail stores.

Tributes of this sort are always well-meaning but often seem like perfunctory gestures. However, a musical tribute to the great watercolorist Charles Burchfield (1893-1967), who spent the last 46 years of his life in the Buffalo area, becomes a very meaningful thing because by his own admission, "Music affects me more than any of the arts: painting, sculpture, poetry. It affects me almost as much as sunlight, or wind or rain."

For this occasion, BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta has selected two works, beginning with Sibelius' 1901 Symphony No. 2 in D Major. It was one of the artist's favorites, and a work from which he declared that he derived profound inspiration for many of his finest paintings.

The recording continues and concludes with a work by American composer, conductor and pianist Morton Gould, a 1981 seven-movement suite called "Burchfield Gallery," about which the composer said, "My musical celebration is intended to evoke what Burchfield's paintings are about, with their vibrant lights and shadows, and constant motion and dancing rhythms."

In a program note, Nancy Weekly of the co-sponsoring Burchfield-Penney Art Center points out several of the ways in which the Sibelius Second influenced Burchfield's paintings, either in direct attributions of the artist or by logical deductions. She also notes that Gould's creative process "took the opposite approach," using Burchfield's artworks to stimulate new musical compositions.

Looking more reflectively at the concept of the new recording, Falletta observed, "From music to art, from art back to music -- the idea was fascinating."

As an aside, the mere mention of Gould brings to mind a question about the BPO's longer-term recording agenda.

The orchestra has a current recording contract with Naxos that calls for three CDs in that company's American Classics Series. Two of those recordings, containing works by Frederick Converse and Charles Tomlinson Griffes, are already completed and available internationally. The third CD in the series was to have featured music by Gould. Does the private issuance of Gould's "Burchfield Gallery" change those plans with Naxos?

"Yes," says JoAnn Falletta, "but let me reassure your readers that our relationship with Naxos is still very positive.

"The idea to couple the Sibelius and Gould works on a private recording was ours. It seemed the perfect opportunity for another collaboration between the BPO and a major local arts organization, the Burchfield-Penney Arts Center. That was simply too good a chance to pass up.

"As for Naxos," she continued, "they agreed with us and were quite willing both to change the recording contract and to augment it. So the Gould recording has been replaced by one featuring works of Aaron Copland to be drawn from our upcoming Dec. 3-4 Classics Series concerts. That will be issued sometime in 2005.

"In addition, Naxos has scheduled another recording for the BPO devoted to the music of Ottorino Respighi, which will be out in 2006."

For the record, the works on the upcoming Copland CD will be suites from the film "The Red Pony" and from the ballet "Rodeo," plus "Prairie Journal" and "Letter from Home," while the following year's Respighi release will include "Church Windows," "Brazilian Impressions" and "Rossiniana."

But there's even more on the BPO recording horizon.

In light of the orchestra's highly successful Carnegie Hall appearance in June, the three purely orchestral works from that concert will be issued later this season on another locally produced Beau Fleuve CD. Contents will include Zemlinsky's "The Mermaid," Kodaly's "Dances From 'Galanta' " and the concert's rollicking encore, the Overture to Smetana's "The Bartered Bride."

With respect to the new "Burchfield Gallery" release, the performances by Falletta and the BPO are first-rate. The recorded sound is also rich and full, under the ultimate guidance of highly esteemed producer Evans Mirageas, who here renews his association with the BPO after a hiatus of a couple of decades.

Falletta's approach to the Sibelius Symphony No. 2 strikes a convincing balance between romantic lyricism and painting the icy chill of Northern landscapes. The second movement offers an exceptionally good example of this, with finely wrought brass and woodwind detail. The vivacissimo third movement's nervous chattering is used superbly to spotlight the trio section's exquisite oboe solo, and Falletta gauges the difficult transition into the dramatic Finale with a sense of restraint that makes the gradual unfolding of its power all the more effective.

This highly theatrical movement is the one that sends audiences home with their heads swimming in memories of its thrillingly drawn-out climax. Its development is more varied, but it still has the same sense of inevitability that infuses Ravel's "Bolero." It's easy to throw caution to the winds, but Falletta's tight rein is loosened gradually enough to dampen any feeling of excess, and her final statement is even more exciting as a result.

Mine is decidedly a minority view, but I've always thought that the relaxed tempo Koussevitzky adopted in the opening of the first movement of his 1935 recording with the Boston Symphony created a more gratifying ambience for the movement's predominantly pastoral thematic material. Falletta's view of the composer's Allegretto marking goes along with the faster tempo almost everyone else has adopted, and admittedly it does provide greater contrast for some of the answering ideas. More important in the long run, however, is the fact that her consistent control of the development generates a fine sense of satisfying inevitability.

When it comes to Gould's "Burchfield Gallery," comparisons are hard to come by, because the only prior recording is long out of print. After a rather intellectually playful Prologue built on the tones C-E-B (Burchfield's initials), Gould's six succeeding movements all have seasonal or nature-related titles, concluding with an impression of Burchfield's 1949-60 "The Four Seasons," which Nancy Weekly describes as one of the artist's most ambitious paintings. At the very end Gould returns to the main theme of the Prologue to add a touch of architectural framing.

The intent here is not to update Vivaldi's characterization of "The Four Seasons," but to evoke, as noted above, Burchfield's vibrant lights and shadows, constant motion and dancing rhythms.

Consequently Gould uses a mix of descriptive and impressionist techniques. In "Spring" his music is sprightly, with marvelously clear separation of instrumental voices. "Brookside Music" is both imitative and descriptive with no apparent agenda other than an expanse of intriguing sounds. "Summer" basks in sultry murmurs and the dark voice of the English horn and little feeling of continuity, while "Autumn" responds with charming and evocative sounds that do have continuity and paint a musical picture. "Winter," like the earlier "Brookside," is static, with little sense of progression.

While all of these movements are two to three minutes in duration, the work concludes with a much more structured evocation of "The Four Seasons" lasting a bit over five minutes, with Gould flexing his musical muscles in a fitting peroration.

While Gould uses the entire orchestra intelligently and evocatively, one of his most memorable and effective devices is the use of nimble and clean-lined woodwind figures and passages which, to me, seemed to evoke the gauzy halos and coronas that Burchfield habitually employed to frame and highlight many of his nature shapes.

Between the program note booklet and the face of the CD there are five Burchfield paintings reproduced, all having some connection with the music on the recording. In an ideal world, all of the paintings mentioned by Nancy Weekly in her commentary on their connection with the music of Sibelius and Gould would have been included in the booklet. But that's a small price to pay in a project that so satisfyingly deals with the marriage of music and the graphic arts.