Has Ferde Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite fallen out of fashion? Eugene Ormandy, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Fiedler, Howard Hanson, Morton Gould, and doubtless several other conductors recorded it a few years before or after 1960, and even Arturo Toscanini took a stab at it. Since then, pickings have been slim, although there have been recent recordings conducted by Lorin Maazel (Sony) and Gerard Schwarz (Delos). (Antal Dorati's Detroit Symphony Orchestra still is my favorite digital recording of the work.) What gives? Are we too sophisticated? This isn't profound music, but it's highly entertaining: luscious tunes stick out like cactus needles, and the orchestration has moments of genius (try the violins and celesta at the beginning of "Sunset"). The bad news is that Hanson's recording is among the work's least picturesque. It takes him barely a half-hour to see the sights; only the mules aren't exhausted by his pace – "On the Trail" is this recording's most successful movement. His young players dilute many of the music's rich sonorities, and the constricted dynamic range (I'm not sure whose fault this is) flatten the work's spectacle.
If the Grand Canyon Suite is ignored by serious critics, Grofé's other suites are ridiculed. His Mississippi Suite is in four movements ("Father of Waters," "Huckleberry Finn," "Old Creole Days," and "Mardi Gras") and is painless and unpretentious, showing more craft than inspiration. However, it's far from a musical disaster, and Hanson and the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra certainly recorded worse music than this in the 50s. Both of these recordings were made in 1958.
Faint praise, I know, but here comes the good stuff. Antonín Dvořák heard Victor Herbert's second Cello Concerto in 1894 and admired it. Less than a year later, the Czech composer had written his own work in this genre. Hmmm. Today, Herbert's concerto is practically forgotten (although Lynn Harrell recorded it about a decade ago – and EMI deleted the CD almost immediately), and Dvořák's concerto is practically inescapable. The reissue of this 1957 recording is a step in the right direction; now we need a new recording from Yo-Yo Ma, who is exactly the right cellist for this exuberant, tuneful work. Unlike the Grofé suites, there's nothing overtly American about this music, and it doesn't sound like the work of the man who wrote all of those twittery operettas. In fact, its structure would please even deans of European conservatories, but there's not a melodic dry-spell from the first note to the last. Miquelle was a faculty member at Eastman from 1954 to 1966; before then, he was the first chair player for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra for more than three decades. This recording, then, is a valuable document of an appreciated pedagogue, and a cellist who could have had a more prominent solo career if he had chosen to.
Copyright © 1996, Raymond Tuttle