John Knowles Paine's two symphonies, which date from 1876 and 1880, are said to mark the beginning of the American symphonic tradition although they weren't the first to be composed there. According to the notes which come with this disc, the Second Symphony was first performed by two different Boston orchestras on consecutive days. At the first of these "ladies waved handkerchiefs, men shouted in approbation" and one well known critic "stood in his seat frantically opening and shutting his umbrella as an expression of uncontrollable enthusiasm". The "Gazette" called Paine's symphony "by far the finest work hitherto written on American soil by an American composer".
It was not until after the First World War that, under the leadership of Aaron Copland, American composers began to forge a distinctive national style. As a result, anything redolent of the German tradition was rejected. Paine had studied in Berlin for some years and his music which, of course, doesn't sound remotely American, was soon marginalised.
Although rather uneven, the Second Symphony deserves your attention. The most obvious influence is Schumann. Indeed, Paine even gave his symphony a Schumannesque title, "Im Fruhling" ("Spring") although he played this down in early performances and the printed score makes no reference to it.
The 15 1/2 minute first movement begins with a long introduction. It is structurally straightforward. The opening six note motif (you may hear it as five) is the "winter" motif. It will also feature prominently during the development section. Stylistically the introduction will make you think of the new German school but when winter thaws and the allegro begins (at 5 mins 16 secs), Schumann's influence soon becomes very apparent. The main theme contains a dotted note figure which Paine extracts and uses to build long paragraphs very much in the manner of the German composer. At 6 mins 43 secs the second subject arrives, though the first theme is never far away. Some Wagnerian murmurings mark the end of the exposition, the development beginning at 8 mins 47 secs. I have not seen a score and so I don't know if Paine wanted the exposition repeated but it is not taken here. An easily followed development leads to the beginning of a regular recapitulation at 11 mins 31 secs.
The 10 minute scherzo is a most attractive movement. In the way that it skips along it will remind you of Dvorak's scherzi and the trio section's easy wind-led lyricism confirms the influence.
The other movements are less impressive. Although the notes describe the 14 1/2 minute slow movement as "rather Schumannesque", its opening melody, which frequently recurs and which is always led by the strings, may remind you more of Raff or even the Russian Romantics. The subsidiary material is less interesting but the main theme is just about strong enough to make for a convincing whole.
Schumann is very much to the fore in the 10 1/2 minute finale. Dotted note patterns are everywhere and some of the melodic material is highly reminiscent of the scherzo from Schumann's Second Symphony. This finale is another sonata structure, the development section beginning at 3 mins 32 secs and the recapitulation at 5 mins 27 secs. Unfortunately, this movement is somewhat let down by a second subject "big tune" which isn't quite strong enough to bear the grandiloquent treatment it always receives and which comes once too often. As a result, the coda doesn't provide a satisfying culmination to the symphony and seems almost superfluous.
The symphony is very well played and conducted here. The recording is decent but a little colourless and lacking in warmth. It certainly doesn't flatter the upper strings. Don't let this reservation put you off investigating this disc, however...but only after you know all of Schumann's symphonies which are, of course, in a different class. This is the only recording Paine's symphony has had although Naxos has it on its radar.