I've now heard all of Mennin's mature symphonies (he withdrew the first two he wrote, still a student at Oberlin and Eastman) and it confirms my opinion that, as good wines, the composer got better as he aged. I rewied elsewhere the CRI disc collating historical recordings of his 3rd from 1946 (Mitropoulos, recorded in 1953) and 7th from 1963 (Martinon, 1967), the Phoenix disc with his 4th from 1948 (along with the cantata Milena of the Argentinian Alberto Ginastera) and the New World CD with his 8th (1973) and 9th (1981), and I found the compositions from the 1960s onwards much better works (see Mennin: Symphony No.3/Piano Concerto/Symphony No.7, Symphony No.4/Milena, Mennin: Symphony No. 8, Symphony No. 9, Folk Overture). The basic paramaters of Mennin's compositional style remained - an irrepressible kinetic energy in the nervously busy and angrily dramatic toccata-like outer movements, the solemn or brooding slow movements rising to climaxes of intensity before receding back to their departure point- but these now came with a richness and depth of orchestration and a much more elaborate counterpoint that constantly caught the ear, and an approch to form that, especially in the 7th, "Variation"-Symphony, went a few steps beyond the basic A-B-A architecture. These new elements produced something like a change of substance, by which Mennin moved away from the "American epic' style of the earlier works that, I feel, often verged on the bombastic (in the animated movements) and the trite (in the adagios) and, for all its kinetic energy, sounded often like sophisticated film music.
The 5th and 6th Symphonies from respectively 1950 and 1953 still inhabit the sound-world of this earlier compositional style of Mennin. Therein one finds the same formal procedures and all the expected compositional twists, with two dynamically kinetic, toccata-like outer movements framing a slow adagio, in pastoral/meditative mood (english horn and flute over muted bass strings) rising to a dramatic climax then receding back. In the 5th symphony the brassy outer movements are in fact so toccata-like that the 1st movement sounds like a finale and that, if you hear the first and last movement in direct succession, you don't hear much of a difference; the 6th symphony adds a slow intro to the first movement. The music does generate much excitement, but without much subtlety and depth of content, and the mono sound doesn't help, with a rather distant recording pickup and a lack of spatial bloom (although the 5th was recorded in 1960, way into the stereo era. Apparently, for all their dedication to commissioning, performing and recording contemporary music, the Louisville Orchestra and Records weren't on the cutting edge with regards to recording technologies). One also gets the impression that, from one Symphony to the next, Mennin hasn't much renewed his musical language, although the mood of the 6th, in its outer movements, is angrier, more agitated and dramatic (bringing to mind the 4th Symphony of Vaughan Williams and the 1st of Walton) - but with also longer moments of lyrical repose.
A ten-year span separated the 6th and 7th Symphonies (1953-1963), during which Mennin's compositional style underwent the significant maturation I mentioned above. The Cello Concerto was composed during that period, in 1956 (the Piano Concerto followed two years later, and is available on the above-mentioned CRI disc). Given the sonic limitations of the instrument, Mennin couldn't entirely resort to the usual the customary fast-toccata like/slow/fast-toccata like architecture, and though the first movement has plenty of powerful and dramatic orchestral outbursts, Mennin entrusts the cello with surprisingly serious, brooding, stern but passionate melodic lines, including a magnificent final cadenza of Bach-to-Britten meditative weight. The middle, slow movement follows in the same mood, and only in the Finale does Mennin go back to his motoric, toccata self, placing highly virtuosic demands on the soloist. The Concerto may not have the immediately recognizable stylistic personality of Hindemith, Shostakovich or Britten, but it is a fine work nonetheless, imbued with a sense of seriousness and not immediately seductive on the surface, but paying strong rewards on closer hearing.
All three works on the disc were LP premieres and as far as I know remained the only recordings for the 6th Symphony and the Cello Concerto (the 5th Symphony was recorded by Howard Hanson with the Eastman-Rochester orchestra, now available on Hanson Conducts Ives, Schuman & Mennin). These Louisville recordings of the 5th and 6th Symphony also get here their first CD outing, but the Cello Concerto has previously been reissued, on a First Edition Encores CD published by Albany records in 1991 which I've reviewed, paired with Piston's 1st Symphony and Robert Kurka's Good Soldier Schweik-Suite (Kurka/Mennin/Piston: Orchestral Works). But what happened to the sound in the meanwhile? The strings have a metallic flutter as if the tape was badly worn and, if one listens carefully over headphones, one hears clicks that seem to come from an LP's surfaces. None of this happened on the Albany CD release, which had an excellent sound (the recording was made in 1969). This deterioration seems to contradict First Edition's claim that the recording was remastered directly from the master tapes.
This is irksome and, faced with a choice, I'd stick with the earlier Albany release, as its companion piece, the Piston 1st Symphony, is a fine work and, among the three Mennin composition featured on the new one, the Cello Concerto is the true masterpiece and the only one that, to me, is really indispensable. Still, First Editions and their new owning company Santa Fe Music Group must be thanked for their dedication in keeping the legacy of Louisville First Editions available to the public, in such coherent, one-composer programs, with a wealth of technical and historical information provided in the liner notes. But what happened to the sound of the Cello Concerto?