John Robertson “Symphony No. 1” disappointing sophomore release

I enjoyed the previous Navona release of works by John Robertson. This recording features the same composer, same conductor, and the same orchestra, so I anticipated a similar experience. I was disappointed.

The first disappointment was the sound of the orchestra. The ensemble sounded very thin. To my ears, the violins had a slight nasal quality to them. And although attacks weren’t sloppy, they weren’t precise either.

In the previous release, the Janacek Philharmonic performed John Robertson’s music quite well. Perhaps they were under-rehearsed for these sessions and/or mic’d differently.

The second disappointment was the music itself. Robertson’s developed his own style, tonal and somewhat traditional. When it works, it works well.

His First Symphony from 1986 didn’t work well for me. There were some interesting contrapuntal sections, but they didn’t feel organic. Although Robertson writes in a neo-classical style, his tonal centers weren’t well-defined. The music was always supported by consonant chords but didn’t have much forward direction.

Not everything disappointed. The symphony’s second movement is a beautifully crafted piece of music. I found its gentle lyricism immediately appealing.

John Robertson spent a good portion of his working life in insurance, composing as an avocation rather than a vocation. His biography suggests he was primarily self-taught and noted he received private instruction later in life.

I also enjoyed the Variations for Small Orchestra. It is modest in scope and the dance-inspired variations were just plain fun to listen to.

Navona’s publicity sheet for this release characterized Robertson’s Suite for Orchestra as “easy on the ear.” Is that a liability or an asset? In my experience, it was both.

This 2005 work was the most polished of the three, and I caught myself humming along more than once (asset). And yet once the work ended, I couldn’t recall a single note of it (liability).

I’m still interested in exploring Robertson’s music. If you are too, I’d recommend picking up Vallarta Suite instead. This release, I think, will primarily appeal to John Robertson completists.

John Robertson: Symphony No. 1; Variations for Small Orchestra; Suite for Orchestra
Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra; Anthony Armore, conductor
Navona NV6167

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