September 14, 2006


Bruckner: Symphony No. 5. Günter Wand conducting the Münchner Philharmoniker. Profil. $16.99.

Elgar: Orchestral Miniatures. James Judd conducting the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Naxos. $8.99.

     Listeners know pretty much what they are going to get when hearing works by Bruckner and Elgar.  Bruckner will be massive, dense, complex, intense and transcendent.  Elgar will also offer large-scale works, as strongly Germanic in orchestration and development as they are English in subject matter and themes.  So what is especially attractive about these CDs, in addition to the very high quality of the performances on them, is the way they present different angles on these composers from the ones audiences usually experience – a chance to hear a known work in a new way, or less-known works that show a less-known side of their creator.

     There is no escaping the massiveness of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5, but there is more to this 75-minute work in Günter Wand’s performance with the Munich Philharmonic than other conductors bring to the piece.  Bruckner’s Fifth, like Beethoven’s, marked the end of a certain type of symphonic creativity, after which both composers sought new directions (how successfully Bruckner did so is open to debate).  Wand conducted the work often and with various orchestras, including – as a guest conductor – the Munich Philharmonic, which he leads in this live recording from 1995.  The performance fairly crackles with intensity, from the opening slow introduction – the only one in a Bruckner symphony – to the intense culmination of the sonata-fugue finale.  Wand uses the original (1875-8) version of the symphony, which is larger and altogether more closely interwoven than chopped-up, emended later versions.  What is remarkable is how much clarity of line, how much elegant counterpoint, Wand extracts from the work.  Far from being heavy and massive, as so many Bruckner performances are, this one finds lightness here and there, even fleet-footedness in the Scherzo.  And Wand’s judicious tempo choices help the symphony build naturally and logically to a conclusion that sounds more musically inevitable here than it often does.  This is not so much a rethinking of the symphony as it is a thought-through version of it: powerful, yes, but also delicate and very carefully constructed.

     There is no grandeur sought, and none attained, in the 13 little Elgar pieces conducted by James Judd.  Many are Elgar’s arrangements of his piano, violin or choral works, and several have the light-music sound that Eric Coates was later to perfect.  Having Elgar sound like Coates, though, is a bit of a shock.  Probably the best-known piece here, and the longest on the CD, is the Froissart Overture, which the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra plays with real panache.  The other works are the slight and lovely miniatures, May Song and Carissima; the Romance for Bassoon and Orchestra, nicely handled by bassoonist Preman Tilson; Three Characteristic Pieces, of which the third – a gavotte in the contrasting styles of 1700 and 1900 – is a standout; a little Minuet that for some reason is here interpolated between the first and second Characteristic Pieces; the pleasant Chansons de Matin et de Nuit, played in reverse order for no apparent reason; and Three Bavarian Dances, which are brief recollections (originally written as songs) of scenes Elgar saw on a visit to Bavaria.  None of this music, except the Froissart Overture, comes close to the large scale for which Elgar is known, and none of it is complex or difficult in any way.  The CD could almost be called “Elgar Easy Listening,” except that few who know the composer would believe the title.

No comments:

Post a Comment