Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune; La mer; Jeux: Poème dansé; Children’s Corner. Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Jun Märkl. Naxos. $8.99.
Stanford: Symphony No. 3, “Irish”; Symphony No. 6, “In honour of the life-work of a great artist: George Frederick Watts.” Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Lloyd-Jones. Naxos. $8.99.
Dvořàk: Symphony No. 6; Vodnik (The Water Goblin). Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra Amsterdam conducted by Yakov Kreizberg. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).
In the best classical performances, both the composer and the conductor use the orchestra to maximum effect, working together (even when years or centuries apart) in creating a sonic experience that expresses the composer’s intentions. This is just what happens in the new Debussy CD by Jun Märkl and the Orchestre National de Lyon. Most of the music on this disc is quite familiar – perhaps especially so to a French orchestra like this – but no one in this orchestra plays these works as if doing a run-through of something performed far too many times before. In fact, Märkl handles each work as if he has studied it thoroughly and knows just where to place the orchestral emphasis for maximum effectiveness. Thus, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune excels not only in the opening flute solo but also in the sensitivity throughout to the subtleties of orchestration and rhythmic changes. La mer is also subtle and is carefully measured, with plenty of enthusiasm where needed but without any attempt to turn it into a traditional symphonic poem. Jeux: Poème dansé, the least-known work on this CD, gets a sensitive performance that emphasizes the careful rhythmic structure of what is, after all, a ballet score. And Children’s Corner, written for piano by Debussy and heard here in André Caplet’s orchestration, is effectively conveyed as a series of miniatures, mostly in moderate tempo and low volume – delicacy, so important to so much of Debussy’s work, is the dominant feature here. The best thing about this Naxos CD may be that it is labeled “Orchestral Works 1,” which implies that there will be more Debussy to come from this ensemble and conductor. That is a most welcome prospect.
David Lloyd-Jones and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra offer equally fine performances in the third volume of their cycle of symphonies by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, but the music itself is of lesser quality, so the CD earns a (+++) rating. With this disc, Naxos has presented all Stanford’s symphonies except (oddly) the first, and it is clear that this composer had an excellent structural sense and fine command of orchestration, but not really very much to say within symphonic form. Certainly he had little new to say: his symphonies speak the melodic and harmonic language of works from Mendelssohn’s time to Brahms’, but never go farther. Stanford’s Symphony No. 3, in F Minor, is the more successful of the two here, because the frequent occurrence of Irish folk tunes helps lighten the rather heavy-handed orchestration of the work. This symphony dates to 1887 and was popular in its time and for some years thereafter, and it is worth an occasional rehearing even now: it very well put together, with impressive solidity. The Symphony No. 6, In E-flat Major, dates to 1905 but speaks the same harmonic language as No. 3, and it is a more difficult work to enjoy. Its elaborate subtitle labels it an occasional piece – the occasion being the death of George Frederick Watts (1817-1904), a highly regarded artist and sculptor in his time but one whose reputation today does not seem to support a monumental work such as Stanford’s. The prominence of the work’s subtitle leads an audience to expect some direct connection with Watts – the work is not merely dedicated to him but is actually named for him. But the symphony does not appear to be programmatic, and whatever contemporary meaning it may have had has been lost in the last century (although, in truth, it was not especially popular even when first performed). The work’s slow movement, its longest, never quite emerges as an elegy or tribute, as one would expect of an extended “Adagio molto espressivo.” Perhaps the symphony’s most effective moment is the tying-together of the rather brief scherzo with the opening of the finale. Both Stanford symphonies are very well played on this CD, but neither of them is sit-up-and-take-notice music.
Yakov Kreizberg’s new SACD of Dvořàk’s Symphony No. 6 is a sit-up-and-take-notice release, but unfortunately for all the wrong reasons. His disc gets a (++) rating, and only because it contains a very fine rendition of The Water Goblin, an excellent and underperformed late Dvořàk fairy-tale tone poem. The symphony, though, is almost a complete disaster, with a first movement so execrable that, on its own, it would not even earn a (+) rating. Kreizberg conducts this movement as if he wishes Dvořàk were Bruckner; also, he conducts as if Dvořàk did not really know what he wanted his music to sound like, so Kreizberg must decide for him. The awfulness of this performance is truly epic. Kreizberg refuses to keep the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra Amsterdam at the same tempo for more than a couple of minutes. By three minutes into the movement, the whole work has run out of steam – slowing to an agonizing crawl – and there have already been several slowdowns and speedups. They continue nearly constantly throughout a movement that lasts some three minutes longer than usual (because so much of it is so excruciatingly slow). Dvořàk’s triumphal tutti sections sound like lumbering elephant stampedes; Kreizberg anticipates every climax by slowing down before it occurs; he slows down before the recapitulation as if to signal, “here it comes”; and he ends with very dull and very slow final chords. There is no flow to this usually sunny movement and practically no joy: the few remnants of its many beauties are only those that Kreizberg has been unable, for all his trying, to extinguish.
The rest of the symphony is better only by comparison. The Adagio is taken quickly and is rather light – pleasant enough, but never charming. Instrumental detail is good, but there are more of those unnecessary slowdowns, and the one more-intense section seems an afterthought rather than a mood change. The third movement, nearly always a surefire success, comes across best, with lovely instrumental touches in its slower central section. But even in this movement, Kreizberg must insert some unnecessary slowdowns to spoil the momentum. The finale lurches: a big slowdown as the main theme begins, then a speedup, then another slowdown – as if this movement (as well as the first one) were built with Brucknerian architecture and tempo changes. Kreizberg telegraphs the coda with another slowdown, then makes the coda itself speedy until a really big slowdown near the end, with a confusion of speed and slowness at the very conclusion. This 2006 performance is just lamentably bad – in strong contrast to the 2005 performance of The Water Goblin, in which perhaps Kreizberg thought he had less to prove. Starting quickly and lightly, this piece progresses through episodic sections and fast mood changes, as Kreizberg brings out the composer’s intentions instead of trying to second-guess him at every turn. There is real eeriness in the evocation of the watery depths, menace in many of the iterations of the eight-note “goblin” theme, and fine attention to instrumental coloration. You can practically hear the goblin growling and pacing as he awaits the return of his human bride, who fails to come back in time and whose half-goblin child pays the price. By the time the piece dies out very quietly, it has packed a great deal of emotional turbulence into 20 minutes. The Kreizberg who led this work is a conductor of stature and sensitivity. The one who conducted the symphony, though, is an amateurish tinkerer with music that he appears not to understand or appreciate in the slightest.