February 18, 2010


Mendelssohn: String Symphonies (complete). Festival Strings Lucerne conducted by Achim Fiedler. Oehms. $44.99 (3 CDs).

Widor: Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, op. 42 (bis); Sinfonia Sacra for Organ and Orchestra, op. 81. Christian Schmitt, organ; Bamberger Symphoniker/Bayerische Staatsphilharmonie conducted by Stefan Solyom. CPO. $16.99.

Stravinsky: Pulcinella (complete); Symphony in Three Movements; Four Études. Roxana Constantinescu, mezzo-soprano; Nicholas Phan, tenor; Kyle Ketelsen, bass-baritone; Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pierre Boulez. CSO Resound. $19.99 (SACD); $18.99 (CD).

     Only three of Mendelssohn’s 18 or so symphonies are played with any regularity – and many music lovers are still surprised to find out just how many symphonic works Mendelssohn produced. Mendelssohn himself thought of the symphony we know as No. 1 as his 13th such work. In fact, it could be his 14th. His second numbered symphony, Lobgesang, is really a cantata. And it is only the symphonies known as Nos. 3 (“Scottish”), 4 (“Italian”) and 5 (“Reformation”) with which most people are familiar. The first dozen of Mendelssohn’s symphonies – plus a single movement that may be seen either as the start of No. 13 or as a complete one-movement work – were written almost solely for strings, and these are the pieces performed brightly and enthusiastically by the Festival Strings Lucerne under Achim Fiedler. There are all sorts of wonders and all sorts of oddities associated with these string symphonies, which Mendelssohn wrote between 1821 and 1823 (that is, when he was between 12 and 14 years old). One of them (No. 8) also exists in a full-orchestra arrangement by the composer himself; two (Nos. 9 and 11) contain themes based on Swiss songs in their scherzos, each of which is labeled Schweizerlied. One of those two scherzos (in No. 11) surprisingly adds military instruments to the strings, along the lines of Haydn’s Symphony No. 100. The string symphonies exist in various forms – Mendelssohn rearranged some, dropped or added movements, and generally made things complicated for performers. There are also numerous repeats in the scores, which – when taken as the composer indicated, as is the case in this recording – make some of the works very substantial indeed: No. 11 runs more than 40 minutes, making it longer than the “Italian” and “Reformation.” But the most remarkable thing of all about these symphonies is how fresh and wonderful they sound. Their provenance matters less to a modern listener than their ebullience and infectious style. Young Mendelssohn, although clearly still striving to find his own individual symphonic voice, had clearly absorbed lessons aplenty from Bach, Haydn, Mozart and beyond: Mannheim-style flourishes coexist easily with French overture rhythms from the Baroque, and Romantic emotion peeks out again and again, especially in the later symphonies and those in minor keys. Fiedler’s fleet tempos are sometimes a touch rushed in the first movements, but the transparency of the Festival Strings Lucerne keeps all harmonies and melodic lines very clear, and there is plenty of expansiveness when that is needed (as in Nos. 8, 9 and 11). This is an excellent recording both for those unfamiliar with Mendelssohn’s early symphonic work and for those who know it – or at least parts of it – already.

     The best-known symphonic works of Charles-Marie Widor are his 10 symphonies for organ solo – and they are works that do deserve to be called symphonies, even though written for only a single instrument (the organ, after all, contains a full orchestra of sounds). But Widor also wrote three numbered symphonies, a Symphonie antique, and the two symphonic works for organ and orchestra just released in a recording featuring Christian Schmitt and Stefan Solyom. These symphonies are tremendously different in sound and effect. Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, arranged by Widor from elements of the solo-organ symphonies in his opp. 13 and 42, is a grand and deeply impressive work, striding forth from start to finish with magisterial sound and the sort of grandeur that is unique to the organ. Schmitt plays his instrument boldly and brightly here, and Solyom conducts the Bamberger Symphoniker/Bayerische Staatsphilharmonie with strength and rhythmic clarity. The result is a genuinely exciting performance and a high level of sheer sonic splendor. In contrast, the Sinfonia Sacra explores the organ’s (and orchestra’s) quieter side, emphasizing inner voices and mostly slow tempos (the first two of the five movements are Adagios). Written in 1906 – 24 years after the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra – and first played in 1909, the Sinfonia Sacra resulted from Widor’s relationship with Albert Schweitzer, through whom Widor immersed himself thoroughly in Bach. Schweitzer wrote the program notes for the symphony’s first performance, discussing Widor’s musical interpretation of the sighs of humanity being eventually transformed into jubilant sounds through heavenly intercession. Even without a program, the musical development is clear and impressive, as themes introduced early in the symphony are altered during the work’s progress until, in the final and longest movement, they are all – notably including the opening sighs – transformed into splendor. Schmitt and Solyom do a fine job of building this work carefully from start to finish, in a performance that is more thoughtful than that of the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, although not as viscerally exciting.

     Listeners looking for musical excitement will find plenty of it in the new Chicago Symphony Orchestra recording of Stravinsky – conducted by Pierre Boulez, who as he nears 85 puts across more brightness and intensity than many conductors half his age. Boulez has strong feelings about Stravinsky that he never hesitates to express – he is not sure whether the fourth of the Four Études even belongs in the set, for example, and does not think much of the second movement of the Symphony in Three Movements. But his conducting on this CD – of the works he likes less as well as those he prefers – is so finely honed, so convincing, that he gives all the pieces their best possible chance of capturing listeners. The Symphony in Three Movements seems more modern and forward-looking here than it often does, with considerable angularity in the themes and constant forward propulsion. The Four Études manage to be humorous, witty, rhythmically striking and genuinely odd – although, yes, the fourth comes across as the lightest of them and somehow the least satisfying. As for Pulcinella, here performed complete with vocal sections, it is an absolute gem, sparkling with wit and filled with vivid orchestral touches that Boulez brings out with tremendous attentiveness – and, often, the help of the Chicago Symphony’s very fine brass. This live recording (available in either SACD or standard CD format) can certainly be looked at as a tribute to Boulez’ 85th birthday (he was born on March 26, 1925). But what makes it special is not the timing of its release or the age of its conductor, but the splendid understanding evinced by its music-making.

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