Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2; The Rock. BBC Philharmonic conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. Chandos. $18.99.
Johan Halvorsen: Orchestral Works, Volume 1—Symphony No. 1; Suite from “Mascarade”; Entry March of the Boyars; Andante religioso; La Mélancolie. Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi. Chandos. $18.99.
Rachmaninoff is not usually thought of as a composer for the stage – he wrote only three operas – but many of his works have a strongly theatrical quality about them. Certainly his symphonies exude an emotionalism and grand sweep, as well as sometimes-cloying lyricism, that are characteristics of the dramatic arts. The most popular of his symphonies, No. 2, gets an exceptionally well-performed reading from Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic that balances its adaptations of classical form with its overt theatricality. This is a very expansive performance that lasts a full hour, as Rachmaninoff intended it to: Noseda observes the repeat of the first movement’s exposition, which there was no reason to include in a work completed in 1907 unless the composer really wanted it there, but which many conductors omit. Yet there is no feeling of bloat in this carefully structured rendition: Noseda builds the first movement (which, with the repeat, is by far the symphony’s longest) effectively through its numerous tempo changes, then chooses a comparatively moderate tempo for the opening of the scherzo rather than a headlong rush, so the movement provides contrast with being jarring. The Adagio, featuring lovely clarinet playing by John Bradbury, is spun out warmly and in leisurely fashion, and the finale moves with ease between intensity and the soaringly Romantic themes for which it is so well known (and, in some quarters, reviled). This is a performance that is carefully thought through but not over-intellectualized, pulling listeners into the music’s grand gestures without overdramatizing what is already dramatic enough. And the symphony is nicely complemented by the very early (1894) tone poem The Rock, which is theatrical in its own way, being Rachmaninoff’s expression of the naïve theme of a poem by Mikhail Lermontov that later became the epigraph of a short story by Anton Chekhov. The poem is about a rock that is visited one night by a little golden cloud and is left lonely when the cloud leaves the next morning – and Rachmaninoff’s music nicely reflects the words. The BBC Philharmonic does quite a fine job in the tone poem, as it does in the symphony: even though this is not an orchestra with the deep, growling bass often associated with Russian music, it is an ensemble that is well balanced and plays the music with considerable understanding.
An understanding of the music of Johan Halvorsen seems to be bred into the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra: Halvorsen himself led the ensemble when it was known as the Orchestra Harmonien in Bergen. Halvorsen (1864-1935) was a contemporary of Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), but the Norwegian’s handling of stage and symphonic works alike was quite different from the Russian’s. Halvorsen was well known as a conductor and violinist and was a friend of both Edvard Grieg and Johan Svendsen. His theatrical pieces were central to his compositional oeuvre and were often a series of miniatures, in this way resembling much of Grieg’s music. But Halvorsen’s Symphony No. 1 show that he could also work in large-scale forms, incorporating some of the good humor included in many of his theatrical works. This C minor work is scarcely a highly original symphony, since it clearly displays the strong influence of Dvořák, Tchaikovsky and Svendsen. But its scherzo includes some interesting and original harmonies and a trio in the form of the halling folk dance, while its finale’s sense of humor is welcome in a form that often took itself too seriously by the time this work was first performed in 1923. Neeme Järvi leads a very spirited performance of the symphony, and also brings a fine sense of rhythm and balance to the remaining works on this CD – all of which are theatrical in their own ways. The Mascarade suite includes nine numbers written for a stage production of the same Ludvig Holberg comedy that inspired Carl Nielsen’s opera Maskarade. Filled with grace and gaiety, Halvorsen’s short pieces often make effective use of dance forms from Holberg’s time (1684-1754). The three other works on this CD are also short and effective. Entry March of the Boyars, which Halvorsen wrote after becoming interested in the history of Bucharest, is stately and suitably pompous – Grieg quite liked it. Andante religioso is a lovely romance featuring a solo violin (here, Marianne Thorsen). La Mélancolie is an arrangement of a tune by Norwegian violinist Ole Bull; it too features a solo violin (Melina Mandozzi) and is short and highly expressive. Halvorsen’s compositions, which remain relatively unknown today, have much to recommend them, and the Chandos series of his orchestral works – of which this CD is the first volume – is most welcome.