July 01, 2010


Franz Ignaz Beck: Symphonies, Op. 3, Nos. 1-4. Toronto Chamber Orchestra conducted by Kevin Mallon. Naxos. $8.99.

Tchaikovsky: Manfred Symphony. Gürzenich-Orchester Köln conducted by Dmitrij Kitajenko. Oehms. $19.99 (SACD).

Witold Lutoslawski: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 4. NFM Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jacek Kaspszyk. CD Accord. $18.99.

     The words “contrast” and “drama” meant very different things to symphonic composers of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. To Haydn’s nearly exact contemporary, Franz Ignaz Beck (1734-1809), in 1762, when the Op. 3 symphonies were published, the words were intimately tied to the virtuoso playing and occasional galant extravagances of the Mannheim school, and to an increasingly clear break with Baroque approaches such as careful counterpoint. Beck’s Op. 3 symphonies are all in four movements, all structured as fast-slow-minuet-fast, and all designed to be played by a small orchestra (the Toronto Chamber Orchestra has 20 members). The first four symphonies in the Op. 3 set have obvious similarities: frequent rhythmic and dynamic surprises, gripping first movements, pleasant but scarcely profound slow or slow-ish second movements, and themes throughout that are intricate and well-worked but scarcely memorable on their own. The third of the symphonies is in G minor, a key that was to be so significant to Mozart but that does not darken Beck’s mood appreciably (although it does give this work somewhat greater weight than the other three here). All these symphonies are very well constructed and, for their time, rather intense – certainly in contrast to Baroque music. Kevin Mallon leads them with enthusiasm and an emphasis on the structural elements that Beck employed so well, including strong use of sequential patterns and a variety of unexpected (for their time) dynamic and thematic shifts. The works are period pieces, true, but they are very well-made ones, and Mallon leads them with understanding and verve.

     By the 19th century, and specifically by the time Tchaikovsky wrote his “Manfred” symphony (which dates to 1885, falling between his Fourth and Fifth), orchestras were far larger and expectations for contrast and drama were very different. This is a huge, five-movement work, and one that runs more than an hour in Dmitrij Kitajenko’s intense and deliberate performance. That makes the “Manfred” by far the longest of Tchaikovsky’s seven symphonies, as well as the most programmatic, tied as it is to Byron’s drama, Manfred. The Byronic work is ultra-Romantic in sweep and themes (grand heroism or antiheroism, grand and forbidden love, unredeemed and early death), and Tchaikovsky’s symphony partakes of the same high (even overdone) drama. It is an uneven work – partly structured carefully as a symphony, partly designed more as an extended symphonic poem – and every performance tends to emphasize either its structural or its storytelling aspects. Kitajenko’s is strongly in the “story” camp: the music soars and drops, opening depressively and forebodingly and continuing for the full hour (despite the leavening of the middle movements) on its inexorable march toward the antihero’s death. The excellent SACD sound helps bring out the details and complexities of the orchestration, as well as the drama that pervades the work and the contrast between its strong and intense outer movements and its lighter and more evanescent middle ones. Kitajenko is unafraid to take slow sections very slowly indeed – and equally unafraid to propel quicker music quite speedily. The result is a performance in which the episodic nature of the composition is more apparent than it sometimes is – but also one in which the drama of the “Manfred” symphony attains near-operatic proportions.

     If the 19th century and early part of the 20th steadily expanded the size and scope of symphonies – and even their number of movements (Mahler’s Third has six and was originally planned for seven) – the later 20th century found composers rethinking what a symphony was, what it could do, and how it could provide contrast and drama that would still speak to audiences but would do so in new ways. Witold Lutoslawski’s solution in his Symphonies Nos. 2 and 4 (and in a number of his other works as well) was to create a two-movement form that incorporated a combination of precise notation and indecision or chance performance – a notion that Lutoslawski (1913-1994) picked up from John Cage but used in his own highly personal way. These two symphonies will certainly not be every music lover’s cup of tea, but they get excellent performances on the Polish label CD Accord as part of the label’s plan to release Lutoslawski’s complete works. Symphony No. 2 (1965-7) has a first movement marked Hesitant and a second marked Direct, and those are apt descriptions of the movements’ contrasting approaches – but they do not indicate all the compositional innovations that the composer put into this work, which lasts less than half an hour but is constantly packed with thematic and sonic material. The harmonic and rhythmic elements of Symphony No. 2 are as personal to Lutoslawski as those of Beck were to that composer two centuries earlier – and as closely tied to their time as Beck’s were to his. Symphony No. 4 (1988-92) takes the two-contrasting-movements approach even further and bends it: this symphony is really in one movement, but in two sections (a preparatory section and a development-plus-epilogue). The first section itself breaks into two, repeatedly contrasting a lyrical melody with a faster and less predictable one – but not in anything approaching the sonata form used (in different ways) by Beck and Tchaikovsky. The second section of the work also contrasts cantabile and more-intense music, but again within Lutoslawski’s personal form of expression, which involved precise notation of what musicians should play but allowed chance to be involved in when they should do so (that is, he rejected vertical alignment of parts). As with any music incorporating aleatoric elements, the performances of Symphonies Nos. 2 and 4 by the NFM Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra under Jacek Kaspszyk are unique; the music can never sound exactly this way again. Lutoslawski’s theoretical musical thinking does not necessarily come through clearly to listeners; this CD thus gets a (+++) rating for those not already familiar with and interested in this major modern Polish composer – but the disc will be welcomed, even celebrated, by Lutoslawski’s fans and advocates in Poland and elsewhere.

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