January 06, 2011


Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 2 (“Lobgesang”). Ruth Ziesak and Moja Erdmann, sopranos; Christian Elsner, tenor; MDR Radio Choir and MDR Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jun Märkl. Naxos. $8.99.

Lyapunov: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Rhapsody on Ukrainian Themes. Shorena Tsintsabadze, piano; Russian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Dmitry Yablonsky. Naxos. $8.99.

Johann Strauss Sr. Edition, Volume 17. Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina conducted by Christian Pollack. Marco Polo. $8.99.

     Looking backward, to a greater or lesser degree, and then reinterpreting the past, can play a large part in composers’ creations. Mendelssohn’s symphony-cantata (as he himself styled it), the “Lobgesang” (“Hymn of Praise”), dates to 1840 and was consciously modeled on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, first performed in 1824. But Mendelssohn reduced Beethoven’s very substantial first three movements to mere introductory material for the vocal sections; so, although the “Lobgesang” runs about 70 minutes – more or less as long as Beethoven’s Ninth – nearly 45 minutes of Mendelssohn’s work is vocal, compared with only 25 minutes of Beethoven’s. Nevertheless, there are fascinating parallels between the two pieces, not least because they use the trappings of religion to celebrate entirely secular matters: for Beethoven, joy; for Mendelssohn, the invention of the printing press, whose 400th anniversary was the occasion for the creation of the “Lobgesang.” Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2 is by far his longest and least frequently performed, but Jun Märkl and the forces of Middle German Radio make so strong a case for it that one hopes the work will return to the popularity it enjoyed at its debut (although the need for chorus and three soloists admittedly makes it harder and more costly to perform than are Mendelssohn’s purely orchestral symphonies). Märkl does a fine job of highlighting the work’s careful structure, in which the opening and closing use nearly identical music (looking ahead to Bruckner), while the vocal passages expertly mix choral sections with soprano and tenor solos, soprano-tenor duets, and one duet for two sopranos. The text, taken from the Lutheran Bible, is somewhat repetitious and not of much interest in itself – it is all variations on praise to God – but Mendelssohn finds so many different ways to set similar words that the work’s interest never flags. The “Lobgesang” is a fascinating piece on many levels, looking at both music and technology in a rear-view mirror while containing some forward-looking elements and some very fine vocal writing. It is well worth greater familiarity than it has had in recent times.

     The music of Sergey Lyapunov is of somewhat less interest – it is easier to see why it has gone through a long period of benign neglect. Lyapunov (1859-1924) was so strongly influenced by Mily Balakirev (1837-1910) that he never seems to have developed a voice uniquely his own: both his piano concertos and his Rhapsody on Ukrainian Themes clearly look back at Balakirev’s music – in fact, Balakirev himself made many suggestions for Lyapunov’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and may have had a hand in composing, or at least revising, the finished product. When Lyapunov does not seem to be channeling Balakirev, he tends to sound much like Alexander Glazunov, who was his contemporary, living from 1865 to 1936, but whose music (itself largely neglected nowadays) bears a more personal stamp. Yet Lyapunov’s music, derivative though it is, ought not to be casually and totally dismissed. He has a very strong sense of structure – both his piano concertos are in a single movement – and a real flair for virtuoso piano writing, shown in the many cadenzas within the concertos and the Rhapsody. Furthermore, although Lyapunov’s themes are often strongly Russian, almost self-consciously so (no surprise, given Balakirev’s influence on him), his treatment of them is invariably skillful, and his harmonic progressions are logical, well planned out and very satisfying to the ear. The three Lyapunov works here will sound even more old-fashioned to listeners who know their dates – the first concerto was written in 1890, the second in 1909, and the Rhapsody in 1907. But if they seem to look back to an earlier time and the works of earlier composers, it is worth noting that they were by no means the last Russian concertos to do so: one need think only of Rachmaninoff. Shorena Tsintsabadze plays all the works idiomatically and skillfully, and Dmitry Yablonsky, who is making something of a specialty of rediscovering less-known Russian music, conducts with flair and a sure hand.

     The “looking backward” elements of the music of Johann Strauss Sr. actually glance only a short time into the past, to Austrian Ländler and the works of Strauss’ onetime boss and later competitor, Joseph Lanner. Strauss took the rather foursquare dance music of Lanner, and his fairly straightforward joining together of folk tunes into extended sequences, and created works that were through-composed, tailored to the taste of the Viennese public, and frequently based on popular operatic tunes – the pop music of Strauss’ time. Strauss’ sons, Johann Jr. and Josef, would later look back at their father’s approach to music and develop it much further, creating genuinely symphonic works and (especially in Josef’s case) frequently ones with a depth of emotion and bittersweet sound that Johann Sr. never attained or, for that matter, sought. All is pleasantry, lilt and easy flow in Strauss Sr.’s music, as is abundantly demonstrated in the excellent ongoing Marco Polo series devoted to it. The 17th volume features nine works from 1843 and 1844, all played with great style and sensitivity by the Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina under Christian Pollack. This 35-member orchestra and this conductor have made this type of music a specialty, and the delicacy and bounce of Strauss Sr.’s works come through clearly from start to finish. Volume 17 is interesting for its inclusion of four quadrilles: Volksgarten-Quadrille, Redoute-Quadrille, Orpheus-Quadrille and Fest-Quadrille. The quadrille is very formulaic, the music looping back on itself repeatedly and staying in pretty much the same tempo throughout. This makes quadrilles eminently danceable but generally less interesting to hear than waltzes and polkas. There is only one polka on this CD – Salon-Polka – and it is a fine one, quick and witty. There are three waltzes, of which Nur Leben! (“Just Live!”) and Frohsinns-Salven (“Salvos of Gaiety”) are fairly straightforward, while Aurora-Festklänge (“Aurora’s Festive Sounds”) is more interesting, with an unusual opening that builds to a set of particularly well-constructed dance tunes. The last item here is Waldfräuleins Hochzeits-Tänze (“Forest Maiden’s Wedding Dances”), created by Strauss based on a once-popular romantic fairy tale. Contemporary reviews of Strauss Sr.’s concerts are repetitious in their fulsome praise of his music and conducting, noting again and again how well his works were received and how frequently the audiences insisted on encores. Listening to this music more than a century and a half later, it is still possible to understand why Strauss was, in his time, the equivalent of modern pop-music stars: he gave the audience exactly what it wanted, producing works of style and beauty that, even today, it is difficult to hear without wishing to get dressed for an old-fashioned ball and go dancing.

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