February 24, 2011


Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR conducted by Roger Norrington. Hänssler Classic. $39.99 (3 SACDs)

Bruckner: Symphonies Nos. 0-9. Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Lorin Maazel. BR Klassik. $79.99 (11 CDs).

Schubert: The 10 Symphonies; Symphonic Fragments, D615 and D708a. Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields conducted by Neville Marriner. Newton Classics. $34.99 (6 CDs).

     The attempt to perform composers’ works in the way they intended them to be heard has gotten complicated. Original-instrument performances of Baroque music, using Baroque techniques, have become so popular as to be reasonably common, and some luthiers and harpsichord manufacturers have taken to specializing in reproductions of old instruments for performers who want to play “in olden style” but cannot obtain originals. However, it is not just Baroque music that needs to be heard differently from the usual way if audiences are to experience it as composers intended. Roger Norrington, a longtime champion of authentic performance style, whose London Classical Players played and recorded numerous works in the way the composers expected them to be heard, has in recent years turned his attention to music of the 19th century – when orchestral size and playing were quite different from what audiences became accustomed to in the mid-20th century and continue to expect today. Now Norrington has brought out an excellent set of Brahms’ symphonies in which the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR, despite using modern instruments, labors mightily to make these familiar works sound as Brahms intended them to sound. This is by no means a simple matter. Brahms wrote for orchestras of around 30 strings (half the size of a typical modern complement), and expected the violins to be split left and right. He expected strings to play without vibrato except when specifically instructed – so-called “pure tone” was the German style until as recently as 1940 (continuous vibrato began in France and gradually became the norm worldwide). And Brahms expected brisker tempos for many movements than modern audiences are accustomed to hear. Norrington attempts to deliver performances that duplicate the sounds the composer wanted – which, for example, means either doubling the woodwind while keeping a modern 60-string complement, or halving the modern strings while leaving the winds as indicated in the score. This is something of a slippery slope, as even Mahler discovered when he famously (or notoriously) changed some of Beethoven’s orchestrations in an attempt to bring out what he believed the composer intended audiences to hear. For many listeners, all the changes will seem an academic exercise and, in truth, will not be very noticeable in some movements of the symphonies. But the overall impression of Norrington’s Brahms cycle is a very fine one, and a very different one from those of excellent performances of the past. For example, even George Szell, famous for the chamber-music clarity he brought to Cleveland Orchestra performances, made the Brahms symphonies heavier, muddier and more opaque than Norrington does. Norrington’s are very transparent readings, often far less weighty than a listener will expect, and distinctly brighter in many passages (because Norrington re-seats the double basses, horns and brass so their interaction sounds as it would have in Brahms’ time). This recording of live performances from 2005 is worth having strictly on its own terms – these are musically very worthwhile interpretations, full of nuance and instrumental color. But Norrington’s new Brahms cycle is especially intriguing because of its approach. In truth, it may take some listeners several hearings to appreciate Norrington’s handling of the weighty First and emotionally tight-knit Third – the sunny Second and Bach-imbued Fourth seem made for this approach to a greater extent, or at least a more obvious one. But all these performances repay repeated hearings quite wonderfully. As fine as they are when first heard, they grow in appeal over time as the clarity of strings, the excellent balance among sections, and the subtleties of instrumental interplay entice the ear ever more strongly. This set is an intriguing counterpart to the one Norrington did with the London Classical Players for EMI two decades ago, which used historical instruments or reproductions of them. A re-release of that older set would certainly be worthwhile – and this new one is more than worthwhile: it is fascinating.

     When it comes to Bruckner, those seeking authentic performances have a different sort of problem from that relating to Brahms. The ever-present Bruckner issue involves which Bruckner to play – which symphonies to count as among his “complete” set, and which specific edition of each symphony to use. There are many, many answers to these questions, all of them sure to spur lively debate among conductors and other musicians: the Bruckner oeuvre is nothing if not complicated. For his 1999 Bruckner cycle with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Lorin Maazel chose to include 10 symphonies, all in editions by musicologist Leopold Nowak (1904-1991). Nowak was the symphonies’ best editor, but Maazel’s choice is not inarguably the right one. For one thing, there are 11 Bruckner symphonies, including an early “school symphony” sometimes given the number “00.” Maazel omits that, but includes the one given the number “0,” identifying it, however, as the “annulled second,” which is chronologically correct (it was written in 1869, a year after No. 1 was completed) but numerologically confusing. The specific versions of symphonies chosen by Maazel are pretty much standard nowadays, and most listeners who know Bruckner will have heard them before. But that makes this set of live recordings less intriguing than, for example, the wonderful Georg Tintner cycle, released a decade ago by Naxos, not long after the conductor died in 1999. That set, which also had 11 CDs, managed to include on them all 11 symphonies plus a series of alternative movements, such as the often-discussed but very rarely played Volksfest finale to No. 4. Although the playing in the Tintner set, which used three different orchestras, was nowhere near as polished and idiomatic as that in Maazel’s, the set itself provided endless fascination through Tintner’s willingness to present nonstandard versions of several symphonies – notably the first (1887) version of No. 8. Maazel’s cycle is, by comparison, quite conventional. On the other hand, that is not a bad thing when the music glows as it does here. Maazel has a fine sense of structure and style, and understands better than many conductors how to differentiate each Bruckner symphony from the others, even though all occupy a similar sonic environment because of the composer’s unique handling of orchestration and thematic groups. The Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks has particularly strong brass, and Maazel pushes the brass players to the limit again and again, with burnished and thrilling results. The musicians clearly have a level of comfort with Bruckner’s music that few other orchestras can match, and Maazel relies on that as he shapes rhythmic subtleties (focusing on one section of the orchestra) while relying on the rest of the musicians to carry on in the same spirit (as they do – this is especially evident in Nos. 4 and 5). Maazel demands, and gets, a very wide dynamic range from these players – soft sections of No. 7 are just gorgeous – and he maintains a firm grasp of Buckner’s architecture while allowing the music to breathe and expand in grand and glorious aural waves. This is a set to cherish for the wonderful sound of the orchestra and the excellent control shown by Maazel in the service of what is clearly a well-thought-out vision of these 10 symphonies. Unlike Tintner’s, Maazel’s is not an innovative or revelatory cycle, but it is a firm-handed, fine-sounding and gorgeously played one – worthy to be the cornerstone of many listeners’ Bruckner collections.

     In the case of what Schubert intended to be heard in his symphonies, things can get very complicated indeed, as becomes clear in Newton Classics’ re-release of the full set of 10 Schubert symphonies led by Neville (not yet Sir Neville) Marriner, recorded from 1981 to 1984. Of course, “everyone knows” that Schubert wrote nine symphonies, not 10…well, really eight, since there is no performable No. 7. But Marriner and his collaborator, composer/conductor Brian Newbould, turned conventional wisdom on its head with this Schubert set. There are indeed 10 Schubert symphonies: No. 7 was finished but never fully orchestrated (although the orchestration was begun, providing plenty of information for the completed realization by Newbould heard here); No. 10 exists only in part, but that part shows Schubert at the very end of his life reaching even beyond the famous “Great” C Major symphony, No. 9. Furthermore, Newbould provides a completion for the “Unfinished” symphony, using Schubert’s sketch of the scherzo and pulling in a finale from elsewhere in the composer’s oeuvre (it comes from the incidental music to Rosamunde). This set also offers two Newbould completions/orchestrations of symphonic fragments, one lasting 7½ minutes and the other, more substantial one lasting 17½ . It is certainly possible to fault a number of these performances: tempos tend to be quick, the grander movements sometimes lack stature, and there is often a superficiality to the interpretations that makes them pleasant enough but scarcely of any great importance. Furthermore, unlike the 1980s releases of this set, the one from Newton Classics contains only the sketchiest of booklet notes, with no substantive information on how the “Unfinished” was completed, why No. 7 is never played, and where the fragments and No. 10 come from. This is a real shame, since no other Schubert cycle has ever been as ambitious as this one in gathering all the composer’s symphonic attempts, completed and incomplete alike, into one place. Nevertheless, this set is a wonderful one to have, precisely because Marriner and Newbould offer music that is not available anyplace else, providing the most complete portrait of Schubert the symphonist to be found anywhere – and in performances that, while not interpretatively ideal, are very well and cleanly played and are presented with a great deal of spirit. Is this what Schubert intended to leave the world in his symphonic output? Doubtful – but until someone else comes up with an even more complete set of Schubert’s symphonic works, this one will stand on its own as the sole recording that has tried to give listeners absolutely everything symphonic that Schubert produced.

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