Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach: Symphonies Nos. 6, 10 and 20. Leipziger Kammerorchester conducted by Morten Schuldt-Jensen. Naxos. $8.99.
Bruckner: Symphony No. 8. Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Christian Thielemann. Profil. $33.99 (2 CDs).
Mahler: Symphony No. 6. Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jukka-Pekka Saraste. Simax Classics. $18.99.
Sibelius: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5. New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen. Naxos. $8.99.
From Haydn’s time to ours, it has largely been the metamorphosis of the symphony that has defined the changes in classical music for the vast majority of listeners. Although other forms have been more important in particular eras – opera, for example – the symphony has retained an enduring fascination for most composers, and most audiences, ever since Haydn established it in the Classical-era form from which all later ones developed. The symphonies of Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach (1732-1795) stand firmly in Haydn’s era – he and Haydn were born in the same year. J.C.F. Bach is less known as a composer than Bach’s other musical sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian, and may be better known to historians for his place in the Bach musical dynasty: J.C.F.’s only son, Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst (1759-1845), was the last musical Bach. J.C.F. himself was known as the Bückeburg Bach, after the court where he lived and did most of his work. He wrote 20 symphonies – a number of them lost – in two groups of 10, at different times of his life. Nos. 6 and 10, from the first set, are straightforward three-movement works, written in the early 1770s, that are quite well made but show no sign of the sort of experimentation and expansion of the form in which Haydn was involved at this time, much less any Sturm und Drang – they are thoroughly good-natured. No. 20, the sole surviving example from the second set, is a more substantial four-movement work with a well-made Largo introduction to the first movement and a more-extensive orchestration than is heard in the two earlier pieces. Written in the early 1790s, it incorporates some innovations made by both Haydn and Mozart (both of whose works were known at Bückeburg), such as increased prominence for the winds; but it has none of the grandeur of later Haydn symphonies and none of the emotionality of Mozart’s. Cheerful and pleasant, and very well played by the Leipziger Kammerorchester under Morten Schuldt-Jensen, it remains a work of minor significance by a composer who is less distinguished than others of his family.
The symphony had progressed dramatically by the late 19th century, led by Beethoven’s and continuing through those of Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms. But it was in the works of Bruckner that the symphony became a cathedral-like structure of enormous scale and scope. Deeply pervaded by religious feeling, Bruckner’s last completed symphony, No. 8, sounds like an 83-minute worship service in the hands of the superb musicians of Staatskapelle Dresden under the baton of Christian Thielemann, who will become the orchestra’s principal conductor next year. Except for one thing, this live performance from September 2009 would be an unequivocal choice as one of the very best Bruckner Eighths available. From the extreme quietude of the opening – reflected in far more despairing mode at the end of the first movement – to the splendor of the finale, this is a beautifully modulated, extremely sensitive and superbly played performance of a symphony whose complexity can easily overwhelm a conductor and cause him to lose his way. Not so Thielemann, who finds the interconnectedness of all the elements here and builds a magnificent structure that pulls so strongly on listener emotions that it is difficult to react at the end with anything but silence, rather than applause – which is exactly how the audience did react in 2009. The whole enterprise is superb, except for Thielemann’s choice of which Eighth to perform. The decision on editions is always a difficult one in Bruckner, who not only revised most of his symphonies numerous times but also suffered at the hands of well-meaning but ill-informed editors who attempted ham-handedly to make the symphonies more palatable to the audiences of the time. In the case of the Eighth, the original version, very rarely heard, dates to 1887; the usual version performed is that of 1890, edited by Leopold Nowak. But Thielemann opts for the 1939 edition of Robert Haas, who used the 1890 version as a jumping-off point but reincorporated into it some elements of the 1887 version. There are certainly arguments for and against both the 1887 and 1890 versions, and reasonable differences of opinion on how well Haas picked and chose elements of the two to make his edition. But what is not arguable is that the Haas edition is the symphony as seen by Haas, not – ever – as seen by Bruckner. As well-meaning as Haas surely was, as skilled as he was at merging two editions of the symphony, it is inarguable that Haas created something that Bruckner never intended, much as Mahler did when he altered the orchestration of Beethoven’s Third and Ninth Symphonies in an attempt to express more accurately what he believed Beethoven intended. Thielemann’s Bruckner Eighth is a wonderful performance of an edition that is at best controversial, at worst an unquestionable distortion of the composer’s musical thoughts.
Mahler’s symphonies have some “edition” controversies of their own – especially the Sixth. Should the Scherzo be placed second or third? Should the third hammer blow in the finale be retained or dropped? Mahler himself could not make up his mind – nor could he figure out how to make the hammer blows (whether two or three) sound as he wanted them to, “like the stroke of an axe.” Different conductors handle the symphony’s puzzles in different ways. Jukka-Pekka Saraste opts for the Scherzo second and for all three hammer blows – a musically satisfying approach. And Saraste’s handling of this darkest of Mahler’s symphonies is well paced, well thought out and reasonably well played. The Oslo Philharmonic – heard here in a live recording – does not have quite the heft that the music requires, and Saraste is a bit slow on the uptake at the very start of the first movement, which does not stride forth as boldly as it should. The performance is filled with telling attention to detail, though, and improves as it goes on. The slow movement is simply lovely, sounding as gorgeously naïve as does the Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony – with the result that the portentous opening of the finale is all the stronger. And that last movement is highly effective, moving from episode to episode with an unerring sense of style and pacing, so that the final despair is elegantly foreshadowed but no less dark and gripping for all that. Saraste’s view of the symphony is expansive – his reading barely fits on a single CD – but does not drag: it builds, the occasional pullback from tragic force serving only to heighten the drama when it recurs.
Mahler’s Sixth, published in 1906, stands in stark contrast to Sibelius’ Fourth, which dates to 1911 and was created in part in response to the famous argument between the composers, in which Sibelius asserted a circumscribed role for the symphony while Mahler said it must “contain the world.” Pietari Inkinen has established himself as a first-rate Sibelius conductor, and he has never been better than in the new recording of the Fourth with the New Zealand Symphony. This is Sibelius’ most despairing symphony – as the Sixth is Mahler’s – but while Mahler wallows and emotes, Sibelius offers a dry despair, a chill sense of death and the ending of all. Mahler’s Sixth concludes with a loud explosion and a quiet subsidence; Sibelius’ Fourth, much more remarkably, ends mezzoforte and inconclusively, as questioningly in its own way as Ives’ The Unanswered Question. Inkinen plumbs the depths of this peculiarly deep music – two-thirds of the symphony is written at slow tempos – with great skill and understanding, creating an eventual effect of bleakness that is surely what the composer intended. And then Inkinen turns around and produces a rousing Sibelius Fifth that is as different from the Fourth as it can be. True, it is not “right around” in terms of recording date – this Fourth dates to September 2009, the Fifth to October 2008 – but then, the sequential numbers of the symphonies do not indicate how far apart they themselves are in time: the final version of the Fifth is from 1919, with World War I intervening between it and its predecessor. Nevertheless, the effect of hearing Inkinen’s Sibelius Fourth and Fifth one after the other is quite amazing. The orchestra sounds deeper, fuller, warmer, more thoroughly Romantic in the Fifth, with the brass (especially the horns) playing with strength and great beauty of tone. Inkinen opts for significant contrast between the slower and faster sections of the symphony, and an overview of the work as a broad and expansive one that transcends its actual length (it is shorter and more compact than the Fourth). This is a revelatory performance – not only in terms of its understanding of Sibelius but also in terms of showing just how much the symphony, for all its changes through the centuries, can continue to express when created by composers of very different personalities and with very different communicative agendas.