June 23, 2011


Schubert: Symphony No. 9. Royal Flemish Philharmonic conducted by Philippe Herreweghe. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Nielsen: Symphony No. 1; Sibelius: Symphony No. 7. Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Okko Kamu. Scandinavian Classics. $9.99.

Brahms: Symphonies Nos.1-4; Variations on a Theme by Haydn; Tragic Overture. Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini. Newton Classics. $27.99 (4 CDs).

     Schubert’s final symphony long ago picked up the sobriquet “The Great,” and the nickname has stuck even though little thought is given nowadays to the reason for it: “The Little” was Schubert’s Symphony No. 6, also in C (and No. 9 is still at times called “The Great C Major,” which helps explain where this all started). There is no question that Philippe Herreweghe wants the symphony to live up to its title: this is a monumental performance from start to finish. With warm, rounded brass, very strong pacing, clear thematic delineation, a fine sense of balance between strings and winds, and excellent SACD sound in which even Antwerp’s slightly reverberant Queen Elizabeth Hall becomes part of the composer’s sonic environment, this is a triumphal reading from start to finish. Well, almost to finish – the very last note seems to wobble a bit and fade out, and it is impossible to tell whether the conductor, engineers or both wanted it that way. It is a bit of a comedown after what is generally a truly wonderful reading of this biggest of Schubert’s symphonies. Until that very last moment, Herreweghe seems fully to have taken the work’s measure: the opening of the first movement is very stately, with tremendous warmth in the brass; the second movement really does move at the Andante con moto pace that Schubert wanted, but remains expansive for all that; the Scherzo is bright and lively, not as heavy-handed as it can sometimes become, yet still has considerable weight; and the finale, after a great flourish at the beginning, is a beautiful blend of fervor and lyricism, its gorgeous second theme given full opportunities to flow while its main theme attains truly heroic stature. The fact that Herreweghe takes the exposition repeats in both the first and last movements is a major plus: only when this is done, as Schubert intended it to be, is the full scale of this symphony made clear. In all, this is a well-proportioned, excellent-sounding performance with one seeming oddity at the very end. It is hard to know what to make of that.

     The sound is not the major attraction of a new Scandinavian Classics release of Nielsen’s first symphony and Sibelius’ final one. This recording, originally issued in 2002, has a rather cramped sound, and the Copenhagen Philharmonic, although a more-than-serviceable ensemble, is not among the world’s (or even Europe’s) top orchestras. Nor is Finnish conductor Okko Kamu especially well known – but he takes the full measure of this particular music, and the performances here are top-notch. Nielsen’s Symphony No. 1, which dates to 1892 (when the composer was 27), has a definite Romantic sound without any of the usual Romantic soul-searching. Formally, it already shows Nielsen’s fondness for moving from key to key (here, between G minor and C major, with the latter eventually triumphant), and its rhythmic vitality and orchestral balance look ahead to Nielsen’s later works. The final Allegro con fuoco is especially dynamic in this performance, with Kamu very effectively contrasting the forward-striding and more-relaxed elements before eventually concluding the work with a blaze of affirmation. The CD also includes Sibelius’ single-movement Symphony No. 7, a work quite different from the composer’s previous six (he originally called it “Fantasia Sinfonica”). The challenge for a conductor here – one that Kamu meets effectively – is to keep the symphony’s essentially slow tempo flowing throughout as a kind of foundational element, even while encouraging a sense of ebb and flow as individual sections of the work speed up and slow back down. The Sibelius Seventh is almost a set of variations – on both a theme (the ascending scale heard at the beginning) and a tempo (the one established at the outset). This is a work in C major, the same key in which Nielsen’s First concludes, but the fluidity of key is much more apparent in this much later piece (the symphony was finished in 1923 and first performed in 1924). Kamu and the Copenhagen players show a strong affinity for this music and play it with warmth, understanding and a clear comprehension of the Sibelius style.

     Warmth and a monumental approach are the primary characteristics of the Newton Classics release of Carlo Maria Giulini’s Vienna Philharmonic Brahms cycle, which goes from the start to the end of the composer’s symphonic production and throws in a couple of bonuses as well. The Vienna Philharmonic, arguably the world’s greatest orchestra even today, was surely deserving of that title in 1989-91, when these recordings were made. And Giulini (1914-2005) was expert at bringing out the warm sound of every orchestra he conducted – with the result that things are at times almost unbearably lush in this cycle. Giulini leans toward expansive tempos that become a touch draggy here and there, and sometimes more than a touch; therefore, the set gets a (+++) rating. The very slow pacing does repay listening marvelously at a wide variety of key points. For example, the conclusion of the introduction to the finale of Symphony No. 1 is wonderful – broad, intense and heartfelt. The first movement of No. 2, however, plods (it is long even though Giulini does not take the repeat of the exposition), even though it flows beautifully into the second movement. By the time the finale rolls around – also at a slow pace – this symphony has come to seem as monumental as the First; but any sense of lightness has disappeared. Giulini structures all four symphonies on a grand scale: the tightly knit Third moves easily from movement to movement, its pacing deliberate but not overly slow in the first three movements, then more flowing in the finale; while the heavily Bach-influenced Fourth swells from the start into a genuinely monumental work – whose finale, unfortunately, is simply too slow in many places, to such an extent that the music seems to congeal. The Haydn Variations and Tragic Overture are very well played – but it is too bad there is no Academic Festival Overture as well, to lighten things up a bit. For these are by and large very serious, even somber readings of the symphonies, the works’ darkness accentuated by the pacing on which Giulini insists. The burnished orchestral sound is complemented by a warm recording in which the orchestra’s superb strings stand out from start to finish. This Giulini set is, above all, thoughtful, showcasing a conductor who has studied these symphonies with care and found a very personal approach to them that focuses on bringing forth their depth and darkness. But the ponderous tempo choices will mean this is not a first-pick Brahms cycle for most listeners.

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