September 15, 2011


Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6; Hamlet Fantasy-Overture. Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern conducted by Christoph Poppen. Oehms. $16.99.

Spohr: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 6; Concert Overture in C minor, Op. 12. NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover conducted by Howard Griffiths. CPO. $16.99 (SACD).

     The German “radio orchestras” play with consistent excellence and considerable style under all conductors and in just about all repertoire, both the familiar and the less so. The awkwardly named but very fine Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern gives Christoph Poppen everything a conductor could want in the new Oehms recording of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” symphony. The strings are silky-smooth, the brass warm and prominent, the woodwinds just piquant enough for this music. Poppen, for his part, is at some pains to make it clear that this is a “Pathétique” work rather than a “Tragique,” as Modest Tchaikovsky first suggested his brother call it. There is no swooning here. The first movement emerges from the bassoon depths feelingly, but more with elegance than with a sense of impending doom, and as the orchestral introduction gives way to the movement’s main theme, the playing is clean, the lines clear and the orchestral balance excellent. There is no sense of trying to delve deeply into despair here – if anything, the movement is a trifle cool, which is an unusual approach. The rhythmically odd waltz of the second movement is likewise handled straightforwardly, its 5/4 meter never seeming halting or peculiar – a touch disturbing, perhaps, but not intensely so. Yet Poppen is equally careful to avoid overdoing the apparent triumphalism of the third movement: the pacing is deliberate, the march rhythm presented with clarity, and the eventual climax rendered with considerable strength without any over-the-top emotionalism. It is therefore no surprise that the finale, although played very effectively, also fails to plumb the depths that many conductors find in it. “Fails” is not really the right word, since it does not sound as if Poppen is seeking something that neither he nor the orchestra finds. What seems to happen in this live recording is that Poppen is looking for something new to say about this warhorse of the symphonic repertoire, and has come up with the notion of performing the symphony in accordance with its title rather than its provenance (Tchaikovsky died nine days after the first performance). Tchaikovsky’s themes come through with great beauty and considerable subtlety in this reading; what is absent is intense, heart-on-the-sleeve emotionalism. Many listeners will not miss it at all. And Oehms couples the symphony with a fine Poppen performance (also a live recording) of the Hamlet fantasy-overture – a work that really is, at its core, tragic. But it is also dramatic, and it is the drama on which Poppen focuses. The work is episodic, and Poppen gives each portion its due, focusing on the individual themes and Tchaikovsky’s handling of them, then eventually pulling everything together into a strong and very well-played climax. Both these readings are Tchaikovsky shorn of some of the overindulgence of which he has often been accused, and which many conductors seem only too eager to bring out. The performances are all the better for being somewhat more emotionally restrained than is the norm.

     There is no “norm” in the performance of Louis Spohr’s symphonies, which were once very highly regarded but nowadays languish in near-total obscurity. It is likely that Howard Griffiths’ cycle will be the standard for years to come, and it is good news that CPO has now brought out the third entry in the series after a three-year hiatus (Griffiths’ earlier recordings included Symphonies Nos. 2 and 8 on one CD and Nos. 3 and 10 on another). Spohr was a skilled craftsman and a more-than-adept orchestrator, but not an especially innovative composer. The new CD features two symphonies that look distinctly back in time. No. 1 (1811) is closely based on Mozart’s Symphony No. 39: it is in the same key, and the first two movements parallel those of Mozart quite closely. Spohr has a fine sense of detail, and the distinctions between his work and Mozart’s were surely intended by him to showcase his different handling of the material. For example, both Mozart’s second movement and Spohr’s are in A-flat major and 2/4 time, but Mozart’s is marked Andante con moto and Spohr’s Larghetto con moto. And the third and fourth movements of Spohr’s symphony follow the Mozart model less closely. Nevertheless, the impression of the symphony is of a throwback, a reaction against (for example) Beethoven’s quick and dramatic modulations in favor of the careful balance and cautious preparation for key changes more typical of earlier composers. The work is pleasant enough (although its finale does not fit very well with the first three movements); but it is not particularly memorable. Symphony No. 6, on the other hand, is memorable, but whether in a positive or negative way will depend upon the listener. Spohr called this work Historical Symphony in the Style and Taste of Four Different Periods. The first movement is based on the music of Bach and Handel; the second, the works of Haydn and Mozart; the third, the music of Beethoven; and the fourth, that of the “moderns” of 1840, the year of the symphony’s first performance. Unlike, say, Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 4 (“Mozartiana”), Spohr’s symphony is not designed to showcase specific music of earlier composers or recast it in accord with audience preference of Spohr’s own time. Spohr simply applies his compositional methods to forms that dominated the various times – a sonata form with dotted eighths and sixteenths in the “Mozart” movement, for example. In the finale, he uses more percussion than is his usual wont, along with diminished-seventh chords that give the work a rather Romantic flavor. This symphony was controversial in Spohr’s time (and not particularly popular), one reason being that audiences were not sure whether Spohr was trying to imitate or outdo earlier composers – and another being that listeners were not quite sure whether the finale was intended as parody. Today the symphony seems like rather mild stuff, more like warmed-over versions of earlier music than any strong commentary on anything. The NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover plays both the symphonies very well, and Griffiths is an attentive and well-focused conductor who gives these works their full due. He also handles Spohr’s early and short Concert Overture in C minor quite well, although the piece itself is of little consequence. This CD gets a (+++) rating, not because of any lack in the presentation – like the other German “radio orchestras,” the NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover is very fine indeed – but simply because the music itself is too slight to have wide appeal. The more of Spohr’s symphonies Griffiths offers on CPO, the clearer it becomes that Spohr was a good composer who fell far short of the greatness attributed to him by many listeners in his own time.

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