November 23, 2011

(++++) GRANDEUR OF AND BEYOND THE ROMANTIC

Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 6 and 12 (“The Year 1917”). Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko. Naxos. $9.99.

Hanson: Symphony No. 2 (“Romantic”); Lux Aeterna; Mosaics. Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Naxos. $9.99.

Busoni: Piano Concerto. Roberto Cappello, piano; Corale Luca Marenzio and Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma conducted by Francesco La Vecchia. Naxos. $9.99.

     Gigantism in symphonies became a characteristic of late Romanticism, but after Bruckner and Mahler, something of a reaction set in, and as musical language became more acerbic, musical structure became more compressed to accommodate it. The seesaw of bigger and smaller scale is apparent in the symphonies of Shostakovich, some of which are quite large (Nos. 7 and 8 come immediately to mind) while others may express big ideas, but do so in a more modest time period – although scarcely with reduced orchestral forces. Vasily Petrenko is an outstanding Shostakovich conductor, and his continued march through the symphonies remains a joy to hear – even when he conducts, as he must in doing a cycle, works in which Shostakovich was not at his best. One such is Symphony No. 12, “The Year 1917,” of which even the composer did not think all that much. A celebration of events of the Bolshevik Revolution, in four movements played continuously, it is a work of somewhat surprising classical balance (which Petrenko brings out nicely), but one that ultimately seems not to have much to say – climaxing as it does in bombast that one would wish to see as ironic or deliberately overstated but that the composer, who had previously been quite chastened by run-ins with Soviet authorities, may well have meant sincerely. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra is becoming more comfortable with Shostakovich’s style as this cycle progresses, and if it lacks the sumptuous string tone of the best Russian orchestras, it makes up for it with precision of attacks and excellent sectional balance. This is particularly clear in Symphony No. 6, a better and more interesting work than No. 12, and one with a very unusual structure: 20 of its 33 minutes belong to the opening Largo, a movement of very grand scale indeed, and one that pulsates with intensity in Petrenko’s heartfelt reading. Warm, emotional, thoughtful and tense, the movement pulls listeners into one of Shostakovich’s most interesting sound worlds – which then switches quite abruptly into the contrasting second movement and a finale that the composer particularly liked but that barely seems related to what has gone before. This is an odd and gripping symphony that Petrenko and the Liverpudlians handle with consummate skill.

     The somewhat skewed romanticism of the first movement of Shostakovich’s Sixth, which dates to 1939, contrasts interestingly with the avowed romanticism of Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2, composed in 1930. Also in three movements, also with the first movement carrying most of the work’s length (although not as disproportionately as in the Shostakovich), Hanson’s Second further develops the influence of Sibelius that was already apparent in the American composer’s Symphony No. 1, “Nordic.” The horn fanfares and lyrical strings recall the Sibelian model, but Hanson, although himself of Scandinavian heritage, also brings an American sensibility to his themes and their development. The work is yearning in old-fashioned Romantic terms, especially in the second movement, but also expansive and sonorous in ways that reflect Sibelius without ever really imitating him. Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony do a fine job with this, the best-known of Hanson’s seven symphonies – and provide a highly interesting contrast through the performance of the little-known Mosaics (1957), a set of variations that also offer some Nordic intensity but that are, in the main, clear, dramatic and quite well orchestrated. The third work on this CD – a Naxos reissue of a disc that originally appeared on the Delos label – has the smallest helping of northern sensibility, being more attuned to the warmth of Italy. Lux Aeterna is a 1923 symphonic poem with viola obbligato, composed at the end of Hanson’s three-year stint in Rome. A rather freely conceived work, less controlled and more fantasia-like than is usual in Hanson, the piece clearly shows the instrumental influence of Respighi (with whom Hanson studied orchestration) and Palestrina (whose flowing musical lines Hanson himself cited as a significant influence). Susan Gulkis Assadi, the violist in this performance, has a warm and lovely tone that melds well with the orchestral sound without ever dominating or attempting to dominate it; and the work itself offers a pleasant mixture of emotional and contrapuntal complexity.

     But for real grandeur, or perhaps grandiosity, in a melding of the Italian and more-northern musical styles, and for a work that takes Romantic gigantism to extremes in a form that uses a solo instrument sometimes to lead the orchestra and sometimes as part of it, there is nothing to compare with Ferruccio Busoni’s 1904 Piano Concerto, which is so gigantic that a performance barely fits within the 80-minute recording limit of a CD. The phrase sui generis tends to be thrown about rather loosely in music, but it truly does apply to this longest of all piano concertos ever heard in public – a work of such scale that, beside it, Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1, which some attacked in its time as being a symphony with piano obbligato, seems positively delicate. Busoni actually called this concerto his Italian Symphony, although it is certainly not symphonic in structure any more than it is a traditional piano concerto. With a central movement as long as many complete Mozart piano concertos, and a finale built around an offstage male chorus singing a hymn to Allah from Adam Gottlob Oehlenschläger’s play Aladdin, this concerto/cantata/symphony/fantasy grows and sprawls and spreads amoebalike through multiple musical forms, held together by an opening hymn-like theme that almost (but not quite) knits the whole fabric together, and requiring tremendous virtuosity and dexterity from pianist and orchestra alike. It is, in fact, an exhausting work to listen to, never mind to perform, and it is perhaps impossible to create a thoroughly satisfactory rendition of it. The one by Roberto Cappello and Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma under Francesco La Vecchia is, however, very fine by any criteria, from the intensity of its opening (in which the piano is not introduced) to the affirmative conviction of its triumphant conclusion. The best thing about this performance is the interplay between soloist and orchestra: Cappello and La Vecchia have excellent rapport and a fine sense of the times when the piano should be front-and-center, those when it should be relegated to the background, and those in which it and the orchestra should be as much in balance as possible. The Corale Luca Marenzio sings well in the finale, and if the performance as a whole sometimes flags and sometimes seems a bit flabby and disconnected, that is a state of affairs attributable as much to Busoni as to the performers. For the fact is that Busoni’s Piano Concerto is not sufficiently packed with ideas or sufficiently clear in structure to sustain well for it entire 75-to-80 minutes. It is a gigantic work and an impressive one, with themes that go through every emotion of which the Romantic and post-Romantic eras were capable: humor and intensity, delicacy and overwhelming force, uncertainty and victory, quietude and pummeling strength. But it is a work that tends to overmaster not only those who play it but also those who hear it. Listeners will find much to enjoy in this impressive recording, but should not be surprised – or ashamed – to find themselves exhausted rather than uplifted by the time it is over.

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