December 15, 2011

(++++) STANDARD REPERTOIRE AND BEYOND

Sibelius: Symphony No. 5; Pohjola’s Daughter; Lutosławski: Concerto for Orchestra. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jukka-Pekka Saraste. LPO. $16.99.

Dvořák: Symphony No.9; Czech Suite; Slavonic Dances Op. 46, No. 1 and Op. 72, No. 2. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by José Serebrier. Warner. $18.99.

Bruckner: Symphony No. 4. Orchestre Métropolitain conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. ATMA Classique. $16.99.

Ireland: Piano Concerto; Legend for Piano and Orchestra; First Rhapsody; Pastoral; Indian Summer; A Sea Idyll; Three Dances. John Lenehan, piano; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Wilson. Naxos. $9.99.

Liszt: A Faust Symphony; Wagner: A Faust Overture. Endrik Wottrich, tenor; Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden and Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Christian Thielemann. Unitel Classica DVD. $24.99.

     Some conductors and recording producers have recently been coming up with very creative ways to present very familiar music. The live recording from October 2008 of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5 and Pohjola’s Daughter is impressive enough: Jukka-Pekka Saraste leads the works with fine pacing, a sure hand, good attention to rhythm and orchestration, and overall attentiveness to what Sibelius is trying to accomplish in the symphony and tone poem. The beautiful horn sections in the symphony’s finale are perhaps a little less magisterial than they could be, but all in all, these are very worthy performances that showcase the skill of both the conductor and the orchestra. What makes the CD really special, though, is the pairing of the Sibelius works with Witold Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra (1950-54), recorded live in February 2008. This work is not particularly representative of Lutosławski’s style, being more conventional in both harmony and orchestral texture; and it does not benefit from the inevitable comparison with Bartók’s identically titled and far more brilliant work. Nevertheless, the Lutosławski is an interesting and well-constructed piece that deserves to be heard more often, and the inclusion of it on a CD that will most likely attract listeners because of the more-conventional repertoire is a fine way to bring it to the attention of people who might well be less interested in picking up, say, an all-Lutosławski recording.

     There is no unconventional music at all on the first CD of a planned Dvořák cycle by José Serebrier and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra – but the method of presentation is interesting here, too. The ever-familiar “New World” symphony is the centerpiece of the disc, of course, and Serebrier handles it with tremendous feeling and warmth – although a touch too much rubato here and there, especially in the first movement, where the broadening of the pace is subtle, but still interferes with the work’s forward momentum. Serebrier is a particularly thoughtful conductor – he is even careful here to minimize the pauses between the first and second movements, and between the third and fourth, as part of the emotional effect he is seeking. And the arrangement of the CD shows equal thought. The symphony is preceded by the ebullient Slavonic Dance, Op. 46, No. 1, which makes a very fine curtain-raiser indeed. It is followed by the Czech Suite, whose five short and unconnected movements, which Serebrier handles with poise and delicacy, stand in pleasant contrast to the carefully integrated whole of the symphony. And then the disc concludes with the warm, slow-paced Slavonic Dance, Op. 72, No. 1, which turns the CD as a whole into an exploration of multiple facets of Dvořák, not just those shown in his Symphony No. 9.

     Bruckner’s symphonies tend to show all the aspects of the composer within the individual works, nothing additional being needed – and Yannick Nézet-Séguin again shows his understanding of and sensitivity to the nuances of Bruckner in a new recording of the “Romantic” symphony. Nézet-Séguin’s approach here is as thoughtful as Serebrier’s on his CD: Nézet-Séguin shapes the music lovingly and urges Orchestre Métropolitain (which he has directed since 2000) to explore all the subtleties of Bruckner’s design and all the emotion of his themes. The pacing here is careful without being cautious, with the first movement and finale growing to very substantial stature, the Andante (quasi Allegretto) paced particularly well (that is, not too slowly), and the scherzo bursting forth brightly and producing an effect mixing peasant dance with hunting scene. For those interested in which conductors choose which of the many available editions of the Bruckner symphonies, it is interesting to note that Nézet-Séguin uses the 1936 Haas edition, not the 1953 Nowak version that is nowadays more often performed and is considered by many musicologists – although not all – to be superior. Nézet-Séguin’s fine and sensitive performance certainly makes a strong case for the Haas version, and for the symphony itself – whose title “Romantic,” it should be noted, was given by Bruckner himself not to refer to syrupy romances but to recall the romances of Medieval times, such as Wagner’s Tannhäuser and Lohengrin.

     There is Romanticism of the emotional kind in John Ireland’s Piano Concerto, even though it was written long after the Romantic era, in 1930. Expressive and filled with passages of longing that contrast well with high-spirited ones, it is the major work on a new Ireland CD on which pianist John Lenehan offers very well-played performances of both solo piano works and ones with orchestra. The other pieces here are not at the level of the concerto, so the CD as a whole gets a (+++) rating; but those who enjoy the music of Ireland (1879-1962) will find the CD fascinating, not least because it contains the world première recordings of the short solo pieces Pastoral (1896) and Indian Summer (1932), both of them charming and portraying rural character. The rest of the disc is a bit of a hodgepodge. Legend for Piano and Orchestra (1933) is a dark work, intended to evoke the feeling of the ancient landscape of a hill on the Sussex Downs. A Sea Idyll (1900) is expressive, if not highly original, while Three Dances (1913) offers well-orchestrated treatment of short folk dances – “Gipsy Dance,” “Country Dance” and “Reapers’ Dance.” Both those works are for piano solo. So is First Rhapsody (1906), which Lenehan plays with particular fire and which comes across very effectively in a Lisztian mode – not wholly original, perhaps, but quite well done nevertheless.

     But no one does Liszt better than Liszt, and Christian Thielemann delivers a dramatic and impassioned performance of A Faust Symphony that goes beyond the ordinary through a pairing with Wagner’s A Faust Overture, written at almost the same time (Wagner: 1855; Liszt: 1857 – although both works exist in other versions as well). Tenor Endrik Wottrich does a fine job with the vocal solos in the Liszt, and the Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden gives the sort of intense and idiomatic performance that it seems to deliver all the time. Staatskapelle Dresden plays with brilliance and sensitivity, with the result that even the Wagner overture – which is not generally reckoned among his most effective works – comes through with striking power. Thielemann clearly has strong feelings for this music, and his conducting is carefully controlled with an eye toward eliciting just the right expressive and monumental effects. This is a very impressive DVD – but it is a DVD, with all the pluses and minuses that implies. Those who want to see the conductor and musicians performing – as interpreted by the director, who may or may not choose the most effective camera angles and shot durations – will find this a (++++) production. Others will find it worth a (+++) rating for the high quality of the music-making, but could perhaps do without the visual elements, which can be intriguing at times but are just as often distractions from involvement in the music.

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