May 17, 2012

(++++) THE MANY-PURPOSED ORCHESTRA


Mieczysław Weinberg: Symphony No. 6; Rhapsody on Moravian Themes. Glinka Choral College Boys’ Choir and St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Lande. Naxos. $9.99.

Janáček: Taras Bulba; Lachian Dances; Moravian Dances. Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit. Naxos. $9.99.

Beethoven: Missa Solemnis. Anne Schwanewilms, soprano; Annette Jahns, mezzo-soprano; Nikolai Schukoff, tenor; Dietrich Henschel, bass; London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra conducted by Christoph Eschenbach. LPO. $16.99.

Robert Fuchs: Serenades Nos. 1 and 2; Andante grazioso and Capriccio. Cologne Chamber Orchestra conducted by Christian Ludwig. Naxos. $9.99.

Robert Fuchs: Serenades Nos. 3, 4 and 5. Cologne Chamber Orchestra conducted by Christian Ludwig. Naxos. $9.99.

      There is a revival of sorts going on for the music of Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996), a Polish-Jewish Soviet composer often mentioned as the third great Soviet-era musical creator, along with Shostakovich and Prokofiev.  Weinberg was a prodigious symphonist, writing 22 works in the form (compared with 15 for Shostakovich and just eight for Prokofiev, including two versions of No. 4).  Weinberg also wrote in many other forms (17 string quartets vs. 15 by Shostakovich, for example), frequently including programmatic musical references to his early life within his compositions.  His devotion to his personal heritage is clear, for example, in his broad-scaled Symphony No. 6, a five-movement work that includes children’s chorus in three of its movements – one using words by Mikhael Lukonin (1918-1976), one with text by Samuil Galkin (1897-1960), and one featuring the words of Lev (or Leib) Kvitko (1890-1952), who was one of 13 members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee executed in Moscow in 1952 after the committee, founded by order of Joseph Stalin, began looking too closely for authorities’ comfort into anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union itself.  This symphony, which dates to 1963, is a large work but not an overwhelming or ungainly one, lacking some of Shostakovich’s scope but also avoiding some of the older composer’s excesses.  Shostakovich himself used the symphony as teaching material, no doubt impressed with its sheer multifariousness: it includes a deeply heartfelt slow movement that contrasts with burlesques and circus-like tunes.  Vladimir Lande leads it with understanding and deep sensitivity – this would be a welcome first volume in a cycle of all of Weinberg’s symphonies.  However, the texts are not included in the booklet or offered online – a significant lack, especially if other vocal symphonies by Weinberg (No. 6 is the first of six in a row) are to be issued.  The Naxos CD also includes the vivid Rhapsody on Moravian Themes, a 1949 work that ranges between melancholia and high, almost frenetic spirits, and ends with a very upbeat dance.

      The dances of Leoš Janáček are older and much better known.  The Lachian Dances date to 1889-90, the Moravian Dances to 1891, and both sets preserve folk tunes and traditions that were fast vanishing when the composer created these works.  There are interesting contrasts between the two sets, not the least being their length: the five Moravian Dances last less than 10 minutes, the six Lachian Dances more than twice as long.  Both sets are essentially collections and orchestrations of folk tunes, but they are more than that, being specifically intended by Janáček as cultural preservation: they are not expansions and colorations of folk music in the manner of Liszt or Dvořák, but attempts to keep alive a fading sense of Czech history and community.  Antoni Wit and the Warsaw Philharmonic perform the dances with vigor and rhythmic vitality, and also deliver a fine rendition of the Taras Bulba rhapsody of 1918, which is based on a novel by Nikolai Gogol and which powerfully presents three intensely dramatic episodes from the tale – one focusing on the death of each of Taras Bulba’s sons and one on his own death, which includes Egmont-like defiance and a prediction of the ultimate defeat of his enemies.  Taras Bulba contains some of Janáček’s most effective instrumental writing and orchestration, and the performance here does it full justice.

      Christoph Eschenbach’s reading of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, although worthy enough, is less successful.  This live LPO recording, from a 2008 concert, features some excellent vocals, especially the lovely, heartfelt lyric soprano of Anne Schwanewilms and the sure and steady voice of Nikolai Schukoff.  But the overall performance never quite takes wing or touches listeners as deeply as Beethoven intended this work to do.  Eschenbach is an inconsistent conductor, and his unevenness is fully on display in this performance.  The tender, beautifully flowing opening Kyrie is quite fine, with excellent singing by the London Philharmonic Choir, and the start of the following Gloria stays at the same high level, being speedy and intense.  But things begin to flag later in this section, the tension dropping noticeably – to such a point that the movement’s fugue is simply flaccid.  The Credo is rather shapeless, certainly not building to a strong affirmation of faith, although matters improve in the Sanctus, with orchestra leader Pieter Schoeman delivering a particularly beautiful version of the extended violin solo.  At the work’s end, the Agnus Dei is solemn enough, but lacking in the drama that Beethoven built in with his use of drums and fanfares.  The soloists, aside from Schwanewilms and Schukoff, are only so-so: Dietrich Henschel  sounds somewhat hesitant, and Annette Jahns simply seems tired and unable to project effectively.  There are enough well-done elements in this recording to earn it a (+++) rating, but the Missa Solemnis, a difficult work for any conductor and ensemble, here proves to have overmatched Eschenbach and his forces.

      Much lighter and much less-known, the five serenades of Robert Fuchs (1847-1927) receive fine performances by the Cologne Chamber Orchestra under Christian Ludwig, but these too are (+++) CDs, in this case because the music itself is pleasant enough but only moderately interesting.  Fuchs was best known as professor of music theory at the Vienna Conservatory, where he taught, among others, Mahler, Sibelius, Zemlinsky, Korngold, Heuberger, Stolz and Hugo Wolf.  In Fuchs’ lifetime, his best-known works were his serenades, and it is easy to see why: they are pleasant, largely unassuming works that flow nicely and make no major demands on listeners’ minds or ears.  Unlike the serenades of Brahms – who admired Fuchs’ music, which is saying something, since he was notably stingy with praise for other musicians – these pieces are not large-scale, almost-symphonic works.  They are short (none reaches half an hour in length), very well constructed, lyrical and expressive, with effective slow movements that tend to be the heart of the works but never delve too deeply into emotion.  Nos. 1 and 2, for string orchestra, are filled with features that sound like the work of other composers, such as Schubert, Mendelssohn and Dvořák.  Both are very pleasant to listen to – it is easy to see why they were very popular in their time – but neither offers much for listeners to chew over or hold onto: these are evanescent works.
No. 3, also for string orchestra, is strongly reminiscent of Brahms, even to its Finale alla zingarese.  No. 4, for string orchestra and two horns, is more expressive and, thanks to the inclusion of the horns, has a more interesting sound.  No. 5, for small orchestra, is musically the most interesting of the group, ranging in sound from the Vienna of the Strauss family almost to the Vienna of Mahler.  Serenades are, by definition, not designed to have the seriousness or musical integration of symphonies, so it would be unfair to criticize those of Fuchs as lacking depth that they were never intended to possess.  Still, serenades by other composers of the time – again, the two by Brahms come immediately to mind – offer greater scope to performers and more aural interest to listeners.  The Fuchs works are certainly enjoyable to hear from time to time, but it is not hard to understand the obscurity into which they have fallen.  The Andante grazioso and Capriccio, a later work than the serenades (dating to 1900 – the last two serenades are from 1895, the others considerably earlier), has more heft to it: although still not profound, it is earnest, determined and altogether of a darker cast, now looking more in Mahler’s direction than in the sunnier one of Schubert.  Fuchs’ music should not be lightly dismissed, but neither should listeners be surprised, after hearing it, if they come away thinking that the experience was pleasing enough but scarcely profound.

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