May 24, 2012
(++++) SYMPHONIC EXCURSIONS
Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique; Overture to “Béatrice et Bénédict.” Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Robin Ticciati. Linn Records. $22.99 (SACD).
Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 9 and 15. Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR conducted by Andrey Boreyko. Hänssler Classic. $18.99.
Tchaikovsky: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3. Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern conducted by Christoph Poppen. Oehms. $16.99.
Even well-worn symphonic paths can take new twists and turns in the hands of conductors unencumbered by a belief that performances have always been done a certain way and must therefore continue to be done that way. Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique invites performance by a large orchestra, for example, but 29-year-old Robin Ticciati tackles it with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, of which he has been Principal Conductor since the 2009-10 season. This is scarcely a tiny orchestra – it has more than 60 players – but it is not the 90-to-100-member behemoth more often heard performing this work. The results are refreshing. Inner voices come through much more clearly than usual, woodwinds and especially brass attain prominence against the strings beyond what is usually heard, and the reading as a whole has a transparency and lightness that is unfamiliar in this well-known and still-fascinating work. The smaller orchestral size works particularly well in the first three movements, and Ticciati’s willingness to take chances – in making parts of Un bal genuinely frenetic, for example – pays high dividends. The extended introduction to the first movement proves a very meaningful scene-setter, establishing the dreamlike atmosphere that pervades the entire symphony, while the thunder in the concluding bars of the Scène aux champs nicely anticipates the drama to come in the Marche au supplice. That movement and the finale, though, show the limitations of this chamber-music performance: neither has the weight and drama that it should, and it would have been better if Ticciati had conducted the finale with greater abandon, a higher sense of drama and some more-perverse snarls and sarcasm in the appropriate instruments – the whole thing is a touch too urbane. Nevertheless, this is an excellent reading in most ways, revealing details of Berlioz’ wonderful orchestration that are not always apparent and showing that even a piece as often played as this one can still have a fresh feeling in the right hands. Ticciati couples the symphony with the Béatrice et Bénédict overture, which skips along lightly and features more lovely details of orchestration, although here too a little greater sense of fun and abandon would have been welcome. It is almost as if this youthful conductor is holding himself back from being too high-spirited.
Andrey Boreyko is older (age 55), but his Shostakovich Symphony No. 9 has fervor and barely suppressed sarcasm (bordering on nastiness) that make it sound as if the composer was cocking a snook at the Soviet musical establishment – perhaps a bit more overtly than Shostakovich intended, although there is little doubt that he thumbed his nose at the expectation of a grand triumphal symphony (with the important No. 9) to mark the end of World War II. Boreyko conducts this work with a kind of youthful glee that relates it clearly to the composer’s very first symphony, which was indeed the product of a teenager. From the brightness and sarcasm of the piccolo in the first movement to the deliberately overdone percussion of the finale, this is a performance packed with attitude, played with great relish by the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR and zipping along at breakneck speed at the very end – to such an extent that it practically becomes a cartoon version of a symphonic conclusion (the audience at the live performance hesitates a bit before applauding, almost as if it cannot quite believe what it has just heard). Boreyko’s handling of Shostakovich’s final symphony, No. 15, is quite different but equally fine. There is lightness at the start here as well, but the first-movement bassoon and trumpet (for example) have more-mature roles to play than does the piccolo in No. 9 – even though the opening movement of No. 15 contains the famous repeated quotations from Rossini’s William Tell. Indeed, this symphony is pervaded by quotes from other composers and from Shostakovich’s own earlier works, to such an extent that it risks slipping into the mode of a pastiche. But Boreyko never lets it do this: he finds a cohesiveness here that escapes many other conductors. The brass chorale that opens the second movement, for example, immediately establishes a sound world different from that of the Allegretto that precedes it, but Boreyko manages to preserve an emotional connection between the movements despite their musical contrasts. The bridge from the second movement to the lighter third is skillfully handled as the mood shifts yet again, but Boreyko knows that this music is less snide than that in Symphony No. 9, and he handles its touches of percussion and woodwind accordingly. And then, in the finale, Boreyko makes it clear that the varied emotions of the first three movements all come together: depth of feeling, reminiscence, lightness of touch, nostalgia, recollection of earlier works, and a kind of summation of the music-making that Shostakovich has done before. This is not a depressive movement, for all that it begins with a quotation of the “Death” leitmotif from Wagner’s Die Walküre and concludes with a final chord under which the composer wrote morendo. The movement is more a summation of a variety of disparate feelings, eventually attaining a degree of stasis, if not exactly peacefulness. Boreyko paces this movement carefully, paying close attention to details of the orchestration, and brings the work – also recorded live – to a wholly apt conclusion.
Christoph Poppen is a year older than Boreyko and has many of the same sensitivities. They have been on fine display in his Tchaikovsky cycle for Oehms, which is now almost complete: with the release of his reading of Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3, only No. 5 has not yet appeared. The new CD, which like Boreyko’s also consists of live recordings, has far more plusses than minuses, but it gets a (+++) reading, primarily because of some issues in the performance of No. 3. The “Little Russian,” No. 2, gets a well-paced reading that keeps this generally bright minor-key symphony moving very nicely, without even a hint of the darkness that would pervade the composer’s later symphonic works. Only the finale is a trifle unsatisfactory here, with its second theme taken rather too slowly and without as much exuberance as the movement needs for full effectiveness. On the whole, though, No. 2 comes across well. Not so No. 3 – Tchaikovsky’s only major-key symphony, and a work that seems to trip up a great many conductors: even Herbert von Karajan, who was never at his best in Tchaikovsky, simply did not know what to do with this work and gave it some of his least-compelling performances. This is Tchaikovsky’s most balletic symphony, so rhythmic vitality is an absolute necessity: even, dancelike rhythms are crucial to its effect. Poppen’s performance, though, lacks a sense of overall organization, and tends to be a mixture of excellent orchestral playing (in the brass and the pizzicato string sections, for example) with uncertainty of pacing: a pronounced slowdown in the first movement, followed by an uncalled-for speedup, is perhaps the most egregious example of this, but it is scarcely the only one. Ultimately, what is lacking in this performance is warmth: Poppen leads No. 3 in a rather cool, detached manner that is quite different from his handling of the other Tchaikovsky symphonies released by Oehms to date, with the result that even the fine work by the musicians of the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern is at the service of a less-than-compelling interpretation. Elements of this CD are very fine, but as a whole it is a touch disappointing.