May 24, 2012
(++++) TONE PAINTINGS
Sibelius: Symphonies Nos. 1-7; Finlandia; Karelia Suite; Pohjola’s Daughter; The Bard; Tapiola. City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo. Erato. $29.99 (4 CDs).
Johan Halvorsen: Orchestral Works, Volume 4—Norwegian Rhapsodies Nos. 1 and 2; Norwegian Bridal Procession; Passacaglia (Duo for violin and viola); Dance Scene from “Queen Tamara”; Symphonic Intermezzo from “The King”; Norwegian Festival Overture; Norwegian Fairy Tale Pictures. Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi. Chandos. $18.99.
Johann Strauss Sr. Edition, Volume 21. Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina conducted by Christian Pollack. Marco Polo. $16.99.
The Sibelius symphonies are, in a sense, scenes from the composer’s homeland, sometimes directly (the flock of 16 swans taking wing that inspired the finale of No. 5, the famine-related bleakness of No. 4) and more often indirectly. For Sakari Oramo, himself born in Finland, the symphonies’ reflection of the nation’s trials and beauties informs a finely honed, very thoughtful set of performances in which the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra plays with fervor and understanding. Many conductors make the symphonies rather cool, but not Oramo, for whom the chilly backdrop of Finland itself is simply a fact of nature, allowing the works to bloom with warmth and fervor. No. 1 is well-paced and full of imaginative touches. No. 2 is even better, with a lovely French horn in the first movement and a rolling inevitability to the conclusion of the work’s finale. No. 3 features fine woodwind playing and a strong and sturdy finale – but a rather odd second movement, which exists practically in stasis despite a tempo marking of Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto. This movement is one of the few miscalculations in Oramo’s set. Symphony No. 4 is tautly effective, and the finale has more freshness than in other performances. No. 5 is particularly satisfying, from the bite of the double basses, to a series of beautifully modulated slight increases and decreases of tempo, to a much-appreciated solidity in the work’s off-beat final chords. No. 6 gets an unusual interpretation: impetuous and impassioned, with far more intensity than is usually heard in this work, and a generally fast pace that takes some getting used to but is very effective once a listener accepts and is absorbed into it. No. 7 is also intense and has a grand and valedictory feel. The shorter works in this four-CD set are uniformly well-done. Finlandia features especially fine work by the brass section – the trumpets in particular. The Karelia Suite is nicely balanced between warm elegance and bright, forthright rhythms. Pohjola’s Daughter sounds like a symphony in miniature here, with instrumental touches similar to those that Oramo brings out in the symphonic cycle: a beautiful cello, strongly accentuated horns and more. The Bard is at the opposite extreme: quiet throughout, gentle in the interplay between harp and orchestra, moody and serene. And Tapiola, like Symphony No. 6, gets surprising – and surprisingly effective – treatment, with Oramo pushing the music forward from the start and driving it in a way that is quite atypical but is refreshing and very effective once a listener accepts the approach. These performances were recorded between 2000 and 2003 and are now being re-released in less-elaborate packaging that omits booklet notes (which, however, are available online). Oramo’s readings all stand up very well: there is very little in this set that is not thoughtful, carefully presented and handled with both care and intensity, and there is much in it that sheds new light on the emotive and dramatic sides of Sibelius’ music.
The fourth volume of Neeme Järvi’s consideration of Johan Halvorsen’s orchestral works sheds a good deal of light, too. Nothing here is substantial in length – the symphonies appeared on the three earlier CDs – but there is much of interest. The two Norwegian Rhapsodies incorporate folk tunes into a well-planned symphonic structure. Norwegian Bridal Procession is an orchestration of a work by Grieg and includes deliberately harsh woodwind sounds designed to emulate peasant culture without romanticizing it. The early Passacaglia, based on Handel, is a nicely designed set of variations requiring considerable virtuosity from both violin (Melina Mandozzi) and viola (Ilze Klava). The Dance Scene from “Queen Tamara” and Symphonic Intermezzo from “The King” are well-designed pieces of theater music, the former featuring Oriental overtones and the latter containing Wagnerian elements and a surprisingly quiet conclusion. Norwegian Festival Overture is an effective combination of solemn and folklike elements. And Norwegian Fairy Tale Pictures, written primarily for children, is a charming work whose sections are intended to depict specific scenes from a play called Peik and the Giant Troll – but it is not necessary to know the play to be captivated by the clever orchestration, the catchy dance rhythms and the overall sense of fun. Järvi is a fine advocate for Halvorsen, providing solemnity where it is called for and a light touch where that is appropriate. The works on this latest Chandos CD are not major ones, but they are uniformly well-made and interesting to hear, and add to the impression left by the first three CDs in this series: that Halvorsen is an unfairly neglected and highly talented composer whose music deserves more-frequent performances outside his native Norway than it generally receives.
The music of Johann Strauss Sr. tends to be neglected, too, but it also repays closer and more-frequent hearings, even if it lacks the symphonic cohesiveness of much of the music of Strauss Sr.’s sons, Johann Jr. and Josef. As with Halvorsen’s music, Strauss Sr.’s benefits tremendously from having a strong conductor advocating it, and Christian Pollack is ideal: he consistently performs these works with attentiveness, flair, appropriate musical gestures, and just the right spirit of enjoyment. And the Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina is quite wonderful: balanced, enthusiastic and filled with verve and a sure sense of rhythmic vitality. The 21st volume in Marco Polo’s excellent Strauss Sr. series includes six waltzes: Bouquets, Ländlich, sittlich! (“Bucolic, Proper!”), Themis-Klänge (“Sounds of Themis”), Herz-Töne (“Sounds from the Heart”), Helenen-Walzer, and Schwedische Lieder (“Swedish Songs”). The last of these was composed in honor of famed Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, for whom Strauss Jr. had earlier created a waltz called Lind Songs: father and son were by now (1846) rivals for the musical affection of the public. This CD also includes four works in a rather stylized form that Strauss Sr. particularly liked, the quadrille: Charivari-Quadrille, Souvenir de Carneval 1847, Triumph-Quadrille and Najaden-Quadrille (“Naiads Quadrille”). There are two polkas here as well, although this was not a form much favored by Strauss Sr. One, Neujahrs-Polka (“New Year Polka”), was written for the December 31, 1846 concert, at a time when Vienna’s musical traditions for the New Year were not nearly as established as they have since become. The other polka, Eisele- und Beisele-Sprünge (“Eisele and Beisele Jumps”), one of Strauss Sr.’s most-often-performed works, is named for two amusing fictional characters who became cult favorites in their time and foreshadowed many comic-book creations of the 20th century. Pollack never attempts to give any of these works more gravity than it deserves, but he allows every waltz plenty of expansiveness and delivers the shorter works with gusto and a healthy dose of enchantment. Strauss Sr.’s ability to produce consistently delightful music becomes clearer with every release in this very fine series.