December 27, 2012
(++++) WHAT EARLY WORKS SHOW
Sousa: Music for Wind Band, Volume 11. Royal Swedish Navy Band conducted by Keith Brion. Naxos. $9.99.
Tchaikovsky: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2. Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Naxos. $9.99.
Giovanni Sgambati: Symphony No. 1; Cola di Rienzo—Overture. Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma conducted by Francesco La Vecchia. Naxos. $9.99.
The direction in which a composer’s mature works will progress is often, but not always, clear from listening to the early pieces through which he or she is developing a personal style. The latest volume in Naxos’ excellent John Philip Sousa series shows this particularly clearly, with five of the 14 tracks offering works that Sousa (1854-1932) wrote before he was 30: In Parlor and Street Fantasy (1880), Wolverine March (1881), Globe and Eagle March (1879), Guide Right March (1881) and Bonnie Annie Laurie (1883). These pieces collectively show most of the directions in which Sousa would later take his music and his world-famous band. Marches are, of course, the works for which he is best known: he wrote some 135 of them. And these early ones already show the verve and bright character of his later ones. But Sousa wrote more than 200 compositions in all, and the In Parlor and Street Fantasy shows one area that he was later to revisit a number of times: a mixture of then-popular tunes, operetta excerpts (Die Fledermaus) and even bits from grand opera (Il Trovatore, no less), rising above pastiche through cleverness of instrumentation and free-flowing form. And Bonnie Annie Laurie shows yet another side of Sousa’s productivity: he had a lifelong fascination with folk songs, considered this one the most beautiful of them all, and was fond of arranging them and incorporating them into other works – often quite creatively, as here, where he writes an original tune and sets it in counterpoint to the folk song itself. Slightly later pieces on this excellently played CD continue to show Sousa’s mastery of form and color: Mother Hubbard March (1885, including no fewer than seven nursery rhymes), On Parade March (1892), Tally Ho Overture (1886, for a play by his friend Joaquin Miller), and the particularly attractive National Fencibles March (1888). The five other offerings here were written in the 20th century, when Sousa was at the height of his fame and creative powers, and they display a sureness beyond that of the early works – although not much beyond it, with Sousa refining his already considerable talent rather than discovering entirely new ways to display it. Of the two late fantasies on this CD, one is religious in orientation (In Pulpit and Pew, 1917, opening with Onward Christian Soldiers and concluding with Adeste Fidelis); and one is entirely secular, with the mixture of popular and operatic tunes of which Sousa was fond (You’re the Flower of My Heart—Sweet Adeline Fantasy, 1930, in which Sousa manages to bring off a close juxtaposition of a trumpet-dominated version of the lovely Merry Widow Waltz with the amusingly inelegant song For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow). The three remaining later works, all marches, show Sousa at the pinnacle of his creativity in the form with which he is most closely identified: Keeping Step with the Union (1921), We Are Coming (1918, a march version of a war song), and Liberty Loan (1917) – all infused with patriotism and uplift and a very strong element of American sensibility, for all that the performances here are by Sweden’s only professional military band, which is a very fine ensemble by any standards..
The sensibility is clearly Russian in Tchaikovsky’s first two symphonies, neither of which shows his fully developed late style but both of which display a combination of overtly nationalistic elements with ones from the Germanic symphonic tradition – a mixture that was part of Tchaikovsky’s work throughout his life. Like Sousa in band music, Tchaikovsky was a highly skilled orchestrator in works for the concert hall, and his coloristic abilities are already on full display in his first two symphonies. So are the depressive elements of his personality and music: the finale of Symphony No. 1 begins Andante lugubre, a designation that seems to stand for much of what Tchaikovsky wrote. But the first symphony, sometimes called “Dreams of a Winter Journey” or, as in the Naxos recording featuring the Seattle Symphony under Gerard Schwarz, “Winter Daydreams,” is scarcely depressive in its overall feeling – wistful, yes, even melancholic in parts, but highly skilled in scene-painting (especially in the second movement) and eventually propelled at the end of the finale by an ebullience that makes the concluding G major tonality over-abundantly clear and looks ahead structurally to the also-somewhat-too-emphatic conclusion of Symphony No. 5. As for Symphony No. 2, the “Little Russian,” it contains multiple folk songs (most famously “The Crane” in the finale) and has a brightness and poise that look ahead to the much later Nutcracker ballet. Neither of these symphonies shows the fully mature Tchaikovsky style, but both show it well along in development – and both give strong indications of where the composer’s tremendous strengths and sometimes-apparent shortcomings will appear in his later music. These performances date to 1992-93 and are among the Seattle Symphony ones that originally appeared on Delos and are being re-released by Naxos. Schwarz is not a completely idiomatic Tchaikovsky conductor, but his somewhat superficial leadership actually comes across better in these first two symphonies than a similar approach would in Tchaikovsky’s later, more-personal, more-intense symphonic creations. Symphony No. 2 is very fine indeed, well-paced and with nice instrumental details. And the middle movements of Symphony No. 1 are quite effective as well. But Schwarz is out of his depth in that work’s outer movements, altering tempos for no discernible reason in the finale and doing so even more frequently and egregiously in the opening movement – as if that movement is a precursor of the tone-poem-like first movement of Symphony No. 4, which, however, it is not. Schwarz nevertheless makes a good, solid case for Tchaikovsky’s first two symphonies, both in themselves and, to an extent, in the ways in which they look ahead to the composer’s later works.
Like Tchaikovsky, Giovanni Sgambati (1841-1914) offered a blend of influences in his music – in Sgambati’s case, the same Germanic elements that Tchaikovsky absorbed, but mixed with Italianate melodies and textures. Wagner admired Sgambati’s music, and the two even created very different works on the same theme: Wagner’s Rienzi, a vast and vastly underrated opera that dates to 1837-40, is based on the same story as Sgambati’s Cola di Rienzo—Overture. This overture is from 1866 and was written as part of incidental music for a dramatic poem by Pietro Cossa. This was Sgambati’s first orchestral work, and it shows clearly where his influences came from: Liszt and Schumann as well as Wagner. Suitably solemn and dramatic, the overture is well structured and fits its subject matter well, but it does not yet display any very considerable sense of personal style. The first of Sgambati’s two symphonies, though, does show originality. Sgambati was one of several Italian Romantic composers trying to reassert the power of purely instrumental music in a country where opera had become the primary musical form – an endeavor later continued, somewhat more successfully, by Ottorino Respighi. In Sgambati’s first symphony, which dates to 1880-81, it is clear that the composer has progressed significantly since his youthful Rienzi overture. There are similarities, notably the resemblance of the motivic structure of the first movement to the design of the earlier overture, but the symphony as a whole shows a surer sense of thematic presentation and transformation and does not seem so directly influenced by the works of other composers. The theme of the second movement, for example, has Germanic orchestral treatment but is itself Italianate – a good encapsulation of what Sgambati was trying to accomplish throughout this work (and to some extent in all his music). The orchestration of the scherzo of the five-movement symphony is particularly impressive, showing Wagnerian influence but transcending it through Sgambati’s own emotional imprint. The finale, which sums up the work both structurally (using techniques of elaboration and variation) and emotionally (with intensity plus warmth), is an effective capstone to a piece that fits firmly into the Romantic era but clearly takes its own approach to the music of its time. Francesco La Vecchia, who has been exploring a number of less-known composers and pieces with the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma, once again shows himself here to be a committed and sensitive interpreter of music that has more to say than its comparative obscurity would indicate.