January 03, 2013

(++++) MAINSTREAM AND BEYOND


Brahms: Symphony No. 1. Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Sergiu Celibidache. Wiener Symphoniker. $18.99.

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 3; Coronation March. Russian National Orchestra conducted by Mikhail Pletnev. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6; Capriccio Italien. Russian National Orchestra conducted by Mikhail Pletnev. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Mahler: Symphony No. 8. Barbara Haveman, Orla Boylan, Christiane Oelze and Anna Palimina, sopranos; Petra Lang, mezzo-soprano; Maria Radner, contralto; Brandon Jovanovich, tenor; Hanno Müller-Brachmann, baritone; Günther Groissböck, bass; Mädchen und Knaben der Chöre am Kölner Dom, Chor des Bach-Vereins Köln, Domkantorei Köln, Kartäuserkantorei Köln, Philharmonischer Chor der Stadt Bonn, Vokalensemble Kölner Dom and Gürzenich-Orchester Köln conducted by Markus Stenz. Oehms. $19.99 (SACD).

Dvořák: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 6. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by José Serebrier. Warner. $18.99.

Weber: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2; Bassoon Concerto; Invitation to the Dance. Karen Geoghegan, bassoon; BBC Philharmonic conducted by Juanjo Mena. Chandos. $18.99

Vierne: Complete Organ Symphonies, Volume 1—Nos. 1 and 2. Hans-Eberhard Roß, organ. Audite. $19.99 (SACD).

      The field of symphonies is so vast that it is easy to choose ones that are quite familiar, less familiar or almost totally unfamiliar – and still be within the general purview of the word “symphony.” Brahms’ First is as mainstream as symphonies get, but the new recording on the Wiener Symphoniker’s own label is almost certainly unknown to today’s listeners. It is in fact not a “new” recording at all, but an expert remastering of a recording dating back to 1952 and featuring Sergiu Celibidache (1912-1996). Celibidache was no fan of recordings, stating that they would be the death of music because they could never reproduce the concert-hall experience effectively. That is true as far as it goes, even for live recordings, but the type of experience that CDs (and, before them, cassettes and vinyl and 78s) offer is just as valid as that in the concert hall – albeit different.  As it turns out, Celibidache’s reading of Brahms’ First makes a strong case for recorded sound. The original engineers must have done an exceptional-for-its-time job with microphone placement, because the recording – of a live performance and originally in mono – is surprisingly full, rich and detailed, and the orchestra, among the best in the world at the time if not the very best of all, sounds absolutely wonderful.  The horn resonance alone is a major surprise – the modern engineers clearly did as fine a job as did the original ones.  The performance is an interesting, even quirky one. The first two movements flow beautifully and with considerable strength. The third, though, is quite slow, almost bringing the forward motion to a halt.  And the finale, which Celibidache clearly saw as the work’s capstone and a monumental achievement in its own right, is just plain strange: after the opening Adagio section, Celibidache holds back so far on the start of the main section that he nearly achieves stasis – surely not Brahms’ intent. Then he speeds up the tempo and turns the fourth movement into an impressively grand one.  The performance will not be to all tastes, for sure, and neither will the 60-year-old sound, no matter how impressively it has been restored.  But the disc is nevertheless a significant accomplishment and an important addition to the lengthy catalog of readings of this symphony.

      There are fewer renditions of Tchaikovsky’s Third available: this is a mainstream symphony, yes, but it is the least-played of Tchaikovsky’s six (and the only one in a major key: D). Mikhail Pletnev’s now-complete Tchaikovsky cycle for PentaTone, despite uniformly top-notch playing by the Russian National Orchestra, has been quite uneven, ranging from excellent to distinctly disappointing, so it is good to discover that his Third is a winner. The tempos are well chosen, the balletic elements so important to this symphony are well communicated and thoroughly understood, the lighter moments are nicely contrasted with the more-serious ones, and the overall effect is of a substantial work with considerable drive, brightness and elegance.  The only disappointment is the third of the fifth movements, the central Andante, which Pletnev takes too slowly and deliberately, so that it somewhat overweights the symphony as a whole in its direction. The interpretation is justifiable, but in light of the mostly jaunty tempos elsewhere, the movement seems a bit overthought and overdone. Still, that is a relatively small quibble about what is as a whole an effective and well-structured performance. One irritation: Pletnev’s Tchaikovsky SACDs are not particularly generous with filler material, and this one is no exception – the 46-minute symphony is complemented only by the six-minute Coronation March, a well-written occasional piece composed for the coronation of Tsar Alexander III, who commissioned it. It contains quotes from the Russian national anthem and from the royal anthem of Denmark (the empress was a Danish princess), all within an appropriate setting of pomp and circumstance. Like the symphony, it is exceptionally well played, but it is not a particularly significant work or a very generous addition to the symphonic offering.

      Pletnev’s PentaTone version of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth will inevitably be compared with the one he and his orchestra made for Virgin Classics in 1991 as their first-ever recording, which was a bombshell: an outstanding, deeply felt and remarkably well-played rendition of the symphony that was declared the best recorded performance ever in some quarters.  The PentaTone version bears the comparison exceptionally well: it is amazingly well played, exceptionally well recorded (much better than the 20-year-old version), and filled with highly sensitive touches. The opening bassoon, for example, sounds particularly gloomy here, while the gorgeous main theme of the first movement has a yearning wistfulness that is deeply felt without being mawkish or overdone.  Pletnev has broadened his view of the symphony: the first and last movements on PentaTone are both longer than on Virgin Classics, where they were already expansive.  But nothing in them feels stretched; nor do the middle movements sound rushed.  The second movement flows with considerable beauty and elegance, while the scurrying, speedy opening of the third effectively introduces a movement whose increasingly frenetic tone makes the depressive start of the finale all the more pathétique. The last movement starts almost languidly, moving more deeply into despair as it progresses and eventually fading into nothingness with a very moving sigh of resignation.  This performance reaffirms the symphony’s firm place in the classical-music canon and Pletnev’s expertise with the work.  And the contrast with Capriccio Italien – the filler material on this SACD and an equally mainstream composition – is a particularly strong one. Pletnev and the RNO are expansive here, too, well-focused on instrumental details and rhythms and on the generally upbeat nature of the piece.

      Mahler’s Eighth Symphony exists on the fringes of the mainstream repertoire. Its huge performance requirements – it earned the nickname “Symphony of a Thousand” at its première – prevent it from being presented with great frequency, but it has become a popular recording project in part because of the huge sonic demands it makes.  The pairing of the ninth-century hymn, Veni, creator spiritus, with the final scene from Goethe’s Faust, remains an unusual and highly effective one, and Mahler’s brilliant workmanship in having themes from the first part penetrate and permeate the second makes the Eighth a tour de force for conductors, singers and audiences alike.  Markus Stenz is a very fine Mahler conductor, and his Eighth reaffirms his reputation. The first part strides forth speedily and with intensity, sweeping all before it into an affirmative call not so much for divinity as for creativity.  The second part opens with particularly effective orchestral scene-painting – this is the only portion of the Eighth that sounds immediately and indubitably “Mahlerian.”  Stenz focuses on the instrumental elements of this second part, very clearly delineating sections that bring back themes from the first portion of the work.  His soloists are all fine, although they sometimes compete with the orchestra and lose out: Brandon Jovanovich is an emotionally strong Doctor Marianus, for example, but his voice sometimes is subsumed within the instrumental portions of the music.  Stenz manages to keep all six choir ensembles together and quite precise in their entrances and the juxtapositions of their sections – no small achievement. And by the time of the last 10 minutes of the work, with their climb into ethereality and affirmation of the Eternal Feminine, Stenz has produced a sense of anticipation that is brilliantly fulfilled in the wonderful final Chorus Mysticus and concluding instrumental chords. This is a performance that reaches for the stars and attains them.

      Like the Mahler Eighth, Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6 is not quite mainstream, although it does appear occasionally on concert programs (years ago, when only five Dvořák symphonies were known, it was designated No. 1).  The third volume in José Serebrier’s Dvořák cycle pairs it with the Symphony No. 3, which is almost wholly unknown.  The Third is Dvořák’s only three-movement symphony, with two lengthy and closely connected movements followed by a less-than-wholly-satisfactory, shorter finale – Dvořák had difficulty concluding his symphonies, with No. 6 in fact being the first whose final movement is fully satisfactory.  Serebrier takes a few too many liberties with the first movement of the Third, being a little too fond of rubato, as indeed he was in the previous recordings in this series.  And the Bournemouth Symphony, although it plays quite well, does not have the full, lush string sound that maximizes Dvořák’s effectiveness.  But all in all, the Third gets an effective performance, and the conclusion is rousing.  In the Sixth, the most Brahmsian of Dvořák’s symphonies, Serebrier again lets his tendency to tinker with opening movements carry him away, slowing down repeatedly in the Allegro non tanto in an apparent bid for emotional involvement that succeeds only in bringing the movement nearly to a halt again and again.  Since Serebrier correctly observes the repeat of the exposition, this creates a symphony overweighted toward its opening rather than one simply built on the large canvas that Dvořák intended.  The third and fourth movements are the best here, with Serebrier generally allowing them full expression as Dvořák intended, although even in these movements (notably in the coda of the finale) the conductor imposes some unwarranted tempo alterations on the music – not to its benefit.  The CD has many strengths, but gets a (+++) rating because of Serebrier’s capriciousness.

      The symphonies of Carl Maria von Weber are far more modest in scale than those of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Dvořák, but they are delightful pieces redolent of the sensibilities of Haydn – that is how Weber planned them – and showing a later age looking back at the Classical era in much the same way that Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony did in the next century. Both the Weber symphonies are in C, and both are light, bright and very well balanced – although not quite as elegant in formal structure as their models in Haydn.  The themes are well-chosen, nicely developed and allowed to go on just long enough; there is nothing heaven-storming about these modest and highly attractive works. In a new (++++) recording, the BBC Philharmonic under Juanjo Mena plays them with verve and just the right amount of spiritedness: these symphonies are not heard particularly often, but they should be offered  more frequently, having much to commend themselves in their sunny dispositions and Weber’s skillful orchestration. This Chandos CD also contains Weber’s Bassoon Concerto, which gets a rousing rendition from Karen Geoghegan. The concerto, which requires even more virtuosity than do the many bassoon concertos of Vivaldi, is tuneful and elegant, reserving the more amusing elements of the instrument’s sound for the finale, while otherwise treating the bassoon simply as a virtuoso woodwind.  And the CD also includes one of Weber’s most popular works, Invitation to the Dance, in the colorful orchestral version by Berlioz.  This makes a great curtain-raiser or encore piece – it occupies the first position on this particular CD – and Mena leads it with spirit and a fine sense of rhythmic vitality.  Weber was certainly not a major symphonist – he is, justly, most famous for his operas – but he had considerable skill in instrumentation and melodic invention, and that skill is fully on display here.

      For symphonies that are really outside the mainstream, listeners can turn to the six Organ Symphonies of Louis Vierne (1870-1937).  These are huge works, decidedly symphonic in scope although not always in structure (No. 1 has six movements, No. 2 a somewhat-more-usual five).  Vierne was a master organist, and his works are enormously challenging to play. Full cycles of them are exceptionally difficult to bring off, but Audite’s new one by Hans-Eberhard Roß shows tremendous promise, based on its first volume.  Roß plays the recently completed Goll Organ of St. Martin, Memmingen, which is a particularly felicitous choice for these Vierne works: its fullness and power are nicely complemented by delicacy and lyricism, providing the tremendous sonic and emotional range that these pieces require. And the polyphony of the music comes through clearly, thanks to the fine acoustics.  There is always a deep spiritual dimension to Vierne’s works, and Roß is sensitive to it without ever becoming overbearing or pushing the music too hard in a particular direction.  These are masterful works that truly deserve to be called symphonies, sounding not at all like the organ works of Bach and other masters of the Baroque – but clearly influenced by them; this too is an element of which Roß is quite aware.  The fine sound of this (++++) SACD here washes over the listener, pulling him or her entirely into Vierne’s universe, and showing that the symphonic form, in its many variations and incarnations, has retained its power over the centuries and can even be used in a highly effective way for pieces created for a single instrument – provided that the instrument has symphonic capabilities, as the great organs (including that of St. Martin, Memmingen) decidedly do.

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