February 07, 2013

(++++) ON THE LIGHTER SIDE


Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 2; Variations on a Rococo Theme; Andante Cantabile from String Quartet No. 1. Leonard Elschenbroich, cello; Gürzenich-Orchester Köln conducted by Dmitrij Kitajenko. Oehms. $19.99 (SACD).

Richard Eilenberg: Waltzes and Polkas. WDR Rundfunkorchester Köln conducted by Christian Simonis. CPO. $16.99.

Suppé: Overtures and Marches. Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi. Chandos. $18.99 (SACD).

      The shortest, most folklike and most upbeat of Tchaikovsky’s six symphonies, No. 2, known as the “Little Russian” because of the Ukrainian roots of many of its tunes (Ukraine used to be called “Little Russia”), gets a bang-up performance from the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln under Dmitrij Kitajenko, whose Tchaikovsky cycle (which so far includes Nos. 1, 5, 6 and the Manfred Symphony) is shaping up as one of the best in recent years. Kitajenko paces the symphony beautifully and without the extraneous rubato that many conductors feel obliged to bring to it, with the result that the work flows effortlessly and very pleasantly from movement to movement.  The not-quite-slow second movement is a highlight, its sense of a “march-past” heightened here, and the sonata-cum-variations form of the finale is particularly effective, concluding in a bright burst of upbeat enthusiasm that is scarcely a characteristic of most of Tchaikovsky’s works. The additional material on this very-well-recorded SACD makes a fine contrast with the symphony. Leonard Elschenbroich is a top-notch young cellist, with smooth and even tone throughout (he plays a Matteo Goffriller instrument, which helps) and a lovely sense of proportion in the Variations on a Rococo Theme, whose wistfulness comes through clearly and pleasantly here even as Elschenbroich makes its many performance difficulties seem trivial, if not irrelevant.  The famous slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s first string quartet gives Elschenbroich, backed up by the orchestra, further chances to be emotive and involving, and he takes full advantage of them, treating this lovely Andante Cantabile as an encore from which to extract sighs of audience enjoyment – which it does.

      There are lesser pleasures to be had in the music of Richard Eilenberg, but pleasures nevertheless. Eilenberg (1848-1927) was one of many composers of dance and other light music in the Strauss family style. Some such Strauss imitators evolved their own approach to their music successfully (Hans Christian Lumbye, Carl Michael Ziehrer), but most never really made it out of the Strauss shadow. Eilenberg is one of the also-rans – which does not mean his music is unattractive but that it has little personal stamp upon it. His most-effective pieces, such as Zauberglöckchen, Polka francaise, sound so much like Johann Strauss Jr. as to go beyond homage into imitation. His two best-known works, to the extent that any of his music is well-known, are Die Mühle in Schwarzwald, a pleasant character piece described as an “Idylle,” and Petersburger Schlittenfahrt, a sleigh ride of some verve and enthusiasm that does not, however, quite compete with Leroy Anderson’s.  Both these pieces appear on the new CPO disc featuring the WDR Rundfunkorchester Köln conducted by Christian Simonis (Cologne has a plethora of wonderful orchestras and fine conductors). Along with them are a series of examples of salon music – Eilenberg never denied that that was what he wrote – of which In der Waldschmiede (with its “anvils” reminiscent of those in Josef Strauss’ Feuerfest!) is a highlight, along with several tuneful marches, a very pleasant Mandolinen-Serenade (with violins standing in for mandolins and actually sounding like them), and a particularly lovely waltz called Unter Italien’s blauem Himmel (which really does sound like a tribute to Italy’s lovely blue skies). This CD, which is enthusiastically played and very well recorded, gets a (+++) rating because much of its music is, frankly, second-rate – but enough of it is lovely and sweetly-flowing to make the disc worthwhile for occasional listening, or as background music.

      The light music of Franz von Suppé is of considerably higher quality, but the new SACD conducted by Neeme Järvi also gets a (+++) rating, not because of the quality of the music itself but because Järvi drives the pieces so frantically and refuses to let them breathe. Suppé was not all frenetic themes and headlong rushes to conclusions: he wrote beautiful waltzes and effective marches, and some of his overtures (both the well-known ones and those less often performed) are constructed with skill and a fine sense of contrast. Järvi offers little of that and minimal nuance, constantly driving the Royal Scottish National Orchestra to speeds at which the musicians sometimes can barely keep up. There is no respite here, not in the famous Light Cavalry, Boccaccio, Pique Dame, Poet and Peasant or Beautiful Galatea overtures and little in Morning, Noon and Night in Vienna. It is very pleasant to hear these light-music chestnuts balanced by less-known Suppé pieces, including Boccaccio-Marsch, Humoristische Variationen (which uses the same student song as in Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture, although less effectively), Marziale nach Motiven aus der Operette “Fatinitza,” Juanita-Marsch, the overtures to Isabella and Das Modell, and the brief and particularly effective Über Berg, über Thal.  And certainly the disc offers a generous helping of Suppé, nearly 80 minutes’ worth. But Järvi’s unwillingness to allow the music any expansiveness is a disappointment and an ongoing distraction from the works’ tunefulness.  “Light classics” need not be “speedily performed classics,” but Järvi seems blissfully unaware of this, giving the impression that he cannot wait to get through one piece and move on to the next. Still, at least a modicum of Suppé’s tunefulness and skill in producing effective miniatures based on themes from his stage works comes through here, and the inclusion of less-often-heard pieces makes it possible to recommend the SACD as a way to experience music beyond the “Suppé standards” that are often the only works by him that audiences get to hear. The result is a bright, very-well-recorded disc that does not fully do justice to the composer but that contains enough charming elements to make listening to it a pleasure, if not an unalloyed one.

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