February 28, 2013

(++++) SUBSTANTIAL SYMPHONIES


Mahler: Symphony No. 1. Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Fabio Luisi. Wiener Symphoniker. $18.99.

Mahler: Symphony No. 6. Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Fabio Luisi. Wiener Symphoniker. $29.99 (2 CDs).

Weinberg: Symphony No. 8, “Polish Flowers.” Rafał Bartmiński, tenor; Magdalena Dobrowolska, soprano; Ewa Marciniec, alto; Warsaw Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit. Naxos. $9.99.

Joachim Raff: Symphony No. 2; Four Shakespeare Preludes. Orchestre de la Suisse Romande conducted by Neeme Järvi. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).

      The gigantism of Mahler’s symphonies was in many respects the capstone of the Romantic era. There were large symphonies before his and some afterwards – by Shostakovich, among others – but Mahler’s all-encompassing works, at once highly personal and reaching out to contain the world (as he said they should), had a sense of substantiality never matched after his death.  Mahler’s First fits neatly into a fin-de-siècle time frame: he finished it in 1888, but it was not published until 1896, by which time it had become the four-movement symphony almost always performed today (rather than the five-movement one as originally written).  Fabio Luisi gives the opening of the symphony expansiveness akin to that of Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia, which had been written just eight years before Mahler’s First.  But Luisi and the Wiener Symphoniker move things smartly along once the movement’s main theme begins – this is a somewhat brisker walk in the countryside than usual, and is emblematic of an interpretation that emphasizes contrast not only among the movements but also within them. Luisi does not deemphasize the scale of the symphony, though, giving the music plenty of chances to breathe and expand. The orchestra’s brass gets a real workout throughout the symphony, and acquits itself beautifully, with a full and warm sound that fits the music like a custom-made outfit, especially in the second movement – whose main section begins with an unfortunate speed-up that some conductors for some reason have adopted in recent years, but otherwise sounds wonderful except for some further unnecessary rubato in the gently lilting Trio.  Luisi starts the third movement as quietly as the first, and emphasizes not only its changing dynamics but also the tempo contrasts among its sections. The explosive opening of the finale is impressive, and this movement also becomes a study in strong contrasts as Luisi spins out the slow sections while pushing the quick ones smartly ahead.  The symphony’s dramatic ending becomes, in this reading, a ringing and clear statement of a triumph over adversity.

Mahler’s Sixth, in contrast, is both big and confusing. This is the symphony whose final shape Mahler never made clear. Should the finale have two hammer blows or three? It works better with three – making more musical sense and providing a more satisfyingly tragic conclusion – but Mahler, perhaps out of superstitious dread, removed the third himself. And what about the order of the movements – should the Andante come second and the Scherzo third, or the Scherzo second and the Andante third? Mahler himself never quite made up his mind about this, and there are good arguments on both sides: the movement sequence is in many ways stronger if the Scherzo comes second, but Mahler himself put the Andante second when he conducted the work’s Viennese première in 1907. The live recording of Luisi’s January 2011 performance follows Mahler’s original sequence. Luisi’s reading of the symphony is expansive and lyrical: the huge opening march is not as intensely dramatic as in some other performances, but the gorgeous second theme and the various sections of the movement that provide respite are handled with warmth, understanding and delicacy. The result is that placing the Andante second makes considerable emotional sense and splits the symphony into a more-expressive first half and more-intense second. The gentleness with which the slow movement concludes makes the jagged start of the Scherzo all the more effective – Luisi clearly sees the symphony as changing character halfway through, with the quieter parts of the Scherzo becoming recollections of the symphony’s earlier moods.  The opening of the finale is ominous to the point of being scary, and the movement’s main tempo, beginning five minutes from its start, bespeaks a grotesque.  The forward propulsion of the finale is relieved by relaxed moments from which Luisi extracts a full measure of quietude, but each time the music returns to drama, he and the orchestra emphasize the inevitable tragedy ahead, which is dramatic even without the third hammer blow, fully justifying the huge canvas on which Mahler created this work.

      Among other composers of large-scale 20th-century symphonies are not only Shostakovich but also Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996), whose work Shostakovich admired. Weinberg wrote 26 symphonies in a variety of forms and sizes, and Naxos has now released three of them, albeit in an odd order: No. 6, then No. 19, and now the world première recording of No. 8, which is a choral symphony – closer to a cantata than a traditional symphony – and dates to 1964.  A number of the choral passages and instrumental effects, including the quiet ending, will remind listeners of Shostakovich, while much of the seventh movement, “Warsaw Dogs,” will be reminiscent of Orff’s Carmina Burana in its use of percussion and rhythmic propulsiveness.  This is a symphony that certainly pushes whatever boundaries the form had left by the 1960s, being in 10 movements, six of them including a tenor solo and one of the others using a soprano and alto.  The movements’ texts are by Julian Tuwim (1894-1953) and are very clearly intended to evoke memories of and hopes for Weinberg’s homeland, Poland, with sections devoted to war, grinding poverty, social inequality, cruelty, and (at the end) a hope for a brighter future.  Unfortunately, despite the fine singing by the soloists and chorus and the excellent playing of the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra under Antoni Wit, English speakers will get only a portion of the effect of this hour-long work: the recording does not come with the text, and while Naxos makes the words available online, they are given there only in Polish. The CD booklet does summarize the content of each movement (although, oddly, it says the symphony has 12 of them); but in a work whose textual and instrumental elements are so closely intertwined, a summary is really not adequate for full understanding and emotional impact.  Despite this significant shortcoming, though, this disc is a very strong one, with considerable impact: Weinberg’s sincerity and the skill of the interplay he creates between voices and instruments come through clearly even though the nuances of the texts’ meanings are lost.  Weinberg is clearly an important symphonist and a composer whose works deserve rediscovery and revival; hopefully Naxos will continue releasing recordings of his symphonies and some of his other music as well.

      Joachim Raff’s symphonies deserve more attention, too. Raff (1822-1882) wrote 11 of them – each of the last four representing one of the four seasons – and Raff was one of the most highly regarded and most-performed composers of his time. Neeme Järvi’s new recording of the Symphony No. 2 shows why – and also shows, unintentionally, why Raff fell into obscurity after his death: his works are not quite Brahmsian and not quite Lisztian/Wagnerian, so they fit with neither of the major compositional schools of his time and therefore had no one to take up their cause and perpetuate them.  But today, at a time when listeners are equally appreciative of Brahms, Liszt and Wagner, there is certainly a place for Raff’s music: his Symphony No. 2 packs a lot of material into a relatively short (34-minute) time frame, with well-chosen and well-developed themes that sometimes look back to Beethoven and sometimes ahead to Richard Strauss. There is elegance here, notably in the Andante con moto second movement; some fascinating rhythmic complexity in the Scherzo; and plenty of energy and intensity in the opening and closing movements – each of which has the unusual structural element of a second development that becomes the coda.  In fact, Raff had some very innovative approaches to structure, as his Four Shakespeare Preludes demonstrate. These works date to 1879, 13 years after his Second Symphony, and while they employ a large symphonic orchestra, they do not approach the four plays – The Tempest, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and Othello – in an expected way. All the preludes are compressed rather than expansive, and each handles its themes differently. The Tempest includes very brief musical sketches of the characters, after an opening portraying the storm. Macbeth presents disconnected sections that seem to stand for individual characters or actions in the play. Romeo and Juliet is distinguished by harmonic instability – a very modern way of portraying the constant conflict between the Montagues and Capulets, with the families represented by themes that appear at the start of the work and pervade it. And Othello uses dissonance and a sense of constant conflict as its ingredients, creating a very effective – and short – sound portrait of the play’s world. The Orchestre de la Suisse Romande plays all these works with sureness and understanding, and Järvi’s well-thought-out interpretations, presented in top-notch SACD sound, will have listeners hoping for more Raff music from this conductor and orchestra in the near future.

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