April 11, 2013


Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5; Marche Slave. Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern conducted by Christoph Poppen. Oehms. $16.99.

Bruckner: Symphony No. 6. Orchestre Métropolitain conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. ATMA Classique. $16.99.

Respighi: Complete Orchestral Works, Volume 3—Sinfonia drammatica; Fantasia slava; Concerto gregoriano for Violin and Orchestra; Toccata for Piano and Orchestra; Adagio con variazoni for Cello and Orchestra. Vadim Brodsky, violin; Chiara Bertoglio, piano (Toccata); Andrea Noferini, cello; Désirée Scuccuglia, piano (Fantasia); Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma conducted by Francesco La Vecchia. Brilliant Classics. $11.99 (2 CDs).

     The completion of Christoph Poppen’s Tchaikovsky cycle with the release of a live recording of a 2010 performance of Symphony No. 5 marks the cycle as a whole as a significant one and a considerable success. Poppen gives this symphony a balletic flow whose beauty contrasts with the work’s fate-haunted drama. This is a finely balanced performance, with each entry of a single instrument – bassoon, oboe, flute – nicely highlighted without being overdone. The highly dramatic elements, such as the end of the first movement, get their full due, but this is primarily a poetic performance. The lovely second movement makes this particularly clear, progressing in a gracious unfurling in which the rich string sound of the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern is particularly effective – and the strings’ interplay with the winds is especially elegant. It is remarkable to hear how Poppen makes this movement emotional without insisting on heart-on-his-sleeve overindulgence; and the eruption of the “fate” motif near the end is suitably, genuinely startling. The third movement flows prettily as a waltz interlude, after which the fourth opens with suitable seriousness and builds into a potent and incisively played main section. Drama and lyricism are well-balanced here, with clear timpani strokes and brass eruptions contrasting with the melodies’ long lines in the strings. The triumphal coda, which always sits somewhat uneasily at the movement’s end after a full-orchestral pause, here follows a slightly truncated full stop that gives it a better-than-usual connection to what has come before, and Poppen’s emphasis on the strings rather than brass here also makes for a stronger association with the rest of the movement than is typical. The audience applause afterwards is fully earned. As for the Marche Slave, recorded live at a different 2010 concert (and listed as “Slavonic March,” its original published title, on the CD), it is rich, dark and melodious, handled more as a concert overture than a military march, especially in the penultimate section, which is genuinely bouncy, and the final one, which has a plethora of patriotic enthusiasm.

     If Tchaikovsky’s Fifth encapsulates many elements of the composer’s symphonic style, Bruckner’s Sixth is something of an anomaly among its composer’s symphonies – which may explain why it is infrequently performed. Although the orchestration and use of thematic groups are quite recognizably Brucknerian, the work opens not with a background tremolo but with a duplet-plus-triplet underlying accompaniment, has an Adagio in sonata form (more or less) rather than ternary form, and features an unusually mischievous Scherzo. It is also unrevised by the composer – a distinction it shares only with the unfinished Ninth. True, there are two published versions of the Sixth, a 1935 one by Robert Haas and a 1951 one by Leopold Nowak, but they are very similar. The Haas edition is generally used, and it is this one that Orchestre Métropolitain plays under Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who clearly relishes taking on this comparatively unfamiliar and in some ways puzzling symphony. Nézet-Séguin has real talent with Bruckner – he has already recorded the Fourth, Seventh and Ninth in performances that are always interesting and sometimes exceptional. His Sixth takes the symphony at face value and finds a great deal of wonder in it. The first movement comes across as more plainspoken and forthright than many of Bruckner’s openings, while the second lives up to its designation as “very solemn”: Nézet-Séguin paces it carefully and deliberately, balancing its lyrical and sentimental elements effectively against the sections based on a funeral-march theme and bringing it to a lovely, serene conclusion. The third is fleet – perhaps somewhat too much so (Bruckner marked it nicht zu schnell, “not too quick”) – and rhythmically strong, as befits a movement that, uniquely for a Bruckner scherzo, lacks a clearly identifiable main theme. The orchestra’s horns sound particularly good in the Trio. Nézet-Séguin takes the full measure of the finale, moving it through its multiple key changes adroitly while keeping the orchestra carefully balanced to bring out Bruckner’s well-thought-out instrumentation and assertion of the major rather than the minor almost throughout. The conclusion, bringing back the first movement’s main theme as Bruckner often does, wraps the work up neatly, with Nézet-Séguin fully in command of its progress throughout – and making a very good case indeed for more-frequent performances of this symphony.

     There is a case to be made for hearing Respighi’s Sinfonia drammatica more often, too, but it is not one based on the composer’s symphonic style, since Respighi is scarcely known as a symphonist: this is his only work in the form. Completed in 1914, two years before Fontane di Roma became the first part of the composer’s well-known “Roman Trilogy” of tone poems, and first performed in 1915, the symphony’s large scale and generally gloomy tone show it both as a work of World War I and as one heavily influenced by such composers as Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss and, especially in the last of its three large movements, Mahler. Brilliant Classics’ excellent continuing series of Respighi’s orchestral music, played by Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma under Francesco La Vecchia, here unearths – or rather rediscovers – a really substantial work whose total obscurity is difficult to fathom. Derivative it may be, but Sinfonia drammatica really is dramatic, heartfelt and intense, and very well orchestrated – Respighi was a master of orchestral color, with the unexpected violin solos near the end of the first movement and midway through the second just two examples among many. Perhaps it is the almost unrelievedly dour mood of the symphony that has kept it from gaining traction: it does have moments of lyricism, even peace, but its overall impression is one of sadness, of pathos moving toward tragedy – and La Vecchia’s conducting fully explores the music’s dark beauty. The symphony is paired, in an interesting parallel with the Tchaikovsky Fifth and Marche Slave conducted by Poppen, with a Slavic work by Respighi: the very-little-known Fantasia slava. This dates to 1903, when Respighi was 24, and is a youthful, Russian-flavored work featuring a piano part in the style of Rachmaninoff, combining virtuosic flair with some rather trivial tunes. Respighi studied for a short time with Rimsky-Korsakov, and those five months are reflected in this early piece, which has little personally identifiable Respighi style but does show the composer’s skill at handling orchestration and piano writing.

     Fantasia slava was not Respighi’s first foray into piano-and-orchestra writing: a year earlier, in 1902, he wrote a piano concerto in A minor. However, the one work for piano and orchestra in Respighi’s mature style – a concerto in all but name – is the Toccata for Piano and Orchestra of 1928, an extended piece that clearly shows the influence of early music, which was so important to numerous Respighi compositions. But this is early music clearly filtered through the instrumentation of the Romantic and post-Romantic eras: this is a big piece, officially in one continuous movement but really in three major segments that suggest a three-movement structure. This is a fascinating work for its blending of Schumannesque orchestration and solidity with a clearly modern fragmentary structure (especially in the first part) and with themes and embellishments that reflect models of the 17th and 18th centuries. But there is nothing of pastiche here – the work is thoroughly integrated on its own terms and equally clearly a strong reflection of Respighi’s personal and, by this time in his life, fully evolved style. The earlier (1921) Concerto gregoriano is impressive as well, showcasing violinistic brilliance within the context of the historical roots of Italian music in Gregorian modal melodies. There is an unusual and effective cadenza for violin and timpani, reminiscent of but quite different from Beethoven’s for piano and timpani in his piano version of his violin concerto – although there is no evidence that Respighi used Beethoven as any sort of model here. In fact, the work’s roots are considerably earlier, and if the use of Gregorian mode is somewhat academic and mannered, that may be because this concerto was composed early in Respighi’s sequence of pieces looking back to Italian music’s past. It is not as successful as the Toccata, but contains a number of memorable themes and some very attractive writing for the solo instrument. And Respighi created a fine solo-and-orchestra piece for cello as well: the Adagio con variazoni, another work from 1921 – but one with more folklike elements than modal ones. Here the theme and eight variations are pulled together by a constant flowing cello line, with the soloist knitting the work into a unified whole. And in fact all the soloists in these recordings are very fine indeed – comfortable with the music, involved in it, and adept with Respighi’s technical demands, which in some cases are considerable. Like the first two releases in this series, this third look at Respighi’s orchestral works uncovers some very fine music that has gone underplayed, and in some cases unplayed, for far too long.

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