October 31, 2013
(++++) SYMPHONIES OF ALL SORTS
Dvořák: Symphony No. 8; Brahms: Symphony No. 1. Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and Swiss Festival Orchestra conducted by George Szell. Audite. $14.99.
Spohr: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5; Overture “Der Matrose.” NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover conducted by Howard Griffiths. CPO. $16.99 (SACD).
Clementi: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4; Overture in C. Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma conducted by Francesco La Vecchia. Naxos. $9.99.
Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 1; The Isle of the Dead. Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $9.99.
Sometimes it is worth taking a step back in time to hear how a real master of symphonic conducting handled works that have in recent years become, if anything, over-familiar. Audite’s CD of a 1969 Dvořák performance and a 1962 one of Brahms, both by George Szell (1897-1970) with ensembles other than the Cleveland Orchestra that he led with such distinction for so many years (1946-1970), is one such worthwhile examination of the past. Szell did not bend over backwards to create anything “new” or “different” in his interpretations – instead, he carefully refined the work of conductors of earlier times, seeking to evoke composers’ intentions for their music by bringing forth the lines and the balance of instruments with precision and detail that few conductors since have ever managed. Indeed, when the Cleveland Orchestra under Szell played Mozart, it did so with the clarity of a chamber ensemble, so perfectly did every single element balance every other one and so well did Szell understand the precise workings of every instrument under his command. The Czech Philharmonic and Swiss Festival Orchestra heard here (the former in Dvořák’s Eighth, the latter in Brahms’ First) do not bring quite that level of clear-headedness to the music, but both ensembles play with fervor and understanding, and Szell’s influence on them is clear in the excellent balance of their sections, the rhythmic vitality of both readings, the very clear delineation of sections of the music (recapitulations contrasted with the developments that come immediately before, for example), and the overall sense of inevitability in the flow of both works. These are robust performances but scarcely heavy ones: Szell makes these Romantic symphonies grand but not portentous. The CD will be something of a revelation for listeners familiar with the music but not with Szell: there are many fine performances of both these works, but Szell’s method of presenting them meticulously, as if they are fresh and new, makes them sound fresh and new to the audience as well – including an audience in the 21st century.
Most conductors, Szell included, have paid little attention to lesser symphonic lights of the Romantic era, such as Louis Spohr (1784-1859) and Muzio Clementi (1752-1832). The rediscovery of the symphonies of these composers is largely a phenomenon of the late 20th century as well as the 21st. And in some ways it is a curious re-emergence, particularly in the case of Spohr, whose works were so well-regarded in his time that Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado contains a line about “Bach, interwoven with Spohr and Beethoven.” The very fine CPO recording in which Howard Griffiths leads Spohr’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies – along with his overture to a stage work called Der Matrose (“The Sailor”) – puts Spohr’s strengths fully on display as well as hinting at the reasons his music did not have much staying power after his death. Spohr’s Symphony No. 4 (1832) is called Die Weihe der Töne, “The Consecration of Sounds,” and is an avowed attempt to produce a new symphonic form through musical illustration of the eponymous poem by Carl Pfeiffer (1803-1831). Pfeiffer was librettist for two Spohr operas, and Spohr created his Fourth Symphony partly as a tribute after his friend’s death and partly as an entry into the burgeoning controversy about the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of “program music.” This is an argument long since settled; and indeed, in the symphonic realm, Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique was written two years before Spohr’s Fourth. But it was a lively topic in musical and intellectual circles in the 1830s, and Spohr’s Fourth – a huge success when first performed, even among those who did not care for program music – helped make the debates about tone-painting even livelier. The work as a whole is very well made and has some innovative elements (notably in the martial third movement and gentle finale), but to modern ears – and even to those of the late 19th century – its pedestrian portions outnumber its unusual ones. The lack of familiarity with Pfeiffer’s poem (fortunately presented by CPO in both German and English) also makes it hard to find Spohr’s Fourth fully involving. His Fifth was also a well-received work (although less so than the Fourth), and it too is crafted expertly – but here the reason for its lack of durability in the repertoire is fairly easy to explain. In this symphony (and also in his Third), Spohr was overtly looking for an alternative to Beethoven’s approach to symphonic structure – and in so doing invited comparisons with Beethoven, which did not work to Spohr’s benefit. Spohr wanted symphonies of dignity and close-knit development rather than the somewhat sprawling and (by the standards of the time) ill-mannered ones that Beethoven produced. The Fifth certainly works well by Spohr’s own standards – but it tends to sound somewhat stodgy and even prim, lacking not only Beethoven’s innovative approaches but also the forthright emotionalism of other Romantic-era symphonies. The monothematic overture to Der Matrose is as well-ordered and carefully assembled as the symphonies heard here, and all this music is interesting in its historical context; but none of it is likely to raise Spohr’s reputation much above its current modest level.
Clementi was not the symphonist that Spohr was: Clementi’s four surviving mature symphonies were not even published in the composer’s lifetime. Nor was Clementi much interested in striving for new symphonic forms or moving ahead in new directions. His symphonies show him to be a transitional figure, largely wedded to the structures and harmonies of the past, handling them well and producing pleasant, eminently listenable works tied closely to those of their direct antecedents, Mozart and Haydn. Clementi’s Third, which makes considerable use of the tune “God Save the King” as a theme and as a result is known as “The Grand National,” is in many ways his most interesting symphony: the popular tune is not only developed skillfully in the second movement but also brought in as an “interruption” in the third and then used as part of the thematic grouping in the finale. The Fourth Symphony, like the Third, is well organized and conventionally assembled – and the same may be said of the Overture in C, which is actually the opening movement of a symphony that is now lost. The Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma under Francesco La Vecchia plays the symphonies and overture with straightforward skill, and the Naxos sound is quite good. All these works are reconstructions, made in the 1970s by Pietro Spada; the original manuscripts have long since disappeared. Whatever their provenance, these pieces fit well into the time of their composition and into what is known of Clementi’s compositional style – and they are quite pleasant to hear, even if they are scarcely earthshaking in any way.
Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony was earthshaking for its composer, in a sense – and not a good one. The work was a disaster at its première in 1897 and not heard again until after Rachmaninoff’s death – although it has since become reasonably popular. The symphony’s failure led Rachmaninoff to abandon composition entirely for a time, not returning to it until after his famous treatment with hypnotherapy and psychotherapy by Nikolai Dahl in 1900. The likely differences in Rachmaninoff’s creative life if this symphony had succeeded, even modestly, are impossible to know, but there is no question that its failure became a seminal event in Rachmaninoff’s future endeavors as conductor and pianist as well as his eventual return to composition. Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony get the youthful exuberance of the symphony right in their new recording, although Slatkin does not cope especially well with the work’s sprawl and its tendency to meander, wandering off its emotional track for a while before finding its way back. The orchestra plays well but without the sumptuous string tone and warm brass that would fit Rachmaninoff – particularly this symphony – to better effect. Therefore, this well-recorded Naxos CD, which completes Slatkin’s Rachmaninoff symphonic cycle, gets a (+++) rating. The symphony is paired with The Isle of the Dead, a highly atmospheric and suitably gloomy tone poem pervaded by the Dies irae that Rachmaninoff used so often. Slatkin handles it skillfully, although it is less evocative than it can be: the ghostly stillness with which it begins and ends, for example, is here on the matter-of-fact side. These are good but not particularly idiomatic presentations of significant works for which Slatkin seems to have some affinity, but not enough for complete involvement.