November 07, 2013

(++++) FOURTHS

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4. Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko. Naxos. $9.99.

Prokofiev: Symphony No. 4 (revised version); The Prodigal Son. São Paulo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $9.99.

Sarasate: Music for Violin and Orchestra, Volume 4—Introduction et Tarantelle; Jota de San Fermin; Fantaisie sur le “Don Juan” de Mozart; Fantaisie sur “Der Freischütz” de Weber; Jota de Pamplona; Airs écossais; Le Rêve; L’Esprit follet. Tianwa Yang, violin; Orquesta Sinfónica de Navarra conducted by Ernest Martínez Izquierdo. Naxos. $9.99.

Respighi: Complete Orchestral Works, Volume 4—Antiche danze e arie per liuto, Suites 1-3; Rossiniana; Concerto in modo misolidio; Metamorphoseon modi XII. Désirée Scuccuglia, piano; Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma conducted by Francesco La Vecchia. Brilliant Classics. $11.99 (2 CDs).

Hindemith: Complete Piano Concertos—Concert Music for Piano, Brass and Two Harps; Theme with Four Variations (The Four Temperaments) for Piano and Strings; Piano Music with Orchestra (for Piano Left Hand); Chamber Music No. 2 for Piano, Quartet and Brass; Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. Idil Biret, piano; Yale Symphony Orchestra conducted by Toshiyuki Shimada. Naxos. $19.99 (2 CDs).

     The remarkable Shostakovich cycle led by Vasily Petrenko for Naxos continues with a sure-handed, thoughtful and emotionally wrenching performance of one of the most difficult of the composer’s symphonies to bring off successfully, his Fourth. A huge work, lasting more than an hour, it is also a strange one, with two very long and complex outer movements of nearly equal length framing a short, eerie central one. The Fourth sprawls and can easily spiral out of control, but Petrenko knows the score so well and holds onto it so firmly that it here attains tremendous grandeur as well as considerable emotional punch. This symphony follows Shostakovich’s two symphonic forays into “socialist realism” and precedes his far more accessible Fifth, which he described as a Soviet artist’s response to just criticism. But if the two prior symphonies and the one to follow were all intended to ingratiate the composer, to some extent, with the ruling authorities, the Fourth is in an entirely different vein. It is highly personal, rhythmically and chromatically difficult, longer than its predecessors and successor, and a stretch both formally (the first movement’s sonata form is barely perceptible) and structurally (between the finale’s funeral march and its bleak ending, the entire movement seems to grow organically). The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra has become increasingly adept at giving Petrenko just what he wants in Naxos’ excellent Shostakovich series, and even if the orchestra’s massed strings remain somewhat less lush than would be ideal for the music, the balance of orchestral sections is so good and the careful attention to phrase and rhythm so impressive that the ensemble seems to have internalized Shostakovich almost as thoroughly as has Petrenko himself. This performance, and the series of which it is a part, are simply splendid.

     Marin Alsop’s Prokofiev Fourth is nowhere close to this level, although it is a respectable enough performance and is cleverly paired with The Prodigal Son, the ballet whose themes became the basis of the symphony. Prokofiev wrote eight symphonies even though they bear the numbers 1-7, because the Fourth exists in two versions that are so different as to be considered entirely separate works. Alsop here offers the later, larger, longer and more fully orchestrated one (it adds piano, harp and piccolo clarinet to the instrumentation of the earlier Fourth). The São Paulo Symphony Orchestra is a well-balanced one, a fact that serves this music well. The strings are particularly good, with bite and intensity entirely appropriate for Prokofiev; in contrast, the brass section is a trifle less adept, playing well but sounding somewhat strident from time to time. This is actually clearer in The Prodigal Son than in the symphony: the ballet is filled with vivid contrasts in its retelling of the biblical morality tale of the son who engages in excesses of all kinds before returning home filled with remorse. Alsop is now principal conductor of the São Paulo Symphony, and while she has clearly inherited a fine orchestra, her Prokofiev CDs (this one follows an earlier release of Symphony No. 5 and The Year 1941) show that she has begun making her own mark on the players. Alsop tends to do better with more-modern music and less well with the traditional repertoire of the Romantic era and earlier. This well-recorded Naxos CD shows how carefully she can explore works that engage her and how well she can handle both their broad sweep and the details of their individual sections. The orchestra’s sound is not particularly idiomatic or sumptuous – less “Russian” than the sound of the Liverpudlians has become under Petrenko – but it is quite fine, and Alsop’s measured and well-balanced performances show her to be a considerable force in interpreting Prokofiev’s music.

     The fourth volume of the Naxos series of Pablo Sarasate’s music for violin and orchestra offers lighter stuff, but it contains two works of considerable interest as well as the expected virtuosic requirements. These are Sarasate’s fantasies based on Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Weber’s Der Freischütz, each an effective display piece but also a work showing considerable understanding of the themes of the operas – and in the case of the Weber fantasy, incorporating a “flying staccato” technique that has to be heard to be believed. One of Sarasate’s trademarks, this technique is brought off brilliantly by Tianwa Yang, whose light touch and manual dexterity work particularly well in music that was, after all, designed primarily as showpieces shining a spotlight on their super-virtuosic composer/performer. The Mozart and Weber fantasies have more substance than the others works on this CD, if not exactly depth, but every work that Yang plays here has delights, notably including the highly popular Introduction et Tarantelle and the fascinating Le Rêve, which is every bit as much an extended fantasy as are the works based on Mozart and Weber. The Orquesta Sinfónica de Navarra under Ernest Martínez Izquierdo gives excellent support to Yang throughout the disc, allowing her the front-and-center position that Sarasate intended while providing solidity and just enough sense of gravitas to turn these mostly light works into pieces with considerable heft, if not a great deal of profundity.

     Ottorino Respighi’s musical explorations had greater seriousness of purpose, even when his music emerged on the lighter side. The fourth volume of the top-notch Brilliant Classics series of Respighi’s complete orchestral music offers one CD containing some of his most-famous works and one featuring two pieces that are much less frequently heard. The three suites of Ancient Dances and Airs for Lute showcase Respighi’s fascination with the past and his interest in bringing music of olden times into the 20th century while retaining its essential character. The third suite (1931), for strings alone, is the one that is most highly regarded and most often played, but the first two suites are more sonically interesting and contain brighter and bouncier dance tunes. The first (1917), as fine as it is, is somewhat overshadowed by the second (1923), whose rousing Bergamasca finale is a high point of the entire sequence of suites and is played with suitable enthusiasm in this recording by Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma under Francesco La Vecchia. The ensemble does a bang-up job with Rossiniana (1925) as well. Here Respighi looked back only a century – nowhere near as far into the past as he did for the three lute suites – and created a charming work based on a whole cascade of tunes by Rossini, shaping the piece into four movements that are further subdivided through tempo changes and some very clever orchestration. The final tarantella, interrupted midway by a religious procession, is a study in amusement no matter how many times a listener has heard it. But lightness is largely absent from the second CD here, which finds Respighi incorporating the approaches of earlier times into far more serious music. The Concerto in modo misolidio dates to the same year as Rossiniana, but this foray into a modern piano concerto employing the Mixolydian mode uses Gregorian chant and forms typical of the Baroque to produce effects wholly different from those in the Rossini-based work. The concerto, very ably handled by pianist Désirée Scuccuglia, builds in virtuosity until a very difficult final Passacaglia that also hints at forms ranging from the toccata to jazz to Lisztian proclamations. The concerto is somewhat over-ambitious and is not sufficiently virtuosic to draw strong attention to itself or its soloist: it is more a coloristic work than an expansively outgoing one. It nevertheless makes a very positive impression when performed as well as it is here. So does Metamorphoseon modi XII (1930), Respighi’s last original orchestral work (although the third lute suite dates to a year later). This too is a work deeply immersed in the past, consisting of 12 variations on an original theme that Respighi created in modal style. The variations range from the fairly straightforward to the unusual (based on pedal notes, a glockenspiel, muted strings and other effects). The final three modi run together and lead to a climax in which the whole orchestra is joined by an organ – a sonorously impressive conclusion to some interestingly conceived and structured music.

     Four variations, representing the four temperaments (melancholy, sanguine, phlegmatic and choleric, as in Nielsen’s Symphony No. 2, but in a different order), make up Paul Hindemith’s Theme with Four Variations for Piano and Strings (1940), a work that has its own ties to the past: Hindemith based it on a Brueghel painting from the 16th century. Written as a ballet, the piece gets a rhythmically sure and very well-played performance from pianist Idil Biret and the Yale Symphony Orchestra under Toshiyuki Shimada on a fascinating two-CD Naxos release featuring all of Hindemith’s piano concertos and sort-of concertos. In reality, Hindemith labeled only one work as a piano concerto, a 1945 piece with a particularly interesting finale that contains five distinct sections and, yet again, is tied to the past, being based on a dance tune of the 14th or 15th century. Again, Biret handles the work masterfully, and although the Yale players are not at the level of professional musicians, they are quite fine and for the most part give sturdy if not particularly compelling orchestral support. The three other pieces here are all earlier, and each provides insight into Hindemith’s musical thinking. Piano Music with Orchestra (for Piano Left Hand), which dates to 1923, is one of numerous pieces written for Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in World War I. The most famous of these works is Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand. Hindemith’s contribution is obscure because Wittgenstein did not care for it, locking it away but retaining the rights to it – it was found only in 2001, among the papers left behind after the death of Wittgenstein’s widow. There is little virtuoso display in the piece, which treats the piano mostly as part of the overall ensemble – perhaps a reason the work did not find favor with Wittgenstein. The piano takes a larger role in Chamber Music No. 2 for Piano, Quartet and Brass (1924), one of a series of seven chamber pieces for various soloists and ensembles. The piece’s structure is rather oddly balanced, with a 12-minute slow movement (more than half the work’s total length) followed by a “Little Potpourri” that lasts for less than two minutes – but it is a work of many contrasts and a very interestingly arranged 12-instrument ensemble. Concert Music for Piano, Brass and Two Harps (1930) is sonically interesting as well, employing four horns, three trumpets, two trombones and tuba as well as the two harps and piano. The piano weaves in and out of the other instruments, sometimes taking the lead and at other times being considerably less prominent, and the music itself ranges in mood from the mysterious to the folklike (Hindemith actually quotes a folk tune at one point). This Hindemith compilation gives a multifaceted view of a composer whose popularity has never been much more than modest – and it showcases the skill with which Biret, known mainly for her Beethoven and her interpretations of Romantic works, can handle pieces of the 20th century, giving each its unique character and providing all of them with as much virtuosity as they require.

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