December 26, 2013
(++++) SYMPHONIES AND BEYOND
Sibelius: Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7; Tapiola. Atlanta Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Spano. ASO Media. $18.99.
Weber: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2; Konzertstück; Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Clarinet Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Overtures—“Oberon,” “Peter Schmoll and His Neighbors,” “Der Beherrscher der Geister,” “Preciosa,” Jubel, “Euryanthe.” Academy of St. Martin in the Fields conducted by Sir Neville Marriner; Peter Rösel, piano, with Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Herbert Blomstedt; Emma Johnson, clarinet, with English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Jan Pascal Tortelier and Gerard Schwarz; Staatskapelle Berlin conducted by Otmar Suitner; Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Marek Janowski. Brilliant Classics. $19.99 (4 CDs).
It remains a puzzlement and a searing disappointment to music lovers that Sibelius’ crowning symphonic achievements date to the 1920s, with nothing further from the composer in the three decades of life remaining to him. Neither the Sixth nor the Seventh gives any indication of being a “final” symphony in any sense; indeed, both show ever-mounting mastery of the orchestra and an increasingly sure, unique compositional voice. But there is perhaps some hint of what was to happen to Sibelius’ creative spark after these symphonies in the letters he wrote describing them – which, as it happens, describe works that are nothing like the ones he actually composed. Clearly some sort of disconnect was developing between what Sibelius thought he would produce and what he actually did create; perhaps it was this, added to his increasing self-criticism and his continuing use of alcohol, that led to the creative silence of those final decades. In any case, listeners have much to be grateful for in these last Sibelius symphonies, especially when they are played so vibrantly and with such emotional truth as they are in the new recording by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra under Robert Spano, released on the orchestra’s own label. These are immensely sure-handed readings, elegant, sensitive and nuanced, attuned to the many subtle colors of No. 6 and the wide scope and shifting moods of No. 7. Spano extracts from the orchestra a string sound that is particularly apt for Sibelius, precise and comparatively thin rather than lush and broad; and the other orchestral sections, especially the brass, perform with strength and beauty throughout. These are, somewhat surprisingly, quite idiomatic readings of the symphonies, on par with good ones from Scandinavian orchestras – which would be expected to take to the music more readily than an ensemble from Atlanta. The performance of Tapiola, Sibelius’ last major work, is sensitive and very well played, too. This is a tone poem about a vast forested Finnish landscape and the spirit dwelling therein, and Spano leads it with sensitivity, a fine sense of instrumental balance, and very careful attention to the work’s changes of mood, tempo and rhythm. As disappointing as it is that Sibelius wrote nothing of significance after Tapiola, it is wonderful to hear the tone poem played as well as it is on this recording.
Although Sibelius wrote a considerable amount of theater music, he is known primarily as a symphonist. Carl Maria von Weber, on the other hand, wrote two symphonies and a fair amount of other orchestral music, but is known primarily for his theater works: operas that were enormously influential throughout the 19th century. Yet Weber’s instrumental music was also highly influential in bridging the gap between the Classical and Romantic eras, and also because of his highly creative approach to the expanding capabilities of instruments in the early 1800s. A four-CD Brilliant Classics compilation of performances recorded between 1974 and 1984 showcases Weber’s skills in a variety of forms, to very good effect. The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields under Sir Neville Marriner plays the two very spirited, Haydnesque symphonies with a fine blend of enthusiasm and humor. Pianist Peter Rösel and Staatskapelle Dresden under Herbert Blomstedt give strong, upbeat performances of the two piano concertos and the highly Romantic Konzertstück, which is essentially a single-movement concerto that points directly toward the two by Liszt. It would have been nice to have the Concertino for Clarinet in this set along with the two clarinet concertos – the three works neatly parallel the three piano-and-orchestra pieces – but even in that work’s absence, the concertos are brought off with fine virtuosity and stylishness by Emma Johnson. The accompaniments by the English Chamber Orchestra are a touch more spirited under Yan Pascal Tortelier in No. 1 than they are under Gerard Schwarz in No. 2, but the playing is top-notch throughout. The only slight disappointment in this very well-priced set is in the overtures, which are the earliest recordings here (and which are analog). The sound is fine, but the five overtures featuring Staatskapelle Berlin are pushed somewhat too hard by Otmar Suitner, the fast sections very fast, the slow ones very slow, and the result somewhat choppy and not as convincing as these works can be. The Euryanthe overture, the sole contribution here from Staatskapelle Dresden under Marek Janowski, is much better, filled with drama and lyricism and both played and conducted with enthusiasm. Despite some minor performance imperfections here and there, this collection of Weber’s orchestral music is generally first-rate and highly enjoyable, shedding considerable light on the composer’s skill outside the operatic world where he is best known.