January 23, 2014
(++++) THINKING ORCHESTRALLY
Dvořák: Symphony No. 2; Slavonic Dances—Op. 46, Nos. 3 and 6; Op. 72, No. 7. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by José Serebrier. Warner. $16.99.
Berlioz: L’enfance du Christ. Yann Beuron, Véronique Gens, Stephan Loges, Alastair Miles; Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra & Choir conducted by Robin Ticciati. Linn Records. $34.99 (2 SACDs).
Julian Anderson: Fantasias; The Crazed Moon; The Discovery of Heaven. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski and Ryan Wigglesworth. LPO. $16.99.
The pleasures and frustrations of José Serebrier’s Dvořák cycle for Warner Classics are yet again in evidence in its fourth volume – but, thankfully, the pleasures in this case far outnumber the irritations. The entire sequence in which Serebrier’s performances are appearing is decidedly odd: the first release focused on Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” and also included the Czech Suite and two of the Slavonic Dances; the second offered Symphony No. 7 with another of the dances, the Scherzo Capriccioso and the entirely out-of-context tone poem, In Nature’s Realm (which is the first part of a trilogy and would much better have been offered that way); the third presented Symphonies Nos. 3 and 6. This hop-skip-and-jump handling of Dvořák’s symphonies was made more confusing by Serebrier’s way with the works themselves: he has repeatedly changed tempos for attempted emotional effects, indulging in the sort of unwarranted rubato that today’s best conductors have long since forsworn. And this is very curious, since Serebrier is not only a knowledgeable conductor but also a composer of some skill himself – he would surely not put up with other conductors treating his works as he has been treating Dvořák’s. It is perhaps inevitable, under the circumstances, to approach the fourth release in this series with a certain amount of trepidation, but the good news is that here Serebrier has not only gotten control of his more extreme change-what-the-composer-wants impulses but has also delved quite deeply into the structure and mood of a symphony that he refers to, in his booklet notes, as a masterpiece. Indeed, this may be the first time that a conductor has awarded that accolade to Dvořák’s Second, but Serebrier’s sensitive performance, so attentive to the nuances of the score, makes a strong argument for the appellation.
Symphony No. 2 is the earliest of the nine that was played during the composer’s lifetime – he never heard No. 1, “The Bells of Zlonice.” The Second is a big work in every sense, treating the orchestra with a sure-handedness beyond Dvořák’s 24 years at the time of its composition, overflowing with melodies and emotions of considerable maturity and managing to have a somewhat Brahmsian flavor without ever actually sounding like the older composer’s music (in contrast with Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6, which for all its originality is in parts almost imitative). All four movements of Dvořák’s Second are constructed on a large scale, and all four employ lower strings and darker orchestral colors to fine effect. Under Serebrier, and with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra playing with a more-burnished tone than is its wont, the symphony breathes deeply, sighs feelingly and eventually emerges in a sort of equivocal triumph. The second movement, lovely as it is, tends to meander a bit, and Serebrier does interfere with its smooth flow to some extent – but the rubato is mild enough not to distract listeners from the heartfelt nature of the overall interpretation. The finale, which never quite lives up to the promise of its very unusual first few measures, gets a bit too much of the “Serebrier treatment” that the other symphonies in this series have received: unwilling to let the music speak for itself, Serebrier tries to boost its emotive potential through tempo changes that succeed only in restricting the smooth and lovely flow at which Dvořák, even at age 24, was adept. Still, this is on balance a lovingly expansive reading of a symphony that has never deserved its near-total neglect – indeed, this is the best release so far in Serebrier’s Dvořák sequence. The three Slavonic Dances are nice filler items. In one of them (Op. 46, No. 3) Serebrier again insists on putting a bit more into the music than Dvořák did, but as a whole, these are pleasant, well-paced, upbeat readings with fine sectional balance, and all the dances are played with enthusiasm.
Dvořák was never the master of orchestration that Berlioz was – very few composers have approached the Berlioz level – but listeners who know Berlioz mainly through the drama of Symphonie Fantastique, Les Troyens and the concert and opera overtures may be far less aware of the subtleties of orchestral writing that give the composer’s music much of its unique sound. Those subtle touches are fully in evidence in the new recording of L'enfance du Christ conducted by Robin Ticciati, who has already proved his understanding of the composer in Linn Records SACDs of Symphonie Fantastique, Les nuits d'été and La mort de Cléopâtre. A dramatic oratorio with elements of opera, especially in the first of its three parts, L'enfance du Christ is quieter, gentler and more reverent than Berlioz’ more-familiar works. Perhaps its most accessible elements are the scene in Part I between Herod and the soothsayers, and the well-known L’adieu des bergers (“Shepherds’ Farewell”) in Part II. The peculiar sonorities at the very opening of the music clearly show Berlioz’ expertise in orchestration, and the composer’s use of a rather old-fashioned style through much of the overall work shows how elegantly and eloquently he could express himself without needing the sort of forward-looking effects that pervade Symphonie Fantastique. The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra plays this music very well indeed, although the strings’ use of considerable vibrato is at odds with Ticciati’s usual concern for historically correct (nearly non-vibrato) performances of Berlioz, which is what the Scottish Chamber Orchestra delivered in Ticciati’s prior Linn recordings. Still, the Swedish ensemble’s approach provides a comfortable lushness that listeners will find quite attractive, with particular warmth in L’adieu des bergers – a scene in which the Swedish Radio Symphony Choir also excels. The four soloists are all very fine indeed. Alastair Miles impressively handles both the nervous tension of Herod in Part I and the highly sympathetic portrayal of the Father of the Family in Part III. Véronique Gens and Stephan Loges, as Mary and Joseph, blend well together and sing feelingly. And as the narrator, Yann Beuron provides the context of the work with skill and expressiveness. L'enfance du Christ is not one of Berlioz’ most immediately attractive pieces and not one of his most carefully worked through: he assembled it over a number of years before eventually presenting it in final form in 1854. Yet the gentle lyricism of this work, when managed with the skill that Ticciati brings to this performance, is winning, and gives the music considerable staying power – abetted by Berlioz’ very high sensitivity to the expressive potential of all the sections of the orchestra, both individually and in combination.
Julian Anderson (born 1967) also has a good deal of skill in developing works for orchestra, but he has marshalled that skill in different ways over time – as a new London Philharmonic Orchestra recording on the orchestra’s own label makes clear. Anderson, the London Philharmonic’s resident composer since 2010, was strongly influenced in his early career by spectralism, one of those self-consciously modern compositional approaches created more to showcase the cleverness of those using it than to try to connect with those listening to it. Spectralism, which uses computerized analyses of sound spectra as a compositional tool, is a significant element in the earliest work on this CD, The Crazed Moon (1997). This is a dense and complex work whose effectiveness is insufficient to justify the effort required of listeners to decipher it – although Vladimir Jurowski certainly leads it as if he fully understands its ins and outs and is doing his best to communicate them. Ryan Wigglesworth is equally adept in leading the most-recent work on the CD, The Discovery of Heaven, which was recorded at its world première performance in 2012. This is a work of considerably greater clarity than The Crazed Moon, being just as full of ideas and just as energetic, but a great deal easier to follow and more immediately engaging, even if it is unlikely to be immediately appealing to many listeners. The Discovery of Heaven is more effective as an intellectual exercise than an emotional plunge. It is the third work here, written between the others, that is the most gripping and involving. Fantasias (2007-09) is an extended concerto for orchestra, requiring tremendous deftness of playing, which the LPO delivers, and considerable sensitivity in conducting, which Jurowski provides. This is a work that keeps the audience guessing, its changes of rhythm, tempo and structure so frequent and abrupt that the experience of listening to it is a bit like riding a roller coaster while sitting on a see-saw. Exhilarating and vivid, filled with modern compositional techniques and a very deft use of the orchestra, it is nevertheless a very approachable work – and one that well repays repeated hearings. As a whole, this is a (+++) CD, but Fantasias, which here receives its world première recording, is a top-notch offering from both the composer and the performers.