February 06, 2014


Saint-Saëns: Complete Works for Violin and Orchestra and for Cello and Orchestra. Soloists of the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel; Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège conducted by Christian Arming. Zig-Zag Territories. $37.99 (3 CDs).

Mozart: Symphonies (“complete”). Danish National Chamber Orchestra conducted by Adam Fischer. Dacapo. $59.99 (12 CDs).

     When wonderful music is wonderfully presented, with some genuinely innovative approaches to the works and methods of performing them, the pleasures of listening to recordings are doubled and redoubled, as they are in both these comprehensive – or at least very extensive – sets of works. Any presentation of all the violin-and-orchestra and cello-and-orchestra music by Saint-Saëns would be sufficient reason to cheer, since there are so many gems in these works in addition to the pieces that are exceptionally well-known: Cello Concerto No. 1, Violin Concerto No. 3, and the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso and Havanaise, both for violin and orchestra. How often does one hear the second cello concerto, which is every bit as delightful (and difficult) as the first? How frequently are the first and second violin concertos performed? And what about the rest of the music that Saint-Saëns created for these instrumental combinations? For the violin, there are two Romances (in D-flat and C), an Étude en Forme de Valse, Morceau de Concert, Caprice Andalou, and the prelude to Le Déluge, an oratorio on the story of Noah. For cello and orchestra, there are a charming five-movement Suite, a Romance, and an Allegro Appassionato. And then there is the late and Egypt-inspired La Muse et le Poète, in which both violin and cello are featured. Seventeen works in all, some undoubted masterpieces, some unjustly neglected, and a few trifles – but all beautifully made and filled with the melodic suppleness and thematic beauty that seemed to come naturally to Saint-Saëns throughout his life.

     This recording, in which the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège sounds absolutely splendid, warm and committed under conductor Christian Arming, would be a triumph even without one decidedly unusual element that makes it an even greater success: it uses no fewer than 11 soloists, six violinists and five cellists, all of them students at or recent graduates of Belgium’s Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel, a training ground for some of the most marvelous young musicians to be heard in Europe or anywhere in the world. Listening to these youthful players perform with tremendous technical assurance and a maturity and understanding well beyond their years is a source of unceasing delight throughout this recording. There is not one single performer who is of less than stellar quality, not one unable to hold his or her own with the best soloists who have handled this repertoire in the past. Superb tone, judicious and carefully chosen phrasing, and a high level of interpretative intelligence are the hallmarks of everyone here: violinists Elina Buksha, Jolente De Maeyer, Harriet Langley, Maria Milstein, Liya Petrova and Tatiana Samouil, and cellists Pau Codina, Wojciech Fudala, Adam Krzeszowiec, Deborah Pae and Noëlle Weidmann. The solo players in the well-known pieces have a particularly difficult task, since their readings are bound to be compared with those of more-established artists, and it turns out that all of them more than hold their own: Samouil in the third violin concerto, Petrova in Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, Langley in the Havanaise, and Krzeszowiec in the first cello concerto. In the less-often-heard works, every performer makes a strong case for each piece, with playing so convincing and so aptly tailored to the music that even the lesser items blossom with elegance, poise and beauty. With soloists as wonderful as these, the future of classical-music performance looks bright indeed – and with a release as strong as this, its present sounds positively radiant.

     The fascinating elements of Adam Fischer’s seven-year project to record 45 symphonies by Mozart involve not the conductor and not the performers in and of themselves, but the decisions made about what to include and exclude – and what instruments and styles to use in interpreting the music. Fischer previously spent 15 years recording Haydn’s symphonies – the 104 numbered ones, the two designated “A” and “B,” and a Sinfonia Concertante – and released those CDs as Haydn’s “complete” symphonic oeuvre. Not so with this Mozart recording. It does not even include all the numbered symphonies and is emphatically not labeled “complete,” yet there are more symphonies here than the numbering of Mozart’s works in this form – ending with the “Jupiter” as No. 41 – would indicate. What is going on here is quite complex, as is the attempt to pin down how many symphonies Mozart actually wrote. Haydn assembled his own listing of his symphonies, helping future generations immensely, but Mozart did not, and it appears that the younger composer actually wrote around 70 works that could be deemed “symphonies,” including some early pieces used as opera overtures and some symphonies created by assembling movements originally created as parts of serenades. There is also, as always, the numbering issue caused by No. 37, which is by Michael Haydn – with Mozart contributing only the introduction to the first movement. Fischer has picked and chosen among the extant symphonies in some ways that make perfect sense (dropping ones of doubtful authorship, such as the “Odense,” Op. 16a) and some that do not (leaving out the wonderful but overture-like No. 32). Furthermore, he has made the recording not with his own Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra, which was deeply steeped in traditional music-making of its region, but with the Danish National Chamber Orchestra, a first-rate ensemble but not one focusing primarily on music of Mozart’s (and Haydn’s) region, and not one that Fischer himself founded and nurtured. And this group, like the one Fischer started, uses modern rather than period instruments – albeit with an awareness of and sensitivity to 18th-century style.

     So many choices, and so much music – and so much of it marvelous, whatever the reasons for keeping this work and leaving out that one. Listeners do deserve to know what they are getting and not getting in this 12-CD set. It includes Nos. 1, 4-31 (with an alternative slow movement for the last of these), 33-36, 38-41, and unnumbered symphonies KV 19a, KV 76 (42a), KV 45a, KV 45b, KV 81 (73l), KV 97 (73m), KV 95 (73n), and KV 96 (111b). The works are offered more or less in chronological order, to the extent that is determinable, although there are some odd pairings in the later, better-known symphonies: Nos. 35 and 38 share one CD while Nos. 36 and 39 are on another, for no discernible reason. The result of all this scholarship and decision-making is some confusion in presentation but none whatsoever in performance: these are excellent readings from start to finish, beautifully balanced, giving just the right level of prominence to the winds, sailing along at tempos that seem so right that it is hard to imagine these works being taken at any other speed. The Danish musicians are highly responsive to Fischer, and he seems to have an exceptionally close collaboration with them even though this is not “his” orchestra. The overall sound of the music, on those modern instruments but thankfully without too much vibrato and without a smidgen of Romantic excess in interpretation, is simply wonderful, and this release as a whole is certainly one that Mozart lovers will want to have for the sheer joy it communicates – if not for its “completeness” or lack thereof. In truth, no one has yet figured out quite how to present “all” the Mozart symphonies. A Naxos release in 2004, conducted by Nicholas Ward and Barry Wordsworth, went sequentially through numbers 1-41 (yes, including No. 37) but omitted unnumbered works. A 2012 PentaTone offering featuring Sir Neville Marriner claimed to present the “complete youth symphonies” and ended up offering 19 such, giving numbers to several of the ones unnumbered in Fischer’s recording while leaving out some that Fischer includes. The reality is that there is no such thing as too much Mozart, and as scholars and musical investigators find, identify or eliminate various works from the canon, the best thing listeners can do is open their ears to the near-constant flow of beauty that Mozart’s music provides, no matter how it happens to be packaged. On that basis, Fischer’s 45-symphony release is and will be a joy for as long as we have ears to listen to it.

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