June 05, 2014


Vierne: Complete Organ Symphonies, Volume 3—Nos. 5 and 6. Hans-Eberhard Roß, organ. Audite. $16.99 (SACD).

Mieczysław Weinberg: Symphony No. 18, “War – there is no word more cruel”; Trumpet Concerto. Andrew Balio, trumpet; Tatyana Perevyazkina, soprano; Ekaterina Shikunova, alto; Vladimir Dobrovolsky, tenor; Zahar Shikunov, baritone; St. Petersburg Chamber Choir and St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Lande. Naxos. $9.99.

Yves Ramette: Symphonies Nos. 1, 2, 4 and 6. St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Lande. Navona. $19.99 (2 CDs).

Per Nørgård: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 8. Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Sakari Oramo. Dacapo. $16.99 (SACD).

     Most lovers of classical music think they have a pretty solid idea of what symphonies are, and many do – within limits. A number of the most-popular classical works are in fact symphonies, but there are many, many works with the “symphony” label that are exceedingly unfamiliar, and some that significantly stretch the definition of the form, which in any case has changed dramatically in the last couple of centuries. The notion of “organ symphonies,” for example, did not exist until the time of Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937), and his 10 works in the form are, collectively, one of the high points of a genre that he in essence invented (Widor also wrote three symphonies for orchestra with organ, along the lines of Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3). The genre’s other high point lies in the six organ symphonies by Widor’s onetime assistant, Louis Vierne (1870-1937), which significantly extended the emotional and chromatic range of the organ symphony while pulling it into the 20th-century world of extended, if not abandoned, tonality. Hans-Eberhard Roß has now completed his survey for Audite of Vierne’s six organ symphonies, which he plays on the modern (1998) Goll Organ of St. Martin, Memmingen, with tremendous skill and control and an absolutely sure sense of the works’ structure and emotional content. Symphony No. 5 (1923-24) is filled with dissonance and atonality and is the longest of Vierne’s organ symphonies. It is also crammed with postwar emotion – Vierne lost both family and close friends in World War I – and moves from grotesquerie to an ending that tries for transfiguration but does not quite attain it. Roß is comfortable both with the music’s modernity and with its ambivalence, and his performance is exemplary in bringing both qualities to the fore. Symphony No. 6 (1930) is somewhat more relaxed, or perhaps resigned, and is even more forthrightly chromatic than No. 5. Here too Roß extracts maximum feeling from the music, especially the despairing Adagio, putting the virtuoso demands of the symphony entirely at the service of its emotive value. This music is scarcely triumphal, but Roß has a personal triumph in the way he performs it, showing Vierne’s organ symphonies to represent both the pinnacle of their form and a major, if little-known, contribution to the music of the 20th century.

     The contributions of Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996) are significant as well, but they too are not frequently or widely acknowledged. Weinberg was the third great Soviet-era composer in the Russian tradition, after Shostakovich (his friend and sometime mentor) and Prokofiev. But he stands so firmly in the shadows of the others that his music is only now being rediscovered. Late in life, Weinberg – who wrote 26 symphonies in all – created a symphonic trilogy called On the Threshold of War and encompassing his 17th, 18th and 19th symphonies. Naxos, which is in the midst of producing a rather ill-ordered Weinberg symphony cycle that releases the works with no particular logic (a rarity for this usually careful company), has now made No. 18 available in a very fine performance by soloists, chorus and the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Lande. The symphony dates to 1982-84, but its musical sensibilities are in line with the earlier ones of Shostakovich’s Symphonies Nos. 13 (1962) and 14 (1969). Its emotional sensitivity is in line with that of Shostakovich, too, although Weinberg’s orchestration is different in its emphases: pensive woodwinds and muted brass are important components of Weinberg’s soundscape. The first movement of the symphony is orchestral; the second uses a poem by Sergey Orlov (1921-1977); the third is based on a folk song; and the fourth – whose title becomes the title of the entire symphony – has text by Aleksandr Tvardovsky (1910-1971). The sentiments of the work are nothing special – it is a lament about war and the suffering it brings to combatants and civilians alike – but Weinberg, who had to flee his native Poland at the start of World War II, gives them enough sense of the personal so that they come across as genuine feelings rather than pronouncements. The work is nicely paired with Weinberg’s Trumpet Concerto (1966-67), whose three unusually titled movements (“Etudes,” “Episodes,” “Fanfares”) are written in highly varied styles, in a work whose broad sweep and thematic elaborations make it symphonic in scope – indeed, the final movement opens with a quote of the opening of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 (followed by one from Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Andrew Balio plays the concerto quite well, with nuance and elegance rather than overweening virtuoso display, and as in the symphony, Lande leads the orchestra with sure-handedness, understanding and a firm grasp of Weinberg’s style.

     Lande is also comfortable with the very different style of Yves Ramette (1921-2012); indeed, Lande has established himself as a strong and effective advocate of a great deal of 20th- and 21st-century symphonic music. Lande’s new two-CD Navona release of four symphonies by Ramette is the world première recording of all four. Ramette’s is a style characterized by rhythmic fragments rather than extended melodies, an approach that leads to strong contrasts between dramatic and lyrical sections and even within individual parts of each symphony. Symphony No. 1 is for strings and percussion; the others here are for full orchestra. Something of Ramette’s varied approach to symphonic form may be seen in the works’ structure: Nos. 1 and 6 are in three movements, No. 2 in two that are linked, and No. 4 in one. Nos. 2, 4 and 6 feature themes that appear throughout, providing the works with aural connective tissue – Ramette believed that music needed to have an immediate impact on listeners and that it should not be an intellectual exercise, a stance that put him at odds with such modernistic musicians as Pierre Boulez. Certainly all these symphonies are well and carefully structured, and certainly they do have impact, but the way in which they come across takes some getting used to. No. 2, for example, pairs a strongly rhythmic first movement with a very broad and lyrical second (très expressif, Ramette indicates), but neither the rhythms nor the harmonies are in line with those of traditional classical music: they are neither Romantic nor dodecaphonic, but melodically fragmented and rhythmically ever-changing. Symphony No. 6, Ramette’s last, is programmatic, based on the same Byron poem that inspired Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony. But although Ramette gives clear titles to the three movements – translated as “Manfred and the Spirits,” “Manfred in the Alps” and “The Death of Manfred” – there is less scene-painting than the titles seem to indicate, and the work’s overall approach, like that of most earlier Ramette symphonies, is one in which fragmented melodic elements are combined and recombined, changed and expanded. Ramette’s lyricism is attractive and his compositional style, while it requires a period of aural adjustment, repays listeners with a chance to hear some expressive and carefully structured symphonies by a composer of genuine thoughtfulness.

     Much the same may be said of the excellent new Dacapo recording of the earliest and most-recent symphonies by Danish composer Per Nørgård (born 1932). The performances here are truly exemplary: the smooth-as-silk Vienna Philharmonic, under the knowing direction of Finland’s Sakari Okamo, here makes its first foray into modern Scandinavian music, and its recording of Symphony No. 8 is a world première. Symphony No. 1 (1953-55, revised 1956) is called “Sinfonia auestera” and shows its austerity through a determined seriousness of purpose and sparseness of sound despite its full orchestration. There are some reminiscences of Sibelius (notably of Tapiola in the symphony’s first movement), but the work’s polyphony and command of the orchestra already show signs of Nørgård’s maturity. This makes it particularly interesting to hear No. 1 in juxtaposition with No. 8 (2010-11). No. 8, commissioned by the Helsinki Philharmonic and dedicated to the orchestra and conductor John Storgårds, opens with rising and falling scales suggestive of spirals in a first movement that moves briskly throughout. The second movement is a strong contrast, slow and sensual – but with three interludes of melodic contrast. The third, final movement is restless and becomes more so as it progresses, with a final oscillating murmur that vaguely recalls the symphony’s opening and brings the work to a pianissimo conclusion. Nørgård has made some interesting comments on his Symphony No. 8, calling the first movement “an arrow pointing in a direction” and the second “a situation where it spins around in a kind of never-ending three-part carousel.” The finale, whose rhythm is difficult to hold onto, seems largely pulseless until it grows organically – “you see a form as you go along,” the composer has said. Not all listeners will see the form, or accept it if they do see it, but this symphony is structurally quite intriguing, showing that Nørgård has come a very long way indeed from the “austerity” of his first symphony. Yet Nørgård has remained true in significant ways to the history of the symphony: the finale of No. 8 contains and reinterprets themes from earlier in the work, giving the symphony as a whole a unity of emotion and thematic purpose despite the initial confusions that listeners will encounter in trying to follow its structure. Vierne, Weinberg, Ramette and Nørgård, all substantial symphonists in their own very different ways, offer thoughtful listeners with an impetus toward variety many chances to hear symphonies that are far from the standard repertoire and that challenge both the ears and the mind.

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