July 31, 2014


Bruckner: Symphony No. 8. Konzerthausorchester Berlin conducted by Mario Venzago. CPO. $16.99.

Bruch: Complete Works for Violin and Orchestra, Volume 1—Violin Concerto No. 2; Scottish Fantasy; Adagio appassionato. Antje Weithaas, violin; NDR Radiophilharmonie conducted by Hermann Bäumer. CPO. $16.99.

Zdeněk Fibich: Orchestral Works, Volume 3—Othello; Záboj, Slavoj and Luděk; Toman and the Wood Nymph; The Tempest; Spring. Czech National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marek Štilec. Naxos. $9.99.

     The exceptionally interesting CPO Bruckner cycle conducted by Mario Venzago reaches its penultimate release with Venzago’s reading of Symphony No. 8 – for which, once again, he has made a superb choice of orchestra. One of the main distinguishing characteristics of this Bruckner sequence is the conductor’s use of different ensembles for different symphonies, his intention being to highlight the ways in which the sound of each symphony is distinct by performing it with an orchestra whose own sound elicits what Venzago believes Bruckner intended. This is more than an academic exercise: Bruckner’s symphonies too often come across as massive gouts of sonic grandeur throughout, but Venzago shows persuasively that they have clarity and even delicacy that is all too frequently unobserved or unnoticed. So Venzago used the Tapiola Sinfonietta for Nos. 0 and 1; the Northern Sinfonia for No. 2; the Berner Symphonieorchester for Nos. 3, 6 and 9; the Sinfonieorchester Basel for Nos. 4 and 7; and now the Konzerthausorchester Berlin (known from its founding in 1952 until 2006 as the Berlin Symphony Orchestra) for the massive and highly complex No. 8. This is an inspired choice: the orchestra has richness in the strings, a burnished brass section and woodwinds that are quite able to hold their own amid the other sections. As usual nowadays, Venzago performs the 1890 version of this symphony, which is considerably different from its original 1887 version (which Georg Tintner recorded for Naxos back in 1996 and Franz Welser-Möst has conducted more recently, but which remains very rarely heard in concert or on disc). The huge scope of the work and Bruckner’s very carefully designed relationships among the movements produce a symphony that is at once tightly knit and broadly expansive. Venzago not only understands this intellectually – he is a very thoughtful conductor – but also knows how to bring out both the work’s forward-looking design and its tremendous emotional impact. The Konzerthausorchester Berlin has a great deal to do with this, playing with sumptuousness, firm rhythmic control and sectional balance so good that it is always possible to follow the complexities of Bruckner’s thematic groups and rhythm changes and to feel their impact – as, for instance, in the choice of 2/4 time for the trio of the third movement rather than the much more typical 3/4. This is above all a dramatic symphony, its emotional sweep capturing listeners at the start and continuing through a finale that eventually recalls themes from all four movements. Venzago carefully builds sections within the movements, the entire movements, and the overall symphony with great care and skill, and the result is a thrilling and highly moving performance featuring first-rank orchestral sound that beautifully matches the composer’s emotive qualities. Only the Symphony No. 5 remains to be released in Venzago’s Bruckner cycle – an odd choice for the final building block, but one that, on the basis of all he has done so far, Venzago is likely to prove a well-considered and well-thought-out one.

     Another cycle on CPO is just beginning, and this one too has fascinating elements. It will offer the complete works for violin and orchestra by the notoriously prickly and difficult Max Bruch, who for most listeners is a one-work composer – known solely for his violin concerto. But Bruch wrote three violin concertos, and the decision to launch this series by featuring No. 2 is a bold and highly interesting one. Bruch was a marvelous tunesmith, spinning long-line slow movements so gorgeous melodically and so balanced in orchestration that it is perfectly possible to be swept away by their beauty to such an extent as to be disappointed by the frequently more workmanlike faster movements that succeed or surround them. Antje Weithaas clearly sees and accepts Bruch as a poet; but at the same time, she acknowledges the structural skill he brings to his works even in their less-inspired elements. The Violin Concerto No. 2 comes across as something of a parallel to Schumann’s Piano Concerto: the long first movement can stand on its own as a fantasy, making it difficult to integrate the second and third movements in such a way as to produce a convincing whole. Weithaas does a first-rate job of this: the opening movement sings, swoons and explores with transcendent beauty, and the second and third – although they are not its equal – come across as more than mere appendages. This is a highly satisfying performance of the concerto, immensely helped by the elegant accompaniment by the NDR Radiophilharmonie under Hermann Bäumer. The Scottish Fantasy, one of the few works beyond the first violin concerto for which Bruch is at least somewhat known, also sounds splendid here, its folkloric elements clearly at the service of a concerto-worthy violin part that stands above the orchestra’s while still being integrated into the ensemble. By turns emotionally stirring, graceful and rhythmically bouncy, the Scottish Fantasy here sounds like a folk-song-based suite for violin and orchestra in which both soloist and conductor show a high level of sensitivity to the music’s nuances. Also here, and very welcome, is the Adagio appassionato, Op. 57, which Bruch originally intended as the first movement of what would have become his fourth violin concerto. As so often in Bruch, the melodies are stirring and passionate, and the piece emerges as an extended fantasy – much as the opening of the second concerto does, but in this case without added movements to complement the work or distract from it. This is an excellent first volume in what promises to be a thoroughly delightful exploration of the music of a man whose personality was so difficult that it infected many people’s regard for his work. Nearly a century after Bruch’s death in 1920, it is now becoming possible to evaluate his music without needing to know about, or pay attention to, its biographical surroundings.

     It is also high time for a reconsideration of the music of Zdeněk Fibich (1850-1900), who has lain so deeply in the shadows of Dvořák and Smetana that he has been all but invisible. The third volume in a very fine Naxos cycle featuring the Czech National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marek Štilec shows Fibich to particularly good advantage in five tone poems composed around the same time as Smetana’s Má Vlast and a decade or more before the ones Dvořák wrote based on ballads by Karel Erben. It is very easy to hear the many folklike elements of Fibich’s music in these pieces, and to hear some striking cadential similarities with the work of Smetana (in particular). The two Shakespeare-based tone poems, Othello and The Tempest, are particularly effective encapsulations of the emotional core of those plays, with tone-painting that is very well-wrought if, on the whole, rather straightforward. Záboj, Slavoj and Luděk and Toman and the Wood Nymph trace their origin to Czech folk tales, and both build effectively and recount their stories with appropriate measures of (in the first case) grandeur and (in the second) lovesickness. And Spring is fascinating because of what it is not: it does not simply portray the season as a bright emergence from winter, but shows it to be far more variegated than seasonal tone-painting usually does. It is probably inevitable to compare Fibich with Dvořák and Smetana, noting that he does not have the melodic gifts of the former or the storytelling drama of the latter. But while this is true, it is also unfair: Dvořák lived to be 62 and did much of his most-popular work in his 50s, while Smetana lived to age 60 and finished Má Vlast when he was 55. Fibich died before his 50th birthday, and much of his work as heard in the first three volumes of this series is early: all the tone poems in this volume were written when he was in his 20s or 30s. So while it may be true that Fibich lacked some of the inborn gifts of Dvořák and Smetana, it may also be true that he never had the chance to develop fully the talent that he undeniably possessed. The tone poems heard here, all of them very well-orchestrated and played with considerable élan, continue to show what this series’ first two volumes did: that Fibich is most certainly deserving of the rediscovery that he is now beginning to receive.

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