September 18, 2014
(++++) ORCHESTRAS ON DISPLAY
Sibelius: Lemminkäinen Suite; The Wood-Nymph. Lahti Symphony Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä. BIS. $21.99 (SACD).
Schumann: Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Robin Ticciati. Linn Records. $34.99 (2 CDs).
Mahler: Symphony No. 5. The Colburn Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Yarlung Records. $19.99.
Some orchestras take to some music with an intuitive understanding that comes through clearly to listeners even if they cannot quite put their finger on what makes the performances so effective. That is the case with the early Sibelius works played by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä. The sprawling Lemminkäinen Suite and almost totally unknown early tone poem, The Wood-Nymph, are among the pieces that most strongly show Sibelius’ debt to Wagner. They are ones written before Sibelius started to develop his own strongly personal style, for all that they draw on mythic and poetic subjects that would continue to fascinate the composer throughout his artistic maturity. Only The Swan of Tuonela, the second movement of the Lemminkäinen Suite, is frequently played – rather too frequently, some might argue, although its absolutely magical tone-painting makes it a joy to hear anytime. Still, it makes more sense within the suite as a whole: the work’s four movements constitute an episodic exploration of legends from the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, to which Sibelius was strongly drawn. The varying moods of the suite – the extended erotic playfulness of Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of the Island; the timeless-sounding The Swan of Tuonela; the extended and meditative Lemminkäinen in Tuonela; and the galloping Lemminkäinen’s Return – show Sibelius exploring orchestral writing with a deft hand and a strong rhythmic sense, albeit without any particularly innovative scoring aside from the use of English horn to represent the swan. The overall Lemminkäinen Suite, whose movements were composed at different times, remains episodic, more so than – for example – Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. But the feeling of Sibelius’ music is so well communicated in Vänskä’s performance that it sweeps listeners along from start to finish. As for The Wood-Nymph, it sounds like and is structured like one of the late fairy-tale-based tone poems by Dvořák, offering effective and affecting tone-painting for a fairly straightforward story of a hero who, led astray by forest dwarves, falls in love with a wood nymph and thus gives up any chance of worldly happiness. Vänskä neatly highlights the contrasting themes of the hero, the dwarves, the nymph and the final realization of loss – and here as in the Lemminkäinen Suite, the orchestra plays with a sure sense of rhythm, balance and strength on a BIS recording accorded .very fine SACD sound
The Scottish Chamber Orchestra, although smaller than a modern full-size ensemble, also offers considerable strength and warmth in Robin Ticciati’s Schumann cycle, but this is a less-successful release – not because of the playing but because of the conductor. Ticciati, a fine and strongly intuitive proponent of Berlioz and a generally well-focused leader, shows his immaturity here, disappointingly letting the finales of the first two symphonies get away from him as he indulges in wholly unjustified rubato and brings the musical progress repeatedly to a crawl or even (in the last movement of Symphony No. 2) a screeching halt. This is a real shame, because when Ticciati lets the music unfold naturally, as in the first three movements of the first two symphonies, there is a lightness and agility to the performances that listeners will find altogether winning. In trying, apparently, to assert greater control over the progress of the first two finales, Ticciati simply makes the music episodic (in Symphony No. 1) or inarticulate (in No. 2, which until the last movement has progressed in a strong and unusually stately manner). The last two symphonies fare much better than the first two in this (+++) Linn Records release. No. 3 is well framed by outer movements in analogous tempos, the three inner ones progressing nicely toward ever-greater seriousness until the finale releases the building tension. The last movement has a few quirks of tempo and rhythm, but not nearly as many as in the finales of the first two symphonies – with the result that this overall performance is significantly more successful. The best reading in this set, though, is of Symphony No. 4, whose careful integration (each movement following immediately upon the conclusion of the prior one) was so important to the composer. The 1851 version of this work, used here and in most recordings, tends to sound heavy and even dull because of the many doublings that Schumann inserted in revising what he had originally created a decade earlier. Here, though, Ticciati benefits enormously from the smaller size of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, managing to convey an impression of transparency along with solidity – and pacing the music with more care and attentiveness than he displays in the other three symphonies. The result is a very fine reading, at a level that one can only wish the other three symphonies also attained.
The performance itself is fine in a new Mahler Fifth for Yarlung Records, with the Colburn Orchestra – a first-rate conservatory ensemble – performing under Gerard Schwarz. What is not so fine here, though, is the conductor’s view of the music. Schwarz is no Mahlerian: this Mahler is pretty rather than profound. The intensity of the opening two movements is altogether missing, as if Mahler’s emphatic designations Trauermarsch and Wie ein Kondukt were missing from the first movement and Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz from the second. Mahler knew exactly what he wanted, here as elsewhere in his work – in this case, something dark, brooding and intense, from which the final three movements of the symphony would represent a climb to higher spheres. By giving insufficient weightiness to the symphony’s opening movements, Schwarz undermines the work’s overall “story arc.” The third movement, nicely paced and featuring fine solo horn playing by Johanna Yarbrough, becomes just another scherzo, not the expansive “second part” of the symphony, as Mahler designated it. And the fourth movement, the famous Adagietto, is simply too sweet, a saccharine meander without any hint of bite or emotional depth – very nicely played, but to very little purpose. The result is that the finale has nowhere in particular to go: there is little dark from which it can emerge into light, and little chance for this consciously plainspoken rondo to become a capstone of a work of considerable strength and intensity. The orchestra’s playing makes the disc deserving of a (+++) rating, and the sound of this recording of a live performance is quite good. But sensitivity to Mahler is missing: the orchestra members may have it as individuals, but Schwarz does not ask them to display it, and they obediently give him a reading that is too bland to deserve a wholehearted recommendation.