September 04, 2014
(++++) SELECTED SYMPHONISTS
Schumann: Complete Symphonic Works, Volume II—Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3. WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln conducted by Heinz Holliger. Audite. $18.99.
Clementi: Symphonies, Op. 18, Nos. 1 and 2; Piano Concerto; Minuetto pastorale. Bruno Canino, piano; Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma conducted by Francesco La Vecchia. Naxos. $9.99.
Rimsky-Korsakov: Sheherazade. Toronto Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Oundjian. Chandos. $14.99 (SACD).
Barbara Harbach: Orchestral Music II—Night Soundings; Gateway Festival Symphony; A State Divided—A Missouri Symphony; Jubilee Symphony. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by David Angus. MSR Classics. $12.95.
The second volume in Audite’s series of Schumann’s complete symphonic works continues in the vein of the first, but with more-familiar music. The first volume contained Symphony No. 1; Overture, Scherzo and Finale; and the very rarely heard original 1841 version of what would later be known as Symphony No. 4. This time, the adept Heinz Holliger leads Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3 in rousing performances that break no new ground but that are sensitive and well-balanced, showing that Schumann’s instrumentation was not lacking (as it has often been accused of being) but simply reflected the forces available to him when he wrote these works. The music comes across quite well as played by the smooth, well-balanced WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln. Holliger paces the first movement of Symphony No. 2 particularly well, giving the problematic main theme enough forward impetus and rhythmic bite so that it follows the very fine introduction without becoming a letdown. He carefully explores the unifying features of this symphony, too. In Symphony No. 3, Holliger paces the first and fifth movements carefully to parallel and reflect each other, giving them the effect of bookends. Between them nestle three contrasting movements that build in seriousness to the climax of the fourth – after which the finale offers a burst of enthusiastic release and relief. These are highly attractive readings in a series that holds considerable promise and is well on the way to fulfilling it.
Muzio Clementi’s Op. 18 symphonies speak of a much earlier era: they were written while Mozart and Haydn were still alive, in 1787. They are particularly Haydnesque, as were many minor and not-so-minor symphonies of the time, and nicely constructed and balanced without ever approaching the quality and poise of their models. At a time when Haydn and Mozart were expanding the symphonic canvas harmonically and lengthening their works significantly, Clementi produced two works in the 17-minute range with straightforward orchestration and well-made but undistinguished themes. Yet these early Clementi symphonies contain some surprises in modulations and dynamics, and it is these that make them particularly interesting to hear. Clementi was not a distinguished composer, but he did have some intriguing ideas, even though he never broke through to full originality in these early works. Clementi was better known in his own time as a piano manufacturer (a few of his instruments have survived) and a performer, so his sole surviving Piano Concerto would seem to be of particular interest. But it is curiously pallid, even when as well performed as it is by Bruno Canino on this Naxos CD. The orchestration has some particularly well-wrought elements, which are very well handled by the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma under Francesco La Vecchia. Yet this concerto, which dates to about 1796, seems more a throwback to earlier Mozart than a work in the vein of early Beethoven, whose first piano concerto (published as No. 2) appeared in 1795 (and in fact was largely composed in the previous decade). It is of course unfair to compare Clementi, a workmanlike composer, with the geniuses of his time, and this work, heard to the extent possible without thinking of other composers’ concertos, is certainly nicely made and suitably (but not overly) virtuosic. It does not have much staying power, but gives a fair idea of the level at which Clementi himself must have performed. Unfortunately, in the absence of other surviving Clementi piano concertos, it provides something less than a complete picture. Yet it is worth noting that Clementi often has some surprises in store for listeners – in, for example, the brief Minuetto pastorale, whose nickname barely fits it at all. Clementi here starts in pastoral vein but does not continue in it, introducing significantly darker elements as the piece progresses and producing a very dramatic Trio that hints strongly at his ability to tone-paint when he wanted to. A problem with Clementi’s music is that much of it has not survived, so it is very difficult to get an overview of him as a composer. This CD contains tantalizing hints about his strengths, even though the works as a whole tend toward the mundane.
There is nothing mundane in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade, a symphony in all but name that consists of a series of four interlinked tone poems whose superb orchestration shows the composer at his finest. The work’s longstanding and wholly justified popularity does set the bar high for new performances, and on that basis, the new recording featuring the Toronto Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Oundjian gets a (+++) rating. Nothing is out of place here – Jonathan Crow’s solo violin is especially strong – but nothing really catches fire, either. There is grandeur to Sheherazade, but here things are on the matter-of-fact side, nicely played but never truly compelling. The initial threatening sounds representing the sultan are not particularly menacing, and the climactic last-movement shipwreck is considerably less than cataclysmic. The middle movements flow nicely and pleasantly, but without a strong sense of characterization of the figures limned by the composer – the music is all there, but its storytelling elements are compromised. It is also rather odd in this day and age to have a release that contains only this symphonic suite – a 45-minute disc of a well-known repertoire work really shortchanges listeners, although this is admittedly a lower-than-usual price for a Chandos SACD. On balance, this is a fine, even admirable handling of Sheherazade, but there is nothing outstanding about it, nothing to make listeners sit up and take notice to the extent of finding this recording a must-have.
Nor is the second MSR Classics release of Barbara Harbach’s orchestral music a must-have – but here the reasons do not lie in the performances, which are first-rate throughout. This is actually the ninth disc in an ongoing series devoted to Harbach’s music, a major commitment for any contemporary composer; and certainly the skill with which Harbach handles the large-scale works here is attractive in many ways. The works themselves, though, are on the pale side. Night Soundings, a three-movement orchestral suite, offers three nocturnal-sounding movements – that is to say, the title neatly encapsulates what the music offers, but there is nothing especially distinguished in the way Harbach interprets darkness (although the final Midnight Tango has some engaging moments). Two Missouri-focused works, Gateway Festival Symphony and A State Divided—A Missouri Symphony, are deliberate exercises in regionalism, but unlike some others (such as Ives’ Three Places in New England), Harbach’s pieces seem straitlaced and too deliberately intended for a narrow audience that has strong familiarity with the subject matter (sunset in St. Louis, the Missouri Compromise, the Battle of Westport, etc.). Jubilee Symphony is also a locally oriented work, written for the 50th anniversary of the University of Missouri at St. Louis and culminating with a musical paean to the Greek god Triton, the university’s mascot. Very well focused on its subject matter and certainly targeted with care at the university that commissioned it, the work, when heard simply as music and without regard to the occasion of its creation, does not contain very much that is unusual or compelling. Harbach, a fine organist as well as a composer, certainly uses an orchestra with skill and creates more-accessible pieces than many contemporary composers produce. The ones here are, however, somewhat surface-level works for anyone beyond those whose imagination and interest they are intended to capture: they neither reach out to listeners in general nor appear intended to do so.