November 13, 2014


Franz Ignaz Beck: Symphonies, Op. 4, Nos. 1-3 and Op. 3, No. 6. Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice conducted by Marek Štilec. Naxos. $9.99.

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 8. Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. SDG. $18.99.

Gounod: Symphonies Nos. 1-3. Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana conducted by Oleg Caetani. CPO. $16.99.

Grieg: Complete Symphonic Works, Volume IV—Symphony in C minor; Piano Concerto. Herbert Schuch, piano; WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln conducted by Eivind Aadland. Audite. $19.99 (SACD).

Bruckner: Symphony No. 5. Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. RCO Live DVD. $29.99.

Mahler: Symphony No. 9. Gewandhaus-Orchester Leipzig conducted by Riccardo Chailly. Accentus Music DVD. $24.99.

     From Mozart’s time to Mahler’s, the symphony developed, grew, expanded and changed to fit new times, new composers, new forms of emotional expression, and new methods of using the orchestra to communicate everything from formal elegance and balance to deep feelings that push the boundaries of symphonic form and force it to be redefined. Not all the composers who helped the symphony evolve were necessarily well-known; in other cases, they were known and admired, but not for symphonic works. Through the years, the symphony showed unending plasticity as composers took it in many different directions. Franz Ignaz Beck (1734-1809), an almost exact contemporary of Haydn – the man who solidified symphonic form in ways recognizable ever since – is scarcely a well-known composer, and his symphonies of the 1760s are not at the level of Haydn’s of that time or Mozart’s soon after. But these works, which Beck identified by the older term “Sinfonia,” helped lay the groundwork for much that came later. A new Naxos CD – one of several Beck symphony discs from the label, presented by different ensembles – showcases the first three of Beck’s Op. 4 set (each in four movements) and the final one from Op. 3 (a three-movement work). What is notable about these pieces is Beck’s willingness to start exploring emotion and drama within individual movements and in the symphonies as a whole. Also, Beck gives the winds far more independence than was customary in his time – anticipating, in this, Mozart’s later and greater liberation of the wind section. And while there is nothing profound in Beck’s slow movements, he uses them to provide moments of relative rest within works that are otherwise propulsive and forward-looking. This helps establish the symphony as music in which contrast, within an overarching structure, is the driving force. The Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice under Marek Štilec plays these pieces with fine style and just enough dramatic flair to show Beck’s largely unknown but nevertheless significant contribution to symphonic development in the 18th century.

     Beethoven’s contributions are far, far better known, and they have remained both directly and indirectly influential ever since his symphonies were written.  However, there are still intriguing elements of Beethoven to explore, evidence being the fascinating live recording by John Eliot Gardiner and Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique of the two least-played and perhaps least-understood of the Beethoven symphonies, Nos. 2 and 8. These are period-instrument performances, but more importantly, they are period-practice performances, which mean that Gardiner and the orchestra have gone back to Beethoven’s own time, insofar as that is possible, to make decisions on balance, phrasing, tempo, rhythm, and dynamics. It also means that Gardiner has carefully avoided performing No. 2 as an anticipation of No. 3, the “Eroica,” but instead has highlighted its Mozartean elements and shown the ways in which it is clearly a successor to No. 1 – but with a whole slew of uniquely Beethovenian elements (most notably in the finale, but by no means only there). This performance is tremendously exciting and nothing short of revelatory. And No. 8 is on the same very high level. Beethoven’s Eighth is often looked at as a “small” symphony and sometimes even as a throwback, but Gardiner takes seriously the things that Beethoven did to indicate that this is not a light or lightweight work at all – for example, the composer’s insistence on parts of the first movement being played fff, a designation very rare in Beethoven and one clearly intended to get the orchestra to give all that it can to the music. Gardiner also plumbs the humor in this symphony-without-a-slow-movement, and manages to make the highly unusual finale (whose form is unique in Beethoven’s music) into a very speedy, very well-articulated tour de force as well as an extended exercise in musical wit. What this SDG disc shows with considerable clarity is how Beethoven, in No. 2, brought the symphony into new territory after absorbing lessons from Mozart’s and Haydn’s works – and then, in No. 8, lifted it into even newer realms by showing how a work that is Haydnesque on the surface can contain elements that pave the way not only for Beethoven’s own later symphonic work (the Ninth) but also for the music of Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn and others.

     Indeed, Beethoven’s influence can scarcely be overestimated: it is, in a different way, as strong as that of Haydn. One composer whose symphonies show both Beethovenian and Haydnesque influence is Charles Gounod, who is best known for his operas but who did create two symphonies in the mid-1850s. Both these works have a French flair atop their essentially Germanic symphonic structure – the difference is especially evident in their lyrical passages – but both nevertheless display their influences unashamedly. No. 1 is clearly indebted to Haydn, whom Gounod very much admired. Interestingly, however, although its third movement, marked Scherzo, is in fact closer to a minuet, it is one in a French rather than Austrian style. No. 2 has more of Beethoven about it, although here the pleasantly undulating Larghetto possesses pastoral elements more evocative of the French countryside than of anything Germanic. On a new CPO disc, Oleg Caetani and the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana offer performances of these works that are straightforward, expressive and very well-paced, with Caetani nicely bringing out some of Gounod’s interesting instrumental touches. And the CD contains a very intriguing bonus: an eight-minute fragment of a third symphony, a piece that Gounod worked on just a few years before his death in 1893. Never before recorded, this work – part of a first movement and a short but apparently complete second – has a darker atmosphere than do the first two symphonies, despite its home key of C. And it shows greater individuality of style than do the two complete symphonies, although it scarcely seems to have progressed as dramatically as symphonic writing in general did during the 35 or so years after Gounod wrote his first two symphonies.

     Beethoven’s influence continued to be highly significant throughout the 19th century and even beyond, not only directly but also through the works of composers who were strongly influenced by him and, in their turn, influenced others. Thus, the sole symphony of Edvard Grieg, written when the composer was barely into his 20s (in 1864), exhibits derivative elements not so much of Beethoven directly but of Beethoven as filtered through Schumann, Mendelssohn and, even more clearly, Niels Gade – the most prominent Danish symphonist of his time and the man who directly told Grieg to write something of significance (which turned out to be this symphony). The fourth volume of Audite’s first-rate survey of Grieg’s complete orchestral music, performed by the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln under Eivind Aadland, features the symphony in a performance that gives it everything it is due – which is to say that Aadland does not overestimate the work’s value but plays it straight, allowing its manifest charms to display themselves but also permitting its structural imperfections to come through clearly. For example, the finale features a chorale theme that seems to be about to bring the work to an apotheosis but instead merely disappears, leaving the movement to continue as before. Grieg himself withdrew the symphony after several partial performances and wrote that it was never to be played, but stopped short of destroying it; it disappeared into archival status until it was revived in the Soviet Union in 1980. It is certainly worth hearing, especially when played as well as it is here, but it is scarcely central to Grieg’s output. His Piano Concerto, however, is of crucial importance, and it shares the SACD with the symphony and gets a grand, sweeping and altogether winning performance from Herbert Schuch. Grieg wrote the concerto just a few years after completing the symphony, in 1868, but its far greater maturity and more-expert handling of the orchestra are evident throughout. Grieg was himself a pianist, and he managed in the concerto to make the instrument pre-eminent without ever making the orchestra subsidiary; he also succeeded here in producing a work of Norwegian nationalism, the finale in particular drawing on folk dances and rhythms of Norway. Throughout the concerto, the influence of Schumann –whose sole piano concerto is in the same key of A minor – is quite clearly felt, and since Schumann’s orchestral music ties quite clearly to Beethoven’s, the influence of Beethoven as symphonist pervades Grieg’s concerto to at least the same degree as it does his symphony.

     A decade after Grieg wrote his symphony, Bruckner wrote his Fifth, which is nowadays his least-performed mature symphony and in many ways his most problematic. Filled with contrapuntal elements, structured so that the first movement lays a broad and deep foundation on which the other three movements are constructed until the finale provides a long-delayed climax, and pervaded by pizzicato to an extent that has sometimes led to it being called the “pizzicato symphony,” Bruckner’s Fifth is nevertheless redolent of earlier symphonic influences – notably that of Schubert. A sprawling work that can easily degenerate into an episodic series of poorly connected parts, Bruckner’s Fifth gets a knowing, sure-handed and very well-played rendition from the excellent Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra on a DVD recorded live in October 2013 and released on the ensemble’s own label. Nikolaus Harnoncourt is far better known for his Bach and other Baroque work than for his handling of the Romantics, but he has certainly taken the measure of this Bruckner symphony, shaping it knowingly and intelligently and with the same attention to its architectural elements that he brings to Bach’s music. Indeed, Bruckner’s chorales here, which trace back to Bach, are handled with particular care, and the overall architectural sense of the symphony comes through with a stature that recalls the larger, cathedral-like structure of Bach’s Passion settings.  Harnoncourt does drive the tempo rather hard from time to time, but he is almost always convincing in doing so – and the only real issue with this recording is that it is a DVD rather than CD or SACD, which means its visuals are a big part of its impact. They are not always to its benefit. At a live concert, audience members can decide where to look and when, and can even elect to close their eyes from time to time and simply bask in the musical experience. Certainly eyes-closed listening is possible with a DVD as well, but it somehow misses that point to make a purchase issued in a visual medium and then bypass the visuals. Watching the DVD, though, requires watching just what the director chooses to show at any given time, and the visuals are not always the ones that a listener at a concert would select. Also, the DVD contains no bonus material and is thus a costly way of obtaining a performance of Bruckner’s Fifth; but Harnoncourt’s reading is so good that listeners – that is to say, viewers – may decide that the investment is worthwhile.

     A similar form of thinking is needed for another fine DVD recording, the Accentus Music release of Mahler’s Ninth featuring the Gewandhaus-Orchester Leipzig led by Riccardo Chailly. Interestingly, Chailly made a recording of this symphony a decade ago with the Concertgebouw Orchestra – but his new one, recorded live in September 2013, is tauter and altogether more focused. The symphony as conceived by Mahler, expanded to the point of gigantism (some would say beyond that point) and filled with a degree of emotionalism never before attempted, much less attained, reached a pinnacle beyond which it never quite moved – later symphonists needed to go in different directions. Still, the underlying symphonic structures were very much respected by Mahler even as he expanded them and pulled them into new shapes – just as Beck and Beethoven did in their time. The Ninth, Mahler’s last completed symphony, gets a committed, strongly emotive performance from Chailly, and the orchestra – whose experience with Mahler dates back to the days when Bruno Walter was its conductor, from 1929 to 1933 – plays the music with strength and the utmost commitment. In some ways, the video format here is more useful than in Harnoncourt’s Bruckner Fifth, because this DVD includes a half-hour bonus in which Chailly discusses the music and his feelings about interpreting it. In other ways, the issues of having the performance on video rather than in audio-only format remain the same – and in one case, the video is unintentionally amusing, when the camera shows a triangle being gently struck during the second movement but no triangle sound is heard. A disconnect between audio and video is inevitable in classical-music DVDs – audio cannot pick up everything that video sees, and no video director can go along perfectly with the interpretation as it is being presented live. So any issues of this type involving this recording are common to the field, not unique to this specific release. They are still worth considering for listeners/viewers, however. Chailly’s very understanding, very well-played performance and his interesting discussion of the symphony may make this a worthwhile acquisition for Mahler lovers despite the inevitable clash between the sonic and visual elements of the presentation.

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