December 04, 2014
(++++) SYMPHONIC THINKING
Bruckner: Symphony No. 5. Tapiola Sinfonietta conducted by Mario Venzago. CPO. $16.99.
Tchaikovsky: Symphonies Nos. 1-6; Manfred Symphony; Nocturne, Op. 19, No. 4; “Snegurochka”—excerpts; Francesca da Rimini; “Romeo and Juliet”—duet; “The Voyevode”—Overture and Dance of the Haymaiden; The Tempest; “Pique Dame”—Prelude and Finale; “Iolanta”—Prelude; Hamlet. Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio conducted by Vladimir Fedoseyev. Relief. $39.99 (6 CDs).
Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 6. Sinfonieorchester Basel conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. Sinfonieorchester Basel. $18.99.
Woldemar Bargiel: Complete Orchestral Music, Volume One—Symphony in C; Prometheus Overture; Overture to a Tragedy; Medea Overture. Siberian Symphony Orchestra conducted by Dmitry Vasilyev. Toccata Classics. $18.99.
Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Overtures—Ruy Blas; The Hebrides; Overture in C, “Trumpet”; The Fair Melusine; Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Walter Weller (Midsummer, Ruy Blas); Gewandhausorchester Leipzig conducted by Kurt Masur (other overtures). Brilliant Classics. $11.99 (2 CDs).
Mario Venzago concludes one of the most thought-provoking and thoughtful Bruckner cycles ever with what may be the most controversial of all his already-controversial interpretations. Venzago, who has selected various orchestras for his recordings for CPO so as to match orchestral sonority to the way he believes each Bruckner symphony should sound, uses the 41-member Tapiola Sinfonietta for Bruckner’s very large, very complex, very long and very difficult Symphony No. 5 – a work whose grandiosity few would dispute. Venzago disputes it, picking the same ensemble for this work that he used for Symphonies Nos. 0 and 1 (he conducted the Northern Sinfonia for No. 2, the Berner Symphonieorchester for Nos. 3, 6 and 9, the Sinfonieorchester Basel for Nos. 4 and 7, and the Konzerthausorchester Berlin in No. 8, the only live recording of his cycle). Venzago is a highly cerebral conductor and a very careful researcher, and he argues persuasively for his handling of Symphony No. 5, which he connects not only to Schubert (many other conductors now accept the Schubert-Bruckner connection) but also to Louis Spohr. Furthermore, Venzago asserts that Symphony No. 5 requires much quicker tempos than it usually receives, with the result that his performance comes in at just 60 minutes while many others run well over 70 (Lorin Maazel recorded one that lasted 80). By turning this symphony into a comparatively light, transparent, fleet-footed work, Venzago has either rediscovered elements of Bruckner that others have missed for more than a century or has perverted the entire meaning and grandeur of the music. This is certain to be a polarizing performance. The real question, though, is not whether it is different from others – it most certainly is – but whether it works on its own terms. That is similar to questions that used to be raised about Beethoven’s metronome markings (indicating much faster tempos than most conductors were accustomed to follow) and Bach’s dance movements (which can be performed at a stately pace or one more akin to that of peasant country dances). It is unlikely that Bruckner lovers will want Venzago’s No. 5 as their sole version of the symphony, but it would be a shame if they did not have it as their second, or even third. It is a revelatory performance, with a clarity and, yes, a speed so unusual in Bruckner that it shatters the myth of this composer as a staid, dully religious creator of impressively cathedral-like but essentially plodding structures. There is a vivacity to Venzago’s Fifth that distinguishes it from all other performances, and the playing itself makes Venzago’s argument for this approach more effectively than do his very-well-chosen words. This is not a Bruckner Fifth for everyone, but it is a fascinating view of the music and composer, and it serves as a remarkable capstone to a Bruckner cycle that is filled with thoughtfulness and highly unusual approaches.
The conductor’s thoughtfulness is evident as well in the excellent Tchaikovsky cycle led by Vladimir Fedoseyev – although the packaging of this release on the oddly named Relief label is so bad, so sloppy, that it cries out for reconsideration and reworking. These live recordings by the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio (founded in 1930 as the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra and still better-known by that name) were made at various times over a quarter-century, from 1984 to 2009. The orchestra’s complement surely changed during that time period, but its sound remained remarkably consistent and is perfect for this music, with enormously rich and warm strings, burnished brass, piquant woodwinds and forceful percussion. For emotion-drenched music such as this, it is hard to imagine a better-sounding ensemble. And Fedoseyev is a wonderful Tchaikovsky conductor – who, like Venzago (albeit to a lesser extent), is not afraid to take chances with canonical works. For example, Fedoseyev takes the first movement of Symphony No. 1 and the finale of Symphony No. 3 very slowly, an aural shock at first but soon afterwards a convincing approach that plumbs the music deeply. He embraces the episodic nature of the first movement of No. 4 instead of trying to gloss it over with quick tempos, and the result is an impressive level of grandeur. In the Manfred Symphony, most of his tempos are speedy, so that the work progresses with greater forward impetus than it usually receives – but he takes the second movement, Vivace, unusually slowly, a decision that, again, is initially odd but soon becomes convincing because of the excellent attention to detail that accompanies it. The tempo oddities pervade the non-symphonic works as well: in Francesca da Rimini, for example, Fedoseyev creates a greater-than-usual contrast between the “blowing winds” sections and the meltingly beautiful ones in which Francesca tells her sad story. Every piece here has something to recommend it – but very little in the packaging does. Is the conductor’s name properly transliterated as Fedoseyev, Fedosseyev, or Fedossejev? It depends on where you look. Is Op. 18 called The Tempest or The Storm, and does it date to 1873 or 1888? Again, it depends. (The work heard here is The Tempest of 1873, not The Storm, which dates to 1864.) Is the Hamlet overture from 1867 or 1888? (It is from 1888 but, if it helps, is Op. 67a, although here listed as Op. 67.) How many tracks are there on the CD containing Symphony No. 3? The answer is 11, but the actual track listing shows only 10 and omits a track for one piece altogether. Is there a work called Romeo and Julia, or is it Romeo & Julia, or Romeo + Julia Fantasy Ouverture? It depends on where you are in the packaging – but one thing that is certain is that it is not the famous overture but a vocal duet, completed by Sergey Taneyev (who is never mentioned), for an unfinished opera about the doomed lovers. And it does not date to “ca. 1880” or to “1869, 1870 + 1880,” as listed in various places, but to 1893. And on and on the errors of commission and omission go, to such a point that one sentence about the orchestra performing in “Pragrue” is barely a hiccup in the parade of mistakes. To mar performances this good with presentation this bad is a real shame, but thank goodness listeners can largely ignore the packaging while listening to the excellence of the playing and conducting.
Thankfully, both performance and presentation are high-quality in the Sinfonieorchester Basel’s recording of Schubert’s Symphonies Nos. 2 and 6 on the orchestra’s own label. Despite its large size, this ensemble performs these symphonies with lightness and elegance, and Dennis Russell Davies is firmly at the orchestra’s helm and thoroughly comfortable with the lilt and spirit of these early Schubert symphonies. Symphony No. 2 has a particularly weighty opening movement, which includes three separate sections (a technique that in some ways looks forward to Bruckner); this gives way to three lighter movements, including a finale that is as jocular as the first movement is serious. The symphony can sound rather disconnected because of the movements’ differing character, but Davies makes it all work within the context of warmth and high spirits. No. 6, sometimes called the “Little C Major” to distinguish it from the “Great” No. 9, is not really all that small, although its Rossinian themes (especially in the finale) and its overall feeling of light-operatic progress keep it on the pleasant and whimsical side throughout. The orchestra handles Davies’ emphases and tempo changes smoothly and with ease in both these works, and the live recording has an ebullience and, frequently, a joviality that makes the symphonies a joy to hear.
Hearing any music at all by Woldemar Bargiel is a major surprise nowadays: he is as obscure as Bruckner, Tchaikovsky and Schubert are well-known. Bargiel (1828-1897) was Clara Schumann’s half-brother and, in his time, a composer thought of very highly and a major force in the Brahms “pure music” camp that stood in opposition to the more-forward-looking Liszt/Wagner group. Toccata Classics has embarked on a fascinating project to release all of Bargiel’s orchestral music, and the first CD in the series shows quite clearly what is to come, both for better and for worse. Bargiel wrote only one symphony, in 1864, and it is a thoroughly Beethovenian work, filled with drive and intensity that are quite apt for the mid-Romantic era – but lacking even the modifications of symphonic form and the extended wind writing that make Schubert’s early symphonies so attractive. There is a Sturm und Drang quality to the music, a driving spirit that pulls listeners along effectively – but like the symphonies of Spohr, who was also a hugely popular composer at this time, Bargiel’s is more of a repetition of techniques and approaches of the past than it is a stride of any sort into the future. It is very well-made indeed, but not original enough to seem like a long-lost work of high stature. The three concert overtures with which it is paired, though, have considerable interest. Overture to a Tragedy dates to 1856, Overture to Prometheus was written in 1852 and revised in 1854 and 1859, and Overture to Medea is from about 1861. These are essentially miniature tone poems, along the lines of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, but they encapsulate feelings rather than the plot of a specific opera or story. They sound again and again like Schumann’s Manfred Overture (1852), and at the same time they look ahead to Brahms’ Tragic Overture (1880). The best of the overtures is Overture to Medea, which is pervaded by a sense of tragedy and features abrupt dynamic changes and a restless main theme that seem to reflect the sorceress’ unsettled state of mind. The other overtures have more than a few moments of effectiveness as well, and the Siberian Symphony Orchestra under Dmitry Vasilyev plays them all with strength, intensity and a high level of involvement. It may turn out that Bargiel was more inspired when writing shorter works than when undertaking a piece of symphonic length. Later releases in this series will show whether that is true – and listeners curious about the lesser lights of Romanticism will await them with considerable interest.
It is easy to tell, nevertheless, why Bargiel and other once-famous composers fell into obscurity over time. A comparison of Bargiel’s overtures with those by Mendelssohn on a new Brilliant Classics release provides an object lesson. While there is a sense that Bargiel is going through the motions of creating varying levels of drama in his overtures, the ones by Mendelssohn show something quite different: a composer devotedly exploring literary and experiential circumstances and then doing his best to reflect their emotional impact in music. None of these Mendelssohn overtures is straightforward tone painting: there is no attempt to create a precise musical version of material from real life (such as a journey to Fingal’s Cave) or literature (such as Goethe’s two short poems about sea voyages in the age before steam power). Instead, what Mendelssohn does is extract the essence of the feelings generated by travel, literature or myth and put that essence into the music. The result is that his overtures help listeners share in Mendelssohn’s own feelings and experiences in a way that Bargiel’s well-made ones never do – the Bargiel works have a level of distancing that their fine structure cannot conceal, while the Mendelssohn overtures seem to grow organically, as if their form is largely determined and shaped by the composer’s experiences. The sole exception here is the “Trumpet” overture, so called because of its trumpet flourishes – but this is a very early work, and while Mendelssohn at age 16 (when he created it) was already an accomplished composer, he had not yet attained the emotional maturity that gives the other overtures here their impact: he was just 17½ when he created the superb Midsummer Night’s Dream overture, but had clearly grown considerably by that time. Kurt Masur and Mendelssohn’s own orchestra, the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, do a superior job with the four overtures they perform here in a 1974 analog recording, and Walter Weller and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra are also quite fine in Ruy Blas, an overture to a Victor Hugo drama that Mendelssohn found repugnant but that still inspired him to create a tense, urgent work wholly in keeping with the impact of the play. The two-CD set also includes virtually all the music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a perfectly realized accompaniment to Shakespeare’s play whose vivacity and lilt seem to emerge naturally in every performance, including this one. Aside from the music accompanying melodramas (spoken sections with music in the background), this digital recording from 1992 is complete, including the vocal elements, which are very nicely sung by soprano Alison Hagley, mezzo-soprano Louise Winter, and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra Junior Chorus. The songs are given in English, which Mendelssohn learned after writing this music – the original settings were in German, but Mendelssohn’s music is so well constructed that the vocals work in either language. In that way as in many others, Mendelssohn shows himself as a composer of the highest stature, not only in his own time but all the way up to ours.