February 26, 2015
(++++) THE CONDUCTOR’S ROLE
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; Songs and Dances of Death; Night on Bare Mountain. Ferruccio Furlanetto, bass; Mariinsky Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev. Mariinsky. $18.99 (SACD).
Berlioz: Harold in Italy; La mort de Cléopâtre. Antoine Tamestit, viola; Karen Cargill, mezzo-soprano; London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev. LSO Live. $14.99.
Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-5; Triple Concerto. Mari Kodama, piano; Kolja Blacher, violin; Johannes Moser, cello; Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Kent Nagano. Berlin Classics. $39.99 (3 CDs).
Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6. New York Philharmonic conducted by Alan Gilbert. Dacapo. $16.99 (SACD).
At the Hoffnung Interplanetary Music Festival back in 1958, one piece of musical humor offered for the delectation and delight of the audience was called Concerto for Conductor and Orchestra by Francis Chagrin. The point was that conductors have many ways, some subtle and some not so subtle, to take control of music and musicians – a fact that orchestral musicians know well, of course, but that is not always apparent to audience members at concerts, since the majority of a conductor’s work is done at rehearsals, not during performances themselves. One would expect the conductor’s input into the music to be even less clear in recordings, but in some of them, his or her influence is quite evident to listeners who pay careful attention. Although there is a certain blandness to many interpretations nowadays, abetted by the increasing similarity of the sound of many orchestras, there are some conductors who unfailingly put their stamp on the works they lead. Valery Gergiev is one of them. In addition to an exuberant podium manner, he has an unhesitating willingness to shape music for emotional ends even at the expense of literalness – resembling, in both these ways, Leonard Bernstein. But Gergiev is less prone to excess than Bernstein was, and many of his performances succeed in conveying a great deal of emotional impact while also elucidating the structure of the works. Gergiev manages to get this effect not only from his own Mariinsky Orchestra but also from those that he guest conducts, as is apparent in two new releases. The Mussorgsky disc on the Mariinsky’s own label is wonderful from start to finish. The Gergiev touch – which often means strong emphasis on percussion and sforzandos that are genuinely startling – serves Ravel’s orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition exceptionally well. Anyone who knows Gergiev would expect The Hut on Fowl’s Legs and The Great Gate of Kiev to be splendid, and indeed they are; but Gergiev also shows subtlety in his attention to detail in some of the smaller and less overtly splendor-filled sections. In Tuileries and Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells, for example, he varies the tempo considerably, drawing out some phrases and compressing others to shape the impact he is looking for. His slight extra pause at the end of the “chicks” movement gives the whole thing a wonderfully whimsical feel. But Gergiev is also quite capable of delving deeply into dark feelings, as in Songs and Dances of Death, which Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto sings with sensitivity and involvement – although his voice is not as deeply resonant as that of some of the best Russian basses. In these four lugubrious but highly varied looks at different aspects of death, heard here in the 1962 orchestration by Shostakovich, Gergiev both follows Furlanetto’s lead and expands and enhances the words with an orchestral accompaniment that is fully participatory in the material. It is regrettable that the words themselves are not provided with the recording – they are absolutely necessary for an understanding of the music, and their omission is unconscionable. The CD concludes with Mussorgsky’s own orchestration of Night on Bare Mountain, not the far more commonly heard version by Rimsky-Korsakov. That one is better balanced and more satisfying as a tone poem, with a definite beginning, middle and end; Mussorgsky’s original, though, is wilder and altogether stranger, its segments spilling over one another and its conclusion inconclusive in a way that Rimsky-Korsakov’s beautiful “coming of dawn” ending is not. Gergiev skillfully contrasts the faster, more-pointed segments of Mussorgsky’s version with the slower ones, which are eerie rather than reassuring. The Rimsky-Korsakov orchestration is so familiar and in its own way so successful that listeners may have a hard time adjusting to the vagaries of the composer’s own approach, but Gergiev makes as good a case for it as one is likely to hear.
The London Symphony Orchestra may not be as instantaneously responsive to Gergiev as the Mariinsky Orchestra, but the LSO Live release of two Berlioz works nevertheless bears the conductor’s strong imprint. Harold in Italy is episodic and requires, for its full effect, some knowledge of its poetic source, much as is the case with Tchaikovsky’s Manfred, which is also based on a work by Byron. Gergiev does not try to minimize the somewhat disconnected score, preferring to treat each movement essentially as a separate tone poem. This works quite well: the finely nuanced playing of Antoine Tamestit helps keep things together as the orchestra produces sounds ranging from the pastoral and almost folk-like to the highly dramatic – to call Gergiev’s handling of the very ending of this work “emphatic” is greatly to understate the case. Harold in Italy is nicely complemented by La mort de Cléopâtre, which Karen Cargill has made something of a specialty: she also recently recorded it with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Robin Ticciati. In that version, mezzo-soprano and conductor focused on the work’s lyricism; with Gergiev, the focus is on the dramatic intensity of the story. Both approaches work quite well – there are enough emotions in this Berlioz piece to accommodate varying ways of handling it – but there is no doubt that the work’s conclusion under Gergiev, as the composer offers a tone-painting of the fatal bite of the asp and Cleopatra’s final gasping words, is nearly operatic in its impact. Again, though, where are the words? They are not included with the CD (they were with the Ticciati version); and the fact that listeners can find them online does not excuse the producers of the recording from providing such basic material.
The conductor’s influence can be strongly felt even in some recordings that are true collaborations, such as the new release of Beethoven’s piano concertos on the Berlin Classics label. Here the conductor and soloist are husband and wife, which renders the whole issue of who influences whom and what particularly interesting. The reality is that the collaboration of Mari Kodama and Kent Nagano is a highly successful one in most of this repertoire, with some passages sounding amazingly intuitive in their mutuality: the coda of the finale of Concerto No. 4 is an especially striking example. This three-CD set is actually a compilation of performances recorded over the better part of a decade: the readings of the first three concertos date to 2006, that of the Triple Concerto to 2010, and those of Concertos Nos. 4 and 5 to 2013. Actually, those most-recent performances are the best of the bunch: Kodama plays with power, assurance and a strong sense of the concertos’ structure, and Nagano leads the excellent Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin at a fine pace with excellent attention to detail. The recordings of Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 are a bit more tentative and include a few unnecessary instances of rubato or what sounds like outright hesitation. No. 3 is fine, but has a surface-level sheen that makes it sound as if Kodama and Nagano have not quite plumbed its depths. Yet all this is really nitpicking: these are excellently played performances throughout, with soloist and conductor clearly in rapport with each other as well as with the music. Beethoven did not write these concertos for the modern piano or a full-size modern orchestra, so these versions must be deemed rather old-fashioned in their use of today’s instruments and techniques. But they are certainly effective. The second-movement “dialogue” of No. 4 is a high point, with the drama and lyricism of orchestra and piano, respectively, brought into high relief. And all of No. 5, the “Emperor,” is excellent: the work’s anticipation of later Romantic-era concertos is especially clear in this reading. The sole disappointment here is the Triple Concerto, a work still so under-appreciated that it is not even mentioned in the accompanying booklet – and is wrongly listed in three separate places as being heard on the second CD after Concerto No. 3 (it is actually heard before that work). Although Kolja Blacher and Johannes Moser play their stringed instruments well, they sound somewhat timid in comparison with Kodama’s piano. It can be argued that the piano is preeminent in this concerto, but in fact the work benefits from roughly equal prominence of the three soloists. There is nothing really wrong with this performance, but it is rather wan and pallid, which this music certainly does not have to be. The five solo concertos, on the other hand, are bright, almost effervescent at times, as conductor and soloist alike approach them with enthusiasm, understanding and what is clearly first-rate technique.
Sometimes a conductor can make an imprint on an orchestra without necessarily making one on particular pieces of music. That is the case with Alan Gilbert’s Nielsen cycle with the New York Philharmonic. The orchestra itself has not sounded this good since the Bernstein era: Gilbert clearly knows how to extract the maximum warmth, precision and sectional balance from an orchestra that has often been rather ragged and unruly under a variety of conductors – to the detriment of music and audiences alike. However, Gilbert’s readings of Nielsen’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, which complete his cycle for Dacapo, suffer from the same malaise as his performances of the other symphonies. He tends to make the works too bland, smoothing their sharp edges and generally taming their frequently outré orchestrations, rhythms and harmonies (even Nielsen’s First, his most-straightforward symphony, is harmonically odd, never deciding which of two keys it is in). Thus, in the Fifth, where the timpani player is at one point famously instructed to play ad libitum and try to disrupt the rest of the orchestra, Gilbert keeps things under such tight control that this aleatoric, highly provocative section becomes merely noisy. That was not Nielsen’s idea at all. As for Symphony No. 6, which Nielsen called “Sinfonia semplice” with tongue firmly in cheek, this is a genuinely bizarre work, as strange in its way as much of Ives’ music was in its. Deliberately crass, overdone, silly, mocking, sarcastic and at times just plain weird, Nielsen’s Sixth invites a conductor to pull out all the stops and really show what he or she can get an orchestra to do. Gilbert may be up to the challenge, but if so, he chooses not to rise to it: this Nielsen Sixth is very mild indeed, its jagged edges smoothed to such a degree that even the very end (when the bassoons keep playing after everything is finished, as if the conductor failed to cue them to stop) sounds intentional. It is intentional, of course: Nielsen knew exactly what he was doing. But here as with the timpani in Symphony No. 5, what the composer wanted was a kind of chaos within an overall atmosphere of control – control that eventually asserts itself in the Fifth but that falls apart in the Sixth. Ironically, Gilbert’s skill at controlling the New York Philharmonic here stands in the way of delivering fully satisfying performances – although this SACD still gets a (+++) rating in recognition of the very fine playing of the ensemble and the excellent sound with which the disc is endowed.