February 12, 2015
(++++) ORCHESTRAL GESTURES
Enescu: Symphony No. 1; Symphonie Concertante for Cello and Orchestra. Truls Mørk, cello; Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Hannu Lintu. Ondine. $16.99.
Hovhaness: Symphony No. 48, “Vision of Andromeda”; Prelude and Quadruple Fugue; Concerto for Soprano Saxophone and Strings. Greg Banaszak, soprano saxophone; Eastern Music Festival Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Naxos. $9.99.
Copland: Symphony No. 3; Walter Piston: Suite from “The Incredible Flutist”; George Antheil: A Jazz Symphony. Oregon Symphony conducted by Carlos Kalmar. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).
Castelnuovo-Tedesco: Concerto Italiano for Violin and Orchestra; Violin Concerto No. 2, “I Profeti.” Tianwa Yang, violin; SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg conducted by Pieter-Jelle de Boer. Naxos. $9.99.
Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra; Macbeth; Till Eulenspiegels Lustige Streiche. Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Andris Nelsons. C Major DVD. $24.99.
It is easy to see how seriously conductor Hannu Lintu takes the music of George Enescu. In his cover photo on a new Ondine CD, as on the label's two previous ones of Enescu’s symphonies, Lintu does not crack even a smidgen of a smile – not even when cellist Truls Mørk is seen hovering behind him with a decided twinkle in his eye. One should never read too much into the packaging of CDs, but Lintu’s unremitting intensity and even harshness in front of a camera does seem to reflect some of his handling of Enescu’s music. The composer’s first symphony dates to 1905 and has three movements that fit together a bit oddly, the first two being broad in scope and rather mysterious in sound, the last being shorter and far more straightforward. The symphony flickers from influence to influence – a touch of Brahms here, a little Wagner there, a bit of Richard Strauss, all within a kind of Beethovenian meta-influence (the work is in E-flat, the key of the “Eroica”). Less coherent and not as strong as his two later symphonies, the First nevertheless has some compelling moments, notably in several passages for brass; and Lintu conducts it with considerable seriousness, while the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra plays with the sort of strength that the music invites. The symphony is paired with a work that is actually more interesting: Enescu’s only extended piece using solo instrument and orchestra, the Symphonie Concertante of 1901, completed when the composer was just 20 years old. Unlike such composers as Mozart and Mendelssohn, who are universally known as geniuses, Enescu is seen as a lesser light, because of his rather limited production of music. But it was his form of genius that reduced his output: he was a violinist, pianist, conductor and teacher as well as a composer, and he excelled in all his roles. This left him little time for composition – which makes it curious that his only sort-of concerto was for the cello, an instrument he played, but not at the level of the piano or violin. In any case, the Symphonie Concertante is a more individualistic work than the First Symphony, opening with a highly unusual-sounding processional and continuing as a single, structurally complex, extended movement, in which the cello plays almost nonstop. Less overtly nationalistic than the Romanian Rhapsodies of roughly the same date, those being the works for which Enescu is best known, the Symphonie Concertante flows broadly, explores the cello’s range and beauty of sound fully, and is excellently realized by Mørk in a performance that has both sweep and passion.
American symphonists have often looked for ways to extend the concept of a symphony beyond that used by their European counterparts. The very prolific Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000), for example, wrote 67 numbered symphonies plus several additional ones, and used them to focus on everything from mysticism to the Mount St. Helens volcanic eruption of 1980. His Symphony No. 48, which dates to 1982, gets its world première recording on a new Naxos CD featuring the Eastern Music Festival Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz. It proves as expansive-sounding as its title, “Vision of Andromeda” – the reference being to celestial, even galactic spaces, which Hovhaness seeks to portray through highly broadened themes, tempos that are slow to moderate almost throughout, and a variety of coloristic orchestral effects. This is not exactly program music, nor is it exactly a New Age background-y work, although it certainly has an atmospheric relationship to New Age music. There is a certain obviousness to the techniques Hovhaness uses to portray astronomical phenomena, but that does not diminish the effectiveness with which he makes use of those approaches. The symphony as a whole, though, is somewhat on the static side, its sense of wonder certainly heartfelt but also somewhat overdone. In contrast, the Prelude and Quadruple Fugue of 1936 (revised 1954) is much shorter, more to-the-point, and considerably more exciting despite a title that makes it sound like an academic exercise. It comes across as anything but – the counterpoint is certainly there and certainly quite carefully worked out, but there is a forward propulsiveness to the work that transcends its formal strictures. Also very effective is Hovhaness’ 1980 Concerto for Soprano Saxophone and Strings, which is far more expressive and Romantic (or neo-Romantic) than most of Hovhaness’ music and far more immediately accessible. The final movement certainly reflects Hovhaness’ almost ever-present mystical streak – it is called “Let the Living and the Celestial Sing” – but what is attractive here is not the concerto’s philosophical underpinnings but the skill with which Hovhaness writes for the soprano saxophone (played with first-rate attentiveness and style by Greg Banaszak) and interweaves its timbre with that of a string orchestra. The overall sound of this concerto is unusual, but the music has charms that go beyond the out-of-the-ordinary combination of instruments.
Far better known than Hovhaness and generally deemed far more successful at forging a genuinely American orchestral and symphonic sound, Aaron Copland created, in his third and last symphony, a work that effectively fused distinctly American elements with the largely European symphonic form. Copland used his Fanfare for the Common Man as the work’s connecting theme: parts of it appear in all four movements, and its totality is the theme of the finale. But he managed here to create a symphony that incorporated distinct 20th-century Old World elements without hewing slavishly to them: brass fanfares, a lively scherzo, pastoral material, tonal ambiguity, and a wonderfully adept use of counterpoint. Carlos Kalmar and the Oregon Symphony play the work with considerable spirit and enthusiasm on a new PentaTone SACD, and this label’s always excellent sound is put to particularly good use here to highlight Copland’s careful balance between and interplay of orchestral sections. This is an all-American disc – in fact, it is entitled Spirit of the American Range – and also one that shows how many different ways the word “symphony” can be used. True, George Antheil’s A Jazz Symphony is sometimes labeled a sinfonietta, but even that term would not usually be used for a work lasting a mere seven minutes. Copland knew Antheil’s piece and liked it, although there is no overt connection between the Antheil work of 1925 and Copland’s Symphony No. 3 of 1946. However, both Copland and Antheil sought a kind of “Americanization” of symphonic form in the 1920s – as did George Gershwin, who also knew and complimented Antheil’s piece. A Jazz Symphony definitely provides an American orientation through its jazz inflections and dissonances, which Kalmar highlights well and the Oregon Symphony plays with panache. Lying between the Antheil and Copland symphonies chronologically, Walter Piston’s ballet The Incredible Flutist – the composer’s only stage work – is “American” primarily in the sense in which the United States is itself a nation made up of many ethnicities and many geographies. Piston assiduously avoids having the village of the ballet appear to be located anywhere specific – instead, he simply places his flute player (who charms snakes and women equally adroitly) within a bustling marketplace, as part of a traveling circus. The suite from the ballet zips along from scene to scene, its 13 movements lasting just 17 minutes, its nationalistic effects (tango, Spanish waltz, siciliano) offered as musical delicacies rather than place-setters. This is a pleasant work that scales no heights but is content to entertain, which it certainly does as led by Kalmar.
As American orchestral composers sought new directions in the 1920s, some European ones were refining Europe’s longstanding orchestral forms. Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968) wrote his Concerto Italiano in 1924 and considered it his first symphonic work. Broad in scope and largely traditional in its harmonic language, use of rhythms and expectations of the soloist, the concerto has never been recorded before: Tianwa Yang’s reading with the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg under Pieter-Jelle de Boer is a world première. The concerto is entirely conventional in structure, with an extended first movement, a much shorter second-movement Arioso, and an even shorter finale – this last giving the soloist plenty of chances to show off technical ability and the intricacies of bowing and fingering. The concerto is tuneful and nicely scored, and it has a certain freshness of approach and sound that is likely what led Jascha Heifetz to express his admiration for it. The Concerto Italiano is not, however, as interesting as Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s I Profeti concerto of 1931, which was written at Heifetz’ request. This second concerto follows the same broad structural outline as the earlier one – indeed, Yang’s two performances are within 11 seconds of each other. But I Profeti is a weightier work, its three movements deliberately referring to and to some extent representing the words of the Old Testament prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Elijah. Castelnuovo-Tedesco, who was Jewish and whose family had lived in Italy since the Jews’ expulsion from Spain in 1492, wrote I Profeti as an expression of pride in his Jewish past and response to rising anti-Semitism in Europe. The concerto is broader and more sweeping than Concerto Italiano, and also rather more cinematic – a few years after writing it, Castelnuovo-Tedesco fled to the United States and became a film composer for MGM and other studios, eventually writing music for some 200 movies. So this European composer with deep roots in Italy eventually found himself at the center of one aspect of American musical life. The new Naxos CD of these two concerti not only showcases his creativity before exile but also offers some very well-played and often highly interesting music with which listeners are unlikely to be familiar.
A new C Major DVD of music by Richard Strauss, on the other hand, presents works that are highly familiar – although Macbeth is not heard quite as often as Also Sprach Zarathustra and Till Eulenspiegels Lustige Streiche. This is a release that gets a (+++) rating despite, not because of, the performances by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Andris Nelsons. Those performances are quite fine – a touch on the superficial side, yes, but much of this music, despite its splendid orchestration, offers effects that are pretty much on the surface. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is one of the world’s greatest, and if Nelsons is still developing as a conductor, he is certainly able to call forth the warmth, excellent sectional balance and precision playing for which this ensemble is justly renowned. The issue with this release, though, is that there is no reason for it to be a DVD, and there are several reasons for it not to be. The video directors (Joost Honselaar for Also Sprach Zarathustra, Ferenc Soeteman for the other works) are fine, but there is nothing special in their selection of camera angles, their decisions on where to focus and at what time, or their method of interspersing shots of the conductor with ones of the whole orchestra, one section of it, or an individual player. Nelsons has a perfectly fine podium manner, but not the sort of very gripping one that always made a conductor such as Leonard Bernstein fascinating to watch (sometimes to the detriment of the music!). There are no bonus items on the DVD, so what listeners/viewers get is simply pieces performed in 2013 (Also Sprach Zarathustra) and 2014 (the other works) and offered in video format. The visibility of the performers does not enhance the music here, and at times can actually be distracting – when the director chooses a shot that focuses somewhere that a listener/viewer would not choose to pay attention. At a concert, audience members decide where to look and when. In a recording, one must look where the director wishes. When directorial choices are not in accord with one’s own preferences, there can be unwelcome visual dissonance. This release simply does not offer enough visible positives to justify having the performances on video rather than in audio-only form.