February 05, 2015
(++++) SYMPHONIES GRAND AND COMPRESSED
Bruckner: Symphony No. 8. Oberösterreichisches Jugendsinfonieorchester conducted by Rémy Ballot. Gramola. $34.99 (2 CDs).
Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 57, 67 and 68. Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra conducted by Nicholas McGegan. Philharmonia Baroque Productions. $21.99.
Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 88, 101 and 104. Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra conducted by Nicholas McGegan. Philharmonia Baroque Productions. $17.99.
Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 7. Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra conducted by Nicholas McGegan. Philharmonia Baroque Productions. $17.99.
One hundred and four minutes. There has never been a Bruckner Eighth quite like the one played by the Upper Austrian Youth Orchestra – yes, Youth Orchestra – under the baton of Rémy Ballot. This is Bruckner that gets into a listener’s pores, not merely his or her ears. It permeates body and soul, soaring and expanding and then expanding again to fill the interstices of time with unsurpassed sublimity. Bruckner said this symphony needed at least 80 minutes of playing time, and performances often come in at just about that length. But many modern conductors do not reach it: Mario Venzago, for example, in an excellent recent recording as part of his very Schubertian Bruckner cycle, goes through the symphony in 75 minutes – remarkably, without ever sounding rushed. Ballot’s version, though, may be the longest ever recorded. And it certainly does sound slow, especially in the slow movement and finale – but it never drags, as symphonic performances by some other prone-to-slowness conductors frequently do (Giuseppe Sinopoli in Mahler, Carlo Maria Giulini in some of his Brahms). What Ballot has done here is to take a significant challenge of his venue and turn it to his, and the music’s, great advantage. This is a live recording made at Stiftsbasilica St. Florian in Upper Austria – a building with very pronounced echo, in which great gouts of sound reflect again and again around the audience, reverberating and resounding repeatedly. Playing Bruckner here at Venzago’s tempos, or even more-moderate ones, would mean encountering the music coming and going, the whole sonic experience likely becoming one of confusion. So Ballot has essentially let the acoustics determine the music’s pacing, and the approach, which admittedly seems to put the cart before the horse, works amazingly well. The Eighth, Bruckner’s last completed symphony, can certainly stand and withstand this pacing: it is a huge work, its combinatorial aspects complex, its emotions rarefied but at the same time perfectly understandable. The orchestra here consists of young players, yes, but these are youths in training to become virtuosi or orchestra section leaders in a few years’ time, and their playing is sensitive, nuanced, careful and altogether beautiful. This is no ordinary conservatory orchestra, just as this is no ordinary sonic environment. Ballot is a particularly thoughtful conductor, much given to contemplation of the meaning of the music he leads and, in the case of Bruckner’s Eighth, more than willing to let the grand themes swell, expand, then swell and expand again, in order to make their individual points while also – in the magnificent finale – their much-layered ones. This is not a Bruckner Eighth to be taken lightly or listened to with any distractions whatsoever (and thankfully, the audience does not provide any). This is organic Bruckner, both in the old sense of making the orchestra sound like an organ – not a much-favored approach these days, but still a valid one – and in terms of the way the symphony grows like something alive, layers upon layers being heard with clarity and beauty as the whole work, and each movement within it, build inexorably toward climactic resonance that may well put a listener in mind of Mahler’s Third (a symphony that does normally take about an hour and 40 minutes to perform). Ballot has already shown himself quite willing to let Bruckner expand to extraordinary lengths: Gramola previously released his excellent recording of the first (1873) version of Symphony No. 3, played with a different orchestra but in the same venue. This approach requires patience, fortitude and very strong emotional involvement from performers and listeners alike. When it works, as it certainly does here, it is a transcendent experience.
A huge symphony like Bruckner’s Eighth generates its effects in quite a different way from those of smaller gems, such as the symphonies of Haydn. But these too are gems, and they sparkle brightly in first-rate performances by the wonderfully adept 30-plus members of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. You would think that all Haydn’s symphonies would be thoroughly familiar by now – the usual numbering shows 104 of them, although there are several others outside that sequence. But in fact, there is only a handful of well-known Haydn symphonies, from the early ones requiring high levels of virtuosity (such as Nos. 6, 7 and 8) to some of the intense Sturm und Drang examples (such as Nos. 44 and 49) to the “Paris” grouping (Nos. 82-87) and the dozen written for London (Nos. 93-104). When Nicholas McGegan turns his hand to works other than these, as in the latest live recording on his orchestra’s own label, he and the ensemble reveal unexpected depths and beauties in every movement. The playing of this original-instrument ensemble is remarkably good, assured and balanced and with an elegance exactly fitting the music (Haydn had top-notch performers at his disposal). Of the three symphonies on their latest recording, the orchestra shines most brightly in No. 67, an exceptionally inventive work whose first movement implies a “hunting” theme but does not confirm it until the very end, whose second movement shows just how skilled Haydn was at using rests to shape musical motifs, and whose third movement includes a wonderful Trio played entirely by two muted solo violins – one of them with its G string tuned down to F. Haydn was fond of scordatura and sometimes used it to delightfully exaggerated effect, as in Symphony No. 60 (“Il Distratto”), in which the retuning happens during a movement. Here it is a piquant and subtle touch. As for this work’s finale, it is a fast movement entirely enclosing a slow one – a highly unusual structure that is as astonishing as it is successful. This symphony is one of the most interesting of Haydn’s less-known ones. The other works on this CD have much to commend them as well. No. 57 starts with considerable chromaticism and ends in a movement whose “clucking” sounds look ahead to the symphony called “The Hen” (No. 83). And No. 68 features an exceptionally lengthy slow movement – nearly as long as the other three put together – that is placed third rather than second and features serenade-like warmth repeatedly interrupted by wind exclamations. These symphonies are wonderful, and so are these performances.
Even in the better-known Haydn symphonies, the approach of McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra pays handsome dividends. The ensemble’s handling of Nos. 88, 101 (“Clock”) and 104 (“London”), in performances from 2008, 2009 and 2007 respectively, is exemplary. No. 88, although not known by a title or as part of a series, is in some ways the quintessential late-Haydn symphony, containing all the elements that make this composer’s music so instantly recognizable and effective. It is scarcely unknown, but always has something new to communicate. The bright, bouncy, upbeat and wonderfully played version by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra sets off the music splendidly, with the enthusiasm shown in the third movement being particularly infectious. In No. 101, McGegan does not make too much of the “ticking” sound in the slow movement – the title “Clock” is not Haydn’s, in any case – but simply incorporates it as one of many wonderful techniques and surprises that Haydn offers. This is one of the composer’s most-popular symphonies and has been a huge hit since its first performance (when the first two movements had to be repeated as encores). McGegan neatly balances the tempos of the four movements to give the work an overall integrated feeling and keep it progressing with great verve and spirit from start to finish. As for No. 104, Haydn’s final symphony, it here gets all the grandeur and broad expansiveness possible – nothing at the level of Bruckner, obviously, but within the context of its time, this is a work that reaches for the heights and attains them with such ease that they seem easy for anyone to get to (which was decidedly not the case, as is clear from all Haydn’s contemporary imitators and many of his successors). McGegan excels at tempo choices that seem just right not only for individual movements but also for contrasting one movement with the next or prior one, and this is especially apparent in his recording of No. 104. This particular disc has a bit more audience noise than would be ideal, and a bit more than is usual nowadays – nothing overwhelming, but just enough to be slightly distracting from time to time. Aside from that, this CD, like the one of Nos. 57, 67 and 68, is a joy from start to finish and a demonstration, if another demonstration should be needed, that even in an age long accustomed to gigantism in symphonies (from Bruckner and many others), the comparatively lean and perfectly balanced works of Haydn continue to have a lot to say – and some absolutely wonderful ways to say it.
And lest listeners think that because of its name and dedication to original-instrument performances, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra is cut out to excel only in works from Bach’s time through Haydn’s, the ensemble’s performances of two Beethoven symphonies clearly show otherwise. Indeed, original-instrument versions of symphonies and other works no longer refer only to those of the Baroque and Classical eras, and performance practices that were integral to music in the 19th and part of the 20th century – such as the use or non-use of vibrato – are now being studied anew as scholars and musicians try to reproduce the sound worlds that even such gigantic symphonists as Bruckner and Mahler inhabited. This rediscovery certainly applies to the music of Beethoven, whose music was not written for the large orchestras that commonly played it in the 19th and much of the 20th century, but for smaller and nimbler ensembles – a characterization that fits the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra perfectly. McGegan handles these two symphonies with just the right combination of authoritative emphasis and freewheeling delicacy. No. 4, a live recording from 2012, features very well-chosen tempos throughout, a second movement that is more good-natured than it usually sounds, and horn playing (especially at the end of the third movement) that shows clearly the advantages of using natural horns for this music. No. 7, recorded live in 2009, has the orchestra sounding especially full – it is hard to believe this richness comes from only 30-some players – and features second-movement pacing that is a tad quicker than generally heard, resulting in a livelier-than-usual impression that nevertheless does not make the movement seem light. The horns are a special attraction here, too, notably in the third movement, and the finale sounds not only danceable but also grand in scale. There are no weak sections in this finely honed orchestra, and McGegan and the ensemble make a strong case, here as in their Haydn discs, for the many benefits of hearing great music of the Classical era performed by smaller orchestras than is now the norm and on the instruments that the composers themselves heard when they created their masterpieces.