March 26, 2015
(++++) RETHINKING SYMPHONIES
E.T.A. Hoffmann: Symphony in E-flat; “Undine”—Overture; “Aurora”—Overture and March; Friedrich Witt: Sinfonia in A. Kölner Akademie conducted by Michael Alexander Willens. CPO. $16.99.
Saint-Saëns: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2; Phaéton—Symphonic Poem. Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marc Soustrot. Naxos. $9.99.
Charles-Marie Widor: Organ Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Christian Schmitt, organ. CPO. $33.99 (2 SACDs).
Bruckner: Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7. Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Mariss Jansons. RCO Live. $21.99 (2 SACDs).
John Knowles Paine: Symphony No. 2, “In the Spring”; Oedipus Tyrannus—Prelude; Poseidon and Amphitrite—An Ocean Fantasy. Ulster Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $12.99.
E.T.A. Hoffmann, who so admired Mozart that he changed his third Christian name to Amadeus from Wolfgang, might reasonably have been expected to produce a Mozartean work in his only symphony. But Hoffmann actually based the symphony more on Haydn – who was still alive in 1806, when Hoffmann wrote the piece. But Hoffmann rethought Haydn’s symphonic approach in line with his own aesthetic theory, which said that sonata movements – such as the first of his symphony – ought to seem arbitrary while actually being carefully constructed. Thus, although this rarely played work starts with introductory material reminiscent of Haydn’s “London” Symphony (No. 104), it does not sound much like Haydn at all; and it contains elements that move well beyond what Haydn did, such as a third-movement Menuetto in the unusual key of C minor. Only in the finale is there some of Haydn’s sense of propulsive motion, but here too Hoffmann offers something different: a secondary theme derived from the introduction to the first movement, thus linking the whole work melodically. The musicians of Kölner Akademie, conducted by Michael Alexander Willens, play the piece with spirited understanding and style. And they bring the same characteristics to the opera excerpts on this first-rate CPO disc. Hoffmann was primarily a stage composer during his brief life (1776-1822), and his final two operas, Aurora and Undine, are the first romantic operas written in German – paving the way for Weber and through him for Marschner and Wagner. Both the overtures and the second of four marches from Aurora are theatrically effective and emotionally satisfying. The Hoffmann music on this disc is coupled with an early (ca. 1790) sinfonia by Friedrich Witt (1770-1836), a virtually unknown composer today but one who for a time had a symphony of his in C deemed to be an early work by Beethoven (the so-called “Jena” symphony). Witt’s work here is less advanced than Hoffmann’s – it was written when Mozart was still alive – and more conventional in structure. This is gracious and agreeable music if not a work of any great profundity. Perhaps the best word for it is “engaging,” which in this performance it certainly is.
As the 19th century progressed, symphony composers, shadowed always by Beethoven, sought ways to distinguish their music from what had come before. It tended to take them a while to break with the past, if they ever did. Saint-Saëns, for example, wrote five symphonies (two early ones are unnumbered), but it is only the last of them, the “Organ,” that is frequently heard today. This means that the new Naxos disc of Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 is especially welcome – all the more so because of the fine playing of the Malmö Symphony Orchestra under Marc Soustrot. Saint-Saëns’ first symphony is a rather derivative work – the composer himself considered it so – but nevertheless has distinctive elements. The finale is notable for having a considerably larger orchestra than the first three movements: there are two horns in F, two valve horns in E-flat, four timpani, two saxhorns, four harps and more. The first three movements are well-made, but it is the finale, which initially uses its forces rather delicately but then builds to a grandiose Wagnerian march, that will most impress listeners new to the work. This symphony dates to 1853 – Saint-Saëns had not yet turned 18 – so the skill with which the orchestra is handled is remarkable and the grandiosity perhaps not unexpected. The second symphony, written in 1859, uses more-modest forces – no harps or trombones, and fewer timpani – but shows the composer moving farther toward an individual style. The first movement, for example, is based on a fugue, and the second movement (Adagio) features muted strings and some elements that return in altered form in the third movement (Scherzo: Presto). The finale contains a surprise Andantino section just when it seems to have ended – another creative touch. There is creativity as well in the symphonic poem Phaéton, which dates to 1873 and shows Saint-Saëns again using four timpani plus harps (two in this case), this time with more finesse than in his first numbered symphony. The work traces Phaéton’s attempt to drive the chariot of his father, the Sun, across the sky, his loss of control of the horses that pull the chariot, and his death by a thunderbolt that Jupiter hurls to prevent the errant chariot from setting the universe afire. The story’s drama is well-communicated by the music and presented with Saint-Saëns’ customary and by this time well-refined skill in orchestration.
The symphony was undergoing major development even by the time Saint-Saëns wrote his first one – and the word “symphony” was applied in new ways as the 19th century continued. In 1872, the first four of Charles-Marie Widor’s Organ Symphonies appeared, 14 years before Saint-Saëns created the orchestral piece that is known as his “Organ” Symphony. That one includes an organ, but Widor’s are really symphonies for organ, written to take advantage of the famous instruments designed and built by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (1811-1899). Those organs were a deliberate departure from earlier ones, which were designed for the lightness and transparency necessary to create effective performances of contrapuntal works. Cavaillé-Coll built organs for a homophonic age, a time when pianos had already supplanted contrapuntally superior harpsichords and made possible a range of expressiveness undreamed of in Baroque times. The Cavaillé-Coll organs were intended to have much the same level of expressive capability, and Widor, when he created his Organ Symphonies, was well aware that he was producing something new. The first four of these works, collected as his Op. 13, are in Widor’s early style and were significantly revised by the composer (an inveterate self-reviser) in later years. For example, the Salve Regina movement of No. 2 was added many years after the work was first composed. Less fully integrated than the later Organ Symphonies and more closely resembling suites (Widor himself called them “collections”), these early works nevertheless stake out new territory in organ composition and performance. A particular pleasure of the performances by Christian Schmitt on a two-SACD CPO set that is blessed with particularly elegant and vibrant sound is that Schmitt actually plays a Cavaillé-Coll organ: the one in Abteikirche St. Ouen (Rouen). It is only necessary to hear the Toccata that opens the fourth symphony to understand viscerally just how much organs like this differed from those of Bach’s time, and just how much Widor’s approach to organ writing moved beyond that of the Baroque. These are fluid performances of great skill and musicianship, bringing solidity to works whose many suite-like movements can make them seem disjointed: there are seven movements in No. 1, six apiece in Nos. 2 and 4, and five in No. 3. Widor spawned a whole new symphonic concept with these works, one carried forward by such students of his as Marcel Dupré and Louis Vierne and moving, over time, farther and farther from the traditional idea of the classical symphony – while showing that the organ could become just as effectively symphonic an instrument as the grand piano, which Liszt at one point specifically termed an orchestra in miniature.
In truth, miniaturization of any sort was scarcely a 19th-century symphonic priority. One element of change in the symphony was its expansion in length, breadth, and number of musicians and instruments required to produce it. The monumental symphonies of Bruckner were already pushing the limits of what orchestral musicians could handle in the 1860s: by about the time Widor wrote his first Organ Symphonies, Bruckner had already produced his Second Symphony (1872) and was working on his Third (1873). Later in that decade, and then in the one that followed, Bruckner continued expanding the communicative power of his symphonic music, with his Sixth Symphony dating to 1879-81 and his Seventh to 1881-83/1885. The performances of these works by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under its chief conductor, Mariss Jansons, recorded live for the orchestra’s own RSO Live label, not only confirm the tremendous power of the music but also show yet again why the Concertgebouw is one of the absolute best orchestras in the world. The ensemble’s splendid brass, with a rich, warm, elegant sound, is a trademark – and a huge benefit in Bruckner’s music. But every section of the orchestra is a standout here: rich, creamy strings; elegantly poised and balanced winds; and percussion played with precision, drama and dynamism. Jansons is especially impressive in the Sixth, a work that rarely gets its full due: Bruckner did not make multiple versions of this symphony, as he did of almost all his others, expressing satisfaction with it and calling it his “sauciest” symphony. That puzzling remark actually makes some sense in the context of this performance, whose first-rate SACD sound shows inner voices with a piquancy exceeding what is usual for Bruckner. The “sauciest” remark may also fit the rather strange Scherzo, which lacks the strong dance rhythms usually associated with Bruckner’s scherzos. And it may simply reflect the abruptness with which the music changes direction and focus throughout – a state of affairs that can be difficult for lesser orchestras to handle, but that the Concertgebouw negotiates with ease. As for the Seventh, its admixture of power, lyricism, solemnity and serenity comes across splendidly in this recording, in which the Concertgebouw’s superb sectional balance shows itself again and again as the music requires abrupt changes in instrumentation. Saint-Saëns may have created an “Organ” Symphony, but Bruckner’s often sound like transliterations from organ language to orchestral forces – and while this is an oversimplification, it is particularly true in parts of the Seventh, and brought out exceptionally well by Jansons and the Concertgebouw in a performance that scales the heights not only of expressiveness but also of sumptuously beautiful sound.
Symphonic rethinking went on in the 19th century in the United States as well as in Europe, although the creation of truly American symphonic works would have to wait for the 20th century. Still, John Knowles Paine (1839-1906) showed in the second of his two symphonies that he had thoroughly absorbed the lessons of European Romantic models and could produce a substantial work with programmatic overtones from them. Dating to 1879, this “Spring” symphony bears some resemblance to Schumann’s First, notably in its finale; however, although Paine called the first movement “Departure of Winter – Awakening of Nature,” no one would confuse this comparatively modest wake-up call with the emergence of Pan in Mahler’s Third (1893-96). Nevertheless, Paine, the first American-born composer who became famous for large-scale orchestral music, clearly shows throughout this work that he had a strong sense of orchestration and the ability to bring forth elements of a program that runs loosely through the symphony, from the start to “May-Night Fantasy,” “A Romance of Springtime” and a finale called “The Glory of Nature.” Some of the musical expressiveness here is rather pedestrian, but JoAnn Falletta – an ardent advocate of American music – and the Ulster Orchestra bring forth as much originality and clever construction as the music possesses. If Paine’s Symphony No. 2 is not great music, it is very good music indeed, and stands as an example of where American music was soon to go: Paine was the leader of the Boston Six group of composers, another of the six being Horatio Parker, who taught none other than Charles Ives – whose symphonies represent as dramatic a rethinking of the form as any on either side of the Atlantic. This Naxos CD also includes two very effective myth-based overtures by Paine: the prelude to Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Tyrannus, which Paine wrote in 1880-81, and the fantasy-overture Poseidon and Amphitrite, which dates to around 1888 and was to be Paine’s last orchestral work (and which has never before been recorded). Paine is of more interest and importance for his historical role in the development of a genuinely American style of orchestral music than for the inherent quality of his music itself. His works are sturdy, well-wrought, intelligently crafted and effectively orchestrated, if not really inspired. If they lack the spark of genius of many better-known European Romantic symphonies and other large-scale pieces, they are nevertheless worthy both in themselves and because they demonstrate the growing musical maturity of a United States that, in the late 19th century, was still a very young nation.