April 30, 2015
(++++) SYMPHONIC HITS AND MISSES
Bruckner: Symphony No. 3. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski. LPO. $16.99.
Bruckner: Symphony No. 7. Philharmoniker Hamburg conducted by Simone Young. Oehms. $19.99 (SACD).
Mahler: Symphony No. 2. Catherine Wyn-Rogers, mezzo-soprano; Ailish Tynan, soprano; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Artek. $16.99 (2 CDs).
Walton: Symphony No. 2; Cello Concerto; Improvisations on an Impromptu of Benjamin Britten. Paul Watkins, cello; BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).
Bizet: Roma—Symphony; Marche funèbre; Overture in A; Patrie—Overture; Esquisse: Les quatre coins; Petite suite. RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jean-Luc Tingaud. Naxos. $12.99.
There have been many discussions in recent years about the tendency toward a kind of homogenizing of orchestral sound, so that one orchestra’s performances sound every much like those of another ensemble. This is by and large true: the circumstance is abetted by the fact that so many conductors now lead multiple orchestras, and so few stay around any single orchestra long enough to help an ensemble develop a unique sound and style (as, for example, George Szell did with the Cleveland Orchestra in his day and Herbert von Karajan did with the Berlin Philharmonic in his). A positive side-effect of this homogenization is less often remarked: it means that conductors can count on very high-quality performances from far more orchestras than in the past, thus having a better chance of communicating their own visions of the music being performed. The London Philharmonic Orchestra, for example, might not be thought of as a particularly “Brucknerian” ensemble, but its new LPO recording of Bruckner’s Third Symphony – in a live performance from March 2014 – shows that it can handle this composer’s music with all the fullness, richness and sense of scale that conductor Stanislaw Skrowaczewski wants it to have. Skrowaczewski was 90½ years old when he led this performance, and his health – including his hearing – has not been good in recent years. But he is a strongly committed Brucknerian with a clear personal view of the symphonies, to such an extent that this performance uses his own edition of the Third – a work whose existence in multiple, very different versions has long produced headaches for conductors concerned about which Bruckner Third to present. Skrowaczewski’s solution, the creation of his own performing version, neatly evades questions of authenticity and allows him to pick and choose the elements that he believes make the symphony most effective and most communicative. Many listeners will not notice any significant differences between this version and others; indeed, most of what Skrowaczewski has done involves matters of emphasis and detail. As a conductor, Skrowaczewski lets the music grow and breathe expansively, especially in the first movement, and makes the Adagio second movement an emotionally involving experience. The third and fourth movements are not at quite as high a level, but both are well-paced and structurally sensitive – indeed, where Skrowaczewski excels is in finding unity within a symphony that can all too easily sprawl (especially in its first, 1873 version, which may be why Skrowaczewski’s unpublished edition draws mainly on the later, shorter forms of the work). The orchestra plays very well indeed for a conductor long known for his Bruckner affinity and now approaching the point at which any performance he gives becomes part of his distinguished legacy.
Australian conductor Simone Young is far from the “legacy” stage – she is just 54 – but is certainly establishing herself as a Bruckner conductor of note. Better known for her Wagner conducting and her handling of opera (including Wagner’s), Young is now in the midst of a Bruckner cycle for Oehms that shows her in full command of the Bruckner sound and Bruckner symphonic structure. Her reading of the Seventh, a live recording in very fine SACD sound, means only Nos. 5 and 9 have yet to be released. This Seventh relies heavily on the excellent playing of Philharmoniker Hamburg, an ensemble that has retained something of its own unique orchestral sound. There is warmth and fine ensemble work throughout the symphony, along with a strong sense of rhythm: Bruckner’s typical three-against-two passages come through clearly, and the Scherzo is strong and does not lumber. The pacing is middle-of-the-road, somewhat on the slow side from time to time, but always convincingly so. There are no particular revelations here: Young offers a very well-played version of the symphony that is thoroughly satisfactory and convincing, although it breaks no new interpretative ground. The word that comes to mind for this and her other Bruckner recordings is “solid.” She clearly understands this music and knows how to get the orchestra to handle Bruckner’s rhythmic and emotional complexities very well – the orchestra’s own skill in this repertoire and the evenness of its sectional balance being big pluses as well. The releases in this series have emerged in no particularly logical order; it will be interesting to see, when the cycle (which even includes No. 00) is complete, whether Young evinces a strong sense of the composer’s structural, harmonic, rhythmic and emotive development from the early symphonies to the late ones. On its own, this is a fine Seventh that lacks any strong personal conductorial vision but is effective in pacing, balance and the overall impression made by the music.
Yet another live recording, Gerard Schwarz’s Mahler Second with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, is less convincing. Schwarz is not an especially strong Mahler interpreter: the cycle of which this two-CD Artek set is a part has a number of high points but is, on the whole, a mixed bag. That description definitely applies to this “Resurrection” performance. The first two movements are simply drab, and the first is disconnected and episodic – there is no sense of building to the movement’s climactic conclusion, and even the orchestra plays below its capabilities here. In the third movement, though, Schwarz and the ensemble find themselves: this movement really flows, the music’s elegantly sinuous strains making up for much of the vapidity that has come before. The fourth movement is excellent, thanks to the very rich, deep mezzo-soprano (almost contralto) voice of Catherine Wyn-Rogers, whose expressiveness is of a very high order. And the finale opens with all the drama and intensity that the first movement lacks, then proceeds inexorably through its lengthy instrumental portion until the chorus eventually enters very quietly, with such a hush that it almost seems for a moment as if the singing is otherworldly. This is highly effective, and the concluding choral section (including the solo contribution of Ailish Tynan) is a worthy capstone to the symphony. This is a (+++) performance that would certainly have rated higher if the first two movements had been at the level of the third through fifth. There is also a serious production error in the packaging that could easily have been avoided. The correct place to split this symphony onto two CDs is after the first movement: Mahler even said that the orchestra and conductor should take a five-minute pause at that point (which is never observed but would be a good idea, because the ending of the opening movement is so different from the start of the second). It can even be argued that the symphony should be split after the third movement, with the two containing vocals on the second disc. The one place it should never be split is after the fourth movement: Mahler directly and clearly said that the fifth movement was to come attacca after the fourth. But that incorrect place is exactly where Artek splits the recording – a serious miscalculation.
There are no such missteps in the (++++) Chandos recording of Walton’s Symphony No. 2 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Edward Gardner. This is a fine followup to Gardner’s reading of Walton’s First, showing once again that he is a conductor of sensitivity and fluency in this composer’s style. The performance here is probing, idiomatic and well-paced, with special attention given to the lovely central Lento assai, which here emerges as the heart and soul of the symphony. The symphony is paired with a very fine version of the Cello Concerto, where the orchestral support is especially notable: this is another case in which fine orchestral sound simply seems expected from any high-class ensemble, but there is nevertheless something special in the way in which the BBC Symphony interacts with cellist Paul Watkins. The soloist himself is very well attuned to Walton’s moods: the rhapsodic warmth of the outer movements contrasts beautifully with the brilliant and intense central scherzo in a performance that is carefully considered, thoughtful and emotionally involving. Also here is a curiosity: Improvisations on an Impromptu of Benjamin Britten, in which Walton subjects a nine-bar theme from Britten’s Piano Concerto to contrasting variations and transformations that range from the lyrical to the aggressive. The first-rate SACD sound serves this work particularly well, and Gardner’s knowing conducting constitutes an argument in favor of hearing this infrequently performed work more often.
Bizet’s second symphony, known as Roma, is also heard on only rare occasions, and unfortunately, the fine performance by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra under Jean-Luc Tingaud shows why. Bizet was often a superb melodist, but not here: the work is awkward and seems to struggle throughout its four movements to find a center of some sort. Begun as early as 1860 and not completed until 1871, Roma was originally a kind of tone poem (along the lines of Respighi’s much later Roman Trilogy), but evolved into a traditional four-movement symphony that unfortunately lacks the grace and flow of Bizet’s earlier Symphony in C. Indeed, all the works on this new Naxos CD show that fine playing and a sensitive interpretation cannot rescue music that is nowhere near a composer’s best. There is little of the drama, melodic flow and sensitivity of Les pêcheurs de perles or Carmen in the grandiose Marche funèbre, the early Overture in A, or the intermittently effective but overblown Patrie—Overture, although the orchestra plays all the pieces well and smoothly and the conducting is sure-handed and idiomatic. The best things here are the miniatures: Esquisse: Les quatre coins and Petite suite, the latter in particular having Mendelssohnian fleetness and a wonderfully light touch. For listeners interested in some less-known Bizet, this will be a (++++) disc, and certainly the performances put it at that level; but for audiences in general, the quality of most of the music makes it a (+++) offering despite the undoubted skill with which these lesser works are shaped and presented.