May 14, 2015
(++++) SYMPHONIES AND THE SYMPHONIC
Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 3, “Organ”; Symphony in A; Le rouet d’Omphale. Carl Adam Landström, organ; Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marc Soustrot. Naxos. $12.99.
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 3; Scythian Suite; Autumn—Symphonic Sketch. São Paulo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $12.99.
Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé; Pavane pour une infante défunte. Netherlands Radio Choir and Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. BIS. $21.99 (SACD).
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 9; Violin Concerto No. 1. Leonidas Kavakos, violin; Mariinsky Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev. Mariinsky. $18.99 (SACD).
Brahms: Symphony No. 1; Copland: Fanfare for the Common Man; Bernstein: Chichester Psalms; Verdi: Messa da Requiem—Sanctus; Górecki: Totus Tuus; Bogurodzica—Ancient Polish Marian Hymn. Kraków Philharmonic Choir, Choral Arts Society of Washington and Orchestra of St. Luke’s conducted by Sir Gilbert Levine. Delos. $16.99 (2 CDs).
Some years ago, before Tchaikovsky’s oeuvre was as thoroughly explored as it is now, it used to be remarked whimsically that he composed three symphonies: Nos. 4, 5 and 6. That may no longer be said of Tchaikovsky, but something similar is still the case with Saint-Saëns, who is generally known to have written one symphony: his Third. And to confuse matters further, Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 is actually his No. 5. Marc Soustrot and the Malmö Symphony Orchestra, having already recorded the first two numbered symphonies (yes, Nos. 1 and 2) for Naxos, have now released the famous “Organ” symphony (which, to add to the confusion, should really be called the organ-and-piano symphony, since it includes both those instruments). And they have paired it with Saint-Saëns’ very first, unnumbered symphony, an A major work that he wrote around 1850, when he was 15 years old. Saint-Saëns, like Mozart and Mendelssohn, was an extraordinary prodigy, and it is therefore no surprise that this early symphony shows maturity and a command of orchestration that would be the envy of some far older composers. It is also no surprise that the work has many derivative elements – including ones that derive from Mozart and Mendelssohn. Indeed, the famous contrapuntal theme from the finale of Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 is quoted directly several times (the theme was well-known in Mozart’s time and before: Haydn used it in his Symphony No. 13). The Symphony in A is a solid, well-paced work, with a particularly interestingly scored Scherzo: solo flute and oboe with strings. It is, of course, strikingly different from the “Organ” symphony, whose grandeur and tightly knit form owe much to Liszt, to whose memory it is dedicated. Soustrot does a very fine job of giving both these works their due, neither overplaying them nor over-emphasizing their differences – he lets them speak for themselves, which they do quite eloquently, if in somewhat different symphonic languages. Carl Adam Landström’s organ playing has all the elegance and drama that the Symphony No. 3 requires, and the performance as a whole is one that builds inexorably to its organ-led climax after taking listeners through a series of elegantly fashioned, very well-orchestrated episodes. The two symphonies on this CD are well complemented by Saint-Saëns’ first symphonic poem – in effect, another tribute to Liszt, whose works in the form Saint-Saëns admired. This is Le rouet d’Omphale, based on the legend of Hercules being forced to serve Queen Omphale for three years while dressed as a woman – including spending his time with the queen’s maidens using the rouet, a spinning wheel. Once well-known as the theme of the popular radio serial The Shadow, this symphonic poem is less often heard today, but it remains a piece of effectively atmospheric tone painting. With this release, Soustrot and the Malmö Symphony Orchestra have recorded all of Saint-Saëns’ symphonies except Urbs Roma of 1856 (written three years after Symphony No. 1 and not to be confused with Bizet’s symphony that is also called Roma). Hopefully that work is forthcoming.
Another ongoing Naxos series is offering the Prokofiev symphonies with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. The latest release is actually a mixture of symphony and symphonic poem – like the new Soustrot/Saint-Saëns disc – and also has strong elements of ballet and opera. The symphony here, No. 3 (1928), is itself the operatic element: Prokofiev assembled it by reworking material from his opera The Fiery Angel, which was not performed as a complete opera in his lifetime. The opera, and the symphony derived from it, are highly dramatic, and Alsop is fully at home with the material, pulling out all the stops to make the symphony as intense as can be. Alsop is a somewhat mercurial conductor, frequently seeming blasé about the standard repertoire and producing matter-of-fact, even dull or misguided performances of it. But when she finds a work challenging, as is clearly the case here, she extracts excellent playing from an orchestra and shows genuine insight into the music. The São Paulo Symphony Orchestra is notably strong in the lower strings – the cello section is excellent – and handles percussion particularly well. Woodwinds are not quite as high-quality, and the brass can be a bit harsh, but the musicians give their all to this music, and the result is involving and even exhilarating. Actually, the exhilaration is less in the symphony than in the balletic Scythian Suite of 1914-15, which has some of the exoticism of Stravinsky’s only slightly earlier The Rite of Spring. The central, far from calm section of the third movement, Night, is a highlight here, and Dance of the Spirits of Darkness is appropriately malevolent. The symphony and suite are nicely balanced by the short and gentle symphonic poem Autumn, which Prokofiev called a “symphonic sketch” and revised twice after initially composing it in 1910. In all this music, Alsop seems comfortable with Prokofiev’s varied moods and his sometimes abrupt shifts from one to the next; and the orchestra gives her playing that, if it lacks the sumptuousness that would be expected from a Russian ensemble, is nevertheless very fine.
A new BIS recording of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé is focused entirely on ballet, of course, although it is worth noting that the composer called this work – his longest – a “choreographic symphony.” In three parts running a total of almost an hour, Daphnis et Chloé has all the rhythmic, dynamic and contrasting elements of a symphony – a choral symphony, in fact, since it calls for a mixed chorus. The Netherlands Radio Choir and Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin handle the music with all the color and verve it requires, and Nézet-Séguin is particularly well attuned to the fact that this music was written to be danced: he has a fine sense of rhythm and of the contrasts among the various solo and ensemble dances. Many of Nézet-Séguin’s tempos are on the brisk side, but not unduly so, and he does allow the slower and more-lyrical dances plenty of time to unfold. The SACD sound is first-rate and helps communicate the care of Ravel’s orchestration, whose detailing in telling the story is impressive. The disc is rounded out with a warm and touching reading of Pavane pour une infante défunte, featuring especially elegant horn playing by Martin van de Merwe. The intersection of ballet and symphony is as interesting here as it is, in a very different way, on the Alsop/Prokofiev CD.
The limitations of Alsop’s basically fine orchestra in Russian repertoire are clear immediately when one listens to the Mariinsky Orchestra under Valery Gergiev perform Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 and Violin Concerto on the Mariinsky’s own label. This is an absolutely superb, virtually picture-perfect performance of a very strange symphony, one that went against all expectations for a “ninth” (dating to the time of Beethoven and including Bruckner’s and Mahler’s) as well as all anticipated triumphalism for an end-of-war symphony. Even today, 70 years after World War II, the grotesqueries of this symphony are enough to make a listener sit up and take notice. And Gergiev – who, like Alsop, can be an uneven conductor, but who is very much in his element here – gets every bizarre element of the score right, from rhythmic changes to percussive explosions to recollections of the “invasion” theme from Symphony No. 7 to sarcasm so deep-seated and cutting that it practically overflows. The Mariinsky Orchestra is so comfortable with this music that it never seems to be straining to produce exactly the right sound – instead, the players can focus wholly on exigencies of interpretative detail, those niceties of balance and attack that make all the difference between a well-executed reading and a brilliant one like this. The SACD sound helps a great deal, too, pinpointing every element of Shostakovich’s lucid orchestration – but even when simply played on CD equipment, the performance brings out fine detail to an extraordinary degree. The Violin Concerto is almost as good. Gergiev is not fully comfortable taking a back seat to anyone, including Leonidas Kavakos, so there is an occasional feeling of competitiveness between soloist and orchestra in the concerto. But that is actually not wholly out of place in this impassioned, fervent work, in which both solo violin and orchestra seem to strive mightily from start to finish – or at least until the very extended cadenza (practically a movement in itself), after which the concluding Burlesque comes across as an almost-desperate release of tightly wound tension. Kavakos takes the full measure of the music, and Gergiev’s accompaniment, even when it seems about to subsume the solo violin within the ensemble, is sensitive to Shostakovich’s intentions and strongly allied with the composer’s complex and sometimes self-contradictory worldview.
Both Shostakovich and Prokofiev learned first-hand that politics and music make uneasy bedfellows at best, and both suffered at the hands of political authorities determined to bend musical creativity to their will. Yet the temptation to use music for sociopolitical ends persists, and there is an underlying assumption that no one will mind its use for avowedly good purposes. And what is better than peace? Hence a new Delos recording called A Celebration of Peace through Music, in which Sir Gilbert Levine conducts one great symphony and five other works with the aim of – well, of celebrating and calling for peace, although the connection with this particular music is by no means clear. Really, Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 is no “peace symphony,” for all that the storms that open the finale are swept away through a mighty thunderclap that could just as well come from the Norse god Thor as from any peace-loving deity. Verdi’s Requiem is, after all, a mass for the dead, for all the beauty of its out-of-context Sanctus movement. Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms does end with a hope for “brethren to dwell together in unity,” but it is scarcely a simple or simplistic plea for peace. Bogurodzica, a Polish hymn that may date back as far as the 10th century, is indeed a Marian hymn, calling on Jesus’ mother, but it has also been sung before and during a variety of battles. Similarly, Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man and Górecki’s Totus Tuus have agendas (if that is even the right word) that extend beyond dona nobis pacem (actually, the absence of an Agnus dei from this live recording is a touch puzzling). All the performances here are certainly heartfelt, and there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of the concert organizers or the musicians participating in the event. But this two-CD set is nevertheless a (+++) recording, because while the playing and interpretations are fine, nothing here is particularly revelatory as music, and the overarching “peace” agenda detracts from purely musical emotional communication rather than enhancing or expanding it.