July 16, 2015
(++++) FRESH LOOKS AT OLD STANDARDS
Schumann: Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Odense Symphony Orchestra conducted by Simon Gaudenz. CPO. $33.99. (2 SACDs).
Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Tonkünstler-Orchester conducted by Andrés Orozco-Estrada. Oehms. $39.99 (3 CDs).
Gounod: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2. Netherlands Chamber Orchestra conducted by Gordan Nicolić. Tacet. $21.99.
The sheer quality of European orchestras and of their conductors, including ones not particularly well-known in North America, sometimes leads to revelatory performances of works on which it would seem reasonable to assume there is not much new to be said. Simon Gaudenz is scarcely a household name worldwide, and Denmark’s Odense Symphony Orchestra is not one that immediately comes to mind when thinking about top ensembles. But Gaudenz and the orchestra deliver genuinely exciting and in some respects highly unusual performances of Schumann’s four symphonies on a new CPO recording. It is not just that the playing is so good – although it is really good, at the level listeners have come to expect of top German orchestras. What comes through here is that Gaudenz appears to have fired up the orchestra to see Schumann in some new ways, in particular as a composer whose works contain strong contrasts both within themselves and throughout the four-symphony cycle. That the four works are different from one another is scarcely a new observation, but the way Gaudenz shows those differences is highly effective. He is given to significant tempo changes and contrasts, so that, for example, the main part of the first movement of the “Spring” symphony practically gallops along, as does the work’s finale – marked Allegro animato e grazioso, and here perhaps more animato than grazioso but all the more exhilarating for that emphasis. Symphony No. 4, the second written but a work usually heard, as it is here, in a modified, later form that can easily come across as turgid (there are a lot of instrumental doublings), has a lightness, almost airiness in Gaudenz’ version. And although its single-movement structure remains clear, the four sections that make this essentially a four-movements-in-one work are particularly well contrasted here, giving the symphony a simultaneous sense of unity and of different feelings from one portion to the next. Gaudenz does just as well with Nos. 2 and 3. The Second, whose opening movement has a main theme that is very difficult to play effectively, actually attains some grandeur in the interpretation here, and this allows for a very vivid contrast with the Scherzo; and there is a similarly effective distinction between the third and fourth movements. The Third strides forward strongly and gains its expansiveness from its five-movement structure and from Gaudenz’ willingness to let both the slow movements expand to what feels like their natural size. Fine playing, very fine sound and more-than-fine musicianship make this Schumann cycle one worth returning to again and again.
The Brahms cycle by the Tonkünstler-Orchester conducted by Andrés Orozco-Estrada is just as impressive in its own way. This Austrian ensemble has warmth, elegance, first-rate sectional balance, and an impressively intuitive way with Brahms. And Orozco-Estrada, a native of Colombia, has certainly plumbed the composer’s emotional depths – helped, no doubt, by having been educated in Vienna, but surely helped as well by what seems to be a finely honed intuitive grasp of Brahms’ broad sweep and melodic richness. Orozco-Estrada sees these symphonies as filled with long musical lines and breadth of thought, and he has no problem allowing them to unfold at stately tempos that do not, however, ever plod or become draggy. The pacing of the performances required Oehms to release the cycle on three CDs rather than two: the First and Fourth have their own discs here, while the Second and Third share one – and barely fit on it. Yet the timings of the movements, which might lead to an expectation of an overall slow approach, are misleading: there is no specific place to which a listener can point and say that Orozco-Estrada is holding the music back or failing to give it its propulsive due. Rather, the conductor is shaping the symphonies according to a vision in which the initial presentation of the music decidedly sets the scene for the remainder of it: the first movements of Nos. 2-4 are notably longer than any other movements of those works, and although the massive finale of No. 1 retains its position as the symphony’s climax and is longer than the opening movement, it is only so by a bit more than a minute. Orozco-Estrada pulls listeners into all this music with a sense of unfolding drama and grand scale beyond that found in most Brahms symphonic performances – and in each symphony, the succeeding movements, after those highly impressive openings, seem to follow naturally and expand upon the first movements’ arguments. The result is that each symphony comes across as a fully integrated whole – something that many performers achieve with the Third but that rarely sounds this way in the other symphonies. The superior orchestral sound – and the superior recorded sound as well – help Orozco-Estrada deliver a vision of Brahms’ symphonies that is first-rate from start to finish.
The symphonic production of Charles Gounod is far more modest, and occurred in an environment quite different from that affecting Schumann and Brahms. Schumann’s final symphony, the revision of his original Second that we know as No. 4, dates to 1851, while Brahms’ First did not appear until 1876 – although the composer started working on it in 1855, the same year in which Gounod wrote both of his symphonies. The French had little interest in symphonies at this time, ceding leadership in the form to the Germans and focusing instead on opera. It was not until Saint-Saëns’ “Organ” symphony (1886) that a French symphony again attained the impressive heights of Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique (1830). So it is no surprise that Gounod’s works are slighter in scope than those of Schumann and Brahms. Indeed, they are highly indebted to the Classical era as funneled through the music of Mendelssohn – with the result that they sound particularly good when performed by a small ensemble, such as the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra. Gordan Nicolić, concertmaster of the orchestra as well as its conductor, gets the fleetness and light elegance of the works’ orchestration exactly right in a new recording for Tacet, and his live performance of No. 1 zips along from start to finish with considerable élan and a sure sense of Gounod’s style – in both its original and derivative elements. In No. 2, a studio recording, Nicolić is a touch more reserved, although he certainly listens to the composer in the final movement, which Gounod marked Allegro, leggiero assai. Indeed, there is an overall lightness to both of Gounod’s symphonies – not one indicating a lack of seriousness of purpose, but one showing that Gounod valued transparency of orchestration and easy accessibility of musical ideas above heaven-storming intensity and strongly dramatic thematic development. These symphonies are not the primary works for which Gounod is known, by any means, but they are an important part of his production and shed considerable light on his approach to operatic clarity and accessibility. They also show just how effective the symphonic form could be even when managed with less tempestuousness and structural erudition than it received from the Germanic composers in the years after the death of Beethoven.