August 13, 2015
(++++) BEYOND THE SYMPHONIC
Sibelius: Pelléas et Mélisande; Musik zu einer Szene; Valse lyrique; Autrefois—Scène pastorale; Valse chevaleresque; Morceau romantique sur un motif de Monsieur Jakob von Julin. Pia Pajala, soprano; Sari Nordqvist, mezzo-soprano; Turku Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leif Segerstam. Naxos. $12.99.
Bruch: Complete Works for Violin and Orchestra, Volume 2—Violin Concerto No. 1; Serenade, Op. 75; “In Memoriam”—Adagio, Op. 65. Antje Weithaas, violin; NDR Radiophilharmonie conducted by Hermann Bäumer. CPO. $16.99.
Ippolitov-Ivanov: Symphony No. 1; Turkish Fragments; Turkish March. Singapore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Choo Hoey. Naxos. $12.99.
Dutilleux: Symphony No. 2, “Le double”; Métaboles; Violin Concerto, “L’arbre des songes.” Augustin Hadelich, violin; Seattle Symphony conducted by Ludovic Morlot. Seattle Symphony Media. $16.99.
Live from Music City—Music of Michael Daugherty, Astor Piazzolla, Roberto Sierra, Richard Danielpour, and Stephen Paulus. Nashville Symphony conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero. Naxos. $9.99.
Although best known as a symphonist, Sibelius was also an important theater composer in the early 20th century, providing incidental music for 13 plays. The latest Naxos release of the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leif Segerstam performing some of this stage material features the composer’s very ambitious music to Pelléas et Mélisande, which dates to 1905 and includes 10 numbers – one of them vocal. The overall somber tone of the music fits the story, which resembles that of Tristan and Isolde, quite well, and the music’s generally subdued palette and restrained atmosphere let the play speak for itself while enhancing its emotional qualities. Those who know the Debussy and Schoenberg handlings of the same dramatic material will find Sibelius’ particularly intriguing: it is less impressionistic than Debussy’s work and on a more-modest scale than Schoenberg’s. Segerstam and the orchestra handle it with care and fine attention to detail. They also offer other, shorter and lesser Sibelius works here. Musik zu einer Szene (1904) effectively contrasts a stormy opening section with a joyful later one. And there are four late pieces on the CD as well. Valse lyrique, Autrefois—Scène pastorale, and Valse chevaleresque date to 1921, 1919 and 1921, respectively, and bear the opus numbers 96a, b and c. The two waltzes, transcriptions of piano pieces and both with a strong flavor of Tchaikovsky, bracket a charming vocal work for soprano and mezzo-soprano whose words recall an old pastoral scene. The very brief final work on this CD dates to 1925 and is based on a waltz theme by an industrialist named Jakob von Julin. It is pleasant and romantic, a nice little bit of salon music from a composer whose complex and enigmatic symphonies show only one side of his personality.
Max Bruch was a symphonist, too – he wrote three of them – but it is for his works for violin that he is remembered now, and it is those that CPO is presenting in a series of recordings featuring Antje Weithaas and the NDR Radiophilharmonie conducted by Hermann Bäumer. The second volume includes the single work by Bruch that everyone knows: his Violin Concerto No. 1, a piece so thoroughly Romantic that it seems to create its own form instead of abiding by any existing formal conventions, and one so expressive that a fine violinist, such as Weithaas, has to pay as much attention to holding back the emotional overflow as to bringing it forth. Bruch was alternately proud of this concerto and frustrated by the way all his other works were overshadowed by it – and this new release shows why. The concerto is so sui generis, so effective in its almost but not quite overwrought way, that the composer’s later and more carefully laid-out pieces for violin and orchestra come across as rather pale. Weithaas and Bäumer perform the Serenade and “In Memoriam” attentively and carefully, extracting from both as much warmth and thematic beauty as Bruch put into them. “In Memoriam” comes across better, its long, flowing melodic lines and effusive warmth making it possible to lose oneself in its upswell of near-wallowing in emotion. The Serenade, though, keeps drawing attention to its formal and structural elements, in a way that is the opposite of what the Concerto No. 1 does – and this is unfortunate, because Bruch was not very good at following formal precepts and tended to handle them formulaically. Attractive sections of Serenade appear several times, but when Bruch repeats a melodic element verbatim, he undercuts its original effect – and he does this many times (this work is half again as long as the Violin Concerto No. 1). Weithaas and Bäumer make an effort to vary the repetitive elements somewhat, even though Bruch does not indicate in the score that performers are to do this – and their efforts are repaid with a more-effective performance than they would otherwise have delivered. But because the performers do not overdo this sort of variation, Serenade must stand largely on its own merits. And while it certainly has some – Bruch was a marvelously fluid melodist – it also has numerous formal lacks that show clearly why it, like other Bruch violin-and-orchestra works, has always taken a back seat to the ever-fresh Concerto No. 1.
The music that overshadows all the rest by Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov is his Caucasian Sketches, colorful pieces evoking the sounds associated with ethnic minorities in Russia and, later, the Soviet Union. But Ippolitov-Ivanov, like Bruch, deserves to be known for more than a small portion of his output, as a new Naxos CD – actually a re-release of performances recorded in 1984 – demonstrates. The first of Ippolitov-Ivanov’s two symphonies dates to 1907 and fits squarely within the Russian nationalistic tradition, using folk material and melodies that recall the Russian Orthodox liturgy in a piece that follows conventional symphonic structure but contains some surprises – for example, a Scherzo that opens with slow chords. The symphony gets a sympathetic and well-balanced reading from the Singapore Symphony Orchestra under Choo Hoey, if perhaps not one as thoroughly immersed in the Russian sound as it might be. It is accompanied by two works that Ippolitov-Ivanov wrote late in life: Turkish Fragments from 1930 and Turkish March from 1932 (the composer died in 1935). These have more color and a greater sense of characteristic style than does the symphony, and in fact they hark back in their focus on ethnic sounds to the Caucasian Sketches. The four Turkish Fragments form a suite with movements called Caravan, At Rest, Night and Festival, each movement reflecting its title directly and effectively – but with some surprises, as in the Symphony No. 1. For example, At Rest starts and ends with the expected tranquility, but its middle section is considerably livelier than would be anticipated; and Festival, which begins and concludes with animated ebullience, breaks off for a Larghetto section in the middle. This is music of style and verve, nicely assembled by the composer and well-presented by the Singapore musicians.
Like Ippolitov-Ivanov, Henri Dutilleux wrote two symphonies, but these are works that are as much of the mid-20th-century (1951 and 1959) as Ippolitov-Ivanov’s are of earlier times. Ludovic Morlot is a champion of Dutilleux’ music, and his latest CD with the Seattle Symphony, on the orchestra’s own label, is entirely devoted to Dutilleux. Symphony No. 2 is called Le double and is set up in the style of an old-fashioned concerto grosso, but deliberately written against that tradition. That is, it includes a small group of 12 players who sit in the center of the stage, surrounded by the rest of the orchestra – but instead of the smaller group acting as soloists and leading the larger one, things are generally the other way around. The smaller ensemble echoes material introduced by the larger much of the time, and sometimes the two groups play entirely different things. Add in Dutilleux’ fondness for polytonality and polyrhythms and you have a recipe for music that often sounds chaotic, for all that Morlot does a good job of keeping the forces under control. Once the layout of the small and large groups and the way they intermingle become clear, this symphony does not seem to have much to say: it comes across as a formal experiment rather than a work seeking to communicate anything in particular to the audience. The Violin Concerto, commissioned for and dedicated to Isaac Stern, is a later work (1983-85) whose four movements are played continuously and intended to show expansion and development throughout. Entitled L’arbre des songes (“The Tree of Dreams”), the concerto uses three interludes to link its four movements and attempt to provide a feeling of both unity and growth. Like Symphony No. 2, it is of more interest intellectually than emotionally, and is apparently designed to be: both works reach out to and challenge performers to a greater extent than they appear intended to appeal to listeners. The third piece on this (+++) CD is Métaboles (1965), a sort of concerto for orchestra in which a different section dominates each of the first four parts and the fifth brings them all together. The most successful of the three works on this disc, Métaboles uses subtle, gradual thematic, rhythmic and harmonic changes throughout to create a feeling of slow metamorphosis that leads to its bright finale, which is marked Flamboyant. Morlot holds the orchestra back a bit in some parts here, perhaps to make that last movement more flashy. The net effect is one of drama and brightness, helping show why Métaboles is one of Dutilleux’ most-performed pieces.
Symphonic works by other modern composers are sprinkled about a Naxos CD called Live from Music City. This is a curious (+++) disc designed to highlight Giancarlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony and coming across as a kind of souvenir recording – the sort of thing a concertgoer might pick up in the lobby afterwards as a memory of the occasion. Each of the five composers heard here is represented by two pieces, or rather by two tracks, since all 10 items on the disc are excerpts from longer works. There are a movement from Daugherty’s Deus ex machina and one from Metropolis Symphony; one part of Piazzolla’s Las 4 estaciones Porteñas and one from Bandoneon Concerto “Aconcagua”; two movements from Sierra’s Sinfonia No. 4 and two from Danielpour’s Darkness in the Ancient Valley; and, from Paulus, one of the Three Places of Enlightenment and a movement from Grand Concerto for Organ and Orchestra. These pieces have almost nothing in common, and the CD seems designed simply to showcase the playing of the orchestra, which is quite good, and the breadth of its repertoire, which is significant but not unusually so. Listeners already interested in the music of these composers will find little of value in this release, since it gives only snippets of the works. Listeners not already enamored of these particular creators will have no real reason to purchase the CD unless they happen to be fans of this orchestra and conductor and want to hear how they handle a variety of modern works. That seems a rather limited audience for what is, in effect, a sampler of material – if not intended as a souvenir of some sort, it is hard to see the recording’s reason for being.