August 06, 2015
(++++) THE SUNNY AND THE SERIOUS
Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2. Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt conducted by Howard Griffiths. Klanglogo. $18.99.
Tchaikovsky: Serenade for Strings; Elegie in G; Josef Suk: Serenade for Strings; Meditation on the Old Czech Chorale “St. Wenceslas.” Dvořák Chamber Orchestra conducted by Kypros Markou. Fleur de Son. $18.99.
Nielsen: Maskarade. Stephen Milling, Johan Reuter, Niels Jørgen Riis, Stig Fogh Andersen, Dénise Beck, Anne Margrethe Dahl, Ditte Højgaard Andersen, Christian Damsgaard; Danish National Choir and Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Schønwandt. Dacapo. $32.99 (2 SACDs).
Brahms was a composer who tended to think in pairs, and this is nowhere more evident than in his first two symphonies: the First, which took him so long to complete as he contemplated Beethoven ever-striding behind him, is lofty and serious and intense throughout; the Second, finished quite soon after No. 1, is altogether more lyrical, more relaxed and even brighter in contrast than a comparison of the two works’ keys (C minor and D major) would indicate. The symphonies’ contrasts come through with unusual clarity in new performances by the Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt under Howard Griffiths on the Klanglogo label, largely because Griffiths takes parts of the works at faster-than-usual tempos and because he incorporates into his readings a variety of notations by conductor Fritz Steinbach (1855-1916), considered a preeminent interpreter of Brahms during the composer’s lifetime (Brahms is known to have attended a music festival organized by Steinbach). Some of the balances and tempo variations in Griffiths’ performances come directly from Steinbach’s notes on the symphonies, and while most of these are matters of degree rather than revelatory elements, they are enough to emphasize and contrast to a greater extent than usual the dark seriousness of the First with the warmth of the Second. The orchestra performs here with the sort of assured skill of an ensemble whose history dates back before Brahms (to 1842) and whose relationship with Griffiths, its principal conductor and musical director, is a tightly knit one of mutual respect and understanding. Indeed, there is a sense of intuitive balance and anticipatory sectional melding in these performances that makes them seem far fresher than Brahms’ well-known music often does. There is also a lighter-than-usual touch to some of the balance here – the brass, for example, does not overwhelm the other sections but blends into them – and the results are performances that combine a flavor of authenticity, from incorporating Steinbach’s ideas, with up-to-date but historically informed handling of the material. The one poor choice made here is to skip the repeat of the exposition in the first movement of Symphony No. 2. This may have actually been a producer’s determination rather than Griffiths’, since it allows the symphonies to fit on a single disc, which even without the repeat runs more than 80 minutes – as long as a CD can. Nevertheless, musically this is an unfortunate decision that, however, does not vitiate the overall beauty and solidity of the performance.
Unlike Brahms’ music, Tchaikovsky’s tends to the morose most of the time – but there are exceptions, a notable one being the Serenade for Strings that is one of his sunniest scores. Written in the bright key of C, it contains plenty of elements that are integral to Tchaikovsky’s music: a second-movement waltz, a slow movement marked Elegie (whose tempo indication of Larghetto elegiaco emphasizes the point), and a spirited finale based on a Russian theme. Other upbeat Tchaikovsky works, including Capriccio Italien, some of the ballet music and Symphony No. 2, have some characteristics in common with Serenade for Strings, but the serenade possesses an overall lightness of feeling that goes beautifully with its modest orchestration and the overall positive emotions it evokes. The fine, light and elegant performance by the Dvořák Chamber Orchestra under Kypros Markou, on the Fleur de Son label, is well complemented by the ensemble’s reading of a more-typical if less-known Tchaikovsky work, Elegie. This reaches its G major conclusion only after a setup involving a foreboding minor-key introduction and a sense of urgency that seems at odds with the piece’s title (it was originally called A Grateful Greeting and was written for the golden jubilee of actor/playwright Ivan Samarin, whom Tchaikovsky knew at the Moscow Conservatory). Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings is often offered on CD along with Dvořák’s; but Markou takes a more interesting approach (despite his ensemble’s name) by pairing the Tchaikovsky with the early Serenade for Strings by Josef Suk, written when the composer was only 18. Like Tchaikovsky’s, this serenade is a bright work, in fact written after Dvořák specifically suggested that Suk – who was prone to melancholy and favored minor keys – write something “joyful.” The work is pleasant and charming rather than actually bright, and its longest movement, the Adagio, tugs at the heart. But as a whole it is warm and effective music, if not especially deep. It is interestingly paired in this recording with Suk’s Meditation on the Old Czech Chorale “St. Wenceslas,” composed to counterbalance Austrian nationalism during World War I and becoming, after Czechoslovakia gained independence in 1918, a significant piece of Czech nationalism. An effective chorale elaboration, it is a stirring work whose evocation of the patron saint of the Czech people helps explain its continued popularity.
The popularity of Nielsen’s Maskarade as evocative of the Danish national spirit has been integral to the work’s success ever since the opera’s debut in 1906. Maskarade is based loosely on a comedy by Ludvig Holberg – the same Holberg whose work underlies Grieg’s Holberg Suite – as altered and interpreted by Vilhelm Andersen. The libretto was originally considered by some to be disrespectful of the famed dramatist’s memory, but Nielsen’s music won just about everyone over from the work’s first performance. Essentially a serious composer, and one whose six symphonies are astonishingly different from each other, Nielsen in Maskarade produced a bubbling and frothy work that nevertheless seems to speak directly to and of the Danish character. The opera has become increasingly popular internationally, too, aided by the simplicity of its slight plot: young people have fun at masquerades and find true love there, despite parental disapproval. The new performance on Dacapo is a very fine one, managed by Michael Schønwandt with a sure hand and excellent feel for pacing, and featuring fine singing by soloists and the Danish National Choir – plus idiomatic, thoroughly engaging playing by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra. A decade ago, Dacapo re-released on SACD the classic 1977 performance of Maskarade conducted by John Frandsen, and that was a reading to revel in. But Schønwandt’s does not take a back seat to it, and in some ways – notably the original rather than remastered SACD sound – it is even better. Maskarade is a thorough delight from the first bars of its bubbling overture to the final unmasking of all the characters and the happy uniting of young lovers Leander (Niels Jørgen Riis) and Leonora (Dénise Beck). Like Frandsen, Schønwandt wisely uses the entire opera as Nielsen originally conceived it, with the third act being the longest. Nielsen came to believe that the act needed significant cutting and perhaps even combining with Act II. But he never made the combination and couldn’t quite figure out what to cut – he kept removing pieces, then adding them back. The result here is a third act that rambles somewhat (the tightly knit first act is the best of the three); but there is so much joyous music and so much fun here that even the meandering is enjoyable. Making the whole production even better is Dacapo’s inclusion of the complete libretto in Danish and English – bravo, bravo, bravo! Anyone regarding Nielsen as exclusively a serious Danish composer really ought to hear this Maskarade: it is as Danish as can be, yes, but also as warm, free-spirited and filled with joy.