October 29, 2015
(++++) SYMPHONIC THINKING
Mahler: Symphony No. 10 (version by Deryck Cooke). Orchestre Métropolitain conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. ATMA Classique. $16.99.
Mahler: Songs from “Des Knaben Wunderhorn”; “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen”; “Rückert-Lieder.” Peter Mattei, baritone; Norrköping Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jochen Rieder. Ladybird. $19.99.
Saint-Saëns: Symphony in F, “Urbs Roma”; La jeunesse d’Hercule; Danse macabre. Marika Fältskogh, violin; Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marc Soustrot. Naxos. $12.99.
Smetana: Má Vlast. Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Theodore Kuchar. Brilliant Classics. $7.99.
Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 8 (“Unfinished”) and 9 (“Great”). Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Philippe Jordan. Wiener Symphoniker. $17.99.
Schubert: Rosamunde—complete incidental music; Overture to “Die Zauberharfe.” Ileana Cotrubas, soprano; Rundfunkchor Leipzig and Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Willi Boskovsky. Brilliant Classics. $7.99.
Toward the end of his short life – he died before his 51st birthday – Mahler wrote music that, while still psychologically and emotionally autobiographical, became increasingly forward-looking in its disruptions of tonality and use of unusual instrumental effects. Both the Ninth Symphony and the unfinished Tenth bear witness to this, the Tenth above all – because even though Mahler left the work incomplete, its full shape and virtually its entire structure were finished, and only matters of orchestration were left behind at his death. Given the likelihood that this brilliant conductor-composer would have refined many instrumental touches as he moved the music toward completion, it is impossible to produce the Tenth that Mahler would have written had he lived to finish it. But a performing edition is relatively easy to create – at least by comparison with, say, a four-movement version of Bruckner’s Ninth, whose finale was left woefully incomplete. With all due respect to Joe Wheeler, Clinton A. Carpenter and others who have created performable versions of Mahler’s Tenth, the best available one remains the creation of British musician and musicologist Deryck Cooke (1919-1976), which was first performed in 1964 and finally published, in revised form, in the year of Cooke’s death. This version gets a highly sensitive, elegantly phrased and very well-paced reading from Orchestre Métropolitain under Yannick Nézet-Séguin on a new ATMA Classique CD. From the very quiet, not-quite-ominous start of the first movement to the bizarre-sounding muffled drum that ends the fourth movement and opens the fifth, Nézet-Séguin focuses on instrumental details to excellent effect. Mahler always brought chamber-music clarity to his orchestrations, and Nézet-Séguin is sensitive to this persistent nuance, which is especially important in the Tenth. Yet when Mahler calls for a very full sound, as in the notorious dissonant chord that climaxes the first movement and reappears in the fifth, Nézet-Séguin gets it in from the orchestra in a strikingly effective way. A firm understanding of the symphony’s structure underlies this performance: extended opening and closing movements, scherzos for the second and fourth movements, and a very short central movement dubbed “Purgatorio” by Mahler create an archlike arrangement that parallels that of the Seventh but to very different effect (the Seventh has two Nachtmusik movements framing a central scherzo). Nézet-Séguin chooses tempos that keep the music moving at a leisurely but firm pace, and he pays close attention to Mahler’s careful rhythmic contrivances and his increasing willingness to use significant dissonance to highlight important emotional elements of the score. This is a very convincing reading of Mahler’s Tenth, one that shows Nézet-Séguin emerging as a Mahler conductor of considerable sensitivity and understanding, and one that places the unfinished Tenth quite firmly in the Mahler pantheon even though, had the composer lived, he would surely have modified it in ways that will be forever unknowable.
Mahler’s later symphonies no longer draw directly on the songs that were so central to his first four, but there remains something extraordinarily songful about them, up to and including the Tenth. The yearning phrases, the soaring solo instrumental lines above sections or the full orchestra, the sense of an inward as well as physical journey – all these Mahler retained and continued to employ even after he ceased to use his song cycles directly in symphonic construction. A well-sung CD such as the new Ladybird release featuring Swedish baritone Peter Mattei shows just how strongly the orchestral-song form permeated Mahler’s music, late as well as early. There are 15 songs here, six from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the four that make up Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, and the five Rückert-Lieder. It would be good to hear Mattei sing all the Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs – his strong, sure, sturdy voice fits those offered here particularly well. The six on this disc are Der Schildwache Nachtlied, Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?, Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt, Lob des hohen Verstandes, Revelge, and Der Tambourgesell. In all the songs, martial or light, serious or amusing, Mattei delves into the words’ meaning and helps bring out Mahler’s expressiveness through his clear enunciation and careful phrasing. The Norrköping Symphony Orchestra under Jochen Rieder backs him up sensitively, coming to the fore when appropriate but generally playing in partnership in a way that highlights the songs’ emotional content. This is true in the two complete song cycles as well: the Schubertian feelings of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen come through clearly here, and the Rückert-Lieder are particularly effective, although they conclude in a downbeat (or at least equivocal) mood in the sequence Mattei uses, which places Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen last. The biggest lack here is the complete absence of texts for the songs – yes, they are available with an online search, but there is no good reason to fail to include them with a CD such as this one. Nevertheless, this is a disc that amply shows the importance of song to Mahler’s symphonic music – as well as in its own right.
Symphonies are far less crucial to Saint-Saëns’ oeuvre than to that of Mahler, for whom they were central. Saint-Saëns did write five symphonies, but only the last, the “Organ,” is still played with any frequency – and is listed as No. 3, since two of the symphonies remain unnumbered. One of those two, written in 1856 and called “Urbs Roma,” is the centerpiece of Marc Soustrot’s third and last Naxos CD of Saint-Saëns’ symphonies. This work is a large but not grand-scale offering in F that was so well received at a competition organized by the Bordeaux Société Ste. Cécile that it won the group’s prize. However, the composer himself did not think especially highly of the symphony, which was not published during his lifetime – and Soustrot’s performance helps show why. The Malmö Symphony Orchestra plays well, but the symphony is generally rather turgid, Saint-Saëns’ usual thematic fluidity and lightness of orchestration being largely absent here. The best movement is the finale, a theme and variations in which Saint-Saëns shows his skill in the form; the second movement, a scherzo, also has some pleasantly Mendelssohnian moments. As a whole, though, “Urbs Roma” (which, despite its title, has no apparent connection to the city) is rather underwhelming: well-constructed, certainly, but not especially convincing and not among Saint-Saëns’ best works. It is offered on this CD with two of the composer’s four symphonic poems, La jeunesse d’Hercule (1877) and Danse macabre (1874), the most popular of the four (the other two symphonic poems, Le rouet d’Omphale  and Phaéton , were included with the symphonies heard on the two earlier releases in this series). Danse macabre, lightly and interestingly orchestrated (with scordatura tuning of the solo violin), sweeps by quickly, tunefully and evocatively, justifying its popularity. La jeunesse d’Hercule, more than twice as long and with much more elaborate orchestration, sounds somewhat overdone and over-complex, although it has many melodic and rhythmic felicities that would repay more-frequent hearings. This CD is a worthy conclusion of Soustrot’s cycle of the Saint-Saëns symphonies and symphonic poems, and certainly worthwhile for anyone interested in forays into some of the composer’s large-scale but infrequently heard music.
Saint-Saëns’ symphonic poems are independent of each other, for all that three of the four draw on mythological themes. In this respect they follow Liszt’s, which were Saint-Saëns’ models. Smetana, however, used symphonic poems differently. He too was strongly influenced by Liszt, especially the Faust Symphony and Die Ideale. But Smetana used the Liszt influence in the cause of Czech nationalism – somewhat as Liszt himself used his musical abilities in the service of Hungary. The six-symphonic-poem cycle Má Vlast is Smetana’s crowning orchestral achievement, and although it is not thematically united to the extent of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, it offers several recurrent musical passages that give it considerable unity and turn it into something approaching a vast nationalistic symphony. For example, the theme of the first movement, Vyšehrad, recurs near the end of the second, Vltava, when the river flows majestically past the ruins of the old castle; and the thematic connections of the final two movements, Tábor and Blaník, are so numerous that it would make no sense to perform one of them without the other. A 2007 performance of this cycle by Theodore Kuchar and the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra, now available on Brilliant Classics, gives the music its full weight and a great deal of martial heft into the bargain. The orchestra sounds somewhat harsh at times, particularly in the brass, and Tábor and Blaník come across perhaps a bit too jingoistically – although the effectiveness of their music, notably the march that concludes the whole cycle, is considerable. Kuchar does particularly well with the intense episodes of all the symphonic poems – for example, giving relatively short shrift to the contrasting emotional sections of Šárka while driving the intense passages vividly. The cycle generally works well with this treatment, except in the most relaxed symphonic poem, From Bohemia’s Meadows and Forests, which comes across rather too stridently. As a whole, though, this performance gives Má Vlast plenty of symphonic heft and all the drama that Smetana packed into it.
Unlike Smetana, who wrote only one symphony, the early Triumphal Symphony (sometimes called Festive Symphony), Schubert wrote symphonies throughout his life, frequently completing only portions of them. The famous “Unfinished” is in fact just one that he did not get all the way through. Schubert left so many symphonies incomplete that even their numbering is confusing: the “Unfinished” is often referred to as No. 8 (because No. 7 exists in short score only) and the “Great C Major” as No. 9 (its title distinguishing itself from the “Little” No. 6 in the same key). However, sometimes the “Unfinished” is designated No. 7 and the “Great C Major” No. 8, as if No. 7 does not belong in the numerical sequence at all; this is how the two are numbered on a new CD featuring Philippe Jordan conducting the Wiener Symphoniker – a live recording on the orchestra’s own label. Whatever numbering one prefers, it is these two symphonies that are generally acknowledged as the pinnacle of Schubert’s symphonic achievement, and they give orchestras as warm and well-rounded as the Wiener Symphoniker ample opportunity to showcase their expressive skill. Jordan’s performances are beautifully lyrical, emphasizing the dynamic contrasts in both symphonies – starting with an almost growling opening for the “Unfinished” that soon turns into smooth flow that is in its turn interrupted by outbursts that sound as surprising as they are dramatic. An unusual characteristic of this truncated symphony is that its two finished movements (Schubert did sketch part of a third) are close to the same length and in essentially the same tempos: Allegro moderato and Andante con moto. Clearly aware of this, Jordan handles the second movement as largely an extension of the first, with strong sforzandi and more strongly contrasted dynamics than conductors typically seek. The result is a very vivid reading that makes Schubert’s failure to complete this work all the more unfortunate. Jordan’s way with the Ninth is equally convincing and equally winning. Again he focuses on the work’s dynamic contrasts and sudden shifts in tonality, here also allowing the symphony’s constant forward motion to sweep the orchestra and audience along with what feels like inevitability. Abetted by unusually clear and well-balanced recorded sound, the orchestra – which itself plays with exceptional clarity and sectional balance – shows again and again a sublime taste for lyrical phrasing and rhythmic pungency. This is an exceptionally convincing performance of Schubert’s final symphony, sensitive to the work’s overarching structure and embracing its length without making excuses for it: the melodies flow on and on, and Jordan encourages them to do just that, choosing tempos judiciously, never rushing, never pushing the music unduly. This is one of the best recent pairings of these familiar works, giving them a freshness that speaks as clearly to their beauty of sound as to their structural innovations.
Schubert’s symphonic characteristics – the unending flow of gorgeous melody, the unexpected and abrupt key changes, the warmth and lyricism – also pervade his other orchestral music, a case in point being his incidental music to Rosamunde. This was a very unsuccessful play (it lasted all of two performances) written by the same “bluestocking” who created the rather incoherent libretto for Weber’s Euryanthe, another work with wonderful music in the service of a less-than-wonderful plot. Schubert wrote the Rosamunde music in haste, reusing some earlier material as well as composing new pieces. For example, for the overture he reused a piece intended for his opera Alfonso und Estrella, then later decided a better overture would be one he originally wrote for Die Zauberharfe. A new Brilliant Classics release of a decades-old analog recording of the complete Rosamunde music provides an unusual opportunity to hear a first-rate performance of first-rate material written for a second-or-third-rate play. Dating to 1977, the recording features the lovely voice of soprano Ileana Cotrubas, fine choral singing by Rundfunkchor Leipzig, and absolutely lovely orchestral playing by Staatskapelle Dresden. Willi Boskovsky, one of the very best conductors of his time for semi-light music (notably that of the Strauss family), paces the 12 numbers (including both overtures) sensitively, carefully and with elegance aplenty. Like the release of Mahler songs with Peter Mattei, this recording offers no texts – an omission that is even more unfortunate here, since the words to Rosamunde are not as readily available as are those to Mahler’s vocal works. On the other hand, the verbal elements of Rosamunde were never considered a strength, and vocal segments such as the choruses of the shades and the huntsmen come through very effectively thanks to Schubert’s music, even if the precise words will be unclear to non-German speakers. What will be very clear indeed are the manifest beauties of the score – even those who saw and savaged the play took note of Schubert’s wonderful music. The same loveliness that Schubert brought to his symphonies is very much in evidence here, and a performance as fine as this one shows why the Rosamunde music has so long outlived the stage work for which it was created.