November 19, 2015


Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 102-104. Cappella Coloniensis conducted by Bruno Weil. Ars Produktion. $19.99 (SACD+DVD).

Hummel: Mozart’s Symphonies Nos. 35, 36 and 41 arranged for Flute, Violin, Cello and Piano. Uwe Grodd, flute; Friedmann Eichhorn, violin; Martin Rummel, cello; Roland Krüger, piano. Naxos. $12.99.

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 7. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conducted by Manfred Honeck. Reference Recordings. $19.99 (SACD).

Bruckner: Symphony No. 4. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conducted by Manfred Honeck. Reference Recordings. $19.99 (SACD).

     The days in which the conductor ruled symphonic performances, with the composer taking a back seat to the conductor’s view of the music, are long gone. Those were the days in which Mahler completed Weber’s opera Die Drei Pintos and reorchestrated Beethoven to “improve” his sound, the days in which Bruno Walter subsequently “improved” Mahler by expanding and contracting his carefully noted tempos and dynamics at will in order “better to communicate” Mahler’s underlying wishes and emotions. Nowadays, or at least from a few decades ago until quite recently, the pendulum swung very far in the other direction, with the written or printed score ruling above all and even rather metronomic performances being deemed “right” if they followed the music as written – for yet another Mahler example, there is Gilbert Kaplan’s meticulous but rather flaccid reading of the “Resurrection” symphony. Throw in modern preoccupations with original instruments or careful copies and with historic performance practices, and the result is – or can be – readings in which pure fidelity to the urtext produces undeniably accurate but curiously vapid results: some of the personal fire that informed the intense (if sometimes misguided) conductors of the not-too-distant past, such as Leonard Bernstein, has simply gone out. But perhaps it has merely been banked, because now there are increasing instances in which conductors are again asserting their right, even their obligation, to interpret music, not merely beat time with a stick and ensure that players follow precisely what the score says. The extent of this new leadership paradigm, and the way it will progress, are uncertain and in flux, but this new conductorial assertiveness undeniably produces some exceptionally interesting and involving versions of even the most familiar works. And it follows on a longstanding tradition of reinterpreting music in a more-up-to-date guise, a tradition still preserved by playing many Bach harpsichord works on piano but otherwise pretty much fallen into disfavor.

     The resurgence of rethinking extends into all sorts of familiar music. Haydn’s penultimate symphony, No. 103, for example, begins with and is named for its famous “Drum Roll,” but Haydn gave no indication of whether the timpani were to play loudly or softly, or how prominent they were to be when their front-and-center appearance returns at the end of the first movement. This is just one element that Bruno Weil confronts head-on in an excellent new Ars Produktion SACD featuring Haydn’s final “London” symphonies: Weil chooses to have the drum roll resound loudly, clearly and in fanfare-like manner, with a decrescendo at the end. Cappella Coloniensis has the world’s longest history of historical performance practice, dating back to 1954, but the understanding and implementation of such practice has changed over time as scholars and musicians have learned more about the instruments and sounds that composers such as Haydn expected. The meticulous attention that Weil gives to the scores of these Haydn symphonies is clear from the very first notes – and German speakers are offered additional clarity on a DVD that accompanies the SACD and includes excerpts from each symphony, with Weil explaining matters of technique, balance, rhythm and emphasis. Even those without the ability to understand Weil’s commentary will perceive its results in every movement of these symphonies, from the mysterious and very carefully balanced opening of No. 102, to the wonderful violin solo in the second movement of No. 103, to the exuberant conclusion of No. 104. Haydn’s surprises, his unexpected alternation of piano and forte phrases, his cleverness in using and stretching sonata form, his ability to build entire movements out of single themes, his sonic outbursts in the midst of otherwise propulsive movements – all these are familiar nowadays but were highly original in Haydn’s time, and it is tremendously exciting to hear the ways in which Weil and the orchestra emphasize these unusual elements while providing performances that are excellently paced and as historically accurate as it is possible to make them. These are revelatory readings: no matter how often listeners have heard these wonderful works, and indeed no matter how frequently they have heard other historically aware handlings of them, they will find new things in the ones by Weil and Cappella Coloniensis – a detail here, a sectional balance there, a point of emphasis again and again. Haydn sounds fresh and new in this recording, which can help even a jaded modern audience understand why he had so strong a reputation for innovation.

     Johann Nepomuk Hummel was a first-rate conductor as well as a virtuoso pianist and respected composer – and, when he was eight years old, a member of Mozart’s household, where he studied music in ways that would remain with him throughout his life. Haydn influenced Mozart and was in turn influenced by him, but the Hummel-Mozart relationship was on a different level: it was genuinely formative of Hummel’s mature musical style. Yet Hummel, who lived until 1837, was well aware of changes in musical tastes in the years after Mozart’s death in 1791. In the years 1823 and 1824, Hummel made chamber-music arrangements of Mozart’s last six symphonies, managing to retain all their poise, brilliance and harmonic clarity while adding touches in line with taste in the early Romantic era. The new Naxos recording of Nos. 35, 36 and 41 is every bit as fine and every bit as interesting as the previous release of Nos. 38-40 with the same performers. What Hummel did here was to find ways to bring out orchestral color through an expansion of the piano part, using the more-developed pianos of the 1820s to fine effect. He also incorporated elements that were much to Romantic-era taste but less prevalent in Mozart’s time, notably crescendos, which are frequent in these arrangements but were reserved by Mozart for occasional use as a special effect. More-extreme dynamic markings – fortissimo rather than forte, and pianissimo rather than piano – are also features of these arrangements; Mozart sought this level of intensity much less often. Mozart’s harmonies always remain the same and his tempo indications usually do, although Hummel marks the second movement of Symphony No. 36 Poco adagio while Mozart wrote it as an Andante. These emendations do not significantly change the sound of the symphonies; certainly not for most modern listeners. What they do is make the music more fitting for consumption in Hummel’s time while preserving its essential contours, which Hummel knew first-hand from his time with Mozart and to which he was also sensitive as a composer and performer. In their chamber-music form, the symphonies do lose some grandeur (notably No. 41), but their basic spirit comes through quite well, and the balance among flute, violin, cello and piano (with the piano frequently taking the lead) is such that inner voices and harmonic structure come across with considerable clarity. Hummel designed these arrangements as much for informal amateur performance as for concert use, but they are not really simplifications of Mozart: they are reduced-instrumentation adaptations with some concessions to then-modern tastes, but with a strong determination to retain the “Mozart sound” and the elements of symphonic structure that made Mozart’s work in this form unique. And that they do exceptionally well, as these sensitive and very well-balanced performances show.

     Even the most-canonic of symphonies, such as Beethoven’s Fifth, can accept some careful reconsideration by a sufficiently sensitive conductor, such as Manfred Honeck. An exceptionally fine Reference Recordings SACD featuring Honeck conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra provides as refreshingly bracing a view of Beethoven as any recent release of his music. In fact, it would be necessary to reach back to the mid-1970s recording of Beethoven’s Fifth and Seventh with Carlos Kleiber and the Vienna Philharmonic to find a disc as noteworthy for these two symphonies as this Honeck/Pittsburgh one. True, the orchestra does not have the near-perfect intonation and sectional balance of the masterful Viennese, but occasional slight crudities of intonation, especially in the brass, actually make the music more exciting and convincing, if less warm. In fact, the Pittsburgh has not sounded this good since the heyday of William Steinberg. And Honeck’s consideration of Beethoven – make that reconsideration – leads to some immensely enthralling performances. The very end of each symphony, for example, is jump-out-of-your-seat exciting, the conclusion of the Fifth so speedy that the orchestra’s precision is nothing sort of amazing, and the last measures of the Seventh so quick that the movement is less Wagner’s “apotheosis of the dance” and more a frenetic bacchanal. Both these conclusions work, even if they mean some tempo variations that are not in the score: both crown the symphonies in just the way that Beethoven likely intended, even if he did not write things quite this way in his notoriously difficult-to-decipher scrawl. And it is not just the endings of the symphonies that bear repeated wonder-struck listening here. The famous motto theme of the first movement of the Fifth is taken by Honeck at a slower tempo than the main part of the movement, making it more portentous, and paving the way, to an extent, for the odd little oboe cadenza that interrupts the movement’s headlong flow later on. The second movement of the Seventh is unusually speedy, but still retains its grace, while the third movement is brassy and brilliant, almost frenetic. Honeck gets marvelous playing from the orchestra, and the nuances of his interpretations make this disc one worth hearing repeatedly: yes, he departs from a literal reading of the scores, but he does so quite knowingly and for a specific purpose each time. It is certainly possible to disagree with these interpretations, but it is hard to imagine not being moved and exhilarated by them.

     Honeck’s careful rethinking applies as well to his Bruckner Fourth, another superb-sounding Reference Recordings SACD. Here, some of what Honeck does is bolder than anything he attempts with Beethoven: he adds a horn trill at one point in the finale and uses plenty of rubato in the third movement and, indeed, throughout the symphony. But the tempo changes are not intrusive: Honeck has thought them through so well that they seem integral to the music even though listeners familiar with Bruckner’s “Romantic” symphony will know they are not. Honeck also balances the orchestra rather unusually here, bringing woodwinds to the fore so their delicacy and clarity stand in strong contrast to the warmth of the strings (which, although not at the level of those in the best European orchestras, are wonderfully rounded and full). The attention to wind/strings balance means, of necessity, some downplaying of the brass, which is about as counter-intuitive an approach to Bruckner as can be imagined. But Honeck scarcely lets the brass disappear – instead, he balances the brass choir on a more-or-less-equal basis with strings and woodwinds rather than having it dominate the rest of the orchestra, as it often does under conductors determined to give this and other Bruckner symphonies an organ-like sound. Honeck wants something else: he sees the “Romantic” symphony as essentially an expansion of Schubert, a lyrical and deeply felt work with deep folk (or Volk) roots, a kind of tone painting in symphonic form. This approach is actually justified by the program that Bruckner originally attached to the symphony, although he did not include the whole “guide” in the score. For Honeck, the point is that Bruckner’s Fourth is a flowing, highly expressive work in which flexible tempos are necessary throughout; and if the “organ sound” so common in Bruckner is not rigidly sought, what emerges here is a piece that, although scarcely lighthearted, is more affable than Bruckner is generally considered to be. There is elegance aplenty in this Bruckner Fourth, and certainly there is passion, but the main impression it produces is one of geniality. This is pleasant music, that being an adjective rarely associated with Bruckner. The fact that Honeck brings out this side of the composer shows just how different this Fourth is from other interpretations. It is neither right nor wrong – there is no one “right” way to conduct, play or hear Bruckner’s music (or Beethoven’s, Mozart’s or Haydn’s, for that matter). It is this reality, that many views of great works can be equally meaningful and therefore equally “correct,” that it can be easy to lose sight of in the search for historical literalism – just as the notion that the score is at best a guideline can be taken too far by interpreters who think they know more about what the composer intended to communicate than the composer did. Honeck’s Beethoven and Bruckner recordings are valuable not only in themselves but also in their reopening of the notion of classical-music performance as a collaborative endeavor between composer and conductor, between the expectations of the time when the music was created and the capabilities of the time in which it is performed, between the performance style for which the works were written and the different one in common use when, many years later, they reach out to an audience accustomed to hearing things in a very different way.

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