December 17, 2015
(++++) DRAMATISTS AND SYMPHONISTS
Mahler: Symphony No. 4. Dorothea Röschmann, soprano; Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Mariss Jansons. RCO Live. $21.99 (SACD).
Sibelius: Scaramouche—complete ballet. Turku Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leif Segerstam. Naxos. $12.99.
Sibelius: Symphonies Nos. 1, 2, 5 and 7. Wiener Philharmoniker conducted by Leonard Bernstein. C Major Blu-ray Disc. $39.99.
Scriabin: Symphonies Nos. 3 (“La Divin Poème”) and 4 (“Le Poème de l’extase”). London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev. LSO. $14.99 (SACD).
Cimarosa: Opera Overtures, Volume 4—I sdegni per amore; La finta Frascatana; I tre amanti; Le donne rivali; I finti nobili; Il pittor parigino; L’amante combattuto dalle donne di punto (La Biondolina); Giunio Bruto; L’amor costante. Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice conducted by Michael Halász. Naxos. $12.99.
Offenbach: Overtures and Orchestral Music—“Orphée aux enfers”; “La Belle Hélène”; “Le Voyage dans la lune”; “La Fille du tambour-major”; “Les Contes d’Hoffmann”; “Barbe-bleue”; “Le Mariage aux lanternes”; “La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein”; “Vert-Vert”; “La Vie parisienne.” Orchestre de la Suisse Romande conducted by Neeme Järvi. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).
Florent Schmitt: Antoine et Cléopatre—Six épisodes symphoniques en deux suites d’apres le drame de Shakespeare; Le Palais hanté—Étude symphonique pour “Le Palais hanté” d’Edgar Poë. Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $12.99.
Even in his most monochromatic symphony – the composer himself gave its color as “sky blue” – Mahler includes elements of drama. For a composer who never wrote an opera, he had a fine sense of how to move an audience from one emotion to another. This is more explicit in other symphonies than in the Fourth, but even here, there is progression – essentially from exaltation to higher exaltation, with some uncertainties and byways along the road (primarily in the second movement). The new performance by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Mariss Jansons manages both to keep the symphony on an even keel and to showcase its progress – a fine combination. Recorded live in February 2015 and released on the orchestra’s own label, this is a finely balanced and very well-played performance by one of the world’s best orchestras, an ensemble that has been intimately familiar with Mahler’s music since the composer’s own time. The difficulties of the Fourth, Mahler’s most transparent and most lightly scored symphony, lie in keeping it simple and parody-free. The Fourth confused early audiences because it lacked so many of the obvious complexities of the first three symphonies, but it is in fact just as complicated – in a subtler way. Jansons chooses tempos judiciously and keeps the pacing of all the movements steady and clear; he manages to combine excitement with placidity in a very winning way. In the finale, soprano Dorothea Röschmann sings with clarity and simplicity, although her voice is not quite as childlike as would be ideal for this movement: it is key here to have the movement, toward which all the rest of the symphony ascends, delivered with the greatest possible simplicity of sound (Leonard Bernstein at one time even had a boy soprano sing it). If there is a bit too much sophistication to Röschmann’s voice, if her phrasing is sometimes on the mannered side (especially in the very slow final verse), her soprano is nevertheless light enough and pleasant enough to convey effectively the imagined emotions of a child in Heaven – providing a fine conclusion to a very strong overall performance.
Mahler and Sibelius strongly disagreed about the appropriate content of symphonies. While Mahler’s tend to burst at the seams with drama, Sibelius’ are generally cooler, more cerebral – not without drama, certainly, but not imbued with it, either. Yet Sibelius, unlike Mahler, composed directly for the stage, less significantly in his single opera than in the music he wrote for no fewer than 13 plays. The complete music for one of these, Scaramouche, is offered by Leif Segerstam and the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra in the sixth and last Naxos CD devoted to Sibelius’ theater works. Scaramouche was actually a pantomime, not a play with dialogue, so the music was particularly important for mood-setting and for carrying the drama forward effectively. The work’s plot is not especially trenchant: the title character is a mysterious hunchbacked dwarf whose viola playing entices a young wife away from her husband; the wife kills the dwarf, who then reappears to her – causing her to dance herself to her own death. Sibelius makes the most of the atmospheric elements of this rather overdone drama – which, if nothing else, turns on the bewitching power of music itself – while avoiding entanglement in its absurd or simply silly portions. The music moves effectively from initial scenes of warmth, charm and innocence to increasingly dark places and the eventual pathos-filled (if not exactly tragic) conclusion. Most of the music is slow: Sibelius draws out the characters’ actions and emotions through a series of sections marked Lento assai, Poco moderato, Adagio, Allegretto, Andantino, Moderato, and so on. In the absence of stage action, the music does not hang together particularly well – its illustrative purposes are quite clear – but Sibelius’ care in orchestration and mood-setting come through very well, and Segerstam leads the work with care in both pacing and balance, bringing out Sibelius’ characteristic attentiveness to orchestration particularly well. Although not highly dramatic in a conventional sense, Scaramouche, which dates to 1913, clearly shows how Sibelius, in his mature years, used music to support and enhance a drama.
As for those not-as-dramatic-as-Mahler’s symphonies, one conductor determined to plumb Sibelius for every bit of drama he did offer was Leonard Bernstein, whose late-in-life recordings of Nos. 1, 2, 5 and 7 are now available on Blu-ray Disc on the C Major label. Bernstein (1918-1990) recorded a complete Sibelius cycle with the New York Philharmonic in the 1960s, but did not live to complete a second one with the Vienna Philharmonic. Nevertheless, the four symphonies that he did conduct are more than enough to show significant changes in Bernstein’s attitude to this music, to which he brings a number of controversial approaches. By and large, the tempos are slow – in some cases extremely so. When Bernstein does decide to speed things up, he often does so at such a hectic pace that it takes an orchestra of the Vienna Philharmonic’s sky-high quality to keep up with the music. And Bernstein’s podium manner – what some would call his antics – is more pronounced, more accentuated in these late-in-life performances (which date to 1988-90) than in earlier times. It is worth remembering Bernstein’s acknowledged expertise in Mahler when listening to – and seeing – his conducting of these Sibelius works: whatever the profound philosophical differences between the two composers, Bernstein seems actively to seek elements they have in common, and is quite willing to force resemblances even when none exist. Among these four symphonies, No. 1 is handled best – and, significantly, least eccentrically. The gorgeous sound of the orchestra comes to the fore here, the intensity of the music is palpable, and there is very little that is exaggerated or forced into garb that it wears poorly. This is a performance that can show listeners unfamiliar with Bernstein why so many people thought so highly of him. The other symphonies, though, are less convincing. No 2 is episodic and very, very slow (it runs 53 minutes; elsewhere, it rarely lasts longer than 45). Silences stretch forever, and this work, which seems to take traditional symphonic form apart, itself seems to disintegrate. No. 5 is also slow, but not quite to the same degree, and here the pacing has enough consistency so that the work remains cohesive. The Vienna Philharmonic’s superb balance works particularly well here – the interplay between woodwinds and lower strings is especially impressive. But the symphony’s conclusion is genuinely odd: the final chords, which are not evenly spaced and which are separated by long silences, seem to stretch out forever, until the work seems not so much to finish as to collapse onto and into itself. No. 7, in which Bernstein’s podium manner is more reserved than in the others and has something magisterial about it, gets the second-best of these readings, with sure understanding of the work’s tonal complexity and a level of precision that gives Sibelius’ highly unified conception a degree of clarity that it does not always receive. The sound of this release is very good, and the engineers have handled the material well. The video direction by Humphrey Burton is noteworthy for how well it stays focused on Bernstein’s manners and mannerisms, giving viewers a chance to see the music being shaped even as they hear it. But Bernstein does frequently overdo his gestures and overall involvement to a distracting degree. This is a (+++) release that fans of Bernstein will certainly want but that will be unlikely to win him any new ones, despite the undoubted quality of the performances of the First and Seventh Symphonies.
Valery Gergiev, however – another uneven and frequently eccentric conductor – will likely gain fans from his new LSO Live recording of symphonic Scriabin. This (++++) release pairs La Divin Poème, which Scriabin designated as his Third, with Le Poème de l’extase, which he did not formally number as a symphony at all but which is nevertheless often labeled No. 4 (Scriabin did sometimes refer to it that way). Gergiev’s versions, recorded live in March and April 2014, place Scriabin’s highly unusual sound world firmly within the vast compass of Russian symphonic production. Warmth is the overarching element here, the sort of warmth that comes from lush-sounding strings paired with finely rounded, burnished brass tone and woodwinds that are about as far from being shrill as it is possible to be. The London Symphony gives Gergiev much of the sound that would be expected from a top-flight Russian orchestra, and that is really quite an accomplishment. Symphony No. 3 requires its four movements to be played straight through without pause, presenting interpretative difficulties as well as risking musicians’ exhaustion – much of the writing is quite demanding. But no strain shows here, as Gergiev and the London players balance the passion and tenderness of parts of the score with the liveliness and intensity of other sections. Scriabin’s movement titles connect well with the music only for those immersed in the composer’s often-difficult-to-follow philosophical musings: they translate as Introduction, Struggles, Delights and Divine Play. But Gergiev is clearly comfortable with the movements’ intentions and does a fine job of bringing out the ways in which connections do appear. As for Le Poème de l’extase, in which “ecstasy” refers to something artistic rather than anything physical, a full appreciation of the work involves accepting statements about it that the composer wrote or specifically approved as explanatory, such as: “The stronger the pulse beat of life and the more rapid the precipitation of rhythms, the more clearly the awareness comes to the Spirit that it is consubstantial with creativity itself.” The written material does seem rather puerile, but the music does not – certainly not as Gergiev handles it. The timeless transcendence of the music, created by Scriabin’s use of whole-tone-based harmonies, comes through here with clarity – although without specific or definitive meaning – and the work becomes, under Gergiev’s direction, one into which listeners can subsume their consciousness and abandon any attempts to understand the music intellectually, instead simply experiencing it. The result is an unusual and uplifting experience.
For something that is still dramatic but is considerably more down-to-earth, and still of (++++) quality, there is the fourth Naxos release of opera overtures by Domenico Cimarosa, performed by the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice under Michael Halász. Like the first three volumes in this series, the fourth one offers largely interchangeable music that is uniformly well-constructed, cleverly orchestrated, and highly appealing in scene-setting – even if it is not clear just which scenes any particular overture is designed to set. Cimarosa sometimes created three-movement sinfonias as opera openers and sometimes produced more-focused, single-movement pieces that more closely resemble what audiences now think of as an opera overture. But there was no particular rhyme or reason to his use of one form or the other – it is not as if, for example, he moved from one approach to the other over time. Cimarosa was a dramatist first and foremost, and his overtures, whether to comic works or serious ones, were intended to help the audience settle into the theater and get into the appropriate mood for what was to come. The orchestra plays all nine works on this CD with enthusiasm and involvement, not seeking depths that are not there but also being careful not to turn the works into throwaways – they are too well-made to be disposed of so lightly. Interestingly, the last piece here, the overture to L’amor costante, is almost certainly not by Cimarosa: it appears to have been composed by someone else (exactly who is unknown) and then attached to Cimarosa’s opera. Yet it sounds like a perfectly fine curtain-raiser that might as well be by Cimarosa even if internal evidence indicates that it is not.
Cimarosa died in the first year of the 19th century (1801), and as the century progressed, the tendency to have people other than composers create overtures to stage works actually increased. It was firmly established by the second half of the century: the well-known overtures to Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas were very rarely written by Sullivan himself. The same is true for most of the overtures to the works of Jacques Offenbach: the overtures’ themes come directly from the stage works, but the assembly of those themes into an opening piece was only rarely done by Offenbach himself. This in no way detracts from the charms and melodiousness of Offenbach’s overtures – in fact, it is precisely because the melodies are so enchanting that arrangers (some known, some unknown) were able to produce overtures with staying power at least equal to that of the stage works themselves. On a new and very fine-sounding (++++) Chandos SACD, Neeme Järvi and Orchestre de la Suisse Romande offer what might be called a potpourri of Offenbachiana, including very well-played versions of pieces both familiar and less known. Offenbach’s stage works fall broadly into two categories: the sarcastic, biting ones written before the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the more fantastical, much less satirical ones written afterwards. There is a generous helping of both here – although it would have been nice if they had been presented chronologically on the disc, showing how Offenbach’s style evolved (the booklet notes actually do discuss the pieces in chronological order). Järvi has some tendency to push tempos in these works, both the slow ones and the fast, so slower passages (for instance, from Les Contes d’Hoffmann) can drag a bit, while faster ones can seem a touch too frenetic. On the whole, though, Järvi takes the measure of this music smartly, and the orchestra is responsive and bright, although not quite as warm in tone or as sectionally well-balanced as the very best Viennese and German orchestras. The more-extended pieces here come off particularly well, including the overtures to Orphée aux enfers and La Belle Hélène, as well as the much-less-often-heard opening of Vert-Vert. Some of the briefer works get somewhat short shrift, notably the overture to Barbe-bleue, but as a whole, this is a recording filled with delights, giving listeners a chance to hear just how wonderful a melodist Offenbach was – and why many composers, among them Sullivan, Suppé, and Johann Strauss Jr., sought in their own works to produce the apparently effortless melodic flow and instantly hummable tunes that seemed to come to Offenbach so naturally.
A dramatist/composer of a later time, Florent Schmitt (1870-1958) was strongly influenced by composers who were important in France after Offenbach’s time had passed – specifically, Fauré and Massenet, who were among his teachers, and Ravel and Satie. Schmitt is not, however, easy to pin down stylistically, since he drew inspiration as well from German composers (Wagner and Richard Strauss), and in fact his pro-German sympathies during the 1930s were largely responsible for the later neglect of his music. On the basis of a new (++++) Naxos recording of some of his works, featuring the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra under JoAnn Falletta, Schmitt’s music is overdue for revival. His rhythms are complex, his orchestration clever and colorful, his blend of strength and lyricism impressive and very much of the 20th century. Schmitt’s material for Antoine et Cléopatre was composed in 1920 as a series of ballet scenes, intended to appear between the acts of Shakespeare’s tragedy; the composer gathered the six scenes into two suites that together effectively paint a picture of the play’s exploration of the grand sociopolitical theme of empire and the highly personal one of romantic love. Suitably, the first suite ends with the battle of Actium, the second with Le Tombeau de Cléopâtre. This is difficult music to grasp, lying partially within Impressionism and partially in a kind of Scriabinesque mysticism. It is not easy to play, either, but Falletta and the Buffalo musicians handle it very stylishly, although a little more fullness in the strings would have been welcome. Antoine et Cléopatre is paired here with another expressive and unusual work, a tone poem of sorts even though the composer labeled it Étude symphonique. This is an earlier piece (1904) based on Mallarmé’s translation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Haunted Palace, a dramatic and highly effective poem (eventually incorporated into The Fall of the House of Usher) in which insanity is compared to the deterioration of a noble building. Poe was highly influential in France, notably with Charles Baudelaire and the Symbolists, and Schmitt seems to channel Symbolism in this piece, which is carefully scored, expressively nuanced and very effectively orchestrated. It would be a stretch to describe Schmitt as a major composer, but there is much to admire in his handling of the dramatic elements of Shakespeare and Poe, and Falletta – a tireless champion of less-known but worthy works and their creators – here makes a very strong case for hearing his music more often.