May 12, 2016
Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5. Concentus Musicus Wien conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Sony. $13.99.
Dvořák: Symphony No. 6; Slavonic Dances, Op. 46, No. 8 and Op. 72, No. 3. Houston Symphony conducted by Andrés Orozco-Estrada. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).
Christopher Rouse: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4; Odna Zhizn; Prospero’s Rooms. New York Philharmonic conducted by Alan Gilbert. Dacapo. $16.99.
Redes: The classic 1935 Mexican film with a new recording of the score by Silvestre Revueltas. Post-Classical Ensemble conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez. Naxos DVD. $19.99.
Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s death on March 5, 2016 brought an end to any prospect of a new Beethoven cycle from him, featuring his own period-instrument orchestra, the Concentus Musicus Wien. Listeners are left only with one CD, Sony’s release of the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, to speculate about what could have been. The word “quirky” has to appear somewhere in that speculation. The symphonies that Harnoncourt here reconsiders – he made a recording of the full cycle with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in 1991 – are exceptionally well played and very thoughtfully, if strangely, interpreted. No. 4 gets a wide-ranging, full-throated interpretation in which prominent brass (the brass are excellent throughout) give the symphony a grander and altogether larger footprint than it usually receives. Yet the performance downplays certain instruments, notably the bassoon, which gives this work an unusual flavor when a conductor chooses to draw attention to it – just as the oboe in the first movement of No. 5 and the piccolo in that symphony’s finale change the work’s character based on the degree to which a conductor focuses on them. Harnoncourt makes an effort to adhere to Beethoven’s original tempo indications, so this Fourth is fleet but by no means rushed-sounding. And Harnoncourt seeks to lend it extra gravity and heft by strongly accentuating tutti chords by pausing slightly before having the orchestra attack them vigorously – an approach that increases the music’s intensity at the expense of some of its forward flow. The same approach to chords is used in the Fifth, but much less successfully – by the very end of the symphony, Harnoncourt seems to be conducting the conclusion of Sibelius’ Fifth rather than Beethoven’s. And aside from the chordal emphasis, Harnoncourt has some other unusual ideas about the Fifth. The famous opening motto is less accentuated than usual, for one thing; and the second movement is treated as a kind of tone poem, with numerous tempo changes that are not in the score but seem intended to make the whole movement into a grand adventure along the lines of the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth. The third movement, on the other hand, is superb, with lower strings and brass biting and intense – and the fourth movement proceeds splendidly, with Harnoncourt drawing attention to all the instruments Beethoven added specifically for this movement (trombones, piccolo and contrabassoon) in a way that enriches the whole performance, at least until the very end stops it in its tracks. This is a carefully thought-out but, on the whole, strangely unsatisfactory reading of these symphonies, as if Harnoncourt did not so much think them through as over-think them to a point at which their emotional connectivity was diminished.
The emotional connection is on the slight side as well in the Houston Symphony’s performance of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6 on PentaTone. The most Brahmsian of Dvořák’s symphonies, the Sixth needs grand scale, warmth and solid forward flow to come across effectively; given those, it is very effective indeed. Unfortunately, Andrés Orozco-Estrada decides that the best way to delve into the symphony is to tinker with its tempo indications, and this creates a series of speedups and slowdowns that collectively make the work seem choppy and unfocused – very different from Brahms’ Second, which is also in the key of D and which shares much of the expansiveness of Dvořák’s Sixth, including an especially long first movement. Orozco-Estrada repeatedly gives the impression of wanting to get on with it in that opening movement, then thinking better of rushing things and slowing them back down again. The result is a kind of stuttering that is out of keeping with the smooth and very beautiful flow that Dvořák produced in this symphony. The recording itself is excellent, but the unfocused interpretation makes it hard to garner full enjoyment of the fine sound and high-quality playing of the orchestra. And the disc is really unconscionably short: the only things on it are the symphony and two of the Slavonic Dances, resulting in a paltry 52 minutes of music on a premium-priced recording. Nothing here is actually bad, but nothing is thoughtful or emotionally connected enough to recommend wholeheartedly.
It is a general reconsideration of Dvořák’s symphonic output that is leading more conductors to program symphonies other than his final three. But there are other forms of reconsideration in music today as well, such as Christopher Rouse’s reexamination of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 2 in his own Symphony No. 3 of 2011. This is a reconsideration of a reconsideration, since Prokofiev based his work on Beethoven’s final piano sonata, No. 32. Prokofiev’s symphony is not often heard – it is a product of the experimentalism of Paris in the 1920s, and its largely unremitting intensity can be off-putting – but Rouse’s Third, after its explosive brass opening mirroring Prokofiev’s, goes off in directions more reflective of Rouse’s own style. The overall impression of Rouse’s symphony is one of hyperactivity: the work generally moves quickly, and the first variation of the second movement, which is in effect a scherzo, is the most intense of all. The juxtaposition of intense dissonance with expressiveness in that second movement, which like Prokofiev’s is a set of variations, is so extreme as to be difficult to hear at times, but it is certainly effective – and the work, which gets its world première recording on a new Dacapo CD, is very well played by the New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert. The three other works here are also world première recordings, all three of them having been commissioned by this orchestra while Rouse (born 1949) was its composer-in-residence. Symphony No. 4, less striking and easier to listen to than No. 3, includes some quotations from other composers’ works, for reasons that are not clear from the music itself; yet this symphony has none of the balanced uncertainty or stylistic peculiarity of others filled with or built around quotations, such as Shostakovich’s No. 15. Also on this CD are the tone poems Odna Zhizn (2008) and Prospero’s Rooms (2012). The former, whose title means “A Life” in Russian, has enough turbulence and turmoil to make it seem that the life in question was a difficult one – although the music’s quiet, peaceful conclusion suggests that it ended well. The latter tone poem is the shortest work on this disc and in many ways the most effective. Based on Edgar Allan Poe’s thoroughly creepy The Masque of the Red Death, in which Prince Prospero locks himself and his hangers-on into a palace of differently colored and decorated rooms in the doomed hope of escaping a plague, Rouse’s work is highly evocative of its source and musically involving enough to be actually chilling. This recording offers a lot of Rouse’s music and will be of most interest to those already familiar with the composer; Prospero’s Rooms might well make those who do not know Rouse’s work seek out other pieces by him.
If the Rouse CD is a specialty audio item, a new Naxos DVD of the film Redes is a specialty audio and video one. Redes is the story of a fishing village near Veracruz, Mexico. Originally planned as a documentary, it was turned into a fictional film about poor fishermen struggling against exploitation. Its title means “nets,” although the film was released in English as “The Wave.” The film is noteworthy for the cinematography by Paul Strand, less so for the direction by Fred Zinnemann and Emilio Gómez Muriel. Whatever the merits of the film itself, its music, by Silvestre Revueltas, has long been recognized as significant. Revueltas, who had not written film music before, created a dramatic and atmospheric score whose effectiveness was clear from the outset: both Revueltas and conductor Erich Kleiber made orchestral suites from it, and both those suites are still performed (Kleiber’s more frequently). Interestingly, Revueltas’ complete score has never been recorded before, so the recording by the Post-Classical Ensemble under Angel Gil-Ordóñez – one of the most inventive, clever and high-quality groups of its type – is a world première. The music rarely overlaps film dialogue, instead enhancing the story line and helping propel the narrative in highly effective program-music fashion. As a result, this recording of Redes is enjoyable from a purely musical standpoint, whatever one’s opinion of the film itself may be. This is music that does more than set scenes: it actively participates in them. It is quite possible (and quite interesting) to close one’s eyes or simply turn off the video portion of this DVD and listen to the music on its own, finding out how well it tells the same story that the filmmakers are communicating visually. To fill out the DVD after the one-hour movie, there is an additional hour of bonus material in which Gil-Ordóñez, producer Joseph Horowitz and others discuss various aspects of Redes and Revueltas from musical and sociopolitical standpoints. Like the film music of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, Revueltas’ work for Redes is a high point of composition for a visual medium that, when it is supported by audio as well-constructed as the best film music can be, is capable of communicating with far greater impact than the pictures can on their own.