June 02, 2016


Dvořák: Symphony No. 8; Carnival Overture; Suk: Serenade for Strings. Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Mariss Jansons. BR Klassik. $16.99.

Scriabin: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2. London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev. LSO Live. $19.99 (2 SACDs).

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9. Benita Valente, soprano; Janice Taylor, mezzo-soprano; Richard Leech, tenor; William Stone, baritone; Atlanta Symphony Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Robert Shaw. ASO Media. $18.99.
     There are two ways in which recordings of symphonic works have something to say to listeners. One is that the composers themselves are trying to communicate through the form. The other is that the conductors, with their orchestras, are trying to indicate what they have to say about the music. And that may be something different in a live performance from what it is in a studio recording. That certainly seems to be the case for Mariss Jansons and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, for whom a new BR Klassik release combines two live recordings of music by Dvořák with a studio one of a work by Josef Suk. Jansons here seems like a conductor who, in live concerts, plays to the audience as well as for it. The orchestral sound in the Dvořák works is excellent, and the bright, sunny, nature-filled, optimistic Symphony No. 8 fairly sings with imitative bird songs and the joy of country living. To accentuate the emotion, though, Jansons wrenches the music about through uncalled-for or overdone rubato and tempo changes, so that, for example, both the first and fourth movements end rousingly but in a way that is out of character for their content. The finale, in particular, rushes over-eagerly to an ending that clearly delights the audience but that denies Dvořák a level of expansiveness that is one of his salient characteristics even in this comparatively short symphony. Likewise, the popular Carnival overture – the second of the three tone poems that Dvořák collectively called Nature, Life and Love – is all ebullience at first, but then becomes somewhat too stretched-out when the composer introduces reminiscences of the first of the three works, In Nature’s Realm. Jansons does not come across as a headstrong conductor, and seems to have thought out his approach to the symphony and concert overture carefully, calculating what would best reach out to a live audience and bring its members to their feet (perhaps literally?). The reason this all seems rather calculated is that in the studio recording of Suk’s somewhat neglected Serenade for Strings, Jansons delivers a less-fussy, more-straightforward performance that thoroughly explores the work’s many beauties without overdoing their presentation. This early work by Suk clearly shows the influence of the composer’s father-in-law, Dvořák, but is not exactly a tribute: elements of Suk’s own style are already apparent. The piece flows gently enough so that the adjectives grazioso (second movement) and giocoso (fourth) seem to have emerged from the themes and their development naturally, without being imposed by the composer. This is very pleasant music with folk/nationalist feelings underlying it, and the performance, because it does not overdo tempo changes or other structural elements, is thoroughly satisfying.
     The Scriabin symphony cycle completed by Valery Gergiev with a new two-SACD release of the composer’s first and second works in symphonic form is satisfying in a different way. These are live recordings on the London Symphony Orchestra’s own label, and Gergiev, a frequently uneven and even quirky conductor, is at his best in live performances. There is no question about his playing to the audience: he very definitely does so, not only in shaping music but also in a podium manner that has something in common with the highly personal and strongly accentuated one of Leonard Bernstein. Gergiev made it clear in his previous Scriabin symphonic recording, of La Divin Poème and Le Poème de l’extase, that he sees the composer’s mystical and often unusual sound world as fitting quite well into traditional Russian symphonic style, with 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. Indeed, Gergiev has figured out how to get something approximating the gorgeous sound of Russian orchestras from the London Symphony – no mean feat, since this very fine orchestra generally has a cooler, clearer and more transparent sound. The Russian sound world is highly appropriate for Scriabin’s first two symphonies, in which the composer had not yet found his mature musical voice but was clearly striving for a way to bend symphonic form to his thinking. The first symphony (1899-1900) has six movements, the second (1901) five. The first features two solo voices and a chorus in the finale, and although that naturally makes modern listeners think of Beethoven, the relevant work is not that composer’s Symphony No. 9 but his Choral Fantasy, which concludes with praise of the ennobling power of art. That is exactly what Scriabin’s words – he wrote them himself – also proffer. This is an ambitious and expansive symphony, and one that can easily sprawl and feel disconnected – a situation that Gergiev avoids partly through generally quick tempos and partly through dwelling on the work’s many beauties while passing over its more-ordinary elements without accentuating them. Gergiev favors speed in Symphony No. 2 as well: the work usually lasts 45 to 48 minutes, but Gergiev goes through it in 41. It does not sound rushed, however: instead, it sounds fleet, which is not an adjective usually associated with Scriabin. The Second is the most conventional of Scriabin’s symphonies and, although shorter than the First, sounds, in places, more bloated and bombastic. Its final 10 minutes constitute a gigantic climax-upon-climax, and here Gergiev is at his best and most intense, pulling out all the stops to produce a conclusion that, although overwrought, is undeniably highly effective. Neither the formal experimentation of the First nor the structural strength of the Second will really prepare listeners for the sound and approach of Scriabin’s later music; these symphonies stand primarily as examples of late-Romantic Russian symphonic style, written by a composer who would soon move in a different direction – utilizing some but by no means all of the lessons he learned through this music. Gergiev’s intensity and stylistic aplomb in this music make this release a highly attractive one for listeners who know Scriabin only from his later music, and for anyone interested in exploring some less-known products of Russian Romanticism.
     Whether or not Scriabin was influenced by Beethoven’s Ninth in his own Symphony No. 1 is arguable; the fact that Beethoven’s last completed symphony remains a preeminent one in all music is not. It is used again and again for musical and political statements, as when Bernstein conducted it after the fall of the Berlin Wall and had the chorus sing of freiheit (freedom) rather than freude (joy). So it certainly makes sense that Beethoven’s Ninth would be used on May 21, 1988, in Robert Shaw’s final concert as music director in Atlanta. The live recording of that performance is now available on the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s own label, and it will be an unalloyed joy (yes, freude) for fans of Shaw, of whom there are still many. Those who do not know him may, however, wonder why Shaw (1916-1999) remains so unremittingly popular among many music lovers, and not only in Atlanta. Shaw was first and foremost a choral conductor, and a brilliant one. The finale of this Beethoven Ninth is absolutely splendid, so clear-voiced (clear vocalization was one thing to which he was fanatically devoted) and delivered with so much enthusiasm that listeners may well be left breathless, no matter how many times they have heard this music before. Indeed, this CD is worth owning for the symphony’s finale alone (and kudos to the producers: there was a famous nine-minute ovation at the end of the performance, and it is included here, but as a separate band, for those who may want to revel in the symphony’s ending without the overwhelming applause afterwards). However, Shaw was in many respects an old-school conductor – perhaps one reason that he garnered some well-known praise from Toscanini – and it is clear that he sees the finale of the Ninth as the whole point of the work, to such an extent that the first three movements are comparatively drab. This used to be a standard view of the symphony, but in recent decades the excellences and innovations of the first three movements have been more closely studied and more fully explored in performances. Shaw’s handling of them is comparatively perfunctory: everything is where it belongs, but there is little of the intensity and sense of drama and delight that Shaw brings so wonderfully to the work’s conclusion. There is no question that the finale of this Beethoven Ninth deserves the reputation it has retained for more than 25 years: it is a capstone not only for the work itself but, as intended, for Shaw’s leadership in Atlanta. The overall performance of the Ninth, however, deserves more-muted respect: it is fine, nicely paced and well-played, but it is only in the last movement that everything comes together in a blaze of glory. Listeners who prefer a Beethoven Ninth approach of this sort will delight in this one.

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