July 21, 2016
(++++) ROMANTIC AND POST-ROMANTIC
Mahler: Symphony No. 10 (version by Deryck Cooke). Seattle Symphony conducted by Thomas Dausgaard. Seattle Symphony Media. $16.99.
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto; Brahms: Symphony No. 2. Chloë Hanslip, violin; Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Beau Fleuve. $17.
Schumann: Cello Concerto; Dvořák: Cello Concerto. Carmine Miranda, cello; Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský. Navona. $14.99.
John Corigliano: Symphony No. 1; Michael Torke: Bright Blue Music; Copland: Appalachian Spring—Suite. National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic conducted by David Alan Miller. Naxos. $12.99.
Arthur Butterworth: Symphonies Nos. 1, 2 and 4. BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arthur Butterworth (No. 1) and Christopher Adey (No. 2); BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bryden Thomson (No. 4). Lyrita. $14.99 (2 CDs).
Rudolf Haken: Music for Viola. Rudolf Haken, viola; Rachel Jensen, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Leonard Bernstein: Larger Than Life—A Film by Georg Wübbolt. C Major DVD. $24.99.
The pull of the Romantic era extended well beyond the 19th century, with which it is usually associated, and indeed continues in the 21st. The bending of form to emotional expressiveness, one of the most salient characteristics of Romanticism, continues to attract composers even as their techniques for evoking expression evolve. Thus, those who try to determine a Romantic endpoint are doomed to failure. Was Sibelius, who died in 1957, the last Romantic? Then what about Einojuhani Rautavaara, also Finnish, born in 1928 and self-described as a Romantic? He still writes music with a Romantic bent – and Sibelius himself stopped composing anything new of significance about the time Rautavaara was born. Perhaps Rachmaninoff, who died in 1943 and wrote his final work, the Symphonic Dances, in 1940, was the last of his kind? But there is really no “last.” There are only composers who accepted, adopted and adapted the approaches and techniques of Romanticism and bent them to their will in new ways, whether by deliberately turning their backs on key elements (as Schoenberg did) or by accepting those elements and giving them a new, distinctive and highly personal stamp (as Mahler did). Mahler’s unfinished Symphony No. 10 manages to be both a pinnacle of Romanticism and a very clear bridge beyond it. It is a work whose artist-as-tragic-hero elements are abundantly clear, to an even greater degree than in his Sixth Symphony: by the time of the Tenth, Mahler’s wife, Alma, was having an affair with the architect Walter Gropius and Mahler was desperately trying to cope. Mahler’s final symphony is both intensely emotional (and emotive) and extremely carefully structured. It is an arch whose central movement, “Purgatorio,” is the shortest symphonic movement that Mahler ever wrote; and it is a work whose unique-in-Mahler elements range from an extremely dissonant climactic first-movement chord to the genuinely eerie sound of a muffled bass drum at the conclusion of the fourth movement and in the fifth. It seems inevitable that the symphony end peacefully but with a measure of inconclusiveness, and it does, in a quietly ambivalent close. Mahler completed the first and third movements of his Tenth and left the others tantalizingly close to being playable. The first and still best performing version of the entire symphony, by Deryck Cooke, is spare, at times even harsh, in ways that show how far past Romanticism Mahler looked in this work – or would have looked if he had finished it as Cooke did. Of course that would not have happened, but perhaps Mahler would have made his Tenth even more intensely ascetic than it is in Cooke’s performing version. It is best to regard Cooke’s Mahler Tenth as a very fine completion of an extended sketch of a work whose shape Mahler had determined but whose ultimate orchestration and overall sound would likely have been different in important respects from the ones Cooke proffers. Yet ultimately this does not matter: Mahler, whose temperament was even more wholly Romantic than his techniques, so clearly communicates anguish and uncertainty in his Tenth that a conductor has only to follow the music, scarcely to lead it, for it to have a deeply moving effect. Thomas Dausgaard seems fully to understand the emotional underpinnings of the Tenth, and his live November 2015 performance with the Seattle Symphony, presented on the orchestra’s own label, glows with fine playing, abundant emotional involvement and a clearly articulated sense of the music’s careful structure. This is in every way a very fine Mahler Tenth – not the one Mahler would have created if he had lived to and beyond his 51st birthday, but as convincing a reading of this more-than-sketched, less-than-finished work as listeners are likely to encounter.
Backing up a few decades into the height of Romanticism lands listeners amid some of the most popular classical works of all time – which retain their appeal despite the many, many times audiences have heard them both in concerts and in recorded form. The opportunity to make a new recording of such works can be irresistible, but it is one best approached cautiously, since the bar for a quality performance is extremely high when a work has been played and recorded so many times. The new Buffalo Philharmonic recording of Brahms and Tchaikovsky, offering readings recorded live in January 2016 on the orchestra’s Beau Fleuve label, has one hit and one miss and gets a (+++) rating. The Tchaikovsky concerto is a delight. Twenty-nine-year-old Chloë Hanslip treats this work by the 38-year-old composer as a burst of youthful joy and passion, subsuming its darker elements beneath warmth, lyricism and a joie de vivre that one rarely experiences in Tchaikovsky but that makes perfect sense in this particular piece. JoAnn Falletta goes along with and helps heighten the effect of the interpretation with accompaniment that carefully includes Hanslip’s instrument at times and holds back and thus heightens the soloist’s effects at others. Ultimately this is a superficial performance, making no attempt to discover, much less plumb, any depths in the concerto. But this piece happens to be one that can survive and even thrive under this kind of treatment, especially when the soloist simply sounds so good. The orchestra sounds excellent here as well, with plenty of warmth and fine ensemble work. It almost seems to be a different orchestra and a different conductor in Brahms’ Symphony No. 2. This reading is a genuine disappointment, almost wholly without warmth and filled with the sort of unnecessary rubato that lesser conductors use to try to heighten audience involvement but to which a leader of Falletta’s caliber should not have to resort. The very end of the symphony, for example, proves only that the musicians can stay together at a breakneck pace that is wholly inappropriate for the music. Also, for some reason, Falletta omits the exposition repeat in the first movement – a serious error that badly damages the expansiveness of the movement and the overall balance of all the symphony’s elements. Falletta is better than this. So is Brahms.
A new Navona CD includes two other highly popular and very Romantic concertos, those for cello by Schumann and Dvořák, and here too one performance is more attractive than the other – although the disparity is less than in the Buffalo Philharmonic’s case. Carmine Miranda, another superb twentysomething soloist (he is 26), is filled with fire and expressiveness in the Dvořák. There is nothing surface-level here: Miranda delves deeply into the work’s emotional core, contrasting its occasional ebullience with a level of dark intensity that never seems far away. Many cellists emphasized the considerable disparity between the basic march tune and the emotion-soaked slow section in the final movement, but Miranda goes beyond this, finding similar antitheses throughout the work and highlighting them again and again. This is an unusual interpretation and one that bears repeated listening. The Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under Petr Vronský is not quite as convincing as is Miranda – tutti passages here will often make listeners eager for a return of the soloist – but the musicians’ playing is very good and quite idiomatic, even if the conducting is rather foursquare. Soloist and conductor seem more fully attuned to each other in the Schumann concerto, but the result is a somewhat weaker reading of this work than the Dvořák receives. Miranda’s approach is similar: he looks for areas of strong contrast and seeks to highlight them repeatedly. But Schumann’s concerto is more thoroughly through-composed than Dvořák’s and offers fewer opportunities for delving into disparate moods and emotions. Here Miranda’s handling of the concerto seems somewhat forced, as if he is trying to make Schumann’s expressiveness into something akin to Dvořák’s when in fact it is quite different. Again, the interpretation is unusual and interesting enough to be worth hearing repeatedly, and the CD deserves a (++++) rating for its innovation as well as the sheer quality of Miranda’s playing. But on balance, the intriguing approach here fits Dvořák more comfortably than it fits Schumann.
Romantic expressiveness, if not the officially designated Romantic era, persisted into a time very remote from that of Schumann and Dvořák. By the late 1980s, nearly a century after Dvořák’s Cello Concerto and more than that after Schumann’s, a distinctly modern composer, John Corigliano (born 1938), turned to a Romantic form and approach to communicate the same sort of strong emotions for which Romantic music is known – but using techniques honed many decades later. Composed in 1988 and first heard in 1993, Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 used a very large, certainly late-Romantic-scale orchestra to try to express feelings associated with what he described as a “world-scale tragedy,” in the form of AIDS. This is essentially a war symphony, of AIDS as a war against Corigliano’s friends and of the medical war against the disease. Corigliano uses an orchestra large even by Mahlerian standards, primarily because of a gigantic percussion component that includes two glockenspiels, crotales, two vibraphones, xylophone, marimba, chimes, snare drum, three tom-toms, three roto-toms, field drum, tenor drum, three bass drums, suspended cymbal, tam-tam, three temple blocks, tambourine, anvil, metal plate, brake drum, triangle, flexatone, police whistle, whip, and ratchet – plus harp, piano, four mandolins and a large complement of more-traditional orchestral instruments. But where Mahler used his huge orchestras primarily as extended chamber groups, presenting individual elements within them with tremendous delicacy and using the full instrumental complement with care and in contrast to the sections involving relatively few instruments, Corigliano goes for all-out intensity and noise time and again, seeking an epic scale by piling on climax after climax at insistently high volume. The symphony is filled with personal references, not personal to Corigliano himself, as in Mahler’s works (which are largely about himself), but references to three specific people who died of AIDS and were meaningful to the composer. Listeners need to know the references to get the full effect of the music – one reason this rather bloated symphony has not aged very well, even when played as effectively as it is on a new Naxos recording by the National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic conducted by David Alan Miller. For all its brashness and intensity, the symphony is less effective than another work on the CD, Michael Torke’s Bright Blue Music (1985), which offers a much more downplayed form of Romantic-style communication through its lyricism and beauty. And the simplicity of the suite from Copland’s well-known Appalachian Spring (1945) trumps both the newer works precisely because of its simplicity: the music is actually constructed with great skill, but it does not constantly call attention to itself and its message, instead unfolding with balletic warmth and a deliberately naïve but nevertheless heartfelt style of communication that shows one effective direction composers were able to use when going beyond Romanticism while not abandoning some of its precepts, such as tonality. The orchestra here is made up of conservatory students, and it sounds fine in all these pieces; the CD as a whole gets a (+++) rating because the three works on it fit rather uneasily together and the main piece, Corigliano’s, simply does not wear very well in its overdone intensity.
Corigliano is not, by a long shot, the only post-Romantic composer to have gravitated to the symphony when seeking to communicate on a large scale. The relatively little-known British composer Arthur Butterworth (1923-2014) composed seven symphonies, along with more than 150 other works in forms usually thought of as Romantic (including concertos for violin, viola, cello, guitar, bassoon, trumpet and organ). Like Charles Ives in the United States, Butterworth was inspired by band music, becoming a trombone, cornet and trumpet player because of his love of the sound of massed brass. Although he was a professional orchestral trumpeter for a time, he gave up performing when in his late 30s in order to focus on composition. His works are well-constructed and show considerable sensitivity to the real-world requirements of performance. A new two-CD release on the Lyrita label offers the unusual chance to hear three Butterworth symphonies and listen to the composer himself conducting his favorite, the First, which was his breakthrough work. This symphony was first played in 1957. This recording, from 1976, is unfortunately of poor quality (it was made from a BBC transmission), but it is an interesting historical documentation of music that might be called post-post-Romantic – because the symphony, with its strong British and Scandinavian flavor, clearly recalls (but does not slavishly imitate) Vaughan Williams, Sibelius and Nielsen, each of whom found his own way past the Romantic era and into new forms of symphonic expressiveness. Butterworth’s Symphony No. 2 (1964), heard here in a 1975 performance, offers less tone-painting and a greater sense of drama and lyricism in a kind of film-music package. It is a work of considerable variety, with pastoral elements, periods of calm, folklike material, a bit of a march, and an effective contrast of jollity and solemnity. Symphony No. 4 (1986), presented here in a recording of its première performance, is closer to No. 1 in spirit, the first movement in particular reminiscent of Sibelius (the ostinato passages are directly in the Finnish composer’s debt) but with a Nielsen-like passage of insistent timpani at its climax. The second movement starts suspensefully, then lightens; the third has stillness at its core but is occasionally interrupted by brass outbursts using more-dissonant harmonies than Butterworth generally employed; and the finale, a moto perpetuo, recalls elements of the first three movements and whirls to a well-wrought climax. Strictly in performance terms, this is the best reading of the three here, but all the recordings, despite some technical imperfections, are well worth having for anyone interested in exploring Butterworth’s music. The limited reach of the composer, and the less-than-ideal sound, make this a (+++) recording, but it is one well worth hearing for those interested in 20th-century British symphonies as they evolved from works of the Romantic era.
Butterworth was unapologetic about writing music that remained largely within the Romanic purview. The same is true of Rudolf Haken (born 1965), a fine violist whose early works for his favored instrument – heard on a new MSR Classics CD – are so firmly within Romanticism as to qualify as throwbacks. Four of the five pieces here are the creations of a teenager – a remarkably skilled one who, by age 10, had conducted his own orchestral music. The most-recent work on the CD is Polonaise for Viola and Piano (1990), a virtuoso showpiece filled with unexpected harmonic and rhythmic twists. It keeps sounding as if it is veering off the tracks into unexpected territory, then abruptly pulls back, as if Haken is having fun at the expense of performer and listener alike. It contrasts well with Für Fritz (1980), also for viola and piano, a playful, harmonically rich and very difficult display piece in the Kreisler mode, filled with chromaticism and delicacy that are almost impossible to balance – although Haken himself clearly knows how to produce the effects he wants. This is the earliest work on the CD: Haken was 14 when he wrote it. The remaining three pieces here – all five works are world première recordings – date to only one year later, 1981. One is the Suite in A minor for Solo Viola, a classy updating of the Baroque suite that invites, indeed requires, Romantic interpretation: there is some of the poise of Bach and Telemann here, and the movements’ dance titles are those of the old suites, but the music itself has definite Romantic flair and expressiveness. Also here is Fantasia in F-sharp minor for Viola and Piano, an easier work to play than some of the others on the CD, but no less attractive for its comparative simplicity. Indeed, the grace of its first movement, brevity and panache of its Scherzo, lyricism of its Adagio and drama of its finale make it a particularly satisfying piece for both performer and listener. The last work on this (++++) disc is Sonata in D minor – Haken has a notable fondness for minor keys, another of his Romantic leanings. This is the longest and most substantial piece on the CD, its three movements running a full half-hour and requiring intensity of focus from both violist and pianist (Rachel Jensen is a very fine accompanist and partner throughout the recording). The sonata is firmly Romantic in structure and almost equally so in tonality. The first movement uses sonata form effectively and includes a nicely integrated central fugato section; the second is a well-wrought theme and variations; and the finale is all energy and joy – a very impressive conclusion to a work that it is hard to believe was created by a contemporary composer in his mid-teens. Haken has moved away from Romanticism more recently, falling into the now-familiar contemporary habit of mixing classical elements with ones from genres such as jazz, rock and Oriental music. But his early and largely Romantic viola works are in many ways more intriguing than his later ones, because they explore territory on which so many modern composers have turned their backs and show that there is still a great deal to be said in the Romantic idiom.
Romanticism had its time on the podium as well as in composition – indeed, Mahler as composer-conductor exemplified it in both venues. In more-recent times, another composer-conductor was often considered to be the epitome of the Romantic temperament. That was Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), a strong advocate and prolific conductor of Mahler’s music and a podium showman whose excesses and exploits have been the stuff of musical legend for decades. There have been many attempts to explore Bernstein’s complex personality, none of them fully satisfying but virtually all offering some degree of insight. A 52-minute documentary by Georg Wübbolt fits the pattern well, if not particularly innovatively. It offers the usual mixture of scenes of Bernstein, snippets of his activities (conducting and otherwise), background on his life and his musical interests, and comments by those who knew and interacted with him. Actually, the film is most notable for those comments, because there are so many of them – not only from fellow conductors (Gustavo Dudamel, Kent Nagano, Marin Alsop, Christoph Eschenbach) and from Bernstein’s own children but also from members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Additional comments by Dudamel, Nagano and Alsop appear in a 24-minute bonus section of the C Major DVD on which the film has been released, resulting in an hour and a quarter of material on Bernstein in all. Wübbolt makes an attempt to showcase aspects of Bernstein’s life and career that sometimes get short shrift, such as his roles as an educator and as a sort of American musical ambassador to the world. Unfortunately, this material gets short shrift here as well, since Wübbolt packs his film with so much of the usual material on Bernstein: his highly involving (and, to some, vastly overdone) podium performances; his popular compositions (but there is virtually nothing here on his more-serious, less immediately appealing music); his accomplished pianism; his use of television to reach young people; and so on. One of the things that made Bernstein a Romantic figure was his larger-than-life emoting on the podium and sometimes off it, including his willingness, even determination, to play to the largest audience possible – as when he conducted Beethoven’s Ninth after the fall of the Berlin Wall, at Christmas 1989, with "Freiheit" ("Freedom") replacing "Freude" ("Joy") in the final movement. A consummate showman, Bernstein was nevertheless not always the best advocate of the music he conducted: his many unwarranted tempo changes, his stretching and compressing of works (especially Romantic ones) in ways the composers never intended, were as much a part of his conducting as were his sometimes surprising attentiveness to music with which he was not usually identified (some of his Haydn, for example, was excellent). What Leonard Bernstein: Larger Than Life misses are some of the controversies and negatives that balance the positive elements with which the film is filled. Romantics of all kinds lived and worked on a grand scale, but their lives writ large were scarcely perfect exemplars for their time or the times that came afterwards. Wübbolt’s film is a (+++) production that plumbs no new depths where Bernstein is concerned, but does a fine and generally forthright job of showing the many ways in which he was admired and some of the many people who admired him. It will take a more nuanced director than Wübbolt to produce a more-balanced view of Bernstein, one showing how his Romantic temperament sometimes betrayed him and brought him, at least in some quarters, as much disdain as admiration – a fate indeed befitting many Romantic figures as far back as the 19th century.