February 02, 2017
(++++) HANDLING THE ORCHESTRA
Smetana: Má Vlast. Bamberger Symphoniker conducted by Jakob Hrůša. Tudor. $19.99 (SACD).
Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 1-4; Tragic Overture. Philharmoniker Hamburg conducted by Simone Young. Oehms. $19.99 (3 CDs).
Barbara Harbach: Orchestral Music III—Symphonies Nos. 7-10. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by David Angus. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Although he is only 35, Jakob Hrůša has spent the better part of a decade honing his interpretation of Smetana’s Má Vlast, which he has conducted with various orchestras of varying size, from the full-Romantic-scale to 50-or-so-member almost-chamber groups. Hrůša’s interpretation will surely evolve further over time, but at this point its outlines are already clear. It is a robust and stately reading of this massive score, with tempos on the distinctly slow side but without any feeling that the music drags. And it is a rendition in which the concluding, paired tone poems, Tábor and Blaník, get more than the usual amount of attention and emerge, as a result, as the true climax of the sprawling cycle, a capstone rather than the afterthought that the duo can become when conductors focus more strongly on the grandeur of Vyšehrad, the elegant tone painting and flow of Vltava, the drama of Šarka, and the simplicity and mellifluousness of Z českých luhů a hájů. Hrůša’s fully formed reading (at least in its current state) is impressively communicated on a new Tudor SACD on which he leads the Bamberger Symphoniker. Hrůša has conducted ensembles all over the world in this music, from Prague to Seoul, and seems unfailingly to bring forth the tone poems’ smooth flow, melodic beauty and rhythmic propulsiveness. That is certainly what he does here, and the warm strings and fine winds and brass of the orchestra give the performance an overall warmth that stands the work as a whole – and its individual component parts – in good stead. The flow of the river Vltava past the ruined castle of Vyšehrad is suitably dramatic here, and the central lyricism of Šarka is particularly well contrasted with the dynamism of the conclusion. The loveliness of the fields and meadows in Z českých luhů a hájů provides just the right respite before the intensity and strength of the concluding Tábor and Blaník, whose mythic qualities are bound up in expressive strength that the orchestra brings forth to very fine effect. There are a few conductors who, over many years, made Má Vlast a centerpiece of their careers, notably Rafael Kubelik (1914-1996) – who, like Hrůša, was Czech and seemed to have a natural affinity for Smetana’s music. It remains to be seen whether Hrůša will have a lifelong involvement with this cycle’s combination of high art and intense nationalism. At this stage, that certainly seems likely; and even if later performances contain refinements beyond those in this one, Hrůša’s reading with the Bamberger Symphoniker will stand as a very worthy and often compelling version of the music.
Far more conductors make their way through Brahms’ symphonies than Smetana’s masterpiece, but there is always room for new interpretation in a Brahms cycle – and almost always something worth discovering. In the case of Simone Young’s cycle with the Philharmoniker Hamburg on Oehms, the occasional pleasures and glimmers of insight do not quite overcome a rather ordinary overview of the music, and a rather old-fashioned one as well, paying little heed to recent discoveries regarding appropriate “period” approaches to these works. As a result, this set of performances from 2007 (No. 1), 2008 (No. 2), 2009 (Nos. 3 and 4), and 2010 (Tragic Overture) gets a (+++) rating. There are quite a few pleasures here, but they are scattered rather than consistent, and some elements of Young’s interpretations will be effective only for limited audiences. The first movement of No. 1, for example, is quite slow; whether it works will depend on whether a listener finds the overall pace plodding or lyrically evocative. The best single word for the overall feeling of this movement, whether it brings a positive reaction or a negative one, is “sober,” and that, indeed, is reflective of Young’s approach to the symphony as a whole. Sometimes the solemnity fits – the finale is well-handled – but at other times, it mixes uneasily with the music, as in the third movement, which is marked grazioso but scarcely feels graceful here. The other symphonies are also mixtures of the more and less effectual. In No. 2, the first two movements are quite expansive – all the more so because Young wisely includes the exposition repeat in the first movement – while the third does lighten up a bit; but the finale here is so rushed that the orchestra seems to struggle to keep up, and clarity is lost as a result. The Tragic Overture appears as a filler on this disc, nicely played but not especially compelling. The performance of No. 3, like that of No. 1, contains nuances whose success is a matter of opinion. For instance, the first movement strides forth boldly and with more potency than in the hands of conductors who proclaim the opening chord and then immediately slow down for emphasis – but in the transition to the second subject, Young pulls back on the tempo for no apparent reason and with no justification in the score. The best movement here is the finale, which moves ahead smartly until eventually subsiding in a convincing way. As for No. 4, it is the blandest reading here, with nothing outlandish but little that listeners will find surprising or controversial. The final variations are well contrasted, and the very end does have a kind of tragic majesty, but the rest of the interpretation, while perfectly fine, is nothing very special. Listeners with only one or a very few recordings of the Brahms cycle may nevertheless appreciate this one for some of Young’s interesting and unusual approaches – and the three-CD set’s reasonable price.
The symphony as a form continues to attract composers of all sorts, and Barbara Harbach (born 1946) seems especially interested in it, having composed 10 symphonies to date. The four most recent (2014-2015) are heard in world première recordings on a new MSR Classics CD featuring the London Philharmonic Orchestra under David Angus, and all four are well-constructed and show considerable ability in handling large orchestral forces. Harbach appears frequently on this label – this is the 11th CD devoted to her music and the third focused on her orchestral works – and inevitably shows a sure sense of style, and comfort with modern compositional techniques without slavish devotion to them. The four symphonies here are four cases in point: each is in the traditional (indeed, rather old-fashioned) three movements, each lasts 15 to 20 minutes, each is programmatic, and each sounds different from the others but recognizable as Harbach’s for those familiar with her style. The title of No. 7 (“O Pioneers!”) inevitably recalls Copland, but the music does not: the work includes material from Harbach’s 2009 opera based on Willa Cather’s novel, and manages to evoke an earlier time and place in America without sounding particularly derivative. No. 8 (“The Scarlet Letter”) is a three-movement portrait of characters in Hawthorne’s novel, with “Hester” seen in rather formulaic fashion, “Chillingworth” rendered with suitable emotional turmoil, and “Dimmesdale” given what sounds like a rather too-heroic portrayal. No. 9 (“Celestial Symphony”) is drawn from Harbach’s music for the silent film, The Birth, Life, and Death of Christ, and is the most interesting symphony here: dramatic and heartfelt as appropriate, with a strong sense of form that comes through even if a listener does not know the titles of the movements (“The Annunciation,” “Celestial Vaults” and “Temptations”). No. 10 is a strictly political work (“Symphony for Ferguson”), commissioned after riots that occurred after a petty criminal was shot and killed, possibly without sufficient justification, by a police officer. Clearly intended as a work of healing, the symphony is overdone and obvious in its inclusion of everything from Battle Hymn of the Republic to St. Louis Blues. Harbach is a skilled composer, but certainly no Charles Ives. Yet in this case it would not have hurt for her to have considered and perhaps used as a model the Ives movement From Hanover Square North, at the End of a Tragic Day, the Voice of the People Again Arose, in which the hymn In the Sweet Bye and Bye gradually emerges while train passengers absorb the news of the sinking of the Lusitania. There is both subtlety and directness in Ives that never quite emerges in Harbach’s symphony. This is a (+++) CD with numerous interesting elements, but in the long run will mostly be attractive to listeners already familiar with Harbach’s music and perhaps involved in collecting as much of it as possible.