September 14, 2017
(++++) THE RUSSIANS, THE AMERICANS, THE ENGLISH
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 2; Études-tableaux, Op. 33; arrangement of Kreisler: Liebesleid; arrangement of Franz Behr: Lachtäubchen, “Polka de W.R.” Boris Giltburg, piano; Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Carlos Miguel Prieto. Naxos. $12.99.
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5; Barber: Adagio. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conducted by Manfred Honeck. Reference Recordings. $19.98 (SACD).
The All-Star Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz: Programs 13 & 14; 15 & 16. Naxos DVDs. $22.99 each.
The broadly emotive nature of the Russian repertoire during the tremendous upheaval of late czarist times and the Soviet years continues to give musicians extraordinary opportunities to produce evocative and deeply satisfying performances. Pianist Boris Giltburg rises to this challenge yet again with his latest foray into the field for Naxos. This time he offers a strongly virtuosic, deeply emotional and satisfyingly unmawkish approach to the familiar Piano Concerto No. 2, producing a reading that emphasizes the grandeur and intensity of the first movement, which is taken at a slightly slower tempo than usual, with the result that all three movements are almost the same length. This leads to a rendition that is more tightly knit and carefully structured than those that the concerto often receives – it is easy for the work to spiral out of control into overstated turbulence, but Giltburg will have none of this, insisting on the concerto’s structural integrity throughout and handling its formidable technical demands on the basis that they exist to elucidate the composer’s communicative desires rather than simply as virtuosic display. This is a very thoughtful approach to the concerto, one in which Carlos Miguel Prieto and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra provide solid if not particularly idiomatic backup – lusher strings and a broader, warmer brass section would better have matched Giltburg’s approach. Nevertheless, this is a very fine recording, and the CD gets even better when Giltburg performs on his own in the Études-tableaux, Op. 33. As in his previously released recording of the Études-tableaux, Op. 39, Giltburg approaches the eight Op. 33 pieces (the original No. 4 is lost) with sculptural elegance, shaping the music carefully: Nos. 1 and 8 here clearly show Rachmaninoff’s debt to Chopin, while the exceptionally difficult No. 6 shows why it is nicknamed “The Snow Storm” in Russia – Giltburg’s octave leaps and right-hand travel up and down the whole keyboard sound like nothing less than a blizzard. Two interesting encores complete this very attractive CD. One is Rachmaninoff’s arrangement of Fritz Kreisler’s charming Liebesleid, reinterpreted by the Russian with some unusual harmonies, and the other is Rachmaninoff’s delightful version of Franz Behr’s Lachtäubchen (Scherzpolka), known as “Polka de W.R.” in a tribute to Rachmaninoff’s father, using the spelling Wassily Rachmaninoff to produce the letters of the title. The two short pieces make for a very effective contrast, the former gently sorrowful (the title is Liebesleid, “Love’s Sorrow,” not Liebeslied, “Love Song”) and the latter light and bright. Clearly Giltburg has considerable affinity for Rachmaninoff in all the composer’s moods.
The appeal of Shostakovich to Manfred Honeck is somewhat more intellectual and rarefied. The first-rate playing of the Pittsburgh Symphony on a new Reference Recordings SACD of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 is only part of the experience here. What makes the recording stand out is the opportunity not only to hear this now-familiar symphony but also to understand why a knowledgeable conductor handles it in his particular way. Honeck’s well-thought-out, scholarly booklet notes explain in considerable detail what he sees and hears in this symphony, what he thinks Shostakovich put into it, and what he believes the audience should take from it. It is up to readers/listeners to decide whether they agree or disagree with Honeck’s written and musical approach – for example, the first movement here is considerably stretched, to a greater extent than is the first movement of Giltburg’s Rachmaninoff concerto. Whether or not Honeck’s pacing works will depend on whether listeners find it a touch too deliberate or whether they see it as building tension effectively and exploring niches within the music with great care. Of course, Honeck argues that the effect is the latter, but the performance itself needs to be convincing whether or not listeners have read the conductor’s arguments. Similarly, Honeck’s remarks on the many ways in which he sees Mahler’s influence in this symphony may shed new light on Shostakovich’s thinking at this time – or may seem to be pushing an analytical point too far. Listeners need to hear how Honeck incorporates his thoughts on the Mahler/Shostakovich connection to decide how well this performance works. Similarly, Honeck’s assertion that the symphony’s third movement is its heart and is free of double meanings, while the finale is fraught with duplicity and sarcasm, is well-argued – but needs to convince listeners based on the music alone. This recording offers a rare chance to get inside the mind of a thoughtful and experienced conductor, understand what he is trying to evoke from specific music and why, and decide on one’s own whether his approach is intellectually correct and emotionally satisfying. It is a fascinating experience – and the top-notch playing of the orchestra certainly strengthens Honeck’s arguments. The Russian (actually Soviet) nature of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 is paired rather oddly here with that of American composer Samuel Barber’s Adagio, the orchestral version of the second movement of his String Quartet, Op. 11. This is a work that is straightforwardly sad (more so in orchestral than quartet guise) and has none of the odd balancing of forthrightness and ironic ambiguity found in the Shostakovich Fifth. Here Honeck argues, not entirely convincingly, that the text chosen by Barber for an a cappella version of the movement – the Agnus Dei from the Catholic Mass – was in Barber’s mind when he first composed the movement for string quartet. Again, though, Honeck’s thinking is worth considering, and the dramatic expressiveness of his performance is convincing in and of itself.
Russian and American composers – and British ones, too – are represented in the two latest volumes of The All-Star Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz on Naxos DVDs. These are the seventh and eight entries in a series in which Schwarz explores a variety of forms of musical communication with an orchestra whose members are drawn from the ranks of multiple U.S. ensembles – and who play efficiently, if not always passionately. These offerings are essentially a modernized update of the famous Leonard Bernstein Young People’s Concerts that ran from 1958 to 1972. However, commentary in the Schwarz series is by composers, performers and various experts rather than – as in Bernstein’s material – by the conductor himself. And unlike Bernstein, Schwarz offers programs designed for listeners of all ages, not just young people – and, more intriguingly, sometimes mixes well-known works from the standard concert repertoire with new pieces that even people steeped in classical music may never have heard before. And all the pieces are performed complete. Bernstein’s programs reached across age lines by virtue of the strength of Bernstein’s personality and the excellence of his conducting. Schwarz is a lesser conductor and by no means a raconteur, but his shows reach across generational lines as well – because of the choice of music and form of commentary. The Schwarz shows are much better produced – they were done in HD with 19 cameras – although the extensive technical capabilities are not always fully utilized to explore elements of the music. The seventh DVD, including programs 13 and 14, has a strong Russian accent, including (as program 13) Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (in the familiar Ravel orchestration) and excerpts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. There is interesting complementarity in program 14, which is devoted to a single work: Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2. Given the fraught and difficult relationship between Russia and Sibelius’ Finland, this entire DVD can be said to cast light on Russian elements in music, although in Sibelius’ case, the nationalistic composer was primarily concerned with driving a wedge between Finland and its Russian occupiers. The orchestra plays all the music well, although the Sibelius is somewhat lacking in the broad grandeur with which the composer paints his very expansive canvas. All three works on this seventh DVD are well-known, but Schwarz returns to his periodic habit of mixing better-known and less-known music when it comes to the eighth All-Star Orchestra DVD. Program 15 is distinctly British, including Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra – a piece that could more appropriately have led off the entire series of these performances, being an excellent jumping-off point into orchestral playing not only for young people but also for older ones unfamiliar with classical music. The orchestra gives spirited performances of both works and appears especially to enjoy the Britten, which, after all, is supposed to be enjoyable. Program 16 is the one on this DVD with less-known material, starting with American composer Alan Hovhaness’ Symphony No. 2, “Mysterious Mountain.” The piece seems less forward-looking today than it did when created in 1955: it anticipated the spiritual and meditative music of several later composers, but now seems rather awkwardly put together, uncertain in its attempts to blend Eastern mysticism and Western symphonic structure. The more-interesting work in program 16 is the unpublished Jubilee Variations by British composer/conductor Eugene Goossens (1893-1962) – a piece to which 10 of Goossens’ friends contributed in somewhat the same way that multiple composers created parts of Liszt’s Hexameron, which Liszt then turned into a unified entirety. The Jubilee Variations are only nominally British music, since the composers represented are all American: Aaron Copland, Deems Taylor, Howard Hanson, Walter Piston, William Schuman, Roy Harris, Anis Fuleihan (actually born in Cyprus), Bernard Rogers, Ernest Bloch (born in Switzerland), and Paul Creston. Unsurprisingly given their title, the Jubilee Variations are generally upbeat and bright, although some are colored by wartime worry and uncertainty (the work dates to 1944). It is the chance to hear this piece and the Hovhaness symphony that makes the eighth DVD in this series so intriguing; the seventh DVD, in contrast, is fine, but it is rather straightforward in repertoire and performances. The recordings of The All-Star Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz remain excellent ways for people unfamiliar with classical music to learn about it in an enjoyable rather than strictly educational way. These DVDs are not as groundbreaking as the Bernstein concerts that are their musical and educational heritage, but they are uniformly well-produced, well-played and packed with commentary that can help make classical music as understandable and vibrant in the 21st century as Bernstein’s TV shows made it in the 20th.