July 26, 2018
(++++) SYMPHONIC PERSPECTIVES AND OTHERS
Bruckner: Symphony No. 8, 1890 version. Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Mariss Jansons. BR Klassik. $16.99.
Salomon Jadassohn: Symphony No. 1; Serenades Nos. 1-3; Serenade for Flute and Strings; Piano Concerto No. 1. Rebecca Hall, flute; Valentina Seferinova, piano; Malta Philharmonic conducted by Michael Laus and Marius Stravinsky; Belarussian State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marius Stravinsky; Karelia State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Denis Vlasenko. Cameo Classics. $18.99 (2 CDs).
Hugo Alfvén: Symphony No. 1; Drapa; Midsommarvaka. Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Łukasz Borowicz. CPO. $16.99.
John Harbison: Symphony No. 4; Steven Stucky: Second Concerto for Orchestra; Carl Ruggles: Sun-Treader. National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic conducted by David Alan Miller. Naxos. $12.99.
The scope of communication possible within a symphony is so wide that, even if a symphonic work does not quite encompass the whole world as Mahler said it should, a symphony can take in and explore greater emotional depths than can be found in any other instrumental music. Certainly this is the case with Bruckner’s symphonies, and in particular his Eighth, the last one he completed: his canvas here is so vast that every performance brings out different elements of the work, and the symphony can be interpreted in an hour and a quarter or in more than an hour and a half. Scarcely a compact work by any measure, Bruckner’s Eighth is bedeviled by the “version” question that emerges so often in listening to Bruckner: the original 1887 version is heard far less often than the revised 1890 one, and there is also a 1939 version (by Haas) that stakes out something of a middle ground between the two that date to Bruckner’s own lifetime. Interestingly, even when the 1890 version is played, as usually occurs, a performance such as the new one on BR Klassik, featuring Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Mariss Jansons, can make the symphony sound new and even unfamiliar. This is very much an end-weighted symphony – the whole thing builds to the finale – and this presents a significant challenge to a conductor, who needs to construct the overall edifice carefully while never losing sight of the pinnacle toward which Bruckner continuously moves. It is Jansons’ skill at doing exactly this that sets his performance apart. Throughout the first three movements and the first part of the finale, he builds individual peaks and explores Bruckner’s many themes and complex harmonies, allowing each movement to flow naturally and become a kind of edifice of its own. But at the same time, Jansons holds something in reserve – not in the playing, which is excellent throughout, but in the shaping of the symphony as a whole. The result is that each movement becomes an entirely satisfying individual experience, yet the material becomes fully clear, and indeed resplendent, only when Bruckner piles all the elements upon each other and eventually produces a genuinely overwhelming conclusion. It is extraordinary to realize that this is a live performance – but once that is accepted, the you-could-hear-a-pin-drop silence of the audience is not a surprise: Jansons pulls listeners into the music from the very first notes and never flags in keeping them involved, so that even when the work’s last phrase resounds, there is complete silence for a few moments before the applause begins. The feeling here is of being subsumed for a time within a world drawn from but not really of the mundane one, a world more expressive and rarefied than the one outside the confines of the music. At its best, when best performed, that is the effect of Bruckner’s music, and Jansons certainly brings the monumentality and intensity of Bruckner’s Eighth glowingly to life in this reading.
Given the existence of symphonies such as Bruckner’s Eighth, it is scarcely surprising that so many other works of Bruckner’s time and thereafter, no matter how well-made, tend to seem a bit pale. This explains, at least to some degree, the obscurity in modern times of fine symphonic craftsmen such as Salomon Jadassohn (1831-1902). Nevertheless, the rediscovery of a composer such as Jadassohn is something of an event, because he has faded so completely from public perception that it is hard not to expect his music to be deserving of neglect. A fine new Cameo Classics release shows Jadassohn’s just deserts to be better than would be expected – somewhat on the lighter side, true, at least when compared with music by the giants of his era, but quite pleasurable to experience and apparently written with an eye toward entertaining the music-loving public rather than plumbing substantial emotional depths. Jadassohn wrote four symphonies, the fourth being the most impressive, but even No. 1, heard on this release, has much to recommend it. Dating to 1861, it is a well-proportioned work with some clear nods to Mendelssohn – a common factor in symphonic works by composers of this time, such as Niels Gade – and an especially pleasing second-movement Scherzo. Most of the two-CD release, however, focuses on some of Jadassohn’s serenades, which are lighter works than his symphonies and in fact were often used by composers as “training grounds” of a sort for symphonic development; consider Brahms’ two and Tchaikovsky’s four in this context, for example. Like Brahms and Tchaikovsky, Jadassohn offers serenades that are very nicely crafted and, without the intensity and close relationship among movements characteristic of symphonies, are somewhat more freewheeling and quite pleasant to hear. The first serenade, known as Serenade No. 1 in 4 Canons, would seem from its title to be something of an academic exercise, and indeed Jadassohn was accused in his own time of being rather stodgy in his music. But this five-movement work is considerably lighter and airier than its designation might indicate, and its structural elements are by no means forced or ill-fitting; they simply constitute a method by which Jadassohn produces a series of pleasant effects. The second serenade, in three movements, is actually broader in conception than the first, with, again, some Mendelssohnian flavor; and the third, in four movements, offers some especially pleasing instrumentation, in which the appealing use of a triangle in the second movement stands out. The Serenade for Flute and Strings, another four-movement work, once again echoes Mendelssohn, although not in any directly imitative way, and includes a lovely Notturno and a concluding Tarantella that is a whirlwind of enjoyment. The symphony and serenades heard here are all lighter music without actually being “light” music – but Jadassohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1, although the shortest work on this recording, is of somewhat greater intensity. This is a single, fantasia-like rhapsody that structurally recalls Liszt rather than Mendelssohn (Jadassohn actually studied with Liszt for a time). The concerto is well-scored – the orchestration of all these works shows Jadassohn’s particular skill in highlighting and combining instruments – and there is plenty of virtuosity to challenge the soloist and impress the audience, although unfortunately there is also a lot of coughing from the specific audience that attended this particular 2008 performance, which was recorded live. It would be stretching things to call this piano concerto profound; in fact, nothing heard on this release merits that designation. But Jadassohn’s music gives considerable pleasure even though it does not engage the senses strongly or delve into depth in anything approaching the manner of the greater symphonists of Jadassohn’s time.
There is a great deal of enjoyment to be had as well in the works of Swedish composer Hugo Alfvén (1872-1960), but here too one should not expect too much of an initial symphonic endeavor. Alfvén’s First Symphony dates to 1896, the year of Bruckner’s death and two years before the first symphony by a better-known Nordic composer, Jean Sibelius (whose first language was Swedish even though he became so strongly involved with Finnish nationalism). The Alfvén work is an even more youthful endeavor than that of Sibelius, which dates to Sibelius’ early 30s: Alfvén was just 24 when he created this piece. So it would be unreasonable to expect unique, fully formed style at this juncture – and yet there is enough of it to make the work a very pleasant surprise. It is a large-scale piece, although scarcely in Brucknerian terms, more closely approximating the length of the earlier Sibelius symphonies. And like those, it incorporates a certain amount of Nordic folk material, rhythmically and in atmosphere if not in terms of explicit quotations. The symphony’s first three movements have a great deal to recommend them: as Sibelius was to eschew an orchestral tutti at the start of his first symphony in favor of a lengthy clarinet solo, so Alfvén opens his work with solo cello – after an impressive timpani roll that sets the stage for a serious, even solemn symphony rather than one along the lines of Haydn’s No. 103. The Nordic feeling of the first movement is evident, and after a slow movement immersed in melancholia (but not deep sorrow), there is an effective folk-dance-like Scherzo that again has nationalistic overtones. Alfvén, however, shows less confidence in the symphony’s finale, which is also a dance but which is rather foursquare and characterless. Still, the work marked a strong start to what would eventually be a set of five symphonies – all of which will be released by CPO, which has found an adept conductor of the music in Łukasz Borowicz, who brings forth the typically smooth and polished playing of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin to fine effect. The CD also includes an occasional piece that is dark and moody without being especially evocative of sorrow: Drapa, a solemn work whose title refers to an old Icelandic verse form. This piece dates to 1908 and was dedicated to the memory of King Oscar II, who had died the previous year. It is a suitable work for its purpose, but one of no particular distinction. However, the much lighter Midsommarvaka (“Midsummer Vigil”) is impressive – in a very different way, to be sure. This is a piece, dating to 1903, that opens with one of those tunes that listeners will be 100% sure they know well and have heard before, even if they never knew of the work’s existence. From that decidedly upbeat beginning, Midsommarvaka bubbles along through a series of impressions of summer celebrations among young Swedes, including dancing and drinking and lovemaking and even a certain degree of not-very-serious fighting. Alfvén once offered a detailed storyline for the work, but he also said the work has no particular program, so it is not known how seriously to take his explanatory material. Nor does it really matter: the music speaks effectively for itself, telling a story of joy, exuberance and largely uninhibited pleasure in the inevitably short Nordic summers.
Symphonic stories continue to be told in the 21st century, by composers such as John Harbison (born 1938) – who has already written six symphonies, each with its own distinct character. The Fourth, dating to 2004, appears on an interestingly varied Naxos CD featuring the National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic conducted by David Alan Miller. It is a five-movement work lasting about as long as Jadassohn’s First Symphony but partaking, unsurprisingly, of a very different harmonic and emotional language. Indeed, the emotionalism of the fourth-movement Threnody is the heart of the piece and its most effective element: thoughtful, lyrical, a touch sad and almost but not quite depressive. The rest of the work goes in different directions, though, and the result is a bit of a hodgepodge: the other movements do not really support the emotional communicativeness of the Threnody. A bright and jazzy first movement is followed by a somewhat inward-looking but rather unfocused Intermezzo, then by a singularly humorless (if energetic) Scherzo; and the finale is not so much a summation as a change of focus. Although well-played, the symphony is not especially convincing experientially, and indeed might better be labeled a suite than a symphonic work. Also on this (+++) CD is Second Concerto for Orchestra (2004) by Steven Stucky (1949-2016) – a piece whose third and final movement has something in common with Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra in its use of thematic fragments, but whose overall impression is of a work rather too enamored of its own cleverness. The piece is challenging to perform and may be more enjoyable for the participants than for the audience. The third work on this CD fits uneasily with the other two: it is Sun-Treader, the best-known piece by Carl Ruggles (1876-1971) and a notoriously hard nut to crack. Actually, in that respect the work is reflective of the prickly and difficult Ruggles himself: he completed fewer than 20 works in his long life, and was as well-known for his ability as an artist – and for his profanity and racist outbursts – as for his musical compositions. Like Anton Webern, Ruggles, to the extent that he can be characterized at all, was a miniaturist: Sun-Treader is his longest work, lasting (in this performance) 15½ minutes. It is an extended intervallic sequence characterized by an ongoing series of ascending and descending pitches, a difficult work to grasp and understand (if “understanding” was ever Ruggles’ purpose) and a complex one to play. It sounds quite good in this reading and seems comparable in some respects to some of the music by Ruggles’ sometime friend, Edgard Varèse – although it is very much unlike the music of Charles Ives, who was two years Ruggles’ senior and the only composer Ruggles professed to admire. This CD as a whole is a fine showcase for the performers. But it has a somewhat disconnected feeling about it that makes it less than fully rewarding for listeners, except insofar as they enjoy the first-rate playing for its own sake.