April 04, 2019
(++++) INTERPRETATIVE RECONSIDERATIONS
Sibelius: Symphony No. 1; En Saga. Gothenburg Symphony conducted by Santtu-Matias Rouvali. Alpha. $18.99.
Mahler: Lieder aus “Des Knaben Wunderhorn.” Esther Kuiper, mezzo-soprano; Sven Weyens, bass-baritone; Maurice Lammerts van Bueren, piano. Zefir. $18.99.
Mendelssohn: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Rondo Brillant, Op. 29; Capriccio Brillant, Op. 22; Serenade and Allegro Giojoso, Op. 43. Ronald Brautigam, piano; Die Kölner Akademie conducted by Michael Alexander Willens. BIS. $19.99 (SACD).
Vivaldi: La Stravaganza—12 Concertos, Op. 4. Anton Martynov, violin; Modo Antiquo conducted by Federico Maria Sardelli. Dynamic. $24.99 (2 CDs).
Genuinely new interpretations of familiar music are bound to be controversial, which is all to the good if they reveal new qualities in well-known works or find revelatory ways to express the content of music that listeners only thought they knew well. The first disc of a planned Sibelius cycle with the Gothenburg Symphony conducted by Santtu-Matias Rouvali features both the good and not-so-good qualities of a truly new and exceptional way of handling the music. Lovers of Sibelius will not take to this recording on a first hearing, perhaps not even after several; and it is unlikely to be anyone’s first choice either for the First Symphony or for En Saga. But it is so fascinating that listeners willing to give Rouvali multiple opportunities to make the case for his approach will find themselves highly respectful of the chances he takes and the unusual overview of the music he provides. This is a very quirky Sibelius First, so filled with rubato that the movements break up into individual sections and the entire work comes across as a gigantic tone poem more than as a symphony. Rouvali emphasizes this element of his interpretation by stretching out pauses in the score to such a degree that the music repeatedly stops altogether, then starts again afresh. The uniquely intense element of the interpretation comes at the start, when the attractively played clarinet solo leads into an Allegro energico that is so energetic that it barely sounds like Sibelius at all – certainly not the controlled, rather careful Sibelius usually deemed to be still beholden to German tradition in this first of his symphonies. There is nothing smooth in this reading: it is decidedly craggy, lurching here and there rather than moving smoothly along. Rouvali takes the second movement’s tempo indication, Andante (Ma Non Troppo Lento), quite literally – there is nothing at all lento here, and even the Andante designation is a fast walk. The Scherzo has some of the lumbering-but-dancelike qualities of Bruckner, and the finale, which Sibelius created with multiple tempo changes, here has so many of them that its structure almost comes apart. By the end, when Rouvali allows the final two quiet pizzicato notes (the same ones that end the first movement) to stretch with enough silence between them so he almost seems to have forgotten the very last one, listeners will be forgiven if they are holding their breath to find out how the whole thing comes out. This is an exceptionally dramatic reading and one that, if it does not always hold together particularly well, is packed with little revelations of Sibelius’ skill in orchestration and his ability to create a multiplicity of moods. Or maybe it is Rouvali creating those moods – listeners can decide for themselves. The symphony pairs very well indeed with Rouvali’s handling of En Saga, which gets the same epic/heroic treatment and seems more comfortable with it. The sections of this extended tone poem are all explored with care and in detail, and Rouvali’s tendency to handle each of them as if it is largely independent of the others pays handsome dividends by showcasing the different forms of beauty and expressiveness that Sibelius packed into the music. This Alpha CD certainly whets the appetite for later Rouvali Sibelius releases – although if listeners find some of Rouvali’s excesses indigestible, then so be it.
A new Zefir CD of selected Mahler songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn is an “outlier” among similar recordings for different reasons. The dozen songs here are all heard with piano, not in the far-more-familiar orchestral versions that give them much of their impetus and Romantic power. Maurice Lammerts van Bueren is a very fine accompanist, but the songs do lose some heft and breadth here. However, the use of piano accompaniment is scarcely unheard-of in this repertoire and not the primary unusual element of the CD. It is the specific songs selected, and in some cases the voices chosen to sing them, that make this an unusual disc – and one that sheds some new light on Mahler’s lieder. The first and last songs here – Der Schildwache Nachtlied and Aus! Aus! – are done as duets between Esther Kuiper, whose mellow voice fits the material quite well, and Sven Weyens, who has the vocal heft for the material but sometimes sounds strained, and does not emote as well as does Kuiper (he does brashness better than humility or fear). The remaining songs, some sung solo and some as duets, are an exceptionally mixed group, and even the order of their presentation is strange. Second on the disc is Zu Straßburg auf der Schanz, a not-very-often-heard song; then comes Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht, not really a Wunderhorn song at all – it is the first of the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, and is here given, oddly, to Kuiper. Next is Revelge, one of the greatest of the Wunderhorn songs, but it sounds rather pale with piano accompaniment, and here Weyens’ voice is too rough for the plaintive and melodramatically supernatural material. Then Kuiper sings Das himmlische Leben, best known as the finale of the Symphony No. 4 – but again there is a vocal mismatch, since this is a child’s view of Heaven and should be sung with naïveté and purity, while Kuipers delivers it with womanly strength and warmth. It just does not fit. And so things go with the rest of the sequence: Wo die schönen Trumpeten blasen, Scheiden und Meiden, and then Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt, bereft in Weyens’ interpretation of more than the barest hint of sarcasm. Next is a rather colorless Nich wiedersehen! And then comes Urlicht, most familiar from Symphony No. 2 – a song that could use the full richness of Kuiper’s voice, but one in which she seems to be holding back expressively. And then, as the penultimate song, Weyens offers Lob des hohen Verstandes, in which he presents some effectively harsh braying but much less of the light touch and satire that make this ditty so delightful. The vocal shortcomings of the singers are actually rather small – they are noticeable primarily because so many really top-notch performers have presented this material – and the CD has many fine touches despite some missteps. What makes it unusual and worth attention is the uncommon chance to hear how these songs sound with piano accompaniment and the even-more-uncommon opportunity to hear an unusual (if sometimes rather misguided) selection of Mahler’s forays into Wunderhorn settings.
A new BIS recording of Mendelssohn’s piano concertos and concertante works also sheds some unexpected light on its material in ways that are interesting even if they are not always successful. Mendelssohn was a pianist himself, and wrote material for his own performances – some of it almost purely virtuosic in intent, some of it seeking greater depth. What Ronald Brautigam and Die Kölner Akademie under Michael Alexander Willens do is show to just how great an extent Mendelssohn’s piano-and-orchestra works can be taken as showpieces, tours de force intended to amaze and delight audiences without asking them to think too deeply or emote too strongly. This is not to say that these performances are superficial – they display considerable understanding of the music and are very smoothly presented – but pianist and conductor seem to have decided that the surface-level delights of the material should be paramount throughout. To some extent, the approach comes naturally in the Rondo Brillant, Capriccio Brillant, and Serenade and Allegro Giojoso: these are works whose beautiful flow and lovely themes are primarily in the service of the sort of virtuoso display designed to bring an audience to its feet in an outpouring of admiration by the end. But even in these pieces, Brautigam and Willens pull out more stops than usual – for instance, the conclusion of the Serenade and Allegro Giojoso is so speedy that it seems the orchestra must have breathed a sigh of relief at getting through it so well. The bigger question for these interpretations is how well the virtuosity-paramount approach works for the piano concertos – and that will definitely be a matter of opinion. Brautigam and Willens handle the concertos with sure-handed collaboration, and both respect Mendelssohn’s thematic beauties and the special touches the composer brings to the works, such as the different ways he interconnects the movements. That is fine – and it is also necessary, because the primary feeling that listeners will likely take from these readings is that they are fast. They are not too fast, at least in the opening and middle movements, but they are speedy enough even there to reduce Mendelssohn’s emotional expressiveness to something closer to salon superficiality. And the finales really whiz by: it is almost as if Brautigam and Willens want to find out just how far they can push the music (and the members of Die Kölner Akademie) without having everything slide off the rails. In truth, the musicians play so well that the speed becomes breathtaking and rather dizzying, and listeners will likely be as caught up in the excitement as Brautigam and Willens surely hope. Some audience members, though, after their hearts stop racing, may find themselves wondering, “Is that all there is?” In other words, is the palpable excitement of this performance enough to make it a top choice in this repertoire? As with Rouvali’s Sibelius First, this seems to be a disc that will not be most listeners’ first choice for these works but that will shed new light on the music for those who know the material well.
The performances are decidedly more sedately paced – appropriately so – on a new two-CD Dynamic release of the 12 Vivaldi concertos known as La Stravaganza. These were the concertos that firmly established Vivaldi as master of the violin concerto, setting a pattern that he was to follow – to widespread acclaim and a certain amount of controversy – for the rest of his career. This is the set of concertos into which Bach dipped twice to create harpsichord concertos of his own. And it is the first set in which Vivaldi’s focus was clearly the solo violin: 11 of the 12 are solo-violin concertos, with only No. 7 (the sole four-movement piece here) being for two violins (plus obbligato cello). What Anton Martynov and the musicians of Modo Antiquo, conducted by Federico Maria Sardelli, do so interestingly here is to show just how different the concertos are from each other. It is easy to typecast Vivaldi violin concertos, since they are generally three-movement works in a fast-slow-fast arrangement, and each lasts 10 minutes or less. But in fact the similarities are only on the surface, and these performers delve into the works’ inner structure to find the differences. That means these are performances with a great deal of subtlety, since Vivaldi’s differing rhythms, his decisions on where to produce symmetry and where to break from it, his determination of whether to call a slow movement Largo, Adagio or – in this sequence, only once – Grave, are all matters that to modern ears still leave more similarities among the pieces than differences. In Vivaldi’s own time, when the concerto format was still largely new (Vivaldi cemented it, although he was not the very first to use it), the ways in which Vivaldi made changes in the 12 La Stravaganza concertos would have fully justified calling the entirety The Extravagance and positioning this set as a worthy follower of his Op. 3, L’Estro Armonico (“The Harmonic Inspiration”). It is much harder to put all this special-ness across to modern listeners, but it is in that very effort that this beautifully balanced, well-paced and historically informed performance on original instruments excels. Martynov’s 1732 Gagliano violin fits the music with precision, and the 11-member ensemble proves the perfect size for Vivaldi’s developmental creativity, which goes just beyond chamber music but not quite into what would later be considered orchestral territory. Listeners who know Vivaldi well, and even ones who know little more than The Four Seasons, will have an experience with this recording that is a wonderful combination of listening and learning.