November 21, 2007


Bruckner: Symphony No. 4. Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hans Vonk. PentaTone. $11.99.

Gang Chen and Zhanhao He: The Butterfly Lovers—Concerto for Violin; Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto. Gil Shaham, violin; Jonathan Fox, gu ban; Nella Hunkins, cello; Ta Jin, flute; Gulia Mashurova, harp; Singapore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lan Shui. Canary Classics. $16.99.

      There is at least as much attention on the performers of the music on these CDs as there is on the music itself. Listeners interested in particular performers’ styles will generally give the recordings higher marks than those seeking enlightenment from the music; but both the CDs are more than respectable performances on all levels, and both showcase some interesting aspects of the performer-recording relationship.

      Hans Vonk conducted the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra from 1996 to 2002, when he resigned as his medical condition – amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as Lou Gehrig’s disease – continued to worsen. Vonk (1942-2004) had never before been music director of an American orchestra: he had led ensembles in Holland and Germany before taking over in Missouri. PentaTone is releasing eight CDs intended collectively as Vonk’s legacy – four this year and four next year. Vonk’s Bruckner Fourth shows just how much of his European experience he was able to bring to the United States, and how much did not translate readily. The Saint Louis Symphony sounds superb in this live recording from April 2001, with the brass choirs amazingly full and the sheer volume of sound quite astonishing. And Vonk’s attention to detail – the tiny solos that repeatedly peek out from the great masses of sound that Bruckner called for – is impressive as well. Yet the performance can scarcely be called a great one. The strings are full, but without the organ-like warmth of sound that top European orchestras seem to supply on demand and that is necessary for the best Bruckner. The performance has clarity but is somewhat lacking in drive – at the very end, for example, even the audience seems unsure that the music is really over, since the conclusion is far from decisive. The playing is mostly excellent (despite one brass miscue near the end of the scherzo), but the performance is not an idiomatic one. It is hard to know whether Vonk had little new to say about this symphony or whether the musicians could not quite say it. In either case, what this Bruckner Fourth shows is that Vonk was able to get the Saint Louis Symphony to play with huge, impressive sound, pulling all Bruckner’s themes together effectively; but the result was more a performance to admire than one to love.

      In a different way, you’ve got to admire what violinist Gil Shaham has done to make sure his own recordings are presented just as he wants them to be: he has started his own CD company. It is called Canary Classics, both for the canary’s sweet voice and because “canar” is the Hebrew word for violinist. Shaham himself is firmly at the center of the company, as is clear from the new release pairing a well-known European violin concerto with one that is extremely well-known in China but rarely heard in the West. The Butterfly Lovers is not about the passion of lepidopterists. It is a programmatic concerto in one movement, based on an ancient legend of separated lovers who, able to be united only in death, are transformed into butterflies. Written in 1959, initially celebrated with great enthusiasm but subsequently reviled during China’s Cultural Revolution, The Butterfly Lovers – separated from its social and political roots – turns out to have many endearing elements and a fascinating blend of the West (most violin techniques, sections marked with traditional Italian tempo indications) and East (use of Chinese instruments and a Chinese approach to percussion). From Shaham’s gently undulating opening, this completely tonal concerto features music so romantic and swooning that it often sounds like a film score. The violin swoops easily from intensity to lovely floating tunes, and if some effects are a little trite (grand and portentous timpani, an overdone triumphal section), others are fascinating: a resounding gong, a poignant violin solo reminiscent of Leh├ír, an intertwining of violin and cello, lovely periodic flute solos, and percussion sounds dominated by a castanet-like clacking rhythm on the clappers of the gu ban. Shaham receives superb orchestral support in this concerto from the Singapore Symphony under Lan Shui: violinist and orchestra intertwine as beautifully as do the butterfly lovers in the legend.

      The Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto has high points as well but is, all in all, less successful. There is an oddity in the recording here: when playing without the soloist, the orchestra sounds full and strong, but whenever Shaham plays, his violin is so firmly front-and-center that the orchestra seems to have retreated to a different room. This creates some real peculiarities of sonic balance. In the performance itself, the first movement is impressive, as Shaham takes a very capital-R Romantic view of the music, with lots of rubato (although not a lot in any one place). The result is an interesting performance but not a particularly perceptive one. The second movement, rather oddly, is not very small-r romantic, although it does sound pretty. And in the finale, Shaham could perhaps have used someone else as the boss to tell him to watch his playing. The fast passagework is rather slurred and sloppy, and the movement as a whole is more superficial than it needs to be. This is by no means a poor performance – and the orchestra, when playing in the clear, is really excellent – but this is not a CD to buy for Shaham’s Tchaikovsky. It is, however, one to buy in order to become familiar with the fascinations of The Butterfly Lovers.

No comments:

Post a Comment