November 15, 2007


Ries: Flute Quartets Nos. 1-3, Op. 145. John Herrick Littlefield, flute; Aaron Boyd, violin; Ah Ling Neu, viola; Yari Bond, cello. Naxos. $8.99.

Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsodies for Orchestra, Nos. 1-6. Staatskapelle Weimar conducted by Arthur Fagen. Naxos. $8.99.

Stanford: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 5. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Lloyd-Jones. Naxos. $8.99.

      The boundaries of the Romantic era run roughly from Beethoven’s time (1820s), past the end of the 19th century, and some distance into the 20th (Rachmaninoff, one of the last of the great Romantic composers, lived until 1943). Romantic music is scarcely monolithic, but it has certain characteristics, emotional and structural, that are recognizable in the early, middle and late years of its age.

      Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838), friend and biographer of Beethoven, represents the early years. His three quartets for flute and strings are among his late works and postdate anything by Beethoven, who died in 1827. But they are only tentative forays into Romanticism, retaining a great deal of the poise and balance that were the hallmarks of the earlier Classical era. The first, in C major, actually includes a quotation from Mozart’s “Dissonant” quartet in its slow movement, and in general one hears the strains of a more bewigged time throughout the work, which ends with a distinctly Spanish-flavored finale. The second quartet, in E minor, is more serious and closer to what most people think of as Romantic temperament. Its darkness never comes close to despair, though, and often has the piquancy of earlier minor-key Mozart (say, Symphony No. 25 rather than No. 40). Both these quartets end quietly, in contrast to the third, in A major, which bounces along merrily to an uplifting conclusion. The players in the new Naxos CD of these quartets toss melodies and melodic fragments back and forth with aplomb, and the performances combine enthusiasm and lightness with a kind of wistfulness that is as close as Ries ever came in these works to full-blown Romanticism.

      Franz Liszt (1811-1886), on the other hand, is one of the most Romantic of all composers, and his 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies for piano are a high point of mid-19th-century nationalism as well. The six that were orchestrated by Franz Doppler in the 1850s, with Liszt’s help, have all the characteristics of full-blown Romantic music: sweep, style, grand (even overblown) emotion, orchestral color, and tremendous dynamism. Staatskapelle Weimar has a deep historical connection to this music: Liszt himself directed the orchestra for a time. The playing is extraordinarily good, whether because of the orchestra itself or because of Arthur Fagen (not a particularly well known-conductor) it is impossible to say. The result is often revelatory in well-known music that one might think has little more to reveal. Fagen and the orchestra are especially good during the transitions between the slow (lassu) sections of the works and the fast (friss) ones. The attention to instrumental detail is exceptional, and while a certain level of raucousness is inevitable in these pieces (especially the sixth, “Carnival in Pest”), this recording gives the works a great deal of grandeur as well – not just in the fifth (Héroïde élégiaque) but in the third and fourth as well. This is an outstanding version of a Romantic staple.

      Late Romanticism was the province of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924), two of whose seven symphonies were written after the turn of the 20th century. No. 2, however, was first performed in 1882, and No. 5 in 1895. Both partake thoroughly of the Romantic temperament, even to the inclusion of titles: No. 2 in D minor is the “Elegiac,” prefaced in the score with words from Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,” and No. 5 in D major is “L’Allegro ed Il Penseroso,” after Milton’s paired poems. But both works are purely instrumental – and neither looks past Romanticism in any significant way. Indeed, both seem more to use rear-view mirrors, with Brahmsian brass in opening and closing movements and distinctly Mendelssohnian touches elsewhere (notably in the scherzo of No. 2). Stanford’s symphonies are very well constructed and, if one does not ask them to be more than they are, very enjoyable to listen to, especially when given performances as energetic and strongly committed as they receive from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under David Lloyd-Jones. No. 5, for example, offers effectively paired movements (the first two in “L’Allegro” mode, the second two bespeaking “Il Penseroso”). It is not as cleverly tied to its subject matter as is, for example, Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 2 (“The Four Temperaments”), written a handful of years later in 1901-2. But on its own terms, Stanford’s work is musically effective, with subtle rhythmic touches and a clever modification of traditional sonata form in the first movement. And No. 2, although not as deep as one might expect from its subtitle, is well-scaled and nicely orchestrated, with a forcefulness and energy characteristic of Romantic music in general.

No comments:

Post a Comment