May 15, 2008


Ernö von Dohnányi: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Michael Ludwig, violin; Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $8.99.

Roussel: Symphony No. 2; Pour une fête de printemps; Suite in F. Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Stéphane Denève. Naxos. $8.99.

Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony No. 2; Die glückliche Hand; Wind Quintet. Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Robert Craft (Symphony; Hand); New York Woodwind Quintet (Wind Quintet). Naxos. $8.99.

Anderson: Orchestral Music, Volume 2—Woodbury Fanfare; A Harvard Festival; Forgotten Dreams; Whistling Kettle; Horse and Buggy; The Waltzing Cat; Home Stretch; The Girl in Satin; March of the Two Left Feet; Waltz Around the Scale; Lullaby of the Drums; Jazz Legato; Jazz Pizzicato; Song of the Bells; Song of Jupiter (arranged from Handel’s “Semele”); Suite of Carols for String Orchestra. BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $8.99.

      To some extent, classical music was a reasonably monolithic force in the 19th century: most works of the post-Beethoven era are readily identifiable as to their time of origin. But music fractured in the 20th century, seeming to go in as many directions as there were composers – including the four on these fine new CDs.

      Ernö von Dohnányi (his first name is sometimes given as Ernst) continued the mainstream Germanic tradition of the 19th century all the way into the middle of the 20th. Born in 1877, he lived until 1960 but never adopted the more free-ranging approaches to tonality and rhythm that permeated music in his lifetime. Both his violin concertos have clear harmonic structures – the first is in D minor, the second in C minor – and both are recognizably late-Romantic in temperament. This is less surprising in the case of the first, written in 1915, than in that of the second, which dates to 1949. Each concerto is in four movements (not the traditional three) and has at least modest Hungarian inflections, but otherwise both fit quite comfortably into the mainstream of 19th-century Romanticism. There are distinct similarities between them – the violin’s first entrance in both is a cadenza, for example – but there are interesting differences as well, with the second having a stronger Hungarian flavor and more intriguing orchestration. Michael Ludwig plays both with commitment and sweetness of tone, and JoAnn Falletta provides strong backup with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

      The same orchestra is led by its principal conductor, Stéphane Denève, in music that Albert Roussel (1869-1937) wrote between Dohnányi’s concertos but that comes from a different sonic world. Both the Symphony No. 2 and the tone poem Pour une fête de printemps were finished in 1921, and both share structural similarities, starting with woodwinds and brooding strings and ending in plaintive mode with a return of the opening material. The symphony develops things much further, and offers an interesting three-movement structure in which 33 of its 43 minutes are in movements designated to be played slowly. These movements do contain faster sections; but the quickest movement, which is only marked Modéré, is mostly at a slow pace – the point being that Roussel sees this as an expansive symphony, in no rush to make its points. Roussel’s use of harmony was influenced by Eastern music, and it can be hard to find the emotional center of some of his work, including this symphony. Both symphony and tone poem are quite well played here, as is the somewhat later and much more compressed Suite in F (1926), whose three movements bear Baroque titles but whose sound is distinctly modern.

      It is not, though, as distinctly modern as the sound associated with Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), who really did take classical music down entirely new paths. Schoenberg’s Die glückliche Hand is the earliest work on any of these four CDs, dating to 1913, but it sounds nothing like any piece on the other three. Bass Mark Beesley and the Simon Joly Chorale sing, speak and use Sprechstimme in this compressed, partly autobiographical dramatic scene about an artist whose ego makes him seek worldly as well as spiritual success. Here and in the Chamber Symphony No. 2 (1939), Robert Craft leads the Philharmonia Orchestra with tremendous sensitivity and from a firm base of knowledge and understanding – although it would have been better if Craft’s extensive program notes had been shortened so that the texts for Die glückliche Hand could have been included. The two-movement chamber symphony is more polyphonic than atonal, with its first, slow movement being lushly melodious, although still recognizably Schoenbergian. The Wind Quintet lies between the other two works chronologically (1924) and is closer to what a listener would expect of Schoenberg, being quite atonal and requiring tremendous virtuosity from the players. There is old-style sonata form discernible here, but only for those who care to listen really closely rather than being swept away by the sheer complexity of the writing and playing.

      Next to Schoenberg, Leroy Anderson (1908-1975) may seem a complete throwback, and a trivial one at that; but this is quite unfair to him, as would a similar assessment be to 20th-century British light-music composer Eric Coates or to 19th-century light-music masters, from the Strauss family to Hans Christian Lumbye. Writing mostly in the 1950s and 1960s, Anderson simply operated in a different sphere from composers such as Dohnányi, Roussel and Schoenberg, highlighting yet another direction for the music of the 20th century. The second volume of Naxos’ planned series of all Anderson’s orchestral works shows both the strengths and the weaknesses of his generally lighthearted, tuneful approach. It works beautifully when painting a scene (Horse and Buggy), creating musical jokes (Waltz of the Two Left Feet and The Waltzing Cat, at the end of which the feline is chased away by a dog), and provoking nostalgic reflection (Forgotten Dreams). It is less successful when it aims higher, as in Anderson’s

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