September 18, 2008


Spohr: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 8; Concert Overture “Im ernsten Stil.” NDR Radiophilharmonie conducted by Howard Griffiths. CPO. $16.99 (SACD).

Vaughan Williams: Complete Symphonies; “The Wasps” Overture; Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1; Flos Campi. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paul Daniel (Nos. 1 and 4; Norfolk; Flos) and Kees Bakels (Nos. 2-3 and 5-9; Wasps). Naxos. $34.99 (6 CDs).

     There is considerable value to having integrated cycles of all a composer’s symphonic works: ideally, listeners get a sense of the composer’s style and development, plus music seen through a single conductor’s lens and thus reflecting a particular viewpoint on the composer’s importance and accomplishments. This is what Howard Griffiths and the NDR Radiophilharmonie are in the process of offering in their cycle of the symphonies of Louis Spohr, who is now considered a second-tier composer but who was deemed a towering symphonic figure through much of the 19th century. Like their first SACD of Spohr symphonies (which included the generally well-regarded No. 3 and the less-well-thought-of No. 10), this second volume pairs a work of substantial interest (No. 2) with a later and lesser one (No. 8). No. 2, which is in D minor (the key of Beethoven’s Ninth) and which dates to 1820 (five years before Beethoven’s last symphony), is a dramatic and tightly packed work whose themes flow with considerable intensity. The tension continues through three often innovative movements (the scherzo, for example, contrasts a theme in minor and pianissimo with the same theme in major and fortissimo); then the finale sweeps all away into good humor and considerable bounce. This is a work well worth more-frequent programming by today’s orchestras. Not so Spohr’s Symphony No.8 in G major, which has something stodgy and a bit academic about it. Its best movement is its scherzo, which is actually in 2/4 rather than 3/4 time and is in the minor – a striking movement whose quality is unmatched by the other three, which are comparatively pedestrian. The overture “In Serious Style” is also rather foursquare, sounding a bit like the Schumann of the Manfred Overture but without that work’s drive. Although well constructed, the overture is ultimately not especially effective. Still, Griffiths conducts all these pieces with seriousness and fine attention to detail, giving listeners ample opportunity to judge Spohr’s strengths and weaknesses for themselves.

     The Vaughan Williams cycle featuring the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra does not, unfortunately, present quite so much of an opportunity to evaluate the composer and his music. There have been a number of very interesting and effective Vaughan Williams cycles, notably including both a mono and a later stereo cycle by Sir Adrian Boult (who worked with the composer) and a more recent set of the symphonies by Bryden Thomsen. But the unifying force in the new set from Naxos is not a conductor but the orchestra – and the Bournemouth Symphony, although it is a fine ensemble, is not really in the absolute top rung of orchestras worldwide (nor does it compare, within England, with the Philharmonia, the London Philharmonic or the London Symphony). It is hard to tell whether either conductor in this set – Paul Daniel or Kees Bakels – has a unifying approach to the cycle, since neither gets to do the whole thing. And the cycle itself stretches over 11 years: rather than an integrated boxed set, this is simply six individually released CDs repackaged in a new cardboard cover. Symphony No. 1 was recorded in 2002; No. 2 in 1993; No. 3 in 1992; No. 4 in 2003; No. 5 in 1996; No. 6 in 1993; and Nos. 7-9 in 1996. This is by no means a disappointing set of the symphonies; it is simply an uneven one. Bakels, for example, does a fine job with No. 2, “A London Symphony,” the intense No. 6, and No. 7, “Sinfonia Antartica,” the last of these on a CD that also includes David Timson reading the movement superscriptions that Vaughan Williams included in the score. But Bakels is less effective with the greater placidity and emotional evenness of No. 3 (“Pastoral”) and No. 5. Daniel does well with the dramatic and highly dissonant No. 4, and gives an excellent reading of the first three movements of No. 1, “A Sea Symphony” – but the lengthy finale seems meandering and ends with more of a fadeout than a mystical assertion. Each symphony’s performance has elements to admire and ones that can be nitpicked. As a whole, the cycle is quite worthy, but in the absence of a unifying and unified approach to the music, it falls short of other boxed sets that more fully represent a single conductor’s vision, at a particular point in time, of these highly varied (and highly variable) works that one of Great Britain’s greatest 20th-century composers produced over the span of half a century.

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