June 04, 2009


Schumann: Symphonies 1-4. Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern conducted by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski. Oehms. $29.99 (2 CDs).

Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 1, 3 and 7 (“Unfinished”); Symphonies Nos. 2 and 4 (“Tragic”); Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6 (“Little C Major”). Bamberger Symphoniker conducted by Jonathan Nott. Tudor. $19.99 each (SACD).

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4; Overture 1812. Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern conducted by Christoph Poppen. Oehms. $16.99.

Szymanowski: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4; Concert Overture, Op. 12; Study in B flat minor, Op. 4, No. 3. Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit. Naxos. $8.99.

     Two splendid new collections of Romantic symphonies, one complete and one nearly so, show that even well-known works can prove unusually effective and affecting when handled sensitively by top-notch conductors. Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, an excellent but somewhat underrated conductor, brings poise, sensitivity and an attractive muscularity to his cycle of the Schumann symphonies. Skrowaczewski seems genuinely to like this music, which can at times be as awkward as the name of the orchestra he conducts (the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern was formed in 2007 by combining the RSO Saarbrücken with the SWR Radio Orchestra Kaiserslautern). Skrowaczewski embraces Schumann’s symphonies wholeheartedly, giving most outer movements a lightness and flair that other conductors do not always provide; following tempo indications closely when that produces a better effect (the Allegro molto vivace of the first movement of No. 1 is really speedy, and very well done); and altering the tempo markings somewhat if that helps move the music along (the main portion of the first movement of No. 2 is marked Allegro ma non troppo, but it really drags at that pace, and Skrowaczewski wisely takes it faster). Not all listeners will agree with Skrowaczewski’s tempo choices – the finale of No. 1, for example, is marked Allegro animato e grazioso, and this performance emphasizes the “animato” at the expense of some of the “grazioso” – but everything here is well considered and, on its own terms, makes perfect sense. No. 1 is, after all, subtitled “Spring,” and it certainly does burst forth riotously (although its slow movement is taken at a true Larghetto pace – slower than in many other performances). No. 2 is classically proportioned, and Skrowaczewski brings out its structural lines effectively. No. 3, the “Rhenish,” is a little on the heavy side until its particularly sprightly finale, but the performance is well balanced and paced even if not quite as stately as it might be. And No. 4, heard (as it almost always is) in its revised version, manages not to sound muddy – as it frequently does – because Skrowaczewski brings out individual voices (especially brass) so carefully and lets Schumann’s melodic charm as well as the unusual aspects of this symphony’s structure come through clearly. As a whole, the cycle is both atypical of the way Schumann’s symphonies tend to be played – and excellent on its own terms.

     Three new SACDs from Jonathan Nott and his Bamberger Symphoniker – Nott has led the orchestra since 2000 – add up almost but not quite to a complete Schubert cycle. This release uses the less-common numbering of the symphonies – the “Unfinished” is usually designated No. 8 – and a recording of No. 9, the “Great C Major,” is not yet available. One hopes that it will be soon, because Nott and the Bamberg players have a wonderful feel for this music, which consists almost entirely of juvenilia (only No. 6 and the “Unfinished” were written after Schubert’s teenage years, No. 6 when he was 21 and the “Unfinished” four years later). Schubert’s handling of winds is especially felicitous in the early symphonies, and Nott focuses on the wind section in a refreshingly open and pleasant manner. But he pays considerable attention to the strings as well, and the symphonies come across with commendable lightness and excellent interplay among the instruments – aided by truly exceptional SACD sound. It is certainly possible to quarrel with some aspects of Nott’s interpretations: the finales of Nos. 5 and 6, for example, are taken quite slowly, and that of No. 6 is filled with unwarranted tempo variations. Still, everything here is played with great finesse and lovely instrumental balance. And among these performances, which date to 2003, is one very unusual element: inclusion of the 20 or so seconds of a Scherzo that Schubert completed and orchestrated for the “Unfinished.” This is barely a hint of where the composer was trying to go, and in fact there exists more of this movement, unorchestrated by Schubert but largely laid out by him – and completed by others in recent times. Still, this slight addition to the “Unfinished” shows the work in a different light from the one most people know, and makes Nott’s performance (which gives very considerable weight to the complex first movement) even more interesting. Indeed, all these readings will hold a listener’s interest from start to finish, with most of the symphonies’ mostly high spirits coming through particularly clearly.

     Returning to the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern: the orchestra’s principal conductor since it was formed has been Christoph Poppen, and his way with Tchaikovsky comes through clearly in two live performances of the Fourth Symphony (recorded in 2007) and the Overture 1812 (from 2008). This is certainly a respectable CD, worthy of a (+++) rating, but it is not an exceptional one. There is nothing at all wrong with either performance – in fact, Poppen’s handling of the string sections of Overture 1812 is unusually sensitive for this potboiler of a piece. But there is nothing especially revelatory in the interpretation of either work. The Overture 1812 is as exhilarating as ever, and the dramatic and dynamic contrasts of the symphony are very well handled: this is a really fine orchestra, with exceptional balance among sections. And Poppen manages to keep the symphony’s huge, discursive first movement from becoming episodic and spinning out of control. But there is nothing especially new or unusual in the interpretation of either work here – the CD is always pleasant, generally impressive in terms of the playing, but not truly distinctive.

     Listeners looking for distinctiveness in symphonies may want to turn to those of Karol Szymanowski, including the two performed by the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra under Antoni Wit on a new Naxos CD. However, Szymanowski’s music will certainly not appeal to everyone, and the particular combination of music on this CD gets a (+++) rating. The Concert Overture (1905), which clearly displays the influence of Wagner and Richard Strauss on the young composer, is a somewhat more interesting work than the similarly influenced Symphony No. 1 (1907), which Szymanowski later dubbed a “monster.” That is an overstatement – the work is not especially long (19 minutes; the Concert Overture runs 14) or especially monstrous in structure or harmony – but neither is it a very individualized piece; there is nothing especially compelling about it. Symphony No. 4, “Symphonie Concertante” (1932), is considerably more interesting, including a prominent piano part (well played here by Jan Krzystof Broja) and combining elements of symphonic structure with ones of a concerto. One thing that both these symphonies have in common is the use of solo violin and solo viola (Ewa Marczyk and Marek Marczyk, respectively). Another is the extent to which they seem to echo other composers: No. 4 has some of the flavor of Stravinsky. The CD concludes with one of Szymanowski’s most popular works, a piano study heard here in an orchestration by Grzegorz Fitelberg. The CD as a whole shows some new directions for the symphony in the 20th century, but of the works here, only the Symphony No. 4 really showcases Szymanowski at his best.

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