October 08, 2009


Michael Daugherty: Metropolis Symphony; Deus ex Machina for Piano and Orchestra. Terrence Wilson, piano; Nashville Symphony conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero. $8.99.

Franz Schmidt: Symphony No. 2; Fuga Solemnis for organ, sixteen wind instruments and percussion. Anders Johnsson, organ; Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vassily Sinaisky. Naxos. $8.99.

Tchaikovsky: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 6. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. LPO. $24.99 (2 CDs).

     There have been many obituaries written for the symphony – dating back to the years when Beethoven’s were considered unsurpassable (and his Ninth was deemed virtually unplayable). But the form is so attractive to so many composers that even those for whom Beethoven’s shadow seemed longest (think Brahms) eventually overcame their misgivings and tried their own essays in symphonic form. The pattern continues even today: what more can there possibly be to say in a symphony? Yet the form’s inherent adaptability, added to the thoughtfulness of some composers in redefining and expanding what the term can mean, has led to startlingly varied symphonic productions throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. One of the cleverest recent approaches to the symphony is Michael Daugherty’s – although purists will argue, with some justification, that his Metropolis Symphony is really a suite, its movements related in concept but not musically. Indeed, Daugherty himself says the five movements can be played independently. Matters of definition aside, Metropolis Symphony is a work of appealing sound, interesting instrumentation, and cleverly interconnected themes (not musical themes but programmatic ones); and it is great fun to listen to – a statement that cannot always be made about 20th-century symphonies. The work is a non-meditative meditation on the Superman ethos. Daugherty started composing it in 1988 to mark the 50th anniversary of the iconic comic-book hero; he completed it in 1993; and it was first performed in 1994. It has received a number of performances since, and it deserves to: this is appealing music that speaks to a peculiarly American cultural icon using a firm grasp of compositional techniques and keeping one eye (or ears) always on pleasing the audience. Quite an accomplishment. The styles of the five movements vary widely: “Lex” (for archvillain Lex Luthor) features perpetuum mobile triplets on a solo violin (well played here by Mary Kathryn Van Osdale) ; “Krypton” (Superman’s home planet) combines eerie glissandi with increasingly ominous fire bells; “MXYZPTLK” (for the fifth-dimensional imp who troubles Superman periodically) includes antiphonally placed flute soloists and an emphasis on all the instruments’ higher registers; “Oh, Lois!” is a virtuosic and very funny tribute to Superman’s many rescues of Lois Lane; and “Red Cape Tango,” inspired by Superman’s death (and later resurrection), sounds like a stylized fight with interpolations of the Medieval Dies irae. Giancarlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony really go to town with this music – hearing it is an exhilarating experience. The symphony is paired with a sort-of piano concerto, written in 2007, called Deus ex Machina. This is Daugherty’s three-movement tribute to the world of trains, from the future they once seemed to represent (first movement) to their funereal role (second movement, which recalls the train that carried assassinated President Lincoln’s body home for burial) to the end of the steam-locomotive era (third movement). The sound pictures here are lovingly painted, the piano writing is forthright and clever, and the work as a whole is appealing both as entertainment and as an extended meditation on a once-crucial form of transportation that has largely fallen by the wayside in the United States (although scarcely so in other countries).

     Franz Schmidt had his own ideas about creating something new in symphonic form – less radical than Daugherty’s, but then, Schmidt’s Second Symphony dates to 1911-13, a post-Mahler, pre-World War I era in which musical radicalism was different. Schmidt, a fine but neglected composer, builds the symphony around a single basic theme that is stated by violins and clarinets at the start and subsequently varied, pulled apart, upended and turned inside out and every which way for nearly 50 minutes. Schmidt was fond of large orchestras, and his Symphony No. 2 uses a very big one indeed, including eight horns, a contrabass tuba, four timpani (plus bass drum and side drum), lots of percussion, and winds and strings galore. The work is in three movements – the typical form of a piano sonata, which is what Schmidt originally conceived it to be – and includes a highly impressive set of variations in the middle. This is a big work in every sense, sprawling and intense, thoroughly Romantic in sensibility, and very difficult to play (especially for the strings). The Malmö Symphony Orchestra is perhaps not ideally suited for something quite this large and complicated, but Vassily Sinaisky conducts stylishly and the players sound ardent, if occasionally a bit strained. Also on this CD is one of the works that explains Schmidt’s modern-day neglect. Fuga Solemnis is, on its face, a fascinating piece, requiring very considerable dexterity by the organist (Anders Johnsson does a fine job) and a conductor’s ability to balance a highly unusual array of instruments: six trumpets, six horns, three trombones, tuba, timpani and tam-tam. This was Schmidt’s last organ work, completed in 1937, and shows a sure mastery of form and orchestration. Hearing it in a strictly musical context is a highly involving experience. But many people cannot hear it that way, for Fuga Solemnis was reworked under Nazism into an interlude in a cantata called Deutsche Auferstehung (“German Resurrection”), using words by one of Schmidt’s pupils. The cantata was not performed in Schmidt’s lifetime, but its association with the Third Reich – and, by extension, the association of Schmidt’s music in general with the Nazi era – makes this very talented composer a very tough sell for some audiences, even today.

     In contrast, one of the easiest composers to “sell” to modern audiences is Tchaikovsky, whose six symphonies were thoroughly Romantic but very, very different from each other. The new London Philharmonic set of performances of Nos. 1 and 6 gets a (+++) rating – a low one – despite its excellent playing and very fine sound (the performances were recorded live). The reason it does not rate higher is that Vladimir Jurowski falls into a common trap of conductors performing well-known symphonies: he feels he has to do something with them. In No. 6, the “Pathétique,” this means toning down the heart-on-sleeve emotionalism of the work; taking the last part of the third movement so quickly that even as fine an orchestra as the LPO can barely keep up; and making the gong stroke near the end of the finale much too loud for its context. In No. 1 (“Winter Dreams”), Jurowski tears at the fabric of the music to even more disappointing effect, most unfortunately in the finale, where he speeds up the Andante lugubre introduction tremendously as it ends so he can slow down the opening of the Allegro maestoso main section, and where the speedup toward the very end of the movement (followed by a huge slowdown for the concluding chords) is so breathtakingly wrongheaded that it is hard to remember that Jurowski is Russian by birth. The LPO sound is a little thin for this velvety music, although listeners who want a “clean” sound in Tchaikovsky and are tired of overly lush, overwrought performances will enjoy it. And when Jurowski lets the music flow as the composer intended, there are many lovely moments here. But for most listeners, there will be far too many quirks to make this two-CD set a worthwhile purchase.

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