January 28, 2010


Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2; Vocalise. Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $8.99.

Harris: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6 (“Gettysburg”); Acceleration. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $8.99.

     Detroit may have been down and nearly out as a manufacturing center in 2009, but you would never know it from the sound of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under its new music director, Leonard Slatkin. For Slatkin – who built his reputation in St. Louis, then became conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., before moving to Detroit – the orchestra sounds warm, committed and well balanced, with especially strong strings. The sound of its September 2009 live recording of Rachmaninoff emphasizes warmth as well: Orchestra Hall in Detroit has long had excellent acoustics, and they are well captured here. But it is hard to be completely enthusiastic about this new CD, partly because of the repertoire and partly because of the way Slatkin approaches it. This is a kind of “Rachmaninoff’s greatest orchestral hits” CD; it is questionable how many of those a listener needs. Even more questionable is Slatkin’s form of conductorial enthusiasm here. Rachmaninoff was the last of the unashamed Romantic composers (Rued Langgaard outlived him by nearly a decade and stayed true to the Romantic style, but often seemed to do so ruefully in his later works). Slatkin gives this music such an unashamedly Romantic interpretation that the works expand almost to the point of popping, like gigantic, beautiful but fragile soap bubbles. Vocalise, orchestrated by the composer after starting out as the final (wordless) song in a set of 14 songs, opens the CD and sets a tone of expressiveness to the point of swooning. Yes, Rachmaninoff’s music invites this, but a conductor’s challenge is to decide how to manage the expansiveness – lest it manage him. The latter is more or less what happens with Slatkin here. Symphony No. 2 certainly sprawls – especially the first movement – and Slatkin wallows in it, letting it grow and glow with such sumptuousness that it crosses the line between the portentous and the pretentious. Again, Rachmaninoff’s music invites this, but a conductor who accepts the invitation as enthusiastically as Slatkin does here ends up with more than a touch of bloat. So thoroughly is Slatkin steeped in Rachmaninoff’s post-Romantic ultra-Romanticism that he makes some speedy sections sound almost perfunctory – the opening of the scherzo, for example – because he is in a hurry to dwell on the contrasting slow and indulgent parts of the music. This is not to say that Slatkin’s tempos are slow – the start of the finale, for example, is quick and ebullient – but there is a feeling here of getting most of the fast-paced material out of the way in order to allow more time for the broad themes and swooning that pervade Rachmaninoff’s music. This is a CD for listeners who admire Rachmaninoff’s many influences on movie scores and pop-music love songs, not one for listeners seeking some of the balance and proportion that are present in Rachmaninoff’s music – although not always obviously.

     Rachmaninoff’s warmth, expressiveness and death obsession (all those Dies Irae quotations) are temperamentally quite Russian. But there is also a strong – and surprising – Russian connection in American composer Roy Harris’ Symphony No. 5. More properly, it is a Soviet connection: this is a war symphony, written in 1942, and it is dedicated (without a shred of irony, except in retrospect) to “the heroic and freedom-loving people of our great ally, the Union of Soviet Republics.” There is nothing sinister in this: the USSR was a crucial member of the Allies in World War II, bore the brunt of some of Hitler’s most brutal campaigns, suffered enormous casualties, and in triumphantly breaking the siege of Leningrad (St. Petersburg) gave the Allies an early foretaste of eventual victory. That the nation’s own brutal dictator, Stalin, killed more people than Hitler did was not fully understood until well after the war. And so Harris produced a dedication that was patriotic in its time for a three-movement symphony that has no apparent musical connection to the circumstances in which it was written. This fifth of Harris’ 16 symphonies is absolute music, its outer movements both growing organically from basic material presented at their openings. If there is a “war” element here, it is in the middle movement, which includes portions of a funeral march. The symphony also includes material from Acceleration, a single movement written a year earlier (1941) that Harris reworked when putting the symphony together.

     A very different and wholly American war is the foundation of Harris’ Symphony No. 6, “Gettysburg.” The work, although entirely instrumental, was inspired by quotations from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Its four movements bear titles relating to that famous speech: Awakening, Conflict, Dedication and Affirmation. But, as in his previous symphony, Harris delivers absolute rather than program music in Symphony No. 6. There is some tone painting of war in the second movement, but this is more a filmmaker’s idea of war than Lincoln’s: the movement starts as a march and builds steadily, featuring fragmentary brass themes and yawps before it ends abruptly. More obvious and less emotive than the other three movements, it seems oddly discordant – not in musical terms but in the way it communicates. The other movements have more of the Harris sound and structure, with the third movement’s quiet ending being especially effective and the coda of the finale wrapping things up colorfully. Marin Alsop, a champion of 20th-century American music (and generally a more effective conductor of it than of the standard repertoire), approaches these Harris pieces with a sure hand, building them effectively and maintaining a clear sense of their structure throughout. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra plays well and idiomatically, showing Harris to be, if not a great composer, one with a strong sense of style and considerable skill in orchestration.

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