April 07, 2011


Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3 (“The First of May”). Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir conducted by Vasily Petrenko. Naxos. $8.99.

D’Indy: Orchestral Works, Volume 4—Symphonie italienne; Poème des rivages. Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rumon Gamba. Chandos. $18.99.

Nielsen: Symphony No. 4 (“The Inextinguishable”); Cupid and the Poet; Genrebillede; Ariel’s Song; Hjemlige Jul; Symphonic Rhapsody. Jan Lund, tenor; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Douglas Bostock. Scandinavian Classics. $12.99.

Brahms: Serenades Nos. 1 and 2. Chamber Philharmonic of Bohemia conducted by Douglas Bostock. Scandinavian Classics. $7.99.

     Symphonies may not only communicate emotion and structure but also tell listeners quite a bit about their composers – whether they are especially known as symphonists or not. The latest CD in Vasily Petrenko’s Shostakovich cycle provides considerable insight into the reasons Shostakovich remained controversial and hard to pin down both musically and politically even after his death in 1975. Shostakovich’s First Symphony, begun when the composer was 18 and first played in 1926, when he was 20, is a great deal more than a school work – although it is that, having been started at the Leningrad Conservatoire. The work, especially its highly innovative first movement, already shows the sardonic humor, cleverness of instrumentation, and harmonic and rhythmic intensity that would mark all 15 of Shostakovich’s symphonies. It is on a much smaller scale than most of the later ones, but seems in some ways to anticipate major elements of them all. Petrenko, who has already recorded the Eighth, Tenth and (on a single CD) Fifth and Ninth, brings to this CD the same attention to detail and willingness to push the music (especially through highly dramatic contrasts between softer and louder passages) that he displays in his other performances. The result is a piece that seems larger than its 33-minute length – and more indicative of where the composer would later go. But where he went was not on a straight path: his Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3 were composed to celebrate the Soviet regime and to celebrate what it wanted celebrated. This makes the pairing of No. 1 with No. 3 quite interesting – but Petrenko’s handling of the Third makes this CD more interesting still. Petrenko brings out the stylistic elements of No. 3 that clearly reflect Shostakovich’s personality, which was never entirely subsumed beneath revolutionary rhetoric (a fact that later caused the composer considerable difficulty). Petrenko’s Third has much of the same brashness and youthful spirit as the First, written three years earlier; and even though the title “The First of May” makes it clear that this symphony is intended to celebrate the “workers’ holiday,” the music itself never makes that connection until the final tacked-on choral section to words by Semyon Kirsanov. Together, these symphonies convey a telling and fascinating picture of the young composer just starting to come to terms with himself and the political system around him.

     Vincent d’Indy is not generally thought of as a symphonist, but the two works in Volume 4 of Chandos’ excellent d’Indy series show him thinking symphonically – and handling symphonic issues very differently at different points in his life. Nearly a half century separates the youthful Symphonie italienne from the late Poème des rivages, which the composer called a “symphonic suite.” Symphonie italienne, perhaps inevitably, calls up thoughts of Mendelssohn’s “Italian” symphony, but in fact this work from 1872 is more of a travelogue, and closer conceptually to Poème des rivages of 1921 than it is to Mendelssohn – except that d’Indy’s finale is also an exuberant saltarello. The symphony’s four movements refer to four Italian cities – Rome, Florence, Venice and Naples – and are intended as impressions of those urban areas within a symphonic construct. This is rather a lot for a young composer to attempt (d’Indy was 21 when he finished the work), and the symphony sprawls and loses its way several times despite the recurrence of certain unifying thematic material. Rumon Gamba and the Iceland Symphony have clearly studied d’Indy’s output carefully for this series, and their performance is exemplary, with the special attention given to d’Indy’s orchestral colors reaping particularly happy rewards. And Poème des rivages sounds even better. This too has four movements connected with specific locations – Agay, Miramar in Mallorca, Falconara and La Grande Côte – and the instrumentation is exceptionally fine, including four saxophones, xylophone, piano and celesta, all deployed to fine effect within a highly colored and beautifully painted impressionistic canvas. Lasting even longer than the early Symphonie italienne but sounding far more tightly knit, Poème des rivages is a major work, symphonic in all but name while also being reminiscent of (but not unduly indebted to) Debussy. It is also, in this performance, a major success.

     The fourth of Carl Nielsen’s six symphonies, which Nielsen called “The Inextinguishable” – an adjective he said applied to both music and life – is a wartime work, first performed in 1916, and its affirmative nature (despite recurrent conflict, including between major and minor keys) likely reflected the time of its composition. But there is nothing specifically programmatic in this symphony, an intense and tightly knit work whose strong rhythms and sonic contrasts are well brought out by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic under Douglas Bostock, who also did a fine job with Nielsen’s Symphonies Nos. 2 and 5 in a previous Scandinavian Classics release. Like the latest Chandos d’Indy CD, this disc provides an opportunity to compare mature and youthful symphonic works: Bostock includes the Symphonic Rhapsody, which dates to 1888 (when Nielsen was 23) and was intended as the first movement of a never-completed symphony. The work does feel like a symphonic first movement, and it contains a few characteristic harmonic and rhythmic elements even though, as a whole, it is not very distinctive. More interesting is the Cupid and the Poet suite, quite a late work (first performed in 1931, the last year of Nielsen’s life), written in the composer’s spare and transparent late style and in mostly moderate tempos. The CD also includes three songs that sound quite pleasant in Jan Lund’s mellow tenor, but unfortunately no texts are provided.

     A symphonic portrait of a different kind emerges from Bostock’s recording of the two Brahms orchestral serenades. This might be called a pre-symphonic portrait, since both these lightly scored multi-movement works (with six and five movements, respectively) were written long before the composer’s first symphony finally came forth. But unlike the youthful works of d’Indy and Nielsen, these serenades show a very sure command of melody, harmony and orchestration, and provide evidence of Brahms’ experimentation with sound – especially Serenade No. 2, which (like Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6) omits violins. The Chamber Philharmonic of Bohemia has just the right weight for these pieces, with the result that Serenade No. 1 is bright, upbeat and thoroughly pleasant from start to finish, while No. 2 is darker-hued but never depressing or even particularly deep. Taken together, the two serenades amount to studies by Brahms of the various possible ways to combine orchestral instruments, develop themes, and contrast lyrical passages with dramatic ones. Both serenades had been finished by 1859 (although Brahms revised No. 2 in 1875). The composer’s first symphony was not heard until 1876, after a famously long gestation period. Part of its birth can be clearly heard in these much lighter, less portentous and less firmly structured works, which are simply a great pleasure to hear in this winning performance.

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