April 28, 2011


Sibelius: Symphony No. 2; Karelia Suite. New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen. Naxos. $9.99.

Korngold: Symphony in F sharp; Tänzchen im alten Stil. Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Storgårds. Ondine. $16.99.

Mieczyslaw Karłowicz: Symphony in E minor (“Rebirth”); Bianca da Molena (The White Dove)—Prologue and Intermezzo. Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit. Naxos. $9.99.

Ries: Concert Overtures—Die Braut von Messina; Don Carlos; Große Festouvertüre und Siegesmarsch; Ouverture bardique; Ouverture dramatique “L’Apparition.” WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln conducted by Howard Griffiths. CPO. $16.99.

     Sometimes a main element that separates a highly popular symphony from one that never quite catches on is just a matter of the time periods in which the two were written. Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 and Korngold’s Symphony in F sharp both speak much the same harmonic language and are both constructed on a similar large scale. But Sibelius’ work, completed and first performed in 1902, fit well into its time and was aided in acceptance by a spurious nationalistic program attached to it by the restive Finns, then bridling under Russian rule. Korngold’s work, on the other hand, was written between 1947 and 1952 – it is dedicated to the memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt – and never quite caught on at its first performance in 1954 or in the years thereafter. It is therefore particularly interesting to hear the Sibelius performed by a Finnish conductor leading an orchestra from the other side of the world – and the Korngold played by the Helsinki Philharmonic under a different Finnish leader.

     The ongoing Sibelius cycle by Pietari Inkinen and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra is an exceptionally fine one, and the Second gets as thoughtful and well-planned a reading as did the earlier releases (Nos. 1 and 3 on one CD, Nos. 4 and 5 on another). No. 2 builds naturally and breathes deeply in a reading that is expansive without being slow, monumental without being overdone, and very well integrated – the movements seem a natural part of the whole, which is by no means always the case in performances of this symphony, which often sounds fragmented because it contains music of so many different characters. Inkinen also offers a lovely recording of the popular Karelia Suite, with a suitably poetic Ballade and a really rousing final Alla Marcia. Inkinen is certainly a Sibelius conductor of the first rank.

     But what would he do with Korngold? Hard to say – but certainly John Storgårds treats the Czech composer, who is nowadays best known for his Hollywood film scores, as a significant symphonist, and the Helsinki Philharmonic plays Korngold’s symphony with verve, spirit and considerable flair. This really does sound like a late-Romantic work rather than one from the middle of the 20th century – and it is a big symphony, longer than the Sibelius Second. But under Storgårds’ direction, it builds and flows naturally and shows that the composer, born in 1897, had considerable mastery of large-scale musical forms by this time of his life. The symphony has nothing to do with its dedicatee, but that scarcely matters: it is a well-wrought, tuneful and often highly expressive work that deserves more-frequent hearings even though its harmonic language was rightfully considered anachronistic for its time. Storgårds also offers, as an encore, a long-lost “Little Dance in the Old Style” that Korngold wrote around 1919 and that may never have been heard in public until Storgårds first conducted it in 2007. It is a slight work containing episodes of warmth and gentility, vaguely reminiscent of parts of Grieg’s Holberg Suite but not particularly consequential in itself. It does, however, make a fine contrast to the heavier and far more emphatic symphony.

     If Korngold is little known as a symphonist, Polish composer Mieczyslaw Karłowicz (1876-1909) is virtually unknown as one – and to many listeners is unknown altogether. This is scarcely surprising: Karłowicz died quite young, in an avalanche while skiing, and only a few of his works survive. His sole symphony is contemporaneous with Sibelius’ Second – it was completed in 1903. But unlike the Sibelius work, to which the composer attached no program even though others did, the Karłowicz symphony is intended to represent a soul’s spiritual journey from tragedy to triumph. The composer himself gave it this program, putting the “Rebirth” symphony more or less in the same class as Mahler’s Second (which, completed almost a decade earlier, in 1894, is a larger work and features solo and choral vocal elements). But the programmatic elements are not needed at all for a listener to enjoy the Karłowicz symphony: the progress from despair to triumph is clear enough in the music, and the work’s tonal progress from E minor to E major may remind listeners of the similar treatment of keys in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. Yet the Karłowicz symphony is not imitative: fateful timpani rolls, a lovely slow-movement melody on solo cello, fine scoring in the scherzo that pits winds against strings, and a noble brass chorale in the finale all bear a personal stamp that sets the work apart from others to which it bears some superficial similarities. And the two movements from the incidental music to a long-forgotten play called “The White Dove” that fill out this well-played CD are also distinctive in orchestration and effective in their atmospheric evocations. Karłowicz’ few surviving compositions (others were apparently destroyed at the start of World War II) are proving well worth exploring.

     The works of Ferdinand Ries are highly worthwhile, too. Ries will always be thought of as existing in the shadow of Beethoven, his longtime friend. Indeed, Ries’ symphonies – there are eight of them – show heavy indebtedness to Beethoven, and despite some individual touches are generally not highly distinguished. But Ries’ concert overtures are another matter. Ries and Beethoven were among the earliest composers to produce overtures intended primarily or exclusively for concert-hall use rather than as the introductions to stage works (Louis Spohr was another pioneer of this type of music). If Beethoven’s Coriolan is a towering example of the form, Ries’ two overtures based on tragedies by Friedrich Schiller are nearly at the same level. Both the overture to Don Carlos and that to Die Braut von Messina are intense, highly dramatic, very well scored, and thoroughly effective. Ries’ audience would likely have known the Schiller dramas and have picked out elements of the overtures intended to reflect specific scenes in them, but listeners need not look for strict programs here any more than in Tchaikovsky’s much later Romeo and Juliet. The Ries overtures are above all mood setters and scene setters, clearly reflective of the tragic characters of the two Schiller works, and juxtaposing pervasive gloom with at least some glimmers of hopefulness. They are very impressive self-contained theatrical pieces – and very well played by the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln under Howard Griffiths. The three other works on this CPO disc have their moments, too, although none is as consistently interesting as the two Schiller-based overtures. Ouverture bardique includes the song “All Through the Night,” believed to be a Welsh folk song at the time the work was composed, and has some very interesting use of harps – two of them – as solo instruments, not mere decorative touches. Ouverture dramatique “L’Apparition” was Ries’ last orchestral work, composed in 1836, and has a few interestingly eerie effects, but as a whole is not especially noteworthy – although the scoring is quite well done. As for the Große Festouvertüre und Siegesmarsch, the first part is suitably festive and the second suitably victorious, but neither sounds like much more than a potboiler. This work was extremely popular in its time, but unlike Ries’ Schiller-based overtures, it does not transcend the circumstances of its composition. Yet taken as a whole, this CD does show just how well Ries could communicate in a way that touches on the symphonic (all the overtures are in sonata form) even when he was not overtly composing symphonies.

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