August 18, 2011


Mahler: Symphony No. 2. Christiane Oelze, soprano; Michaela Schuster, mezzo-soprano; Kartäuserkantorei Köln, Bach-Verein Köln, Madrigalchor und Kammerchor der Hochschule für Musik Köln, Figuralchor Bonn, and Gürzenich-Orchester Köln conducted by Markus Stenz. Oehms. $29.99 (2 SACDs).

Johann Strauss Sr., Edition, Volume 18. Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina conducted by Ernst Märzendorfer. Marco Polo. $9.99.

Johann Strauss Sr. Edition, Volume 19. Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina conducted by Christian Pollack. Marco Polo. $9.99.

Christian Sinding: Violin Concertos Nos. 1-3; Legende, op. 46; Romanze, op. 100; Suite, op. 10; Abendstimmung, op. 120. Andrej Bielow, violin; NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover conducted by Frank Beermann. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

     In small works as well as grand ones, there can be a level of elegant construction that makes the music’s emotional connection come through especially clearly, and makes listening to the pieces highly pleasurable. If the performances of those works are themselves poised and elegant, the pleasure is doubled.

     The words “poise” and “elegance” are more often associated with Haydn and the Classical era than with Romantic and modern works, but they fit newer music equally well, although in different ways. There is tremendous elegance in the construction of Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony, which, for all the work’s vastness, creates a brilliantly tied-together structure that bridges from the heroism and cloud-storming intensity of the First to a conclusion of affirmation – in a religious but decidedly non-orthodox sense – that there is something to come even beyond death. The first movement, originally conceived by Mahler as a standalone tone poem, harks back quite deliberately to the First Symphony; the composer said it represented the funeral for that symphony’s hero. But the mood of the remaining movements of the Second is quite different – so much so that Mahler said there should be a pause of at least five minutes between the first and second. Sensitive producers are attentive to this: they put the first movement on one disc and the others on a second; and that is what happens in the new Oehms recording. Sensitive conductors also pay attention, allowing the first movement to storm the heights and then presenting the second as a naïve pastoral scene; and Markus Stenz gets this contrast just right. There is little that is acerbic in the “Resurrection” symphony – the bitterness of Mahler’s later scherzos is a far cry from the mildly sardonic comparable movement in the Second. What this symphony does have is anguish in its “Urlicht” movement, which is very well sung by Michaela Schuster, and in much of the sprawling finale – the uplift of the vocal sections does not occur until quite late in the more-than-half-hour-long movement. Stenz has considerable experience in operatic and choral conducting, and he marshals the members of five different choruses to very fine effect in this recording, creating a warm and focused sound picture in which, despite the sheer number of singers, the words come through quite clearly (thanks in part, no doubt, to the fine SACD sound). The sole significant disappointment here is that Oehms provides the texts only in German – although listeners can find translations easily enough. Musically, this is a sensitive and, yes, elegant performance, with warm and fully committed playing by the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln that pulls listeners along through intense drama, to mildness and uncertainty, to an eventual feeling of relief and joyous affirmation. Surely those are the valleys and peaks through which Mahler wanted his audiences to journey.

     The vistas are much smaller, by design, in the music of Johann Strauss Sr. The great master of the most popular music of the 1840s was, after all, writing occasional pieces – for a wide variety of specific circumstances – and was not designing his works for longevity: the constant production of something new was his hallmark, and he was so good at what he did that critics of the time said that every new waltz by the elder Strauss was his best. Within his chosen field, though, Strauss Sr.’s music is every bit as carefully constructed and beautifully assembled as the works of Mahler – or, for that matter, of Haydn, to whose minuets it owes a great deal of its poise and rhythmic certainty. The outstanding Marco Polo survey of Strauss Sr.’s music has been showing, CD after CD, just how well-made this music is – and how unjustifiably neglected it has been in favor of the admittedly stronger works of Strauss Sr.’s sons, Johann Jr. and Josef (who brought symphonic structure and deeper emotion to their ostensibly-for-the-dance-only music, turning many of their works into tone poems in miniature).

     Volume 18 was recorded by Ernst Märzendorfer in late April and early May 2009, shortly before the conductor died that September at the age of 88. It would be stretching things to say that conducting this music helped keep Märzendorfer sprightly right to the end, but certainly his handling of the material shows no indication that he was tiring or, indeed, that his own creativity had declined at all. There is one polka on this CD – the lovely Marianka – and it shows that Strauss Sr. had compositional skill even in forms for which he did not care very much. He preferred the quadrille – a formulaic type of music in which Strauss Sr. excelled through the sheer joy of his themes and the apparent ease with which he assembled them. Märzendorfer here conducts Die vier Haimonskinder, a quadrille on themes from the once-popular opera The Four Aymon Sons (by long-forgotten Irish composer Michael William Balfe), and the effective Musen-Quadrille (“Muses Quadrille”). The remaining pieces here are waltzes: Rosen ohne Dornen (“Roses without Thorns”), Wiener-Früchteln (“Viennese Fruits”), Willkommen-Rufe (“Shouts of Welcome”), Maskenlieder (“Songs of the Maskers”), Eunomien-Tänze (“Eunomia Dances,” named for a daughter of Zeus who was thought to direct human legal affairs – and written for law students), and Odeon-Tänze (“Odeon Dances,” created for the opening of the eponymous gigantic, opulent new dance hall). These are works written by Strauss Sr. at the height of his creative powers, beautifully played by an orchestra that handles this music with expressiveness and constant attention to detail, and led by a conductor whose enthusiastic handling of these ebullient works belies his age and the imminent end of his life.

     Volume 19 in the Strauss Sr. cycle includes seven waltzes and three quadrilles; the quadrilles here – Flora-Quadrille, Stradella-Quadrille (on themes from Friedrich von Flotow’s hugely popular opera, Alessandro Stradella), and Amoretten-Quadrille, are all highly melodic, very well orchestrated and handled with great verve and style by the orchestra under Christian Pollack – a real specialist in this music. The waltzes on this CD offer more-substantive music and an interesting insight into Strauss Sr.’s dedication: most were written just as Johann Strauss Jr. was beginning, against his father’s wishes, to establish himself as a composer and conductor; yet despite the incipient rivalry between father and son, there is no heaviness, much less any bitterness, in these bright and beautifully balanced works. Two of the waltzes are written in the style of the Ländler, the folk dance of the 18th and early 19th century in which Joseph Lanner excelled (Strauss Sr. had played in Lanner’s band before becoming Lanner’s rival). These Ländler-influenced works are Faschings-Possen (“Carnival Antics”) and Die Landjunker (“Country Squires”). The remaining five waltzes here show Strauss Sr. at the height of his powers, creating ballroom celebrations that are eminently danceable and also highly listenable: Geheimnisse aus der Wiener Tanzwelt (“Secrets of the Vienna Dance World”), Österreichische Jubelklänge (“Austrian Sounds of Rejoicing”), Sommernachts-Träume (“Summer Night’s Dreams,” with an especially endearing and hummable final waltz tune), Heitere Lebensbilder (“Merry Pictures of Life”), and Concordia-Tänze (“Concordia Dances”). It is easy, on the one hand, to dismiss this music as frivolous, facile and at times formulaic; but on the other hand, its manifest beauties and ever-present grace provide as sure a tonic for the cares of everyday life in the 21st century as they did for those of the 19th.

     The elegance of the music of Christian Sinding (1856-1941) lies somewhere between that of Mahler and Strauss Sr. in terms of scale. Sinding was a major Norwegian composer and, apart from Edvard Grieg, Ole Bull and Johan Svendsen, the only one of his time to have an international reputation. But his works fell into obscurity for largely political reasons: late in life, he expressed approval of the aims of the National Socialists in Germany, with the result that his music was embraced by the Nazi regime when it assumed full power – while the rest of the world turned its collective back on it. Seventy years after Sinding’s death, it is at last possible to evaluate his music on its own terms – and it turns out that, in his works for violin and orchestra, there is a great deal of dignity, serenity and expressive power, although his later works are not quite the equal of his earlier ones. Like Sibelius, Sinding wrote very little late in life – in Sinding’s case, after 1920. But his compositions before that time show strength of orchestration, frequent whiffs of Norwegian spirit despite their avoidance of actual folk tunes, and a strong sense of the capabilities of the solo instrument. Like Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, Sinding’s first concerto is in three movements but is really a one-movement structure, distinguished by its finely honed use of older forms (notably the passacaglia) and its use of a first-movement theme as the basis for one in the slow movement as well (an approach used by Sinding in all three of his violin concertos). Concerto No. 1 work is strong, dramatic and lyrical by turns, and easy to listen to – although not to play. Concerto No. 2 is longer and more conventional in form, with three clearly differentiated movements; it ends with a highly danceable finale that sounds as if it is derived from folk music even though the tunes are all original. Concerto No. 3 is relatively late Sinding (1916-17) and was never published – it exists only in a single manuscript. It displays no hint of its wartime origins and is somewhat more straightforward than the earlier concertos, offering the soloist plenty of opportunities for display (especially in first-movement double-stop passages) but giving the orchestra a lesser role and a generally less-interesting one. The shorter works on the new two-CD CPO recording are played by Andrej Bielow with as much attentiveness and as lovely a tone as he brings to the concertos. Legende is a nicely constructed, well-orchestrated piece featuring a prominent trumpet part; Romanze is more extended and more dramatic; the Suite in A minor offers three short movements that hark back periodically to Bach and Vivaldi, with the slow movement including a solo viola and cello as well as violin; and Abendstimmung, which is comparatively late Sinding (1915), presents a fairly simple violin part in a poised but not overly sentimental overall structure. Frank Beermann leads the NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover with sensitivity and skill throughout all these pieces, and if none of them quite establishes Sinding as a first-rate composer, the best of them show him bringing structural skill, nicely honed emotive balance, and a kind of suave serenity to music that deserves to be far better known and more frequently performed.

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