April 12, 2012


Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 1-4; Variations on a Theme by Haydn; Academic Festival Overture; Tragic Overture. Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Manze. CPO. $50.99 (3 CDs).

Dvořák: Symphony No. 7; In Nature’s Realm; Scherzo capriccioso; Slavonic Dance, Op. 46, No. 8. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by José Serebrier. Warner. $18.99.

Verdi: Complete Ballet Music from the Operas. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by José Serebrier. Naxos. $19.99 (2 CDs)

      No matter how fashionable it becomes in some circles to scoff at Romantic music and the endless public taste for it, there is always room for another cycle of great and grand 19th-century symphonies – provided that the conductor has something new to communicate in what could otherwise be thrice-told musical tales.  Andrew Manze’s Brahms cycle for CPO is a perfect argument that there is no such thing as too much Romantic music out there, because even with the innumerable alternative Brahms recordings, of the complete symphonies and individual ones, this performance by the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra stands out.  Manze is a remarkably thoughtful conductor and an exceptionally perceptive one; moreover, he knows how to translate his careful analysis of the music into performances that are gripping, emotional, exciting, dramatic and structurally impressive.  Manze is young (born in 1965) and a fine violinist; perhaps these two characteristics help explain the enthusiasm he brings to these well-known works and the marvelous clarity he calls forth through a combination of sensitive orchestral balance and carefully chosen tempos that he tries to bring into conformity with what Brahms himself would have wanted (which generally means faster outer movements than other conductors offer – and, frequently, more-leisurely slow ones).

      Manze’s Brahms is the opposite of heavy-handed or turgid.  This is music that lives and breathes, and it sounds livelier and far more pellucid than the Brahms symphonies usually do.  It is also music filled with elegance and lovely details – the woodwinds in the third movement of Symphony No. 1, for example, and the deliberately lighter-than-usual (but very effective) treatment of the timpani near the end of the introduction to the finale.  This symphony is paired on its disc with the Haydn Variations, which are rhythmically sure, beautifully balanced and structurally solid: the orchestra’s middle voices, which so often disappear in performances of Brahms, come through quite clearly here, and the music is both richer and more colorful as a result.  Manze does employ some rubato in a few of the variations, but he does so judiciously and in ways that successfully emphasize certain instrumental details without impeding the forward flow of the music.  The first movement of Symphony No. 2 has absolutely lovely flow and warmth, but is far more transparent and less heavy-handed than in many other performances; and it contrasts beautifully with the heartfelt Adagio non troppo.  This symphony’s finale is even more ebullient than usual, too.  The CD continues with an excellently played Tragic Overture that emphasizes drama and intensity rather than portentousness, and an Academic Festival Overture that positively bubbles with good spirits.  Symphony No. 3, the most tightly knit of the four, here has more individuation among movements than is typically the case, thanks to Manze’s tempo choices and his careful balance of orchestral sections – the emphasis on the lovely wind parts in the Andante, for example, and the solid focus on brass in the finale.  And Symphony No. 4 stylishly displays its roots in Bach, with a clean sound all the way from the poised and graceful first movement through the elegantly proportioned finale.  Manze’s interpretations may not be to all tastes: they are quite different from the massively proportioned Brahms symphonies that are far more often heard.  But they represent something fresh and distinctive in the interpretation of these quintessentially Romantic works, and indeed in some ways are a return to an approach that Brahms himself would have recognized more readily than the frequently overblown readings to which his symphonies have so often been subjected.

      José Serebrier is a better-known conductor than Manze and a far more experienced one: born in 1938, he made his New York conducting debut in the year that Manze was born.  A Dvořák cycle by Serebrier is certainly a Romantic-era offering to anticipate and ought to be one to celebrate.  But something is going wrong with this usually perceptive conductor’s readings with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.  The first volume of the sequence, featuring the ubiquitous “From the New World,” established some quirks that the second volume confirms, and not to the music’s benefits.  Serebrier has apparently decided to combine each symphony with some of the composer’s shorter works, creating a kind of recorded “concert program” with the symphonies being central.  There is nothing wrong with this – it is an interestingly creative approach – but the specific works chosen do not seem to have been picked very thoughtfully.  Each of the first two volumes opens with a Slavonic Dance, which is fine as a “curtain raiser.”  But the new Warner recording follows the symphony with In Nature’s Realm, the first of the three tone poems that Dvořák collectively called “Nature, Life and Love,” and then does not follow with the second and third such works (Carnival and Othello) but with the Scherzo capriccioso.  Serebrier himself contributes a booklet note mentioning the three tone poems and so is certainly well aware of their interrelationship; undoubtedly Carnival and Othello will show up eventually.  But why not here?  Strange.  Furthermore, and this is the real disappointment of this series so far, Serebrier’s interpretations are well below the level of his capabilities.  Scherzo capriccioso is taken mainly at an Andante tempo that pulls this ebullient work back instead of letting it plunge forward.  In Nature’s Realm drags even more – this is nature struggling to emerge from a soporific state and potentially putting the audience into one.  The orchestra’s playing is quite good, the musicians clearly giving Serebrier what he wants; but what he wants just does not serve the music well.  As for the symphony, which is Dvořák’s most deeply emotional: the third movement is excellent, well-paced and deep, and the finale is mostly effective despite one unnecessary ritard.  But the first movement never gels, and the second features capricious tempo variations that may be intended to emphasize the emotional content but serve only to strangle it.  Serebrier is capable of much, much better interpretations than these, but seems unwilling to let Dvořák’s music flow and develop according to the scores; and by trying to add to the composer, he subtracts instead.  This release will be worth a (+++) rating to those who admire the orchestra’s playing and the impressive handling of the second half of the symphony, but only a (++) rating to those with higher expectations of this conductor.

      Those looking for confirmation of how good Serebrier can be in Romantic music need look no further than a fascinating (++++) Naxos release in which Serebrier – again with the Bournemouth Symphony – presents all the ballet music from Verdi’s operas.  Ballet scenes were required by certain opera houses (notably the Paris Opéra) as a condition of mounting works there, and composers complied by writing music ranging from the inspired to the fairly dull.  Occasionally, a balletic element of an opera has not only survived but has become more popular than the opera itself – the “Dance of the Hours” from Ponchielli’s La Gioconda comes immediately to mind.  But more often, the ballet scenes – which were, after all, usually occasional pieces rather than integral to the works containing them – disappeared after a while.  Even ballets written by composers with real skill in dance forms, such as the one Johann Strauss Jr. created for Die Fledermaus, have largely evaporated.  But now we have a fascinating recording, and a very well-performed one, of ballet music from Otello, Macbeth, Jérusalem (a reworking for Paris of I Lombardi alla prima crociata), Don Carlo, Aida, Il trovatore and I vespri siciliani.  The Aida and Otello ballets are still heard, at least from time to time, and the half-hour “Four Seasons” ballet from I vespri siciliani has survived, but that is about it.  Perhaps because this two-CD set offers less-familiar music rather than works as well-known as those in his Dvořák series, or perhaps because he likes to include the ballet music when he conducts Verdi operas, Serebrier does not attempt to turn these works into more than they are or twist them in any particular way – he lets them flow naturally, which means listeners can simply hear how Verdi wrote in a form that was not especially congenial for him: concert music.  Some of this material fits the operas quite well: the short Aida dances, for example, are actually worked into the stage production, and Verdi carefully conceived the Otello ballet music to go with a particular series of dances (however awkward the concept of a ballet is in this opera’s third act).  Other music here stands well on its own for the simple reason that it has nothing in particular to do with any stage action.  Sometimes lively, sometimes sensual, always well-constructed and often quite interesting its own right (although not all the time), Verdi’s ballet music shows a side of the composer with which many listeners, including regular operagoers, will not be familiar.  It also shows a side of Serebrier with which listeners are familiar, and one that will hopefully re-emerge as his Dvořák sequence for Warner continues.

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