January 31, 2013


Dvořák: Symphony No. 6; Janáček: Idyll. Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Naxos. $9.99.

Szymanowski: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 4, “Symphonie Concertante”; Concert Overture. Louis Lortie, piano; BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).

Clementi: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2; Overture in D. Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma conducted by Francesco La Vecchia. Naxos. $9.99.

      The symphonic canon is expanding nowadays, with performers more willing than in the past to program little-known works and audiences more amenable to experiencing symphonies with which they are not familiar. This opens up new vistas in both the concert hall and the recording studio, allowing worthy pieces that have been somewhat to totally neglected a chance to shine forth on their own terms and possibly capture their own places in the standard repertoire. Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6 is close to doing just that, garnering more performances and recordings all the time and being more-often appreciated for its fine construction, gorgeous slow movement and very Brahmsian musical approach. Yet the attention this work is getting is also somewhat curious, because few conductors seem willing to play it as the composer intended, preferring to tinker constantly with its tempos rather than let the music unfold expansively and impressively, as Dvořák wished. Gerard Schwarz is less self-indulgent than many conductors of this work, but he too gives in to the unfortunate impulse to play with tempo markings that Dvořák plainly indicated should not be altered – with the new Seattle Symphony performance making unwonted changes in the first movement and, even more startlingly, in the finale, in which Schwarz refuses to accept the Allegro con spirito designation and instead creates a contrast between too-fast sections and too-slow ones. This is really too bad, since the orchestra plays well, with more warmth than usual, and the middle movements are by and large quite effective. Furthermore, the pairing of the symphony with Janáček’s Idyll is a genuinely interesting one: Janáček was strongly influenced by Dvořák, and this early work – written in 1878, when the composer was 24 – shows that influence more clearly than most.  Schwarz lets Idyll, unlike the symphony (which was written two years later), unfold and progress naturally, and if Janáček’s suite-like work never attains the stature of Dvořák’s, it is a very pleasant and well-orchestrated piece that, like the symphony with which it shares this Naxos CD, deserves to be heard more often.

      The four symphonies of Karol Szymanowski continue to exist on the fringes of the standard repertoire, the composer never having quite come up with an individual and fully satisfactory organizational approach to these large-scale works – even though each of the four contains intriguing elements. Szymanowski was strongly influenced by Wagner, Richard Strauss, Reger, Scriabin and musical Impressionism, and his symphonies tend to hold a somewhat uneasy mixture of these elements without finding a way to integrate them thoroughly. Nevertheless, when they are as well-played as on the new Chandos disc featuring the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Edward Gardner, they are certainly worth more attention than they generally receive. No. 2, in B-flat, dates to 1909 and opens, intriguingly, with a violin solo. It has an unusual two-movement form, as Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 5 was to have more than a decade later, with a passionate first movement and a second movement, in theme-and-variations form, that evokes both Reger and Richard Strauss’ Sinfonia Domestica – a rather odd mixture.  Symphony No. 4 is quite a late work, dating to 1932 (Szymanowski died in 1937), and is known as “Sinfonia Concertante” because of its inclusion of a prominent piano part (handled very ably by Louis Lortie on the new Chandos SACD).  The work is dedicated to Arthur Rubinstein – hence the piano – and effectively integrates the instrument into the overall argument, although the cooperation and contrast between soloist and orchestra are less impressive than in, say, Brahms’ very symphonic Piano Concerto No. 1.  The early Concert Overture, in E, dates to 1905 and shows Szymanowski effectively using the orchestra in a shorter and tighter work, with considerable Wagnerian influence.  Nothing in these pieces vaults Szymanowski to the first tier of composers, but all show him to be a meticulous craftsman – if one who never fully escaped his many influences.

      The influences on the music of Muzio Clementi (1752-1832) are quite clear: Haydn, Beethoven and a touch of Schubert. Clementi is best known as a performer, teacher and manufacturer of the finest pianos of his time; his status as a composer has long been low, thanks largely to the simple (if nicely proportioned) works he created for piano students, which remain popular and useful today.  Clementi did know how to write orchestral music, though, including half a dozen symphonies, and while none of them will challenge the works of the composers who influenced him, several are quite interesting in the way they balance Italianate sensibilities against the predominant Viennese orientation of the most-prominent Classical-era symphonists.  Nos. 1 and 2 get strong, straightforward performances from Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma under Francesco La Vecchia on a new Naxos CD, and if neither work is particularly distinguished for tunefulness or any unusual approach to structure, both are superficial in a pleasant way and clearly constructed by a solid if not particularly inspired composer. The Overture in D, like Szymanowski’s Concert Overture, provides a chance to hear how the composer handled a shorter-form piece for full orchestra, and with Clementi as with Szymanowski, there is something to be said for brevity: the Clementi work has a level of compressed effectiveness that the somewhat discursive symphonies lack.  Hearing Clementi’s symphonies may simply lead many listeners to a greater appreciation of the brilliance of greater composers; but these pieces are worthy in their own right, and surely deserve at least occasional performances that allow concertgoers and home listeners alike to expand their aural horizons by sampling some not-quite-mainstream works.

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