May 16, 2013


Bruckner: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 6. Berner Symphonieorchester conducted by Mario Venzago. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

Bruckner: Symphony No. 4. Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Franz Welser-Möst. Arthaus Musik DVD. $24.99.

Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 3; Symphonic Dances. Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $9.99.

Zdeněk Fibich: Orchestral Works, Volume 1—Symphony No. 1; Impressions from the Countryside. Czech National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marek Štilec. Naxos. $9.99.

     Mario Venzago continues to produce Bruckner recordings that are absolutely astonishing in their sound, their revelations about the composer, their clarity, and their overall brilliance of interpretation.  But this is not to say they will be to everyone’s taste – although any listener who loves Bruckner will surely want to hear them, if not necessarily to make them his or her first choice in a collection. Venzago is using a series of orchestras, each with its own unique sound, for this Bruckner cycle, trying to match the orchestral sonority to each symphony. And he has revisited each symphony as if it is an entirely new score, discovering in Bruckner far more of Schubert and even of Haydn than of, say, Mahler. There is transparency and clarity to Venzago’s Bruckner that no other conductor has committed to disc. Venzago’s readings also include near-constant rubato, extended silences, agogic accents and frequently faster-than-usual tempos, all adding up to an altogether personal approach to this music that is so different from “typical” Bruckner as to come as a genuine shock. This is even more apparent in Symphony No. 3 than in some of Venzago’s earlier recordings for CPO (previous releases have included Nos. 0, 1, 2, 4 and 7). No. 3 is the gigantic “Wagner” symphony, but not for Venzago, who uses the sparest version of the work (from 1889) and emphasizes not its broad themes and “heavy” scoring but, instead, its delicacy, its inner voices, its carefully building climaxes, and its structural use of triplet-vs.-duple meter (a Bruckner signature that is extensively used for the first time in this symphony). It is truly amazing to hear a Bruckner Third that sounds light, almost airy in spots, and that moves propulsively rather than ploddingly, practically skipping along in spots – all without losing any weightiness. There is something magical about the way Venzago forms this work, or transforms it, somehow making it far less “Brucknerian” than listeners will expect while at the same time keeping it truer to the composer’s intentions than do conductors who emphasize cathedral-like sonorities above all. This is a remarkable performance that takes some getting used to, and is well worth the multiple hearings needed to appreciate just how different from the norm it is. Venzago’s Sixth is not quite as big an initial shock or quite as pleasant a surprise, probably because there is only a single version of this symphony and it has been played in many different ways – although it is not performed as often as other Bruckner symphonies. “Why not?” is a reasonable question in light of Venzago’s reading, which thoroughly explores the work’s oddities (an atypical non-tremolo opening and near-themeless Scherzo, for example), shows full understanding of Bruckner’s use of the Phrygian mode that only at the end of the work turns into A major, and presents the symphony as a cohesive whole that, far from lurching about (as it seems to do in some performances), builds carefully and coherently from start to finish. Venzago has gone beyond studying Bruckner to, in some sense, absorbing him, connecting with Bruckner’s music and form of expressiveness so thoroughly that even when Venzago makes interpretative choices that are highly atypical, there is no way to gainsay them. Hearing these performances leads to a series of “why didn’t I hear it that way before?” moments, and they are as exhilarating as they are puzzling and even, at times, destabilizing.

     There is no such discomfort in the Bruckner Fourth performance by the Cleveland Orchestra under Franz Welser-Möst. This is a pleasant, straightforward and unchallenging reading, very well played and very much in the “massiveness” tradition that either bedevils Bruckner or is entirely appropriate for his music – depending on one’s point of view. Many orchestras perform Bruckner in religious settings, and certainly the composer’s grand sonorities and overblown orchestration (if one does not take the Venzago “transparency” approach) fit well in a cathedral or, as is the case with this DVD, a monastery (St. Florian’s in Austria, where Bruckner was organist for a time). There are many iterations of Bruckner’s Fourth, and Welser-Möst uses Benjamin Korstvedt’s 2004 edition of the 1888 version – a choice that differs from most (conductors generally prefer the 1878/80 version) but is scarcely controversial and will not be of major concern to most listeners. Welser-Möst plays into the sonic environment of the monastery, seeking rich tone, overwhelming climaxes, and an overall grandeur that makes the symphony seem less “Romantic” (Bruckner’s own title for it) than gigantic. The DVD also benefits or suffers (again, depending on one’s viewpoint) from its visuals, which can be quite striking in the hands of director Brian Large but which are frequently distractions from the music, as they would not have been for the audience at the September 2012 performance where this DVD was recorded. There is nothing troubling and nothing revelatory in this Bruckner Fourth, a (+++) recording that will please those who want to see the beauties of St. Florian’s and hear the fine playing of the Cleveland Orchestra but that sheds no new light on the music, which it presents in a very traditional way.

     The Detroit Symphony’s new Naxos recording of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3 is also fairly traditional, but it has some significant pluses in Leonard Slatkin’s willingness to strive for clarity as well as expressiveness. There is considerable warmth here – although the orchestra’s strings are not really deeply mellifluous enough for Rachmaninoff – and there is also fine attention to the symphony’s rhythmic vitality, on which Slatkin relies again and again in moving the music forward from one height to the next. Slatkin manages to avoid the “swooning” sounds that Rachmaninoff often seems to provoke in his grandly Romantic themes, but at the expense of making some of those themes – such as the second theme of the finale – less emotionally fulfilling than they can be. This is a good performance and a satisfying one on many levels, but it feels as if it somewhat lacks intensity and commitment: there is a sense of holding back at the most dramatic and involving parts of the symphony, which is better than wallowing in them but in this case seems to have gone a bit too far in the opposite direction. Also on this (+++) CD are the Symphonic Dances, Rachmaninoff’s last work, and here too there is somewhat more restraint than necessary, especially in the first section, which can stride and stamp with an almost eerie insistency but in this performance seems altogether too mild. The orchestra plays quite well but not very idiomatically, and the overall impression of the disc is of less-than-full commitment to the music and less-than-intense involvement in it.

     There is no question about the involvement of the Czech National Symphony Orchestra under Marek Štilec in the music of Zdeněk Fibich (1850-1900) on another new Naxos CD: here the performers are entirely in command of the music and play it with sure strength and understanding. This is nevertheless a (+++) CD for the simple reason that the music itself is less than compelling. Fibich’s Symphony No. 1 is a nicely constructed work possessing very little originality thematically, harmonically or rhythmically – it sounds a bit like warmed-over Schumann. There are many perfectly serviceable late-19th-century symphonies that have little original to say. Fibich’s First, finished in 1883, has far less originality than the first symphony of his countryman Dvořák, even though Dvořák’s work (“The Bells of Zlonice”) was written 18 years earlier and is filled with imperfections that the composer never had a chance to fix. There are two later Fibich symphonies that will presumably appear later in this series of his orchestral music and contain more that is of interest. As is, the more-involving work on this CD is Impressions from the Countryside, a suite that dates to 1897/98 and contains some lovely, evocative music as well as some very well-orchestrated folk dances. It is a nationalistic work in a way (and was influential with later Czech composers), but what listeners will notice first and foremost is that it is well-conceived, nicely planned and offers deeper feelings for the composer’s homeland than might be expected in an impressionistic piece with strong folk elements. Hopefully later volumes in the Fibich series will be as well-played as this one and will show more-consistent strength in the music of this relatively little-known composer, who never attained the fame or popularity of either Dvořák or his other contemporary countryman, Smetana.

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