May 23, 2013


D’Indy: Orchestral Works, Volume 5—Symphonie sur un Chant montagnard français; Prelude to Act I of “Fervaal”; Saugefleurie; Médée. Louis Lortie, piano; Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rumon Gamba. Chandos. $18.99.

Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 1-6, 8 and 9. Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Lorin Maazel. BR Klassik. $39.99 (3 CDs).

Weill: Zaubernacht. Arte Ensemble with Ania Vegry, soprano. CPO. $16.99.

Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde. Alice Coote, mezzo-soprano; Burkhard Fritz, tenor; Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, Amsterdam, conducted by Marc Albrecht. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

     The fifth excellent volume in Chandos’ survey of the orchestral music of Vincent d’Indy provides an unusually clear picture of this composer’s maturation – and, quite unintentionally, gives some hints as to why his music, as well-made as it is, has not retained as much popularity as that of d’Indy’s contemporaries Debussy and Ravel. The earliest work here, Saugefleurie, dates to 1884, when d’Indy was 33, and shows the clear influence of Wagner – whose works meant a great deal to d’Indy until he found his own voice. But the piece, an orchestral suite portraying the doomed love of a fairy for a prince and based on a thoroughly Romantic and rather naïve poem by Robert de Bonnières that Chandos helpfully includes with the CD, lacks both Wagner’s drama and his sense of impending doom. It is nicely put together and transparently orchestrated, but in all is rather pale. Two years later, d’Indy composed what was once a frequently played work: Symphonie sur un Chant montagnard français (“Symphony on a French mountain air”). But this piece has not retained the popularity of two other French symphonies of the same decade: Saint-Saëns’ “Organ” and Franck’s in D minor. A likely reason is that d’Indy’s symphony, although cleverly constructed from a lovely and authentic folk melody, is comparatively monochromatic and offers minimal drama except in a short section of the finale. This is atmospheric and pleasant music that makes a strong impression when played as well as it is by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra under Rumon Gamba – and with Louis Lortie handling the obbligato piano part both skillfully and unobtrusively. But the symphony simply does not have the contrasts of mood and tempo that those of Saint-Saëns and Franck possess. D’Indy’s music had moved to a more-mature phase by the time he composed his first opera, Fervaal, completed in 1895, and extracted a suite from his music for Catulle Mendès’ drama Médée in 1898. By that time, d’Indy’s version of Impressionism had fully taken hold, with the quiet and atmospheric opera prelude ably portraying the sleeping title character without hinting in any way at the drama and heartbreak that are to come in the plot. Similarly, the story of Medea and Jason, as intense as any from mythic times, is smoothed over in d’Indy’s music, with sections labeled Lent et calme, Très lent (three times) and Plus lent pulling the music into a near-dreamlike state that is at odds with the drama and horror of the story. D’Indy’s tone painting is at its best in scenes of gentleness and pastoral relaxation, but that alone is not enough to sustain his longer-form music or, apparently, make it attractive to concertgoers on a continuing basis.

     All the music of Schubert, on the other hand, is very attractive indeed – tuneful, often bright, and beautifully flowing. With Schubert, who lived to be only 31, it is very difficult indeed to say which works are those of youth and which are more mature; and the high quality of his music throughout his life makes the task even harder. But certainly when it comes to symphonies, it is clear that the final two – the “Unfinished” and “Great C Major” – are on a different level from that of the earlier ones. Schubert actually left quite a few symphonies unfinished, and even completed one in short score (No. 7) that is almost never heard and that is responsible for the famed two-movement B minor work sometimes being called “No. 7” and sometimes “No. 8.”  Lorin Maazel and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks went through the traditional Schubert cycle at a series of live performances in Munich in 2001, and it is those readings that BR Klassik has now made available. Maazel proves to have an excellent way with these works, allowing the first six plenty of lightness and vivacity while giving the “Unfinished” and “Great C Major” considerably greater weight and stature. The early symphonies are far from “throwaways” in this cycle – for example, No. 1 is delivered with a fair amount of pomp, while No. 2 is presented with an almost flirtatious lightness that is very enjoyable indeed. And Maazel allows for the pathos of No. 4 while never attempting to have it live up to its rather inappropriate title of “Tragic”; in fact, the speedy finale is notably buoyant. For the “Unfinished,” Maazel does a fine job distinguishing the melodic lines and harmonies of the two movements while keeping their tempos as close to each other as Schubert rather disconcertingly intended (the first movement is Allegro moderato, the second Andante con moto, which is not all that different). And in the “Great C Major,” whose length – famously described by Schumann as “celestial” – can all too easily lead to discursive performances that sound overly drawn out, Maazel keeps the music moving smartly in the outer movements and Scherzo while allowing the Andante con moto (the same tempo designation as in the “Unfinished”) plenty of room to breathe and expand. Unfortunately, here and elsewhere in these performances, Maazel eschews the exposition repeats that Schubert wanted and that would give all the symphonies the proper scale – a now-outmoded approach common decades ago but much rarer, thank goodness, in the 21st century. There are also some miscalculations in this set, such as too-slow trios in several symphonies’ third movements and a finale of No. 6 that is much too fast (the tempo marking is Allegro moderato, not Allegro molto). Still, the orchestra plays all these works splendidly, and the set as a whole showcases the skill and beauty that Schubert, both in youth and in his far-too-truncated maturity, brought to the symphonic form.

     A century after Schubert, although lives tended to be longer, many composers continued to die young. Kurt Weill was one, living to be only 50. Weill’s first stage work, composed when the composer was 22, was a children’s pantomime called Zaubernacht. The first-ever recording of the work in Weill’s original orchestration – which was rediscovered only in 2006 – is now available from CPO, and it is a real treat for anyone interested in Weill’s early cabaret-style Weimar Republic music. The work is in 25 short sections that take place between midnight and 6:00 a.m., a time when toys awaken and lead their own lives. They wake up at the behest of the Toy Fairy, whose “awakening” song is nicely sung by Ania Vegry; a concluding song returning the toys to sleep has not been rediscovered. In any case, the remainder of Zaubernacht is purely instrumental, scored by Weill for a very small ensemble of string quartet, double bass, flute, bassoon, piano and percussion – the percussion being particularly prominent and important in differentiating sections designed for the various toys. This is occasional music, although Weill later turned parts of it into a work for symphony orchestra known as Quodlibet, his Op. 9. The music is light and lighthearted, filled with attractive effects, and in some elements clearly looks ahead to The Threepenny Opera and other works of Weill’s maturity – for instance in a section called Anmutig bewegt (“graceful moves”) and in a short funeral march (there are marches, waltzes and other forms here). The Arte Ensemble handles Zaubernacht with grace and style, not trying to make it more significant than it was intended to be, but allowing its rather naïve (although sometimes rhythmically tricky) passages to flow clearly and cleanly. This is not major or mature Weill, but it is interesting for a variety of reasons – not the least of which is that it was during casting for Zaubernacht that Weill first saw Lotte Lenya (who, however, could not see him in his position behind the piano in the orchestra pit).

     Gustav Mahler also died at 50 – seven weeks before his 51st birthday – but left a far larger imprimatur on classical music than Weill did. Das Lied von der Erde is very much a work of Mahler’s maturity, having been composed in 1908-09, after the Eighth Symphony, at the most deeply depressing time of Mahler’s life: his oldest daughter had just died, he had buckled to intense pressure and relinquished his position as director of the court opera, and he had been given the diagnosis of a heart ailment that would soon kill him. As personal in expression as Zaubernacht is impersonal, as intense as Weill’s work is light, as adult in focus as the Weill pantomime is child-oriented, Das Lied von der Erde would be nearly unbearable to hear had Mahler not worked his own Zauber (magic) on the music to create a piece that speaks strongly to the transient human condition but that holds out, at its conclusion, a promise of some (admittedly undefined) eternity. Written for two voices (tenor and alto or baritone, although the paired male voices are rarely used), Das Lied von der Erde is really a melding of three voices: those of the soloists and that of the orchestra, which propels the work, comments on the vocal lines, and presents a crucial non-vocal transition midway through the final Der Abschied (in somewhat the same way that the orchestra alone introduces the second part of the Eighth Symphony). The new PentaTone SACD of Das Lied von der Erde has particularly high-quality sound and really fine playing by the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, Amsterdam, under Marc Albrecht. Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote sings her three songs, which make up three-quarters of the total work, with fine, deep tone and strong expressiveness. Unfortunately, tenor Burkhard Fritz is not at the same level: he has difficulty projecting over the sound of the orchestra at times, especially in the opening Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde, and his voice occasionally sounds strained. Yet he too sings with emotional involvement, and that goes a long way toward making this very dark and very mature work as effective as it can be, with a depth earned through suffering and, in Mahler’s case, a style so advanced and personal that Das Lied von der Erde proved unique: it is one of those pieces whose form no other composer has copied.

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