April 24, 2014


Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 7; Piano Concerto No. 3. Lilya Zilberstein, piano; Gürzenich-Orchester Köln conducted by Dmitrij Kitajenko. Oehms. $19.99 (SACD).

Tchaikovsky: Manfred Symphony. Russian National Orchestra conducted by Mikhail Pletnev. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Raff: Symphony No. 5, “Lenore”; Abends—Rhapsody; “Dame Kobold”—Overture; “König Alfred”—Overture; “Dornröschen”—Prelude; “Die Eifersüchtigen”—Overture. Orchestre de la Suisse Romande conducted by Neeme Järvi. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).

Bruckner: Symphony No. 2, arranged by Anthony Payne; Johann Strauss Jr.: Wein, Weib und Gesang, arranged by Alban Berg . Royal Academy of Music Soloists Ensemble conducted by Trevor Pinnock. Linn Records. $22.99 (SACD).

     You would think it would be easy to say how many symphonies a composer wrote, but it is in fact one of the thornier questions in music. Haydn put his own catalogue of works together; he wrote 104 symphonies – but no, since several others subsequently turned up and were given letters instead of numbers. Mozart wrote 41 – but no, since he did not write No. 37 (everything except the first-movement introduction is by Michael Haydn), and he did write several unnumbered ones. Beethoven, obviously, wrote nine – but in fact there are fairly extensive sketches for a No. 10. Schubert certainly did not write nine – No. 7 is incomplete and almost always left out of the numerical sequence, and he left numerous sketches for incomplete symphonies. Mahler was so famously superstitious about designating a symphony “No. 9” that he refused to call Das Lied von der Erde a symphony, but it can be considered one – and besides, the one he did call No. 9 was followed by a No. 10 that was incomplete but has been finished by Deryck Cooke and others and is fairly often performed. Dvořák was long thought to have written five symphonies, until four others turned up, so he did write nine. With all these numbers flying about, it starts to seem that the fact that Brahms certainly did write four symphonies is a distinct anomaly.

     And then there is Tchaikovsky, who is universally known to have written six symphonies – except that he actually wrote seven, or maybe eight. Conductors doing a Tchaikovsky cycle almost always offer only the six numbered symphonies, but Dmitri Kitajenko and Mikhail Pletnev have gone a step beyond – two steps, in Kitajenko’s case – to produce cycles that go beyond the usual six. Kitajenko’s cycle, one of the best in recent years, actually started with the unnumbered Manfred Symphony, which was written between Nos. 4 and 5 and is the composer’s longest, lasting a full hour. The cycle is now concluding with a real rarity: Symphony No. 7 in E-flat, which Tchaikovsky started writing before the Pathétique but set aside and did not live to complete. Soviet composer Semyon Bogatyrjow (whose last name is variously transliterated – two different ways on the new Oehms SACD) completed the symphony in the 1950s, and Eugene Ormandy even recorded it with the Philadelphia Orchestra, but it is very rarely heard. It is a bit of a hodgepodge and certainly lacks the dramatic intensity of Nos. 4-6, being in its effect something of a throwback to No. 3 in D, Tchaikovsky’s only other major-key symphony. No. 7 does contain a great deal of well-wrought music and a triumphal finale that stands in complete contrast to the last movement of the Pathétique, probably intentionally. And its first movement has an unusual distinction, having been turned by the composer into a concerto – the one-movement Piano Concerto No. 3, with which Kitajenko pairs the symphony and which gets a very fine performance indeed from Lilya Zilberstein. Comparing the concerto with the first movement of the symphony, from which it is derived, is fascinating, since the two are strongly parallel in many ways but differ enough so they do stand on their own as independent works. Kitajenko’s conducting is as strong, assured and powerful in this final entry in his Tchaikovsky sequence as it has been from the start, making the disc of more than curiosity value – it is an excellent completion of an excellent series.

     Mikhail Pletnev’s Tchaikovsky cycle for PentaTone has been more hit-or-miss; he ends it with the Manfred, with which Kitajenko began his. The huge work is a puzzle, being labeled a symphony by Tchaikovsky himself – but being in effect a very extended tone poem, or series of tone poems (along the lines of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, with which it shares sumptuous and sometimes overdone orchestration), and not being given a number by the composer. The work is far less unified than Tchaikovsky’s later symphonies, and it really does help to know the story of Byron’s Romantic antihero Manfred to make sense of the work’s progress. Yet the music is gripping even for modern listeners unfamiliar with its genesis, as many will be – Byron’s poem was highly influential in the 19th century but is much less frequently read today. The Pletnev performance is one of the best in his Tchaikovsky set, allowing the often-gorgeous themes to flow freely while not engaging in the sort of overdone rubato that has marred several other of Pletnev’s performances in this series. The beautiful second theme of the first movement and the whole of the third movement come across particularly appealingly, and Pletnev does not hesitate to pull out all the stops in the somewhat over-the-top finale, which even calls for an organ (speaking of “all the stops”!). The performance is involving and flows very well, and the SACD sound is first-rate.

     SACD quality is also a big plus for the second volume of Chandos’ series of the symphonies of Joachim Raff (1822-1882) – who, by the way, definitely wrote 11 of them, including nine with subtitles. Raff’s music is rarely heard today – Neeme Järvi is leading something of a revival – but was quite popular during the composer’s lifetime. His most-popular symphony of all, and the one considered his best by many scholars, is No. 5, which is featured on Järvi’s new recording. It bears more than a passing resemblance to Tchaikovsky’s Manfred in its genesis and concomitant neglect, being also based on a once-well-known literary work that is thoroughly unfamiliar today. That is the ballad Lenore by Gottfried August Bürger (1747-1794). It is a suitably creepy tale of a soldier and his sweetheart in which the man goes off to war, is killed, and returns after death to claim his bride and take her on a wild horseback ride to a hellish marriage bed. (Bürger was fond of themes like this – another of his ballads, Der wilde Jäger, is about a count doomed to be chased by demons forever because he went hunting on the Sabbath; it inspired César Franck to write the symphonic poem Le Chasseur maudit.) As in Tchaikovsky’s Manfred, it helps a great deal to know the story of Lenore when listening to Raff’s Symphony No. 5. The composer designates the work as being in three parts: “Joy of Love,” “Separation” and “Reunion in Death,” with the first two parts (which together include three of the work’s four movements) essentially being prologue or buildup for the last. This finale is very cleverly designed, lacking its own themes and instead opening with eerie measures that look ahead to 12-tone composition, then moving into what is essentially extended development of the other movements’ themes. Raff does not have the sheer poetic beauty (or emotional excess) of Tchaikovsky, but he does some very effective-tone painting here, and also structures his Fifth Symphony interestingly from the point of view of tempo: most of the work is at Allegro speed, with Raff changing note values rather than tempo markings to slow things down from time to time – resulting in a work that feels as if it constantly plunges headlong toward its eventual climax. The technique is unusual and quite effective. And the other works on the disc are effective as well. The nicely flowing rhapsody Abends is Raff’s orchestration of the fifth movement of his Piano Suite No. 6. The other pieces are opera openers. The earliest and most extended is for the “grand heroic opera” König Alfred (1848-49); chronologically, next comes Dornröschen (1855), based on the fairy tale “Briar Rose”; and then the comic operas Dame Kobold (1869) and Die Eifersüchtigen (“The Jealous Ones,” 1881-82). All the overtures show a sure command of orchestration and of introductory material for stage works, although Raff is sometimes rather too much on the literal side: Dornröschen opens with an undulating phrase that goes on and on and on, rather too obviously symbolizing the princess’ 100-year sleep. Järvi is obviously interested in and committed to Raff’s music, and leads it with vigor and sureness, making a strong case for its at least occasional revival.

     A revival of another sort is under way in the second Linn Records recording based on Arnold Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances, where, for three years starting in 1918, chamber arrangements of then-difficult, then-contemporary works were offered to an audience of knowledgeable listeners. The first SACD included Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 and Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun in versions created for Schoenberg’s group. The new one takes the re-creation of the Society for Private Musical Performances a step further by offering a recently commissioned arrangement of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 2 – on its face, scarcely a work that would seem to repay hearing in chamber-music form. The number of symphonies written by Bruckner is extremely difficult to determine: in addition to the nine numbered ones (the last of them unfinished), there are the “No. 0” (actually written after No. 1) and the school symphony designated “No. 00.” Both of these are occasionally performed and sometimes included in recorded Bruckner cycles – but not always. Complicating matters further, most Bruckner symphonies exist in multiple versions, some of which are substantially different from each other (e.g., the first version of No. 3 compared with all subsequent ones). With Bruckner, it makes sense simply to throw up one’s hands and say that the number of symphonies just does not matter. But performers still face the task of deciding which of the however-many-there-are versions of the symphonies to use, and an arranger such as Anthony Payne faces the same issue. Payne and Pinnock have opted for a Second that is primarily the work’s original, from 1871, but incorporates some elements from later versions (Bruckner kept making them until the 1890s). And Payne has done a marvelous job with the sinews of the music, allowing the symphony’s inner lines to shine forth in a way that they rarely do in full-orchestra performances, keeping the thematic groups clear everywhere, giving the climaxes appropriate scale for the instrumental complement, and generally bringing out the deep debt that Bruckner had to Schubert – perhaps more in this symphony than in the rest. As conducted by Trevor Pinnock and played by the Royal Academy of Music Soloists Ensemble, this Bruckner Second is an exhilarating experience and one like no other. This is scarcely “authentic” Bruckner; it is not even an “authentic” Society for Private Musical Performances offering. But that does not matter – Payne and Pinnock show that Schoenberg’s concept has validity for audiences today, bringing forth structural elements of great music that can be difficult to hear when the music is played as written. And the disc also offers, as an encore, a piece whose arrangement does date to the era of Schoenberg’s gathering: Berg’s fascinating handling of the Strauss “Wine, Women and Song” waltz. Berg removes the sensuality and lushness of the original and substitutes clarity of line and rhythm, making the piece less danceable and more symphonic in concept and execution – a highly intriguing approach that, like Payne’s in the Bruckner Second, creates music that differs significantly from what the composer intended but attains its own version of validity, and very considerable value.

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