October 09, 2014


Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6. Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Philippe Jordan. Wiener Symphoniker. $18.99.

Reznicek: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4. Robert-Schumann-Philharmonie conducted by Frank Beermann. CPO. $16.99.

     Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” is something of a rite of passage for music directors of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, which presumably is one reason the storied ensemble’s new leader, Philippe Jordan, has recorded it early in his tenure. Another reason may simply be a desire to find something new to say about a work that is one of the best-known in all classical music – one that feels as if it has been performed and recorded by pretty much everyone, pretty much everywhere. Jordan’s Tchaikovsky Sixth may not be the first choice for all listeners, but it does combine very-high-quality playing and some genuinely attentive interpretation to produce a reading with a very strong effect. Indeed, the nature of that effect is one reason this is such a fine rendition of the symphony: it is not “tragic,” as in so many other performances, but filled with pathos – “pathetic” in the meaning intended by its title. Jordan produces a big sound with considerable sensitivity to structural elements and fine emphasis in the winds and brass for the first movement, which emerges with some of the same tone-poem feeling as the opening movement of the composer’s Symphony No. 4. The succeeding waltz in its oddly surreal 5/4 time is gentle here, not grotesque or overstated, its rhythms flowing naturally even though they are, for a waltz, quite unnatural. The brilliance of the third movement is downplayed as well: this is a thoroughly controlled Tchaikovsky Sixth, one that does not sprawl and beg and scrape the bottom of the emotional barrel. The playing is exceptionally fine in this Allegro molto vivace, the tempo is middle-of-the-road rather than extreme, the orchestral balance is top-notch, and there is an inevitability about the progress of the march that carries through it all the way to its brilliant conclusion. And then comes a finale that, yes, is as strong a contrast as Tchaikovsky intended, but that does not wear its heart as completely on its sleeve as is the case in many performances. Subtlety is the order of the day here – indeed, “subtle” is a good adjective for this entire performance, which was recorded live in December 2013. The passionate lamentation is certainly there in Jordan’s reading of the fourth movement, but the emotion never becomes so overheated as to belie the title that Tchaikovsky’s brother, Modest, bestowed on the symphony. In all, this is a first-rate performance throughout – but the release is one that would perhaps have been more appropriate for purchase during the LP era, because the symphony is the only thing on the CD. That was typical in the days when vinyl dominated, but is distinctly old-fashioned – and unreasonably expensive – in the CD era. Whether this recording on the Wiener Symphoniker’s own label is a worthwhile purchase will depend on each individual listener’s evaluation not only of the quality of the performance, which is high, but also of the value for the price, which is considerably lower.

     Tchaikovsky’s Sixth is, if anything, overplayed, but the symphonies of Emil Nikolaus von Reznicek (1860-1945) suffer from the opposite problem: they are almost never heard in concert, much less recorded. Reznicek, in fact, is known to most listeners for a single piece, the sparkling overture to his 1894 opera Donna Diana. But he was actually adept in numerous forms: opera, chamber music, a violin concerto, suites, choral music, works for solo piano and solo organ, plus five symphonies. The problem with Reznicek’s music seems to be that it is hard for listeners to know what to expect from it. Although firmly rooted in late Romanticism, Reznicek’s works are all over the map both emotionally and in terms of their impact. Tell a music lover “Tchaikovsky,” and he or she will most likely conjure up a picture of gorgeous tunes, long-spun-out phrases that dwell on the greatest possible emotional impact, and an overall sense of melancholy. This is only a partially accurate picture, but it is a picture. Thinking up a similar one for Reznicek is well-nigh impossible, and the more of his music one hears, the more difficult the effort becomes. The Third and Fourth Symphonies, now available on CPO in first-rate performances by the Chemnitz-based Robert-Schumann-Philharmonie under Frank Beermann, neatly encapsulate the problem. No. 3 (1918) is called Im alten Stil, but despite an opening that Reznicek says he took from a so-far-unidentified 15th-century folk melody, the work is in Romantic rather than “old” style. In fact, it sounds more like Schumann (some of the time) and Sibelius (some of the time) than like, say, Haydn or Mozart; yet it is never merely imitative, even when it does quote directly from other composers, such as Schubert, here and there. As a whole, it sounds not at all like the works of the composers whose music, in passing, it resembles. It is, for example, fair to call the work’s finale Mendelssohnian, but its rambling through multiple keys more closely resembles what Schubert did, and the actual sound of the music reflects neither of those earlier composers. Thoroughly effective on its own, the music feels a bit like a throwback even though calling it “old style” is pushing matters rather too far. And if one accepts and enjoys this symphony, how does one react to No. 4, written just a year later? It is so different in sound, in tone and in effect that it is as if Beethoven had written his First Symphony and then, a year later, his Seventh – the disconnect is that great. Reznicek’s No. 3 is in D, No. 4 in F minor, but the home keys are not the primary difference between the works. No. 4 echoes different composers – Mahler, Wagner, Richard Strauss, even Bruckner – and is altogether grander in concept, although still not particularly long: 40 minutes, compared with 30 for No. 3 (and 45 or so for Tchaikovsky’s Sixth). But Reznicek’s Fourth work is more stately than somber: it is firmly controlled and executed with care and a certain elegance. It is the only Reznicek symphony without a title, but its second movement does have one: Trauermarsch auf den Tod eines Komödianten (“Funeral March on the Death of a Comedian”), and this only adds to the puzzle of the work – for unlike Gounod’s Funeral March of a Marionette, Reznicek’s movement is large-scale and, its title aside, unironic, one of a set of shifting moods throughout the symphony that make it difficult to pin down its overall emotional effect. Reznicek’s symphonies require multiple hearings to begin to seem emotionally trenchant – and a key to them is that the emotive power of one is quite different from that of the prior and next ones. Perhaps it is this elusiveness that has kept these works from more-frequent performance. Listeners to Beermann’s finely honed interpretations have a welcome chance to find out for themselves.

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