October 02, 2014


Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4 (“The Inextinguishable”). New York Philharmonic conducted by Alan Gilbert. Dacapo. $16.99 (SACD).

Bruckner: Symphony No. 3—original version (1873). Orchestre Métropolitain conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. ATMA Classique. $16.99.

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 14 (“Moonlight”) and 29 (“Hammerklavier”); excerpts from “The Ruins of Athens.” Alessio Bax, piano. Signum Classics. $17.99.

Ernst Bacon: Complete Works for Solo Guitar. Bradley Colten, guitar. Azica. $16.99.

     Alan Gilbert’s second entry in Dacapo’s “Nielsen Project” of all the symphonies and concertos shares the strengths and weaknesses of his first offering, which included Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3. The new SACD boasts splendid sound and far better playing by the New York Philharmonic than it has offered since the days of Leonard Bernstein, which ended 25 years ago. At the same time, the disc leaves the impression that Gilbert is not quite up to the demands of this music, perhaps not fully comfortable with it or not yet able to think it through in a way that would give it an overarching shape to meld its disparate elements. Nielsen’s six symphonies are highly individualistic, both singly and as a group, and each needs a very different approach for full effect. Gilbert’s readings are more cookie-cutter, highlighting similarities among the works (of which there certainly are some) while downplaying the differences (of which there are many). The fact that Nielsen repeatedly contrasts near-violent loud and fast passages with quiet ones that seem almost to drift dreamily is clear enough here – but the balancing of the importance of these two stylistic elements is missing: Gilbert relishes the intensity but becomes unfocused, even flabby, in the rhythms of the more-thoughtful sections. He also seems, oddly, to hold back a bit when the big climaxes become too big, notably in the “timpani duel” of Symphony No. 4, which is simply not as intense and gripping as it needs to be in order to pave the way for the sense of positive completion that succeeds it.  Symphony No. 1, on the other hand, strides forth tempestuously from its opening notes, but soon calms down to a level of overdone placidity – the music need not subside into quietude and a lack of forward impetus, but it does here. On balance, the First is more successful in this recording, its fundamentally classical balance providing it with a graspable structure that the Fourth – which is essentially a single extended movement – does not inherently possess. The Fourth tosses and turns, pulling the audience hither and yon before eventually reaching the affirmation of its title – that music, like life itself, is ultimately inextinguishable. But the elements of the struggle toward that conclusion are downplayed by Gilbert, so the eventual sense of triumph is lessened and muted. The First has less-lofty goals, and Gilbert handles the unusual elements of its structure – it starts in one key and ends in a different one – with understanding, if not with any particular sense of élan. These recordings of live performances from March 2014 show Gilbert in fine control of an orchestra whose sound has improved considerably since he became its music director in 2009 – but they also show him undertaking a series that includes some great music whose subtleties seem to elude him.

     A lack of subtlety is also an issue in the very well-played but somewhat superficial recording of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 3 by Orchestre Métropolitain under Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The original version of this symphony, from 1873, has long been an extreme rarity in concert halls and on recordings, but it is beginning to regain favor for its expansiveness, its extremely monumental structure, its incorporation of a great deal of Wagner’s music (which has led to it being labeled Bruckner’s “Wagner symphony”), and its first establishment in Bruckner’s works of what listeners clearly recognize as the “Bruckner sound.” The 1873 version sprawls in ways that later versions (notably those of 1877 and 1889) do not – and Bruckner was well aware of this, calling for very slow tempos and worrying (with reason, as it turned out) that conductors would rush the music (much as Mahler later worried that the third movement of his Symphony No. 5 would be rushed – as indeed it too often is). On this ATMA Classique recording, Nézet-Séguin falls into the trap of wanting to move the admittedly somewhat overblown 1873 version along, to get it where it is going more quickly than it really needs to get there. This creates a conflict between the content of the music and its pacing: Bruckner may have been right to reduce the proportions and dimensions of this symphony in later versions (a long-held argument in some quarters), but making a commitment to play the 1873 version ought to mean performing it on its own craggy and not-always-perfectly-proportioned terms. Later versions of the symphony last under an hour; the 1873 version lasts well over one – sometimes a great deal over. The recent recording by the Altomonte Orchester St. Florian under Rémy Ballot represents an extreme, taking a full hour and a half as Ballot strives to use the tempos that Bruckner apparently wanted. Nézet-Séguin’s reading goes somewhat to the other extreme, lasting about 67 minutes. It never feels really rushed and is always well played, but there is something surface-level about it, a sense that the conductor is reluctant fully to engage with the expansiveness of the work and let it bloom to its full proportions. The 1873 version is so Wagner-permeated and so large-scale that it can be awkward both to conduct and to hear, but a sense of streamlining is not what it needs. Nézet-Séguin makes less of it than can be made, for all that he directs with firmness and a certain amount of passion. He might be more comfortable with a later version of the symphony than with this one, whose imperfections need to be fully embraced, not glossed over, for maximum effect.

     Alessio Bax certainly embraces the grandeur and difficulty of Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” sonata on a new CD from Signum Classics. This is a sonata with the heft of a symphony (and, at 45 minutes, a typical symphony’s length). Conquering the sonata’s enormous technical challenges is not enough to make a performance special: truly understanding the music is required, and having enough discipline and intellectual fortitude to keep the music flowing while making its extreme physical demands (notably in the final movement’s fugue) seem entirely incidental. Indeed, they are incidental to the music’s communicative power, and the prowess Bax shows in this (++++) recording comes as much from his knowing that as it does from his sheer virtuosity. Perhaps the greatest challenge of this work is its extremely long Adagio sostenuto, which is about as difficult to sustain as anything in the piano literature. Bax keeps the underlying rhythmic pulse strong and clear while allowing the emotional impact of the music’s progress freer rein, the result being a soul-stirring delving into some of the greatest emotional depths that Beethoven ever plumbed. Bax’s handling of the “Moonlight” sonata is less exceptional but still very fine indeed: here he plays with a limpid quality whose intimacy brings forth the many beauties of this music, which is so much simpler than that of the “Hammerklavier” but no less emotive. Bax rounds out the disc with his own transcriptions of two pieces from The Ruins of Athens: the well-known Turkish March and much-less-known Chorus of the Whirling Dervishes. The transcriptions are knowing and effective, and Bax’s playing of these encores is as involving and attractive as is his handling of the sonatas.

     Fine solo playing is also a hallmark of an Azica recording of the complete solo-guitar music of Ernst Bacon (1898-1990), a little-known American composer whose complete solo-guitar works can be performed in less than an hour. Bacon primarily composed songs – more than 250 of them – and there is a songfulness to most of his solo-guitar music, too, although calling these works “songs without words” would be stretching things. Bacon was one of the composers most interested in creating what they deemed an American sound in music; he was also strongly influenced by Transcendentalism. His songs frequently set words by Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, and his solo-guitar pieces seem to speak of similar concerns in their poetic elements, their forthright emotionalism and their occasional outright twanginess. The music is interesting and pleasant, solid enough to give the CD a (+++) rating although not so involving or profound as to turn the disc into a must-have for lovers of 20th-century Americana. Bradley Colten’s excellent performances are a major reason to own the CD: Colten rediscovered most of this music, carefully edited and reassembled it, and even gave titles to pieces that lacked them. Guitarists will surely celebrate this disc for widening their repertoire – the works lie well on the instrument and offer plenty of opportunities for virtuosity, although they are something more than mere display pieces. Fans of classical guitar will also welcome a full CD of previously unknown works for the solo instrument. The disc as a whole will have rather limited appeal beyond the core group of guitarists and guitar fans, but members of that group will rejoice in it and in the fine playing that Colten brings to this well-constructed, energetic and pleasantly rhythmic repertoire.

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