May 21, 2015


Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Copenhagen Phil conducted by Lan Shui. Orchid Classics. $29.99 (2 CDs).

Spohr: Symphonies Nos. 7 and 9; Erinnergung an Marienbad. NDR Radiophilharmonie conducted by Howard Griffiths. CPO. $16.99 (SACD).

Bruckner: The Complete Symphonies (Nos. 1-9); Mass No. 3 in F Minor. Orchestre de la Suisse Romande conducted by Marek Janowski; Lenneke Ruiten, soprano; Iris Vermillion, mezzo-soprano; Shawn Mathey, tenor; Franz Josef Selig, bass; Rundfunkchor Berlin. PentaTone. $89.99 (10 SACDs).

     No matter how many times complete recordings of Beethoven’s symphonies are made, there is always room for another – so deeply do these works communicate through the ages, so susceptible are they to multiple readings and interpretative nuances. The first portion of the Beethoven cycle by the very strangely named Copenhagen Phil (founded as a Tivoli dance orchestra in 1843!) is exceptionally revelatory, even to those who feel they have heard just about every possible variation on Beethoven interpretation. Conductor Lan Shui does a number of things that, in combination, set his interpretations apart. For one thing, his orchestra uses original instruments or replicas – resulting in a sound very different from that of modern orchestras, especially in the brass, which Beethoven often has playing quite loudly but which, even at maximum volume, never overshadows the remainder of the musicians (because older brass instruments simply could not attain the volume of modern ones). Secondly, Shui insists on adhering to Beethoven’s own tempo indications, which remain controversial to this day, with some musicians and scholars insisting that Beethoven’s Maelzel metronome was defective or simply that the composer could not possibly have meant his music to be played as quickly as some of the tempo markings indicate. Thirdly, Copenhagen Phil itself is an orchestra of modest size, about 70 players, so there is a cleanness of sound and an inherent sectional balance here that is far more difficult to attain in orchestras of 90 to 100 musicians. The combination of these factors results in performances of Beethoven’s first four symphonies that are exhilarating, dynamic and dramatic to a very substantial degree. The sheer fleetness of the outer movements of No. 1 is delightful to hear, and indeed rather amazing. No. 2 sounds like a genuine transitional work, with much of the structure and overall approach of No. 1 but very clear hints of what was to come in No. 3. The “Eroica” itself gets a revelatory reading: from the first two chords, which are emphatic but not overwhelming (as in so many other performances), to a funeral march that moves ahead smartly rather than at a glacial pace, to a finale that seems to test the strings to their limit, this is a reading that makes Beethoven’s expansion of symphonic style quite clear while at the same time showing his indebtedness to earlier masters of the form. And Symphony No. 4, so often under-appreciated, fares splendidly here, too, seeming not at all a step back from the “Eroica” (as some commentators and conductors still consider it to be) but a decided move forward, with subtleties of instrumentation and a significant expansion of Beethoven’s expectation of performers’ capabilities. The finale of No. 4 here sounds like nothing less than a giant leap in the direction of Mendelssohnian scurrying. This Orchid Classics release is the start of one of the most interesting Beethoven cycles in years, and listeners who hear the freshness and brightness of the performances will be looking forward eagerly to Shui’s handling of the remainder of the symphonies.

     One cycle begins, another concludes: all 10 Louis Spohr symphonies (numbered 1-9, with a tenth without opus number) have now been released by CPO in a series of recordings featuring Howard Griffiths and the NDR Radiophilharmonie. Spohr was for a time considered the leading symphonist after Beethoven’s death, and Griffiths’ five CDs clearly show a modern audience why that was so – and why the composer’s reputation did not last. Spohr had some highly innovative concepts for symphonies, but his ability to implement them convincingly was often far less than those ideas deserved. This is quite clear in the contrast between Symphonies No. 7 and 9. No. 7 is one of Spohr’s best, a symphony roughly modeled on his once-famous double quartets: it is in effect a double-orchestra symphony, setting a small group of 11 players against a larger, full-size ensemble. But it is not just the orchestration that is special – there is also a program here, with the smaller group representing Good and the larger one Evil, all within the context of the work’s title, “The Earthly and the Divine in Human Life.” This is a lot of freight for a symphony to carry, but in this case Spohr brings off the concept with élan and considerable skill. The work’s three movements represent childhood and its innocence, adulthood and its secular concerns, and old age and its decided turn toward the divine. Furthermore, the work’s structure is highly unusual: it lacks both a slow movement and a scherzo, instead containing two moderate-tempo movements followed by a fast finale. Spohr appended mottos to all three movements, and it does help to know them to get the full flavor of the music; they are included in this release’s accompanying booklet. But even without knowing the words, listeners will be swept along through the drama and the contrasts between the smaller and larger orchestral groups. A highly unusual work, Spohr’s Seventh is a high point of his symphonic production. His Ninth, however, is altogether less successful. Written in 1849, eight years later than No. 7, Spohr’s Ninth also has programmatic elements, being called “The Seasons” – but starting in winter and progressing through to autumn, rather than beginning with spring as Vivaldi and Haydn did. Again here there is an unusual structure: two parts, the first including winter, introduction to spring and spring, the second containing summer, introduction to autumn and autumn. But in this case, Spohr’s creativity flagged in the implementation of what is essentially a simple program. There is nothing wrong with the symphony, but nothing especially right about it either: it goes through the motions harmonically and descriptively (although less so in a descriptive sense than other works on the same topic), but it never really grabs the listener, and it tends to sound mundane and even plodding as it progresses. There is a thunderstorm, for instance, but only in the distance, and there are hunting horns, but only briefly and only as a lead-in to a rather ordinary rondo theme. Spohr’s creativity seems to have flagged late in life – this is also why he withdrew his Symphony No 10, although he did not destroy it. His No. 9 is well-crafted but ultimately not especially memorable. Griffiths concludes his Spohr survey with Erinnergung an Marienbad (“Souvenir of Marienbad”), a work from 1833 in which Spohr shows himself capable of producing a workmanlike if not particularly distinguished waltz. Written for small orchestra, it is a pleasant piece with few affectations and, as such, of more interest than some of Spohr’s more-pretentious works that seek grandeur and meaningfulness but never quite attain them.

     The grandeur of Bruckner’s symphonies comes through quite clearly in the newest cycle of those works, featuring Marek Janowski and Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Like Beethoven cycles, those of Bruckner come in many forms and with many approaches – and, in the case of Bruckner, with different counts of symphonies. Bruckner wrote 11 symphonies, including a very early one now numbered “00” and a later one, created between Nos. 1 and 2, that is known as “No. 0.” Conductors have to decide which symphonies to include in a Bruckner cycle, and Janowski opts only for Nos. 1-9 – a justifiable position, although No. 0 is certainly worth hearing (No. 00 is more conventional and of less interest, although a truly comprehensive cycle should incorporate it). So whether this cycle is “complete” depends on one’s definition of completeness where Bruckner is concerned. Conductors also have to decide which versions of the symphonies to use, and this is a notorious problem for the many symphonies that exist in multiple forms. Janowski opts for Nowak versions throughout, except for the new and well-regarded Carragan version of No. 2; however, the specific Nowak versions Janowski chooses are not always the best: the 1889 version of No. 3, for example, is a distinct disappointment, no matter how well it is played. And the playing itself is another issue in Bruckner cycles, even more so than in sequences of other composers’ symphonies, because Bruckner’s unique sound requires thorough familiarity with and understanding of the composer’s Masses, his predilection for the organ, and the German (and, even more specifically, Wagnerian) sound of orchestras in Bruckner’s time. This last matter is a significant one for Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, whose distinctive sound is far more French than German – which results in Bruckner that is smoother, more flowing and more even (that is, less craggy) than in many other readings. Add to this sonic element the fact that Janowski, a first-rate opera conductor, sees Bruckner’s symphonies as works of high drama and tremendous drive, and you have a cycle that sheds a different sort of light on the composer while arguing (admittedly not always convincingly) that his worldview was essentially operatic and driven by grand emotional outbursts. Janowski is quite capable of giving listeners heartfelt, warm and religiously committed performances – the best example here is the Mass No. 3 in F Minor, included as a sort of bonus disc with the symphonies (and fitting well with them: Bruckner often drew on his Masses, including this one, for symphonic material). But the emotionalism of the slow movements of Symphonies Nos. 7 and 8, and of the third movement of the truncated No. 9, comes through clearly as well, with Janowski giving the music plenty of room to breathe and with the orchestral players letting it flow with substantial, almost oceanically engulfing warmth. The most memorable movements here, though, are the ones from which Janowski can extract maximum dramatic impact, including in particular the finales: Nos. 2, 3, 6 and 7 come across especially well. The scherzos also receive dynamically engaging performances, their Ländler rhythms brought forth distinctively and their intense elements played with great strength that leads to a strong contrast between their main sections and their central trios. Janowski also has particular sensitivity to misterioso elements of Bruckner – the opening of the first movement of No. 9, which has never sounded more dramatic than it does here, and the same symphony’s weirdly flickering scherzo, are but two examples, although particularly good ones. This cycle – offered in PentaTone’s usual splendid SACD sound, and also sounding excellent on standard CD equipment – will probably not be Bruckner aficionados’ first choice, because of the orchestra’s sound, the choice of editions of the symphonies, the failure to include Nos. 00 and 0, and the absence of a compelling musical argument carried throughout the symphonies (such as that of Mario Venzago’s recent and very Schubertian sequence, employing different orchestras to highlight distinctive elements of each symphony). The sheer power of Bruckner, though, comes through forcefully here, and many of the movements – if not necessarily entire symphonies – are so impressive as to make listeners sit up and take notice. This cycle is certainly not definitive, if that word has any meaning where Bruckner is concerned, but it is highly interesting and even intriguing in its emphasis on the grand, even grandiose elements of symphonies by a composer who was, in his everyday life, as modest and unassuming as they come.

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