November 05, 2015


Mahler: Symphony No. 6. Symphonieorchester des Bayerischer Rundfunks conducted by Daniel Harding. BR Klassik. $16.99.

Sibelius: Violin Concerto; Finlandia; The Swan of Tuonela; Valse Triste; The Bard. Michael Ludwig, violin; Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Beau Fleuve. $17.

Sibelius: Swanwhite—complete incidental music; Ödlan (The Lizard)—complete incidental music; A Lonely Ski Trail; The Countess’ Portrait. Riho Eklundh, narrator; Turku Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leif Segerstam. Naxos. $12.99.

Bach: Cello Suites (complete). Matt Haimovitz, cello. PentaTone. $29.99 (2 SACDs).

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 8 (“Pathétique”), 21 (“Waldstein”) and 32. Boris Giltburg, piano. Naxos. $12.99.

Richard Strauss: Don Quixote; Also Sprach Zarathustra. Wiener Philharmoniker conducted by Herbert von Karajan. Orfeo. $19.99.

     It is only with the heart that one can see rightly,” explains the title character in The Little Prince. “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” When it comes to music – which is certainly invisible once transformed from notes on a page into sound – the appeal to the heart is, in most cases, a given. But what is essential in music, essential to the understanding of the totality of the work of a particular composer, essential to individual pieces? Certainly Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, often given the sobriquet Tragic, requires seeing with the heart: all Mahler’s music is a journey with the composer into his deepest emotions, the Sixth even more so than some of his other works. But how does one get to the essentials of the Sixth? There are two significant performance problems with this work, along with a myriad of lesser ones. One major issue is the order of the middle movements: should the slow movement precede or follow the scherzo? Mahler himself could not make up his mind – he himself could not quite decide which sequence better elucidates what is essential in the symphony. The other important matter is the famous sequence of three hammer blows in the finale, the last of which fells the hero who (as in the First and Second Symphonies) is the protagonist of the drama. Mahler originally planned five hammer blows, then decided on three, and then, after the work’s first performance, deleted the third – from superstition, it has been widely argued. Should the third be reinstated? Daniel Harding’s well-paced and very strongly played performance of the Sixth on a new BR Klassik CD leaves out the third hammer blow and places the Andante moderato second. The essential character of the symphony is partly determined by these decisions. Most conductors now omit the third hammer blow, although its inclusion inarguably adds to the power of the symphony’s conclusion. Conductors are split just about 50-50 in terms of movement sequence: certainly placing the slow movement second provides relief after the high drama of the opening, but the decision then produces a scherzo-plus-finale of almost unrelieved intensity for well over 40 minutes. This is particularly so in Harding’s performance, which goes for maximum power and encourages the outstanding orchestra to play for all it is worth. Just how intensely the performers participate in this reading is made clear from what may be the most unusual cover ever used for a CD: it shows the electrocardiograms of Harding and four members of the orchestra during the performance (they were fitted with EKG devices as an experiment) and provides amazing insight into just how involved musicians become in the works they perform. This disc raises both intentional and unintentional questions about what is essential. An example of the latter: it is considered essential to keep CD recordings at or below 80 minutes, or perhaps a tiny smidgen above, to preserve sound quality at an adequate sampling rate. But this 82½-minute performance is offered on a single CD, and there is no audible compromise in the sound at all.

     Certainly symphonies are the essential element of Mahler’s oeuvre, making up – along with song cycles – essentially everything he wrote. Symphonies are equally crucial to an understanding and appreciation of Sibelius, with whom Mahler had his famous argument about what a symphony should be. A new CD on the Beau Fleuve label is therefore completely off base in its title, “The Essential Sibelius,” since there is no symphony here. There are, however, several other works that are crucial to Sibelius’ total production, most notably his Violin Concerto, performed with aplomb by Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra concertmaster Michael Ludwig. This is a solid, sturdy rendition of the concerto, largely straightforward in approach, allowing the music to unfold naturally without any attempt by Ludwig or conductor JoAnn Falletta to accentuate either its Romantic leanings or its forward-looking harmonies: the disparate elements coexist peacefully here. Falletta does know how to go for drama when she wants to: her Finlandia is mountainously strong and strides boldly forth, although its warmer and more-relaxed sections get somewhat short shrift as a result. Valse Triste and The Swan of Tuonela are somewhat less successful, despite Anna Mattix’s lovely English horn playing in the latter, because there is a dark wistfulness to both works that is missing here: Valse Triste should tread the line between fear of Death and being enamored of it, and the beauty of the land of the dead is also a crucial element of The Swan of Tuonela. These performances are fine, but scarcely revelatory. The least “essential” of the works on this CD is the final one, the short tone poem The Bard, which is not exactly at the core of Sibelius’ music but which does offer some very effective tone painting – which Falletta reproduces with colorful involvement.

     It could be argued that Sibelius’ theater music is almost as essential to his overall work as are his symphonies, but his musical accompaniments for 13 plays and various shorter presentations are not heard particularly often, except in the truncated form of suites. This makes Leif Segerstam’s ongoing survey of Sibelius’ incidental music all the more welcome: a new Naxos CD featuring Swanwhite and The Lizard is the fifth in the sequence. The degree to which the theater and symphonic music of Sibelius intertwine is quite clear in the Swanwhite music: one piece clearly echoes Valse Triste and another was later reworked by Sibelius into part of his Fifth Symphony. By definition, theater music is episodic: the 14 numbers for Swanwhite take less than 30 minutes to perform. But Sibelius’ expertise at producing atmospheric sounds is clear everywhere, and it is almost possible to visualize scenes from the play simply by hearing the music written for it. This is less true when it comes to The Lizard, whose music is consistently gloomy and rather low-key, closer to what we now deem “background music” than the Swanwhite pieces, which add to and comment upon the stage action. The Lizard is a rather dreamlike story about a nobleman whose soul is torn between characters representing good and evil. The music is quite effectively orchestrated but not particularly interesting to hear in concert form, although the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra plays it very well. The CD also includes two short dramatic pieces, real Sibelius rarities: melodramas, in which narrator Riho Eklundh briefly tells stories as Sibelius’ music swells and subsides behind the voice. Nothing on this CD should be considered “essential” Sibelius, but to the extent that his theatrical productions are essential to an understanding of his music, this disc provides a real service by making more of them readily available.

     Asking what is essential in Bach’s music is a more-difficult question: it is hard to think of Bach works that do not partake of the essence of his style and communicative skill. Certainly his six Cello Suites are essential for cellists: they remain among the most complex and difficult works ever written for the instrument, and every cellist who performs and records them takes pains to note that his or her interpretation at any given time will differ from ones under other circumstances. Matt Haimovitz is particularly forthright about this, discussing – in the notes he provides for the new PentaTone recording of the suites – the ways in which his thinking about the music has changed since he first recorded the suites 15 years ago. Haimovitz’ musings and self-analyses are interesting, and the brief examples he offers of his musical re-thinking confirm the overall thoughtfulness of his approach to Bach. But what is essential here is how Haimovitz’ new views of the music translate into the way he offers it. One significant element that changes is the edition of the suites that he uses: here, Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript rather than the Bärenreiter edition of the suites from which he worked on his earlier recording. Perhaps even more important is the fact that Haimovitz has somewhat toned down the quirks in tempo and rubato that marred his earlier recording of the music. He performs the first five suites here on a Baroque cello with an especially sonorous lower range (made in 1710 by Matteo Goffriller) and the sixth on a five-string cello piccolo, and he uses gut strings and a modern reproduction of a Baroque bow throughout. But Haimovitz does not believe “Baroque” means “stolid,” and he does not hesitate to make some unusual tempo choices and to continue to employ a degree of rubato that is not, however, as overdone as in his first recording. Haimovitz wants be to be provocative in his performances – at least that is the impression this recording gives from time to time, if not constantly. He plays so well that his provocations and occasional oddities are not only impossible to ignore but also important to take seriously, which is likely his point. The almost completely static Sarabande of Suite No. 2, the amazingly bowed Gigue of Suite No. 3, and the fascinating handling of the pizzicato section at the end of the Gavotte I & II movement of Suite No. 6 are but three examples among many. There is nothing staid in Haimovitz’ readings – some of his dance movements are really danceable – and if he occasionally seems to overdo things with some inauthentic phrasing or rhythmic touches, at least he never errs on the side of too much caution. What Haimovitz has done is to show, as other performers have also done, that the essential elements of Bach lie only partly in the instruments and forms he used: what Bach communicates transcends the specific means through which he does so.

     Figuring out what is essential in Beethoven is a tricky matter, but surely his piano sonatas are among the essential elements of his music. What is particularly attractive about a new Naxos CD featuring three of them played by Boris Giltburg – aside from the assured, well-proportioned interpretations and the well-controlled virtuosity that never subsumes the music within empty display – is the contrast among the three sonatas heard here. The “Pathétique” of 1798 bears many of the hallmarks of youth and of the sort of Sturm und Drang atmosphere of some of Haydn’s symphonies, while also looking ahead toward the Romantic era in its un-self-conscious emotional display. The “Waldstein” of 1804 is grander and more technically challenging, a work in which Beethoven significantly broadened the concept of a piano sonata and paved the way for its further expansion by Liszt and others. And No. 32, Beethoven’s final sonata (1821-22), is simply astonishing, anticipating jazz in one section of its first movement, pushing the bounds of harmony, combining elements of drama and mysticism in a heady brew that seems different each time the work is performed. This sonata, whose form inspired several Chopin works and was used by Prokofiev as the basis of his Symphony No. 2, transcends both its time and the earlier sonatas for which it is the capstone. The notion of Beethoven having early, middle and late compositional periods is a widely repeated over-simplification that seems self-evident on the basis of this CD: the composer’s progress from accepted forms and harmonies into new territory that remains modern-sounding nearly 200 years later is amply explored by Giltburg, whose readings of all three sonatas show careful crafting, sensitivity and musical understanding.

     And what would be understood as essential in the music of Richard Strauss? Opera, for sure, but also tone poems – and there were few interpreters of those tone poems more adept and assured than Herbert von Karajan. Although long identified with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, which he led for more than three decades (1956-1989), von Karajan also frequently led the Vienna Philharmonic – probably the only orchestra equal to the Berlin ensemble during von Karajan’s lifetime. Some sense of the exceptional sound of the Vienna Philharmonic, especially its absolutely gorgeous string tone, comes through on a new Orfeo release of two Salzburg Festival Strauss performances from 1964 – readings made all the more attractive by the solo turns of violist Rudolf Streng and cellist Pierre Fournier. Von Karajan’s drive and constant striving for drama were sometimes off-putting, but these versions of Don Quixote and Also Sprach Zarathustra show the conductor as equally sensitive to the lyricism, warmth and plasticity of the music – his reputation for a certain coldness of approach is undeserved, at least here. Unfortunately, although the remastering of this recording is very good, the CD will be of interest only to fans of von Karajan and/or the Vienna Philharmonic, and ones with particular interest in historic performances. The reason is that this is a monophonic recording, and no amount of technical tweaking can turn it into anything else. The fullness of sound that comes through is actually more than would be expected under the circumstances, but it does have limits, and the result is a (+++) release of rather limited appeal. And those familiar with von Karajan’s spectacular 1973 Berlin Philharmonic recording of Also Sprach Zarathustra will find this one a trifle disappointing: for all the quality of the Vienna Philharmonic’s playing, the interpretation itself is a touch on the tentative side, lacking the extremely fine attention to detail of the later version. Don Quixote comes across quite well, though, with a fine balance between seriousness and elements of rather rough humor. Certainly this recording shows some of what is essential in the music of Strauss, although it would be a stretch to call it essential to the understanding and appreciation of one of the world’s greatest Strauss conductors.

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