November 23, 2016


Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 5-8. Copenhagen Phil conducted by Lan Shui. Orchid Classics. $29.99 (2 CDs).

Mieczysław Weinberg: Symphony No. 17, “Memory”; Suite for Orchestra. Siberian State Symphony Orchestra (Krasnoyarsk) conducted by Vladimir Lande. Naxos. $12.99.

Michael Haydn: Symphonies, Volumes 1 and 2. Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice conducted by Patrick Gallois. Naxos. $12.99 each.

     Some symphonies seem to lend themselves to complete-cycle recordings: the four of Brahmas, the four of Schumann, the eight completed ones of Schubert, the nine or 10 of Mahler, the nine or 10 or 11 of Bruckner – yes, sometimes “complete” gets a trifle slippery, but the urge to record entire sequences remains powerful. And then, of course, there is Beethoven, whose nine completed symphonies (he did actually start on a 10th) have been offered so many times, by so many ensembles, that the cycle seems something of a rite of passage for orchestras and conductors alike. As with the cycles of other major symphonists, the plethora of recordings does not mean there is a surplus: Beethoven’s works are subject to so many approaches, and continue to have so much to communicate to musicians and listeners, that there is always room for another set of the canonic nine. Lan Shui and the oddly named Copenhagen Phil (founded as a Tivoli dance orchestra in 1843) continue their unusual ways with this music in the second volume of their cycle for Orchid Classics, having earlier released their versions of Nos. 1-4. Not surprisingly, this followup of Symphonies Nos. 5-8 shares the strengths of the earlier recording. The 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). And Shui insists on adhering to Beethoven’s own tempo indications, which remain controversial, 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. Also, 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. These factors produce uniformly interesting readings of this group of symphonies, although not all of them are ones that will necessarily captivate listeners on a first hearing. No. 5 is excellent throughout, the dramatic first movement for a change not overshadowing the blithe second; and Beethoven’s intention with the insertion of trombones in the finale seems splendidly obvious when instruments of his own time are used. No. 6 is more problematical. This is a relaxed symphony, but the walk in the country that opens it is more of a jog at Shui’s (that, is Beethoven’s original) tempo, and takes some getting used to. Even the scene at the brook is something short of languid, although it has to be said that that movement sometimes drags – and certainly does not do so here. The tempos and clarity of No. 7 make it a delight: this is not just the apotheosis of the dance, as Wagner famously and wonderfully described it, but a fleet whirligig of near-dervish proportions, the ability of the musicians to stay together in the finale being especially impressive. And No. 8 is a gem: although this is the most Haydnesque of Beethoven’s symphonies, it was written at quite a different time in the composer’s life from No 1, to which it is often compared, and Shui fully understands that this is a companion piece to No. 7 rather than a throwback to an earlier style. All these performances are fresh and exhilarating, and all of them repay repeated hearings that make it possible to get past any initial uncertainty caused by the tempo choices (especially in No. 6) and simply to luxuriate in the poise, clarity and exceptional instrumental balance throughout.

     The symphonies of Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996) are being released piecemeal by Naxos, and a portrait of this major but neglected Soviet-era composer is beginning to become clear (although a chronological cycle of the works would have brought much greater clarity, much sooner). The latest recording featuring the very solid Vladimir Lande and the highly idiomatic Siberian State Symphony Orchestra (Krasnoyarsk) focuses on the first symphony of a trilogy that Weinberg wrote regarding World War II, known as the Great Patriotic War in what was then the Soviet Union. It is about time that Symphony No. 17, “Memory,” has finally been released: No. 18, “War – there is no word more cruel,” came out in 2014, and No. 19, “Bright May,” appeared as far back as 2012. Heard as a trilogy, the works are impressive – a far cry from typical overdone socialist-realist musical banality. And No. 17, the longest of the three, is a significant achievement on its own. Written from 1982 to 1984, it shares some of the scale and some of the somewhat-overblown intensity of Shostakovich’s wartime symphonies, Nos. 7 and 8. Shostakovich and Weinberg were something of a mutual-admiration society (Weinberg’s Symphony No. 12 is ““In memoriam D. Shostakovich”), and their stylistic overlap is evident in Weinberg’s No. 17. But the way Weinberg shapes this symphony is quite different from the way Shostakovich arranged his wartime (and other) ones. Instead of a massive first movement and enigmatically triumphant finale, with movements of less consequence in between, Weinberg treats the first movement here as something of a prologue, then produces a significantly longer second movement that starts quickly and dissonantly and remains both tense and intense until eventually subsiding into a kind of hesitant uncertainty that ends in ambivalence. It is an unsettling movement, and is succeeded by a short and forceful scherzo-like presentation that in spirit is the closest part of this symphony to Shostakovich. The finale is as large as the second movement and is emotionally complex, including some very effective instrumental touches (the celesta is notable) and an increase in tension – rather than its resolution – at the end. This finale makes more sense as the ending of the first part of a symphonic trilogy, especially in light of the symphony’s full dedication “in memory of the fallen in the Great Patriotic War.” Heard on its own, the symphony has an undercurrent of the puzzling and uncertain – an unusual stance and an interesting one. The pairing of this very serious work with the world première recording of the Suite for Orchestra of 1950 is quite intriguing. The suite is a set of five dance movements that, individually and collectively, very strikingly recall the theater music of, yes, Shostakovich, written several decades earlier. Weinberg here shows a light and uncomplicated side of his compositional personality that is quite surprising in view of the darkness of Symphony No. 17 and many other works. The movements’ titles are as straightforward as the music itself: “Romance,” “Humoresque,” “Waltz,” “Polka” and “Galop.” The last of them is a rousing conclusion that uses the harmonic language of Shostakovich but that channels everyone from the Strauss family to Khachaturian. The rediscovery of Weinberg is proceeding in fits and starts – his music is certainly worth meeting and exploring, and both his heavy and light aspects on this disc are ones whose acquaintance it is quite worthwhile to make.

     The 43-or-so symphonies of Michael Haydn are also in the process of receiving somewhat helter-skelter release on Naxos, in bouncy and well-balanced recordings featuring the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice under Patrick Gallois. “Michael Haydn” is the answer to the trivia question, “Who wrote Mozart’s Symphony No. 37?” Mozart wrote only the slow introduction to the first movement – the rest of the work is by Michael Haydn, although it was long attributed to Mozart. Beyond that symphony, which was often played in the 19th century when thought to be by Mozart, Michael Haydn’s symphonic production has received little notice. There is a catalogue of the symphonies, called the Perger listing, but the first two releases in this series do not follow it sequentially and, indeed, are pretty much random: the first includes Perger 16, 21, 19 and 15, while the second has Perger 42, 18, 17 and 22. Unlike the symphonic style of his five-years-older brother, Joseph, Michael Haydn’s did not evolve appreciably. He generally wrote symphonies (labeled in the older style as “Sinfonias”) in three movements, although Perger 15 is in four; the works sometimes, but scarcely always, open with a slow introduction (Perger 21, 42 and 18); and the central slow movements are not intended to plumb significant depths – in six of the eight works released so far, they are marked some version of Andante, the exceptions being that of Perger 19 (marked Un poco adagio) and that of Perger 17 (rather charmingly designated Adagietto affettuoso). One thing the symphonies of Michael Haydn show quite clearly is just how far above other symphonic composers of the time Joseph Haydn and Mozart stood. Mozart may actually have based some of his early symphonies on ones by Michael Haydn, and certainly the case of “Mozart’s Symphony No. 37” (which even has a Köchel number, 444) shows that the younger composer admired the older one a great deal. But Mozart, who was born 19 years after Michael Haydn and died 15 years earlier, moved past the Michael Haydn model quite early and ended up expanding symphonic form greatly and in numerous ways. So did Joseph Haydn, whose works throughout his career show a questing, curious mind working within traditions but quite willing to move past them – among other things, it was Joseph Haydn who essentially created (and certainly solidified) the four-movement symphonic form by including in it the popular dance, the minuet, after dressing it in suitably symphonic guise. Yet it is unfair to point out all the things that Michael Haydn was not. As these two bright and generally bubbly CDs show, he was a composer of some stature, with a strong sense of rhythm, a fine feel for orchestral balance, and occasional instances of genuine creativity, such as the use of muted violins in the slow movement of Perger 17 and the interesting combination of solo violin and cor anglais employed in Perger 22. Michael Haydn was actually a very popular composer in his lifetime, and these CDs show why: his symphonies fit neatly into the expected categories of graceful Classical-era composition. They certainly deserve to be heard from time to time, and some very intriguing concerts could be created by carefully choosing a mixture of symphonies by Michael Haydn, Joseph Haydn and Mozart. These fine recordings are to be commended for giving listeners a welcome opportunity to arrange such concerts on their own.

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