February 23, 2017
(++++) THE SPARE AND THE SUMPTUOUS
Beethoven: Symphony No. 3. Die Taschenphilharmonie conducted by Peter Stangel. Edition Taschenphilharmonie. $18.99.
Richard Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos—Symphony-Suite; Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme—Suite. Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $12.99.
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto; Méditation in D minor from “Souvenir d’un lieu cher”; Sérénade mélancolique. Moonkyung Lee, violin; London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Miran Vaupotić. Navona. $14.99.
Perhaps the most interestingly named orchestra in the world, Munich’s Taschenphilharmonie (“Pocket Philharmonic”) is also engaged in one of the most interesting musical experiments: to revive Arnold Schoenberg’s short-lived “Society for Private Musical Performances” of the early 1920s and use its format to explore the inner essence, essentially the skeleton, of numerous large-scale works. Schoenberg and his colleagues wanted audiences to hear then-new and then-radical music – their society’s programs were not announced in advance, so no one could decide to stay away out of dislike of a particular work or specific composer. Since the society could not afford full-scale performances, Schoenberg and others undertook to arrange major, large-scale pieces for a very small number of musicians. Mahler as chamber music? Yes, that is what resulted – and since Peter Stangel and Die Taschenphilharmonie have revived the concept, its strengths (as well as its obvious limitations) have become abundantly clear. Now Stangel and 15 players – the string section consists of two violins, a viola, a cello and a bass – have produced a fascinating reading of Beethoven’s “Eroica.” It is a rendition wholly lacking in the scale that so intimidated musicians of Beethoven’s time, and entirely without the broad grandeur of the funeral march that has made that movement so effective for more than two centuries. Yet it is a performance in which the final two movements fit well with the first two, which so often overshadow them – one in which the final variations on a theme from The Creatures of Prometheus do not seem tacked-on or trivial, but come across as a musically (if not narratively) effective capstone for the symphony as a whole. It is a performance in which the opening two chords call the audience to attention without sounding like the hammer blows of the later Fifth Symphony. It is a performance to scale – not only to the scale of the small complement of musicians but also to the underlying scale of the music. The framework shows through here – indeed, the performance is of the music’s framework – and the elegances of Beethoven’s instrumentation come through particularly clearly in a reading in which there are as many wind instruments as strings and the four-instrument brass section offers chamber-music clarity and plays with care to avoid overwhelming the rest of the ensemble. This is emphatically not the symphony as Beethoven intended it to be heard – although neither did he intend it to be performed by a massive, hundred-piece orchestra, as it so often is. True, much of the warmth of the music disappears in this well-paced and carefully considered approach, which admittedly is something of an intellectual exercise. Instead of heat, what Stangel and the instrumentalists offer is a level of clarity, of clean sound, of continuity and careful construction, that many other performances fail to present. Probably this will not be anyone’s first choice for a recording of the “Eroica,” but surely those who have long known, loved and admired the work will gain new insights into it from this performance. And for those who know German, there are four bonus tracks called Hörakademie, discussing specifics of each of the four movements, with musical examples.
It is hard to see how Stangel and his ensemble would reduce the tremendous sumptuousness of the music of Richard Strauss to its basics – all those doublings and triplings are integral to the effect of Strauss’ music – but we may find out someday. Until then, first-rate full-orchestra performances of Strauss will just have to do, and the latest one from the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra under JoAnn Falletta does very well indeed. Falletta, an explorer, likes to look into little-known and under-performed music, and at first glance there may seem to be little of that here – but the Naxos CD deserves a second glance, because the longer of the works on it, Ariadne auf Naxos—Symphony-Suite, is a world première recording. Strauss never extracted a suite from this wonderfully melodious opera; this one was created by D. Wilson Ochoa, and it nicely highlights many of the musical gems of what has always been one of the composer’s stranger works. Like Strauss’ final opera, Capriccio (1942), Ariadne auf Naxos (original version, 1912) is an opera about opera, a work of art about works of art, and its self-referential nature can be thoroughly confusing – although it has considerably more action than does Capriccio and as a result is more frequently and more successfully staged. In truth, the Buffalo Philharmonic’s impressive precision and sectional balance are not quite all that the Strauss-Ochoa suite needs: a certain devil-may-care opulence of tone is ideal for all Strauss’ music, and this level of breadth and fullness is one that the Buffalonians do not possess. Nevertheless, Falletta gets excellent playing from the ensemble, spinning out the themes skillfully and showing the orchestra’s rhythmic skill again and again. The seven movements of the suite are a potpourri of Straussian techniques: extended solo sections, comedic elements, luxuriousness, and melodic beauty. And the suite pairs quite nicely with one that Strauss did put together himself, using music from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Originally, Ariadne auf Naxos was supposed to be paired with Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme for a mixed theater-and-opera evening that ran some six hours (and is still occasionally revived in that form). There are clear resemblances as well as obvious contrasts between the works themselves and in the nature of the music Strauss created for both of them. Hearing first the music from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme and then the suite from Ariadne auf Naxos, as on this recording, is just right: the play with incidental music was supposed to be performed before the operatic divertissement. Certainly this CD does not and cannot give the full flavor of the original structure and planned juxtaposition. But Falletta’s usual sure-handed conducting, and the orchestra’s clear grasp of Straussian intricacies and beauties, provide a very intriguing and wholly successful view of two very different works that have retained their rather uneasy partnership for more than a century.
The luxuriousness of Strauss’ orchestration has some things in common with the intensity and expressiveness of Tchaikovsky’s, but it is possible to take both of those characteristics a bit too far – and that is what violinist Moonkyung Lee does on a new Navona CD. Tchaikovsky wrote less than 80 minutes’ worth of music for violin and orchestra; his entire output fits neatly on a single compact disc. Lee and conductor Miran Vaupotić do not offer it all, however: they omit two of the three movements of Souvenir d’un lieu cher (a work actually orchestrated by Glazunov) and pass over the lovely Valse-Scherzo. The reasons for the omissions are not apparent. What is clear, though, is that Lee’s way with Tchaikovsky is of the rather old-fashioned swooning school, with highly emphatic treatment of emotionally moving phrases and plenty of rubato to tell audiences that such a phrase is about to come. Indeed, the frequency of pauses before phrases becomes something of a nervous tic here, frustrating to hear even though surely done deliberately. This is most apparent in the Violin Concerto, which descends into a glacial pace so frequently that it too often seems to exist largely in stasis. At 38 minutes, this reading is exceptionally long – this is usually about a 35-minute work, and can even handle being whirled away in under half an hour, as Jascha Heifetz did. Other violinists, such as Jennifer Koh, also make the concerto expansive, but they do so with more consistency than Lee, whose performance is full of stops, starts and stutters. The first movement comes off reasonably well in its faster sections and cadenzas, but the slower portions simply drag; the second movement is better-paced and has pleasant warmth; but the finale simply stops moving after about two minutes and never regains momentum – this is an Allegro moderato treatment of a movement that is marked Allegro vivacissimo, which really should be an emphatic enough instruction to make the composer’s intentions clear. The shorter works sound better: Lee seems more comfortable with their largely uncomplicated emoting. Because of that and because of some interpretative niceties in the concerto’s first movement, this is a (+++) CD. But it will scarcely be any listener’s first choice for this repertoire – all the more so because other recordings include the rest of Tchaikovsky’s violin-and-orchestra compositions as well as the ones heard here.