March 09, 2017


Beethoven: Symphony No. 9. Klara Ek, soprano; Elisabeth Jansson, alto; Thomas Cooley, tenor; Liao Changyong, baritone; Ars Nova Copenhagen, Latvian Radio Choir and Copenhagen Phil conducted by Lan Shui. Orchid Classics. $13.99.

Liszt: Faust Symphony. Steve Davislim, tenor; men of Chorus Sine Nomine and Orchester Wiener Akademie conducted by Martin Haselböck. Alpha. $18.99.

     There is always a rationale for yet another of the umpteen-plus recordings of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and the reasoning behind the new release on Orchid Classics (of a performance from 2013) is unusually intriguing. This completes the three-volume Beethoven cycle featuring the oddly named but very adeptly performing Copenhagen Phil under Lan Shui. Shui’s approach to the whole set of symphonies is an intriguing mixture of the contemporary and the historically informed: the orchestra uses modern string instruments with historically accurate reproductions of brass and timpani, resulting in a sonic blend that is different from that heard on any other recording. And Shui’s approach to the music combines modern and older elements as well: contemporary scholarship suggests that Beethoven’s tempo indications, contrary to what was thought a few years back, are likely to be what he really wanted, and that the old canard suggesting that he had a defective metronome is not accurate. So Shui uses the tempos that Beethoven’s score suggests, even when they result in performances that require listeners to make some adjustments in their expectations. Actually, the chance to hear familiar music differently is one of the big pluses of Shui’s cycle. And Shui’s thoughtfulness about the music comes through clearly. He considers the Ninth to be less symphony and more oratorio, for example, and conducts it that way, with the first three movements assuming a decidedly lower profile than the finale. This is an arguable approach and one that other conductors have tried with greater or lesser success. It perhaps overstates the case for the finale to some extent – a true oratorio would make the first three movements more of a prologue to the finale than a strong set of declamations, as for instance in the case in Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2 (Lobgesang), a work from 1840 that is directly based on Beethoven’s Ninth and one clearly designed to blur the boundary between symphony and oratorio (although, just to confuse matters further, Mendelssohn actually called it a “Symphony-Cantata”). Beethoven certainly laid the groundwork for works such as Mendelssohn’s, but whether he planned the Ninth itself as a symphony expanded into an oratorio is certainly debatable. Shui makes a strong case for the approach, though, and his chosen instrumentation helps him do so: the strings are brighter than those of Beethoven’s time, while the brass sounds more subdued and the overall orchestra seems more balanced than in performances using all-modern instruments. The first three movements are full of fine highlighting, again made possible much of the time by the instruments chosen, and Beethoven’s tempos work quite well – the Scherzo, notably, is fleet rather than heavy and portentous. As for the finale, the solo quartet blends very well together and stands out effectively against the chorus, and Shui makes intelligent choices about the interrelationship of the individual voices, this being a matter of perpetual debate in Beethoven’s Ninth and one without any absolutely clear “right” approach. This performance does make the finale a grand capstone to the symphony, and if it perhaps underplays the importance of the first three movements slightly even though they collectively account for two-thirds of the symphony’s length (in contrast to the first three movements in Mendelssohn’s later work), it does so in the service of a vision that is well-thought-out and one regarding which Shui, the singers and the orchestra seem to be in complete agreement --  resulting in a thoughtful, interesting and highly involving performance.

     By the time Liszt wrote his Faust Symphony, 25 years after Beethoven’s death, the symphonic landscape had changed and in some ways enlarged dramatically – thanks in large part to Beethoven and, in particular, to Beethoven’s Ninth. Like Berlioz, Liszt felt that the symphony after Beethoven had to develop in entirely new directions; and the Faust Symphony, which lasts even longer than Beethoven’s Ninth, shows just how far Liszt stretched the medium. This three-movement work is really a series of three intimately connected tone poems rather than a symphony in any structurally recognizable form. Liszt referred to the three parts as character sketches, and he developed them in some highly innovative ways. It is scarcely a surprise that the forward motion and constant striving of the music representing Faust stand in strong contrast to the quiet, gently graceful and drifting music representing Gretchen. But what is surprising are the methods Liszt uses to limn the characters. Faust’s music at one point includes an extremely early example of something approaching atonality and twelvetone, then harks directly back to Beethoven through use of the key of C minor, associated with Fate ever since Beethoven’s Fifth. The Faust movement is complex, long and frequently difficult for the ear to grasp, while the one representing Gretchen is simple, graceful and structurally straightforward. And the third movement, representing Mephistopheles, is a wonderful and groundbreaking concept, denying Mephistopheles any theme of his own while portraying him through a series of distortions of Faust’s themes, musically showing this tempter as one who twists and distorts scholarship, striving, love, and all the other characteristics that Liszt assigns to Faust in the first part of the symphony. This is a simply brilliant stroke of characterization and one that expands the Faust Symphony into a work as genuinely philosophical in its medium as Goethe’s Faust is in the medium of poetry and drama. Liszt caps his work, which is primarily drawn from the first part of Goethe’s, with a vocal conclusion that uses the last lines of the second part of Goethe’s Faust – the same lines, mystically celebrating the “eternal feminine,” that would later conclude and exalt Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. Martin Haselböck conducts the Faust Symphony with intensity, understanding and an excellent sense of pacing on a new Alpha release. And the concluding vocal section – which returns, in a transformative way, to some of the Gretchen music, showing it to be less naïve and one-dimensional than it seems at first – is especially impressive. Indeed, it actually sounds like an anticipation of Mahler, who would expand the form of the symphony even beyond anything by Beethoven or Liszt, while managing to anchor his own works in the very different ones of both earlier composers.

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