April 27, 2017


Brahms: Serenades No. 1, Op. 11, and No. 2, Op. 16. Gävle Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jaime Martín. Ondine. $16.99.

Ives: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4; Orchestral Set No. 2. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, piano; Melbourne Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).

Dvořák: Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7; Othello Overture. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. LPO. $19.99 (2 CDs).

     Years before he felt self-confident enough to write a full-fledged symphony, Brahms indulged in some interesting orchestra experiments in his two Serenades. The first is longer and genuinely symphonic in many ways – not structurally or thematically, but in the contrast among the movements and the comparative sure-handedness of the handling of orchestral sections. The second is more chamber-music-like and cleverer in design, eliminating violins altogether so as to give the music as a whole an unusually mellow tone and change the character of the entire work in a way that would lead to so much later Brahms being described as “autumnal.” Yet there remains a youthfulness and brightness to this second serenade that, if less overt than in the first, provides a very pleasant contrast with the darkening of the instrumentation. Jaime Martín and the Gävle Symphony Orchestra do a particularly good job of contrasting the sound worlds of the two works on a new Ondine CD. The first serenade is bright and upbeat throughout, its admittedly somewhat trivial themes handled with lightness above a level of rhythmic solidity that turns the work into a worthy “developmental” piece on Brahms’ journey toward full symphonic form – in this way somewhat paralleling Mendelssohn’s early string symphonies as predecessors of his five numbered ones. The second serenade has a greater chamber-music feeling than usual here, perhaps because the Gävle Symphony Orchestra has only 52 members – reduced significantly in this case by the absence of violins. Certainly there is warmth to the performance, but it is offered in the context of this work’s stylistic homage to the past: the counterpoint and Bach-like elements here were not to recur to this extent in Brahms’ symphonies until the fourth and last. The scale of this serenade is that of a Haydn symphony rather than that of one from the Romantic era, with the darker sound palette mixing intriguingly with the comparatively small orchestra. These are very fine performances in themselves – and are illuminating in the way they can help listeners look ahead to the symphonies that Brahms was to compose in later years.

     Although Ives, like Brahms, wrote four symphonies, Ives’ symphonic notions were well beyond those of Brahms and, indeed, on a different branch of the symphonic family tree – or at least an offshoot of the main trunk. Even works that might be looked at as studies for Ives’ symphonies are quite different from the two Brahms serenades. An excellent new Chandos SACD featuring Ives’ Third and Fourth and the Orchestral Set No. 2 shows Ives’ unique compositional thinking exceptionally well. Ives often aimed for broad, slow tempos that made his music hymnlike even when it did not include actual snatches of hymn tunes – although those did appear frequently, either as the emotional heart of movements (or sections of movements) or in contrast to the dissonance and multitonality with which Ives juxtaposed them. Orchestral Set No. 2 starts “very slowly” with a movement called “An Elegy to Our Forefathers,” continues into a second movement marked “slower” two times and “gradually slower” at the end, and concludes with a fascinating movement that also starts “very slowly” and reproduces musically (and with chorus) the reaction of people to the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under Sir Andrew Davis plays the work broadly and with fervor – and Davis finds a sense of overall unity in music that can easily come across as three disparate pieces that just happen to be played one after the other. Davis brings a similar sensibility to Symphony No. 3, “The Camp Meeting,” a small-orchestra work intended to showcase open-air Presbyterian religious services of Ives’ time. The three movements are all balanced temporally – that is, all are nearly the same length – and are also structurally balanced in ways that Orchestral Set No. 2 is not. The first is a “gathering” movement, the second a kind of scherzo called “Children’s Day,” and the largo finale is a broad work of very traditional religious sentiment called “Communion” and being suitably sober and warmly heartfelt. Yet the highlight of this recording is neither in Orchestral Set No. 2 nor in the Third Symphony, but in the Fourth. This is a notoriously difficult work to perform, to understand and to listen to – it traditionally requires two or even three conductors to handle the simultaneous multiple time signatures, overlapping tempos and extremely complex instrumental entries and exits (Davis is here assisted by Anthony Pasquill). Yet the work has, as its heart, a straightforward philosophical program, a question about life presented in the first movement with the poem “Watchman, Tell Us of the Night” and answered in various ways in the three other movements. None of the answers is completely satisfactory, with the result that the symphony’s overall meaning is along the same lines as that of The Unanswered Question, albeit in far grander and more-complex form. The challenge for a conductor here – one to which Davis responds with great skill – is to take the tremendous instrumental complexity in parts of the symphony, contrast it effectively with the deliberate simplicity of other parts, and make the entirety into a satisfying religious/philosophical journey for an audience that cannot be expected to understand or care about the very high level of difficulty involved in presenting the quest. Davis quite clearly understands this: the symphony must transcend the difficulties inherent in its performance, drawing attention to its underlying premises rather than to the means by which those premises are explored. The orchestra plays here with exceptional clarity: even the cacophonies are clear. And Davis manages to keep the work as a whole from sounding episodic (even in the second movement, which features more than 30 tempo changes). The symphony hangs together and provides an experience that is highly satisfying both intellectually and emotionally, even if its central questions about the meaning of existence remain, inevitably, unanswered.

     If Brahms was studying ways to write a symphony in a post-Beethoven world, and if Ives was in effect studying ways to expand the notion of a symphony into new and far more complex and meaningful directions, then Dvořák’s symphonic “studies” must be deemed far more modest. The main thing that Dvořák was seeking was his own symphonic voice – one reflective of his Czech roots but still in line with his essentially Brahmsian outlook on music. Dvořák’s struggles in this regard are apparent in his first five symphonies, but in his Sixth he at last succeeds in forging something genuinely personal and new. This happens, ironically, when he tracks Brahms most closely: this symphony is in the same key as Brahms’ Second (D major), and the finale opens with a theme so close to that of Brahms that listeners may be forgiven for wondering, for a moment, whose music they are listening to. But the overall shape of the symphony, its thematic choices, the handling of the broad first movement and the third-movement Furiant – these and other elements give this symphony a personal stamp beyond the melodiousness and lyrical beauty that Dvořák already offered in his earlier symphonies. A newly released performance by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin, on the orchestra’s own label, shows a young conductor also feeling his own way in this music. This release features live recordings, and certainly Nézet-Séguin knows how to play to an audience: there is palpable excitement in this Sixth, with enough joy and drama in the finale so the enthusiastic post-performance reaction of the audience is wholly understandable. But Nézet-Séguin falls into a trap several times in this symphony, most notably in the first movement, by using the work’s expansive themes as excuses for unwarranted rubato that significantly slows the forward momentum of the material – momentum that, ironically, Dvořák here figured out, for the first time, how to sustain successfully. Recorded in 2016, this Sixth, although it has many elegant instrumental touches and is very well played, is less successful than the Seventh, recorded in 2009. There is occasional unneeded and harmful rubato here as well, but much less, and this grand minor-key symphony (D minor) swells and flows with greater inevitability of form and structure than does the Sixth. This is a deeply meaningful work, the composer’s most profound symphony, and remains somewhat underplayed perhaps for that reason: its feelings seem stronger than those to which listeners are accustomed in Dvořák’s other symphonic works. Nézet-Séguin carries the music forward effectively, eventually building to a dramatic finale that, unfortunately, misfires at the very end, with a speeding up that robs it of impact and then a slowing down that brings it to a screeching halt. Nézet-Séguin certainly knows how to handle an orchestra, but this (+++) recording indicates that he still has some studying of Dvořák to do in order to handle the symphonies as well as he does the Othello overture (another live recording from 2016). Here the taut drama comes through with effective intensity – it would be interesting to hear Nézet-Séguin’s handling of the three tone poems Nature, Life and Love, in which Othello is the third. Certainly Nézet-Séguin is a conductor to watch, and to listen to, in this repertoire, as he becomes more thoroughly familiar with and comfortable in it.

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