October 19, 2017
(++++) ORCHESTRA HANDLERS
Bruckner: Symphony No. 4. Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Christian Thielemann. Profil. $16.99.
Dwight Beckham, Sr.: Fanfare 40; Memorial Ode; Feather Sound (Symphonic Statements). Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský. Navona. $14.99.
Tomorrow’s Air: Contemporary Works for Orchestra & Large Ensemble. Navona. $14.99.
There are two schools of thought about Bruckner’s handling of the orchestra nowadays, one emphasizing clarity of inner voices and an overall Schubertian flavor, the other continuing to focus on monumental, organ-like massed sound as the centerpiece of the composer’s symphonies. Both approaches have considerable merit; each shows a different facet of Bruckner’s use of the orchestra. Christian Thielemann’s 2015 reading of the “Romantic” symphony, an excellent live recording now available on the Profil label, is decidedly, almost defiantly old-fashioned in the way it mounts ever higher and produces ever-greater washes of sound from the superb musicians of Staatskapelle Dresden. The performance, which runs 73 minutes, is a very expansive one – other readings of this symphony may be 10 or more minutes shorter than this. Yet nothing drags here and nothing seems overblown: Thielemann lets the themes build naturally, focusing on the architecture of the symphony and the interrelatedness of its movements. The finale, which gave Bruckner a great deal of trouble (as indeed did the whole symphony, which he reworked numerous times), is a genuine capstone here: Thielemann gives it plenty of space to breathe, and as it grows and grows, swells and swells, there is something almost oceanic in the way the material engulfs the audience as the symphony moves toward the circularity of its conclusion. Interestingly, although this is a performance quite worthy of tremendous applause, when it ends there is absolute silence, as if Thielemann and the orchestra have so swept the audience away that everyone needs a moment to catch his or her breath. Then comes the applause, which is very well-earned indeed. Staatskapelle Dresden is one of the world’s great orchestras, and this recording shows why: warm strings, burnished brass, piquant woodwinds and unmatched ensemble playing add up to a sound that is tremendously pleasurable as sound, in addition to its value in service to the music. There is something pleasantly cushiony in the orchestra’s handling of Bruckner: without ever losing forward momentum (the Scherzo percolates along smartly), Thielemann and the orchestra provide listeners with an immersive experience that demonstrates yet again why Bruckner’s Fourth has long been one of his most-popular symphonies.
It is apparent that many contemporary composers have studied and absorbed the ins and outs of the symphony orchestra, and some even pay homage to Bruckner and the Romantic era in general in the way they use it. But the flavor of symphonic works of today remains significantly different from that of Romantic-era material, even when a composer is clearly as steeped in Romanticism as is Dwight Beckham, Sr. (born 1931). A new (+++) Navona CD of Beckham’s orchestral works is a curious offering, the whole of it lasting just 23 minutes, which is less time than Thielemann needs for the finale of Bruckner’s Fourth. It is hard to imagine listeners who are not already fans of Beckham being willing to pay the price of this CD for what are essentially snippets of material. But this does not mean the works themselves are insubstantial. Fanfare 40 is pretty much the sort of brass-and-percussion mixture that its title indicates, completely tonal in orientation and stately throughout. A few short near-mischievous flourishes heighten its effect. Memorial Ode offers the most-interesting use of the orchestra on the CD, opening with soft chimes above which a flute flutters engagingly if not exactly sadly. This is another stately work, mostly of character different from that of Fanfare 40 – but interestingly, about halfway through Memorial Ode there is an extended and pronounced fanfare section, all brass and snare drums, that is quite reminiscent of the fanfare. Memorial Ode is primarily based on a Vaughan Williams hymn tune, Sine nomine, which it recalls and re-sets in several ways. The other piece here, Feather Sound, is actually three short orchestral pieces that Beckham calls “Statements.” The first starts lyrically and warmly before presenting yet more fanfare-like material; the second is light, very short, and has some of the feeling of a scherzo, with pleasing piccolo touches; the third is declamatory at the start and progresses toward still another fanfare-like conclusion. There is a certain sameness to the way Beckham handles the orchestra in all these works, but whether that is a characteristic of his music in general or just of these particular pieces is impossible to tell from so brief a sampling. Certainly the material shows a sure command of orchestral forces and an unapologetic dedication to consonance and lyricism not much different from what Romantic-era composers employed.
Another (+++) Navona release is more of a mixed bag, on multiple levels. The Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský, which ably handles all the music on the Beckham CD, appears on this one as well, with both Vronský and Vit Micka as conductors – but other ensembles are heard here, too, adding an even greater sense of pastiche to a recording unified only because of its title, Tomorrow’s Air, and in truth not very well unified even by that. This is one of those anthology discs whose thrown-together feel means listeners may well find an item or two of particular interest, but will never know what to expect when one piece gives way to the next. It starts with Anecdote by Hilary Tann, featuring Ovidiu Marinescu on cello and the State Philharmonic Orchestra of Târgu Mures conducted by Ovidiu Balan. Inspired by the poetry of Wallace Stevens, the piece is an extended meditation, now soliloquy, now dialogue, that has some plaintive moments but tends to overextend them. Cantus for String Orchestra by Hans Bakker (played by the Moravian ensemble under Micka) has a more-angular, more strongly rhythmic sound, with greater use of dissonance. To Spring—An Overture by Daniel Perttu is another work inspired by poetry, this time by that of William Blake, and is a pretty rather than profound piece, mostly lyrical and permeated by birdsong; the Moravian orchestra plays it under Vronský. In Memoriam by Jan Järvlepp, performed by the same orchestra and conductor, opens with some rather obvious passes at the depiction of sadness and then meanders more through tenderness than through sorrow. Late Harvest by Pierre Schroeder is actually a large-chamber-ensemble work rather than one for full orchestra; here, John Page conducts a group in which a solo violin (Sarita Uranovsk) is juxtaposed with four violins, three violas, two cellos, double bass, bass clarinet and piano. The piece is emotionally evocative, the instrumental sounds well-contrasted, and the mood almost Tchaikovskian, especially toward the end – this is the standout work on this disc. The CD concludes with Silver Fantasy by Paul Osterfield, in which Vronský conducts the Moravian Philharmonia Wind & Percussion Ensemble. This features flute and piccolo parts (played by Lindsey Goodman), their lightness contrasted with chordal writing for the ensemble. It is a work of gestures rather than one that moves convincingly from start to finish, but several of its sections show effective handling of the instruments. Indeed, all the composers heard here clearly have a finely honed sense of the capabilities of the instruments for which they write, and all the music is well-crafted even if no piece here ties in any particular way to any other.