July 05, 2018


Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2. Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy. Signum Classics. $17.99.

Smetana: Festive Symphony; The Bartered Bride—Overture and Dances. Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin conducted by Darrell Ang. Naxos. $12.99.

Schubert: Symphony No. 9, “Great”; Die Zauberharfe—Overture. Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR conducted by Roger Norrington. SWR Music. $8.99.

John Robertson: Symphony No. 1; Suite for Orchestra; Variations for Small Orchestra. Janàček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Anthony Armoré. Navona. $14.99.

     Symphonies have served their composers, as well as audiences, in many ways over the years – and continue to do so even today. Rachmaninoff’s Second was in many ways a “recovery” piece after the disastrous reception given his First Symphony and the subsequent mental breakdown that left him unable to compose for a time. It has become easily the most popular of his three symphonies, and the live recording on Signum Classics of a performance by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Vladimir Ashkenazy shows why. This is a work of intensity and high drama throughout, with soaring themes, sweeping climaxes, and instance after instance of the more-Romantic-than-Romanticism themes for which Rachmaninoff is justly renowned or reviled, depending on one’s individual reaction. The extended deep brooding quality of the Largo introduction to the first movement sets the tone for the entire work, and Ashkenazy gives it plenty of time to spin out and settle in the audience’s ears. The pacing of this entire movement is strong and stately, but Ashkenazy is as attentive to the movement’s lyricism – especially the lovely cello theme – as to its drama. It is interesting that Rachmaninoff ends the movement more gently than most of it would lead listeners to expect – and in so doing makes the renewed drama of the Scherzo all the more effective. Again, Ashkenazy shows a fine sense of proportion here, both in the intense main section and in the contrasting middle one, which is not exactly a “trio” but does offer a bit of respite. And then Ashkenazy lets the marvelous Adagio flow with unceasing warmth tinged with melancholy, the famous clarinet melody permeating the music and seeming to go on without stopping, a fascinating achievement for a movement that, analytically, is in sonata form. Then, much as the Scherzo bursts out after the comparatively gentle end of the first movement, Rachmaninoff produces the strongest possible contrast between the third movement and finale, whose march-like opening instantly sweeps away all inwardness and emotional fervor. If the swooning elements of the third movement are not to all tastes because they are so over-the-top, the same may be said of the equal-but-opposite intensity of this finale, with its cymbal clashes, brass fanfares and huge crescendo after a downward scale. Ashkenazy wisely decides to take the movement at face value, without trying to make it seem especially profound, which it is not. It is, however, thrilling and involving for listeners willing to let themselves be absorbed into its sound world, which Ashkenazy evokes with consummate skill and which the Philharmonia players bring to a vividly colored conclusion that clearly underlines the reasons for this symphony’s popularity.

     Smetana’s sole symphony, in contrast, has never attained a significant place in concert halls or recordings, even though it was a work of considerable importance to its composer and was intended to have equal significance to the audiences of its time (1854). Unfortunately for Smetana, the work ran afoul of geopolitics: nearly the entire symphony is based on the Austrian imperial hymn, originally written by Haydn and continuing its stately use right into the 20th century until its pre-emption by the Nazis. Three of the symphony’s four movements are built around this well-known theme, and the work itself was intended to celebrate the then-thought-likely possibility of Emperor Franz Joseph becoming King of Bohemia. Unfortunately for Smetana, this made the symphony into an occasional work whose reason for being soon passed, as Czech nationalism turned against the notion of expanded imperial power. As a result, the only part of the symphony that was heard very much during the composer’s lifetime was the Scherzo, the sole movement without any reference to the imperial theme. The new Naxos recording of the symphony in a performance by the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin under Darrell Ang offers an unusual opportunity to hear the whole Festive Symphony, which repays its title through its bright C major key and a sense of upbeat positivism (if scarcely overdone celebration) throughout. Ang is a rather pedestrian conductor – there would likely be more to the symphony under someone better attuned to its nuances – but the straightforward performance here does give a sense of the mood in which the work was written and the hopes that the work was intended to showcase. The recording pairs the symphony with some can’t-miss music from Smetana’s The Bartered Bride: the wonderful, scurrying Overture, the polka from Act I, the furiant from Act II, and the Dance of the Comedians from Act III. These excerpts stand as near-perfect adaptations of the folk-music idiom to the opera stage, having all the verve and spirit of the material on which Smetana drew to create them while being arranged and orchestrated to perfection for theatrical display. Again, Ang is not the ideal conductor for this music, in particular allowing the Overture to drag a bit and almost get away from the strings on a couple of occasions (a rarity for this very fine orchestra). But there is enough spirit and uplift in the performance, and so much that is bright in the music itself, that the CD becomes a very worthwhile opportunity for listeners to contrast one of Smetana’s less-known works, in all its seriousness, with some of his most-frequently-heard and most-joyous music.

     Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C is a far more significant work than Smetana’s Festive Symphony in the same key, and the standards for excellence in performing the Schubert are very high indeed. It would be reasonable to expect a top-notch reading of this symphony, which Schumann described as having “heavenly length,” from the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR conducted by Roger Norrington. But the SWR Music release of a recording dating to 2001 – part of a new series of bargain-priced archival recordings – is a disappointment that barely achieves a (+++) rating. Norrington makes a common but surprising miscalculation in pacing the symphony too quickly: the whole thing runs barely 51 minutes even with the repeat of the first-movement exposition (which some conductors, very unwisely, omit). The whole thing feels rushed: there is nothing expansive or stately here. The title “Great” is actually used to distinguish this symphony from Schubert’s Sixth, also in C, but the word is taken as well to refer to the Ninth’s expansiveness and grandeur. It lacks both of those here. The orchestra plays well for Norrington, who was its principal conductor at the time of this performance, and certainly Norrington presents the work with consistency: once he picks his tempos, he minimizes rubato and stays with them almost throughout every movement, and the relationship among the movements in terms of their speed is carefully considered. But the whole symphony never has a chance to breathe: Schubert’s long-spun-out themes sound truncated, his pastoral elegance is trivialized, and the headlong finale makes it sound as if Norrington and the orchestra just want to get the whole thing over with as soon as possible. The opposite approach, in which one dwells within Schubert’s expansive symphonic world for a much-extended time, would have been far more effective here. Norrington does  a better job with the overture to Die Zauberharfe, which is better known as the Rosamunde overture (Schubert reused the music in a new context). This 2002 performance is elegant and just piquant enough to give the music a suitably airy touch. But its effective 10 minutes do not compensate for the less-than-stellar handling of the symphony.

      A new (+++) Navona release of the music of John Robertson (born 1943) shows that symphonies continue to retain their importance and communicative potential even for contemporary composers. In this case, though, the music itself is less than compelling despite a sensitive and well-balanced performance by the Janàček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Anthony Armoré. Robertson’s Symphony No. 1 is a three-movement work (the movements are simply labeled I, II and III) that spends most of its time trying on various styles and musical approaches, from the pointed to the lyrical, the Romantic to the modernistic, the traditionally organized to the somewhat experimental (the latter exemplified by an extended violin solo that opens the finale, as if the work suddenly turned into a violin concerto, complete with cadenza). The orchestration is nicely handled and the overall work is firm in construction, but there is nothing particularly unusual or involving in it. The Suite for Orchestra comes across somewhat better, its four unrelated movements being primarily tonal and generally reflective of the four distinct forms or expressions given in their titles: Fanfare, Waltz, Elegy and March. Within those titles, though, the music is not particularly distinguished: March has fanfare-like elements, for instance, and although Waltz is in three-quarter time, it is not particularly tuneful or danceable (assuming it is intended to be). In fact, the most effective piece on this disc is Variations for Small Orchestra, Robertson’s first major work. It takes a rather traditional view of what the variation form means – the basic, graceful theme remains recognizable almost throughout – and goes through six thematic metamorphoses that give the orchestra plenty of opportunities to shine and provide listeners with an intriguing aural maze to follow. There is even a waltz that comes across better than does the one in the Suite for Orchestra. The finale of Variations for Small Orchestra wraps things up neatly by recalling bits of several variations and then bringing trumpets front-and-center: this is a piece that shows that traditional forms beyond that of the symphony can retain their potency even today, in the hands of composers who can find new ways to use them.

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