November 29, 2018


Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring; Funeral Song; Jeu de Cartes; Concerto in D “Basel”; Agon. Orchestre Philharmonique de Luxembourg conducted by Gustavo Gimeno. PentaTone. $33.99 (2 SACDs).

Haydn: Symphony Nos. 49 (“La Passione”) and 87; Mozart: Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364. Handel and Haydn Society conducted by Harry Christophers; Aisslinn Nosky, violin; Max Mandel, viola. CORO. $18.99.

Franz Schreker: Vorspiel zu einem Drama; The Birthday of the Infanta—Suite; Romantische Suite. Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $12.99.

     The style of composers inevitably changes over time in accordance with the changes in their lives, reputations, expectations, and interests in taking their music in new directions. But these changes can be either subtle or substantial. Two composers for whom they were substantial were Stravinsky and Haydn: Stravinsky’s style changed so much over his career that there almost seem to be multiple Stravinskys, while Haydn’s developed so substantially that he became a bridge from the Baroque era to the edge of the Romantic. Occasionally, a recording will explicitly or implicitly show just how extensive a composer’s progress (or at least change) turned out to be. That is the case with an excellent new two-SACD PentaTone Stravinsky recording featuring the Orchestre Philharmonique de Luxembourg conducted by Gustavo Gimeno. Stravinsky lived to be nearly 89 (from 1882 to 1971) and had a remarkable 70-year career, during which he absorbed and worked within styles and techniques ranging from 19th-century Russian nationalism (learned from his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov) to neoclassicism (with which Stravinsky is especially closely identified) to serialism (to which Stravinsky came late in life, handling it in his own distinct way). Bits of several Stravinskys are in evidence under Gimeno’s knowledgeable and enthusiastic direction. The earliest work here, Funeral Song, is not only redolent of Rimsky-Korsakov but is also a tribute to him: it was composed after the older composer’s death in 1908 and first played in January 1909. It was then lost for a century, eventually rediscovered, and first played in modern times as recently as 2016. An attractive work that gives instrument after instrument its chance to pay its respects to Rimsky-Korsakov, Funeral Song is a piece that in no way presages The Rite of Spring, written in 1911-12 and given its still-notorious first performance in 1913. Gimeno gives the primitivism and rhythmic vitality of this piece its full due while never losing sight of its origin as a ballet: this is a danceable version of The Rite of Spring as well as one that works nicely as a concert presentation. Stravinsky’s neoclassicism actually has its roots prior to The Rite of Spring, in Petrushka (1911), but he developed it fully only in later years, and certainly it is abundantly clear in Jeu de Cartes (1937). The balletic elements remain in the forefront in this reading – creation of ballets is one thing Stravinsky did throughout his compositional life – but the sparer scoring and greater transparency of orchestral parts clearly show Jeu de Cartes to date from one of the later Stravinsky styles. A decade after the ballet, Stravinsky remained in largely neoclassical mode with his Concerto in D “Basel” (1946). Although created as a concerto for string orchestra, the short (12-minute) work has elements of divertimento about it, along with overall neoclassical poise and a kind of rhythmic accentuation that stayed with Stravinsky throughout his oeuvre. Matters certainly did change in some ways, though, by the time of Agon (1957, but begin as early as 1953). Yes, it is a ballet, and it includes Stravinsky’s first use of strict twelve-tone technique, but it combines the nod to Schoenberg with a look back many centuries, to dances such as the Saraband and Gaillarde, managing to cram 16 separate sections into less than 22 minutes – a Webernesque miniaturization process, and in fact some of the use of thematic fragmentation is actually reminiscent of Webern. The performances of all five works in this release are very well done, thoughtfully presented and stylishly played, and the two discs, taken together, create a fascinating portrait of quite a few of Stravinsky’s multifaceted compositional approaches.

     The latest recording of Haydn symphonies by the splendid Handel and Haydn Society period orchestra is also, in its own way, a portrait of the development of Haydn’s style, even though it contains only two works by Haydn. The contrasts between the Symphonies Nos. 49 and 87 are, however, so many, that this CORO disc becomes a fascinating exploration-in-miniature of the way Haydn’s style changed over time. Separated by some 20 years, the two symphonies are worlds apart in approach and effects. No. 49 is so emphatically in F minor that all four movements are in the home key, with just a flicker of major-key writing in the third movement’s trio. It is the last Haydn symphony written in Sonata da chiesa style, with the slow movement placed first instead of second. It is a deeply serious work, called “La Passione” even in Haydn’s lifetime (although not so named by the composer), possibly first performed at a church service where Christ’s Passion was the center of attention. Wide leaps, intense expressiveness, and virtuosic demands on a small orchestra combine to make this an exceptionally moving and unusually intense symphony even within Haydn’s Sturm und Drang period, of which it is one of the very best representatives, in some ways the best. No. 87 is as different a work as can be, created for a significantly larger orchestra and written in a sunny A major. Amusingly, this recording’s booklet notes include one writer saying that this was the first-written of the six “Paris” symphonies and another stating that it was written last. What matters, though, is simply its position as one of that symphonic group, which cemented Haydn’s international reputation and brought him considerable celebratory acclaim (as well as a considerable amount of money). Harry Christophers does not vary his orchestra’s size for the two symphonies, but he handles the works with so sure a sense of sectional balance and overall style that No. 87 sounds as if a larger ensemble is playing it. And the work’s ebullience comes through with abundant clarity, along with the precision and excellence of its construction. Haydn certainly developed a great deal in the years between these two symphonies – but it is worth pointing out that each of the works is equally impressive and equally effective, albeit in a very different way. Christophers has been including Mozart violin concertos with his Haydn symphonic releases, providing an intriguing contrast between the two composers, and on this CD he presents the Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364, for violin and viola – a wonderful work by any estimation. Aisslinn Nosky, concertmaster of the Handel and Haydn Society, is joined as soloist by violist Max Mandel, with whom she has played for more than two decades – and it shows in the remarkably easy, good-natured give-and-take between the solo instruments as well as the consummate skill and sensitivity to period style of both solo players. This is an altogether lovely disc, its program seeming somewhat arbitrary on the surface but proving, on closer examination, to be exceptionally well-thought-out both in terms of giving listeners the experience of two very different Haydn symphonies and in offering some wonderful Mozart that separates the Haydn works on the CD while placing them beautifully in context from a musical standpoint.

     The context of the music of Franz Schreker (1878-1934) is quite different, and the extent to which Schreker’s style evolved over the 20-year period of the works on a new Naxos CD is debatable. Once deemed as important an opera composer as Richard Strauss, Schreker fell into obscurity even as Strauss’ reputation was cemented and soared. From the standpoint of musical development, it is easy to see why: Strauss’ style changed significantly between that of his early, famous tone poems and that of his final opera, Capriccio (1942). Yet Strauss (1864-1949) was scarcely a slavish follower of the many musical changes that occurred during his long life. Schreker, on the other hand, seems to have remained firmly with late Romanticism in terms of musical style and emotional communication – with the result that his works, although very well-constructed and often quite engaging to hear, do not really stand out stylistically from those of other composers of the era (including those of Strauss that date to the same time period). All this is hindsight, though, and a bit unfair to Schreker, whose works – thanks to the tireless devotion of JoAnn Falletta to the rediscovery of interesting, neglected repertoire – show considerable skill in orchestration and, often, a fine flair for the dramatic. “Often” is not “always”: Vorspiel zu einem Drama (1914), an expanded version of the overture to Schreker’s lurid opera Die Gezeichneten (which was not performed complete until 1918), is rather shapeless and surface-level impressionistic. However, the work is filled with beauty and lyricism that make it certainly worth hearing, and Falletta does quite a good job of holding it together with greater cogency than one might expect. The protagonist of Die Gezeichneten is hunchbacked and deformed, and Schreker evokes considerable sympathy for him in the opera, at least for a time. A similar protagonist, an ugly dwarf, lies at the heart of the pantomime The Birthday of the Infanta (1923); indeed, his death of a broken heart (when he realizes that the haughty princess does not love him and has been laughing at rather than with him) is the climax of the music and of the Oscar Wilde story on which the theatrical production is based. Here as in Vorspiel zu einem Drama, Schreker combines lush orchestration with emotionally affecting lyricism, especially in the last few pieces of the 10-movement suite. Yet there is little significant musical development between this work and the richly scored, conservatively harmonized Romantische Suite (1903): over a 20-year period, Schreker’s style solidified without changing in any significant way. Falletta makes about as good a case for these works as they are likely to receive, thanks not only to her sure-handed orchestral direction but also to the absolutely first-rate playing of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (more often listed as Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin). This is a world-class ensemble whose tonal richness and exceptional sectional balance fit Schreker’s music beautifully, giving listeners who enjoy late-Romantic music multiple opportunities to bask in Schreker’s expressive richness.

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