December 20, 2018


Wilhelm Stenhammar: Symphony No. 2; Musik till August Strindbergs “Ett drömspel.” Antwerp Symphony Orchestra conducted by Christian Lindberg. BIS. $19.99 (SACD).

Holst: Orchestral Works, Volume 4—A Winter Idyll; Symphony “The Cotswolds”; Invocation (“A Song of the Evening”); A Moorside Suite; Indra; Scherzo. BBC Philharmonic conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. Chandos. $18.99 (SACD).

Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 3; Symphonic Dances. Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy. Signum Classics. $17.99.

     The symphony was reconsidered and redefined in multiple ways in the late 19th century and through the 20th, but no matter how thought of, it continued to exert tremendous fascination on composers, who often considered it a pinnacle of accomplishment even if they were not particularly devoted to symphonic form as a major part of their work. As a result, some very interesting symphonies were produced in the late 1800s and throughout the 1900s by composers who are not usually associated with the form. Sweden’s Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871-1927), for example, created two completed symphonies but completely disavowed the first; he also started a third symphony, but it exists only as a few sketches. Therefore, his Symphony No. 2 is his only surviving score that truly reflects his compositional maturity and structural ideas, which retain some of the German heritage evident in his Symphony No. 1 but in No. 2 have moved much farther into the orbit of Nordic composers, especially Sibelius and Nielsen. An excellent new performance of Stenhammar’s Second by the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra (the name adopted in 2017 by what was previously the Royal Flemish Philharmonic), conducted by Christian Lindberg, shows how skillfully Stenhammar used and developed his version of symphonic form even though most of his music is of other types (piano, chamber and vocal). Dating to 1911-15, Stenhammar’s Second offers an unusual combination of folklike and very learned elements, all treated in Stenhammar’s highly personal style. It progresses from a first movement that takes a folk tune and handles it modally to a finale – the symphony’s longest movement – in the form of an elaborate double fugue. In between these movements are a solemn but restrained slow movement and a rather gentle Scherzo; the result is a symphony whose component parts have little in common, but are united through Stenhammar’s treatment of the material and his skillful handling of keys and modal structure. The work is unemotional, indeed rather cool, and a trifle off-putting on initial hearing, but it repays repeated listening that evokes respect for its clarity and the care of its construction. It is paired on a new BIS SACD with a 1970 arrangement by composer Hilding Rosenberg of some of Stenhammar’s music for August Strindberg’s A Dream Play. Rosenberg turns the stage music into an 11-and-a-half-minute tone poem that is rather episodic – it incorporates brief references to scenes from the play – but that comes to a satisfying and well-orchestrated conclusion. The work juxtaposes well with the grander and more abstract Symphony No. 2.

     Gustav Holst’s dates are close to those of Stenhammar – Holst lived from 1874 to 1934 – and Holst too is known for works other than symphonies. Indeed, he is known primarily for a single work, The Planets. But Holst’s musical interests were quite wide and in many ways quite unusual, ranging from the trombone (which he played in an orchestra conducted by Richard Strauss) to English folksongs (he and Ralph Vaughan Williams were friends) to Sanskrit literature. Yet Holst, like Stenhammar, dipped his talent into the symphonic realm – in both composers’ cases, more or less three times. For Holst, that meant the creation of A Choral Symphony (1923-24) plus work on a symphony during the last two years of his life – plus the composition of a single orchestral symphony, in F, known as “The Cotswolds” and dating to 1899-1900. Modest in scale (at about 23 minutes, it is half the length of Stenhammar’s Second), Holst’s symphony is primarily distinguished by its second, longest movement, “Elegy in memoriam William Morris,” which is beautiful and heartfelt. The symphony’s Scherzo also has a measure of what would come to be Holst’s mature sound – which is particularly interesting because the only finished movement of the symphony on which Holst worked near the end of his life was its Scherzo. That movement – whose changes of emotion and impact are rather abrupt and surprising – is heard on the same new Chandos SACD that features “The Cotswolds.” The disc is the fourth in a series (originally featuring the late Richard Hickox) in which the BBC Philharmonic under Sir Andrew Davis plays Holst’s music idiomatically and with considerable affection as well as understanding. The recording features one work even earlier than “The Cotswolds,” namely A Winter Idyll, which dates to 1897 and is a charming concert overture, if one without much individuality. Also on the disc are Invocation for cello and orchestra (1911), a genuinely lovely work with a highly affecting cello part (played here by Guy Johnston); Holst’s only symphonic poem, Indra (1903), whose striking opening brass fanfares are its most notable element, although there are some other felicities of orchestration as well; and A Moorside Suite (1928), originally written for brass band and intended for school performance – except that it proved too difficult for that purpose. The version heard on this disc is Holst’s 1932 string arrangement, which has a high level of warmth and beauty in the central Nocturne but loses some of the punch and brightness of the outer movements. Holst was scarcely a symphonist, but this recording does a fine job of showcasing his occasional symphonic interests and placing them in the context of some of his other compositional forms.

     Rachmaninoff is known for his symphonies, although calling him a “symphonist” would still be stretching things, given the extent to which his small compositional output includes piano music (solo and the four concertos) and vocal works (including liturgical ones). However, Rachmaninoff’s final opus numbers are in fact symphonic: Symphony No. 3, Op. 44 (1936), and the Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 (1940). Both these works receive first-rate readings on a new Signum Classics release that completes Vladimir Ashkenazy’s survey of the Rachmaninoff symphonies with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Like the two earlier recordings, this one is taken from live performances, and as with the earlier releases, Ashkenazy and the orchestra seem to be energized by the presence of an audience. Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony is large-scale despite being in only three movements, but it lacks the sumptuousness of the earlier two and has few of the very extended melodies with which Rachmaninoff’s other music abounds. Calling it austere would be an overstatement, but by the standards of this composer, the Third is somewhat held back emotionally. Ashkenazy approaches the symphony with close attention to detail, being especially effective in bringing forth some of the attractive instrumental touches, such as the horn-and-harp opening of the second movement. This is a well-controlled performance that lets the music flow naturally and does not attempt to wring more emotion from the music than Rachmaninoff included in it. There is careful control in the Symphonic Dances as well, and this large and often rather strange work benefits from it. The three dances, broadly speaking, connect both with times of day and with times of human life – that is their connective tissue – and Ashkenazy seems well aware of this. The first dance, representing midday, includes the unusual touches of an alto saxophone and a quotation from Rachmaninoff’s ill-fated Symphony No. 1. The second, representing twilight, is a distinctly crepuscular waltz with very little resemblance to anything from the Strauss family: here Ashkenazy lets the woodwind solos paint a picture of coming night. And night – specifically midnight – does come in the third dance, whose reference to death is made clear by Rachmaninoff’s inclusion here (as in a number of his other works) of the Dies irae. Yet the Symphonic Dances end in hopeful, even upbeat mood, and the performance here suggests that Ashkenazy’s own Russian heritage stands him in particularly good stead in understanding and interpreting the music of Rachmaninoff, both in symphonies and in the other large-scale works that so clearly resonated with this composer’s feelings and emotions.

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