April 25, 2019


Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 3, 5 and 8 (“Unfinished”). City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).

Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake—1877 world première version. State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia “Evgeny Svetlanov” conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. PentaTone. $29.99 (2 SACDs).

Bruckner: Symphony No. 7. Altomonte Orchester St. Florian conducted by Rémy Ballot. Gramola. $21.99 (SACD).

Mahler: Symphony No. 2. Ruby Hughes, soprano; Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano; Minnesota Chorale and Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä. BIS. $18.99 (SACD).

     The care taken in the production of Super Audio CDs, which are a kind of “CD-plus” medium playable both on stereo equipment and, to greater advantage, on multichannel systems, can serve symphonic music particularly well by bringing clarity to individual orchestral instruments as well as fullness of sound to an orchestra as a whole. When conductors pay particular attention to the details of a composer’s instrumentation, well-produced SACDs can be especially beneficial in reproducing the effects that the conductor is seeking. The first volume in Edward Gardner’s planned cycle of Schubert symphonies with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra shows how well this works in fleet, light-footed performances of two early symphonies and a reading of the “Unfinished” that goes out of its way to find lucidity. The Third is the first symphony in which Schubert really shows his own voice: it is still reminiscent of Haydn, especially in the opening of the first movement, but its lilting themes and easy flow seem less imitative of the older composer (or less of a tribute to him) and more indicative of Schubert’s own tremendous melodic gifts. The Fifth, the best-known of the early symphonies, uses a chamber-sized orchestra and gets going immediately – no slow introduction here – with a vivacious theme that is more Mozartian than Haydnesque but that has a recognizably Schubertian shape. Schubert’s abrupt key changes during the movements here are quite characteristic of his style, as is the headlong momentum of the symphony’s finale, which Gardner takes at an unusually speedy pace (an approach similar to what he offers in the finale of the Third) that takes some getting used to but quickly becomes winning as the orchestra’s ability to sustain it becomes clear. The “Unfinished” gets a lighter touch in its two movements under Gardner than it usually receives, with understanding of the fact that, unusually, the two are in nearly the same tempo: one is marked Allegro moderato and the other Andante con moto. Instead of trying for an inappropriate tempo contrast, Gardner opts for exploration of the subtle differences in instrumental emphasis between the movements – here the clarity of the Chandos sound is a great help. Schubert was an inveterate non-finisher of symphonies – the Eighth is by no means his only “Unfinished,” although it is the only one accorded that title – but conductors have long found ways to make the two movements of No. 8 sound complete in their own way. Gardner does this by careful attention to the movements’ pacing and instrumental balance, with the result that this “Unfinished” feels satisfying, almost like an extended concert overture rather than a portion of a symphony. The basically light and delicate touch that Gardner brings to all three of these symphonies bodes well for future releases of Schubert’s earlier symphonic works, although it remains to be seen how it will translate to No. 9.

     Tchaikovsky had already finished his early symphonies, Nos. 1-3, when he created the ballet Swan Lake, which dates to essentially the same time as his Symphony No. 4. The ballet only seems highly familiar today: the version in which it is always heard is not the one Tchaikovsky intended, being considerably shorter than the original, whose first performance was a disaster (not because of the music but because of the staging). The standard Swan Lake of today was arranged after Tchaikovsky’s death, and while it contains a great deal of wonderful music, it has less of it than the composer wanted. It also has a different musical “story arc,” because in its original conception, Swan Lake was something of a hybrid between ballet and symphony – a kind of symphony to be danced. The original sequence of music, the key signatures and pacing, and the overall flow of the ballet, were all designed from a symphonic perspective – a very creative and highly unusual approach that comes through only imperfectly in Swan Lake as it is usually heard. That makes the new PentaTone release featuring Vladimir Jurowski conducting the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia “Evgeny Svetlanov” especially interesting, because Jurowski returns to the original Swan Lake score – which includes more than two-and-a-half hours of music – and approaches the piece as an extended symphonic poem, if not exactly a symphony. This means that he paces certain individual elements so as to have them fit into a symphonic conception rather than be effective as dances – which means, in a practical sense, that some parts of this Swan Lake would be painfully slow to dance, while others would be impossibly fast. Yet nothing here distorts Tchaikovsky: all the warmth, the dark orchestration that would also appear in the Fourth Symphony, the beautiful melodies and their elegantly expressive presentation, are all present. This is Swan Lake as musical storytelling almost in the mode of Liszt, with recurrent motifs carefully developed and presented in various guises as the dark fairy tale of love, loss and last-minute triumph progresses. The SACD sound here contributes a level of clarity that allows middle voices of the orchestra to be heard easily and Tchaikovsky’s finely honed balance of orchestral sections – with brass as important to him as woodwinds were to Schubert – coming through to fine effect. The symphonic style and dimensions that Tchaikovsky brought to Swan Lake are evident in this performance after at most being hinted at in more-familiar versions of the music. This is a reading that makes the ballet seem genuinely new by offering it in its oldest form.

     The many forms of Bruckner’s symphonies are a thorny, ongoing issue for musicologists and conductors, but less so for his Seventh than for others: the Nowak edition of 1954, based on Bruckner’s 1885 revision of his score, is the one usually followed. However, for his new performance with the Altomonte Orchester St. Florian, Rémy Ballot has gone one better than other conductors by using extremely recent (and, indeed, still-in-progress) scholarship by Paul Hawkshaw to supplement the Nowak version of the score. The noteworthy changes are few and will be mainly apparent to scholars and those with longtime familiarity with the symphony – they primarily have to do with phrasing and articulation, not orchestration or restoration of dropped material. Nevertheless, the attention to the minutest detail that has characterized all of Ballot’s Bruckner releases for Gramola is everywhere evident both in the scholarly area and in the performance, abetted once more by crystal-clear SACD sound. The orchestra’s astonishing proficiency in Bruckner is even more surprising in light of the fact that it consists of both professionals and student players: Ballot combines them to marvelous effect, here as in earlier releases, and the result is a “Bruckner sound” quite unlike that of other orchestras. The symphonies under Ballot are appearing in a peculiar order: No. 3 (original version) was first, then No. 8, No. 9 (three-movement version), No. 6, No. 5, and now No. 7. And the nature of the orchestra inevitably changes as its professionals pursue other commitments while its students move on. This makes the consistency of the interpretations all the more remarkable. Ballot has a genuine vision of Bruckner as symphonist: these recordings are expansive, very broadly conceived, and organic both in the way they appear to grow inevitably from the seeds planted as they begin and in the sense of organ-like sonorities that come to the fore again and again. In this live recording of No. 7, Ballot lavishes particular attention on the Adagio, which is longer than the third and fourth movements together, allowing the music to flow in a way that sounds both natural and inevitable as the dirgelike elements, never bereft of beauty, pile upon each other until a genuinely thrilling climax (in which Ballot does use a cymbal clash, which some conductors omit even though it appears in the Nowak edition). The symphony as a whole is not spun out to as great a length as are some of Ballot’s other recordings, but at 73 minutes, this is still a lengthy reading – which, however, never drags or feels flaccid (another characteristic of Ballot’s Bruckner). One of the most impressive parts of the sound is the quietness during rests and in the faintest passages of the symphony: the lack of sound seems audible, as if the world, along with the live audience, is holding its breath. Although not a “definitive” Bruckner Seventh – there is no such thing – this is a top-notch one that is convincing throughout and that allows Ballot’s unique approach to the composer to be heard in all its subtlety.

     The sound, and in particular the sonic environment in quiet passages, is also crucial to the success of Osmo Vänskä’s reading of Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony in a new BIS release. Unlike Ballot, Vänskä is an inconsistent conductor of this repertoire – and, in fact, of this specific symphony, which becomes progressively stronger as it goes on. Vänskä’s earlier Mahler recordings, of Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6, did not: they tended to plod and then disintegrate under their own weight, lacking the sort of overarching conductorial view that makes Ballot’s Bruckner so consistently successful. Vänskä’s handling of Mahler’s Second seems at first as if it too will go awry. The striding heroism of the first movement is underwhelming here, with the movement’s quiet conclusion seeming more a collapse than a funereal farewell. And the second movement, which Mahler intended as so great a contrast to the first that he wanted a pause of at least five minutes between them, here provides little change of mood: instead of lightening, it drags. However, things improve in the third movement, an orchestral version of the Wunderhorn song about St. Anthony’s futile sermon to the fishes, which acknowledge the great truth of his words and then go back to being exactly what they were before. The underlying sardonic elements do not quite come through here, but the sinuousness of the material is well-handled; and the instrumental balance, made clear by the very fine SACD sound, is effective. And then the entire character of the performance changes when, attacca, the fourth movement begins, with Sasha Cooke singing Urlicht with depth, intensity and drama that are deeply stirring and emotionally trenchant. Suddenly there is genuine pathos in this symphony, a tremendous sense of the sheer humanity of the music, a feeling of reaching out to something beyond everyday human experience. It is a remarkable performance of the symphony’s shortest movement, and one that leads, again attacca, to a finale that starts in such a gigantic burst of stormy drama that listeners who set the volume a touch too high for the fourth movement may be physically driven back at the start of the fifth. Here Vänskä seems really in his element, bringing forth all the fire and passion that were largely missing from the opening movement, having Mahler’s grand-scale conception march strongly and stridently along for more than half the finale until, in a moment that is always thrilling, the chorus enters very, very quietly with Klopstock’s Aufersteh’n. The sound here is so good that the entry is, for a moment, questionable: is the Minnesota Chorale really singing? The answer is yes, and with remarkable sensitivity and fervor. Cooke has a part in this magnificent peroration too, and again her voice is so perfectly matched to the material that it overshadows the otherwise very fine contributions of the chorus and of soprano Ruby Hughes. Perhaps blessed with or inspired by Cooke’s voice – the religious terms seem fitting here – Vänskä carries the symphony through to a conclusion that is every bit as inspiring as that of Mahler’s Eighth, which the ending of the Second resembles exceptionally closely in this performance. The sonic clarity helps bring forth the beauty and intricacy of Mahler’s structure and Vänskä’s interpretation, and the result is a breathtakingly uplifting conclusion to a performance whose early portion gives little hint of the excellence of its ending.

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