May 09, 2019
(++++) RETHINKING THE WELL-KNOWN
Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 7. Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Philippe Jordan. Wiener Symphoniker. $18.99.
Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 6 and 8. Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Philippe Jordan. Wiener Symphoniker. $18.99.
Bruckner: Symphony No. 6. Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Robin Ticciati. Linn Records. $18.99.
Packed with surprising interpretations and filled with insights, the in-progress Beethoven cycle by Philippe Jordan and the Wiener Symphoniker, on the orchestra’s own label, is emerging as one of the most interesting of the innumerable Beethoven sequences of recent years. These live recordings practically crackle with enthusiasm and a sense of pulling the amazingly quiet audience into the sound world that Beethoven calls for and that Jordan and the orchestra evoke with consummate skill. Orchestras, conductor and audiences are all so familiar with Beethoven’s symphonies that a certain level of ennui tends to creep into performances and the listening experience alike: a comfort level with the music that goes so deep as to turn Beethoven almost into “background music,” not in the sense of Philip-Glass-style minimalism but in that of already knowing how things will sound long before the notes are played. Jordan, however, will have none of that. Certainly he has conducted this music many times, with many orchestras, including others just as high-quality as the Wiener Symphoniker. But in these performances, Jordan does not hesitate to mix expected elements of the performances – ones that the performers and audience alike will know are coming – with ones that will come as a surprise to listeners, if not necessarily to the musicians.
Thus, for example, Jordan turns the opening chords of Symphony No. 2 into a statement as emphatic as that brought by the opening chords of the “Eroica” – to which he clearly sees No. 2 as a gateway. This performance is exemplary in highlighting, for example, the ways in which the first movement’s introduction looks ahead musically, while the movement’s main and second themes represent more of a continuation of what Beethoven did in his Symphony No. 1. Jordan clearly marks No. 2 as a transitional work for the composer and, at the same time, a symphony that looks forward to Schubertian emotionalism in its slow movement even as it retains and expands Haydn’s penchant for surprising effects in its Scherzo. And the finale, played here both speedily and with intensity, clearly shows Beethoven striding into territory all his own – anticipating the “Eroica” to come. It is difficult to conduct any Beethoven symphony as if the later ones had not yet been written – and No. 2 is especially hard to manage on that basis. So Jordan finds ways to connect No. 2 neatly with its predecessor while hinting that something even newer and grander is to come, but without making it seem that Beethoven was already aware of what that “something” would be. No. 2 is paired with a triumphal reading of No. 7, a rendition that is less the apotheosis of the dance (as Wagner famously called it) than a symphony of wide contrasts, culminating in a whirlwind finale. Jordan’s reading here is meticulous in its attention to detail, notably in the first movement, where the very extended introduction (Beethoven’s longest) is given considerable heft, then followed by a Vivace in which Jordan has the orchestra handle the dotted rhythms with tremendous care and attentiveness. Jordan’s version of No. 7 is in fact all about rhythm: even the melodiousness of the Adagietto is heard within a context that is almost funereal, lacking the drama of the second movement of the “Eroica” but being cut, rhythmically, from much the same marchlike cloth. This is an unusual approach that makes this so-familiar movement sound fresh, and perhaps even a trifle odd. The third and fourth movements, both packed with surprises by the composer, get strong attention to dynamic changes and contrasts, with the finale seeming always on the verge of spinning out of control until Jordan shows that he knows (and Beethoven knew) exactly where everything is going. The result is an ebullient performance of an always-exhilarating symphony.
The CD featuring the “Pastoral” and still-underrated Symphony No. 8 is similarly thoughtful. In No. 6, Jordan is particularly cognizant of Beethoven’s statement that this symphony expresses feelings – it is not an exercise in musical scene-painting except in a small number of details, such as the bird calls at the end of the second movement. Again, Jordan’s attentiveness to detail pays dividends throughout the reading: here, for example, the distinctive sound of strings playing with mutes in the entire second movement – the only symphonic movement in which Beethoven muted the strings this way – creates a dreamlike flow that is perfectly in accord with the notion of a brookside reverie. The imitation of a crude peasant band emerges here without mocking tone, instead almost with fondness, before the storm sweeps everything away – and the finale is a true capstone in this performance, its inner tranquility and outer expressions of post-storm relief merging into a proto-Romantic sense of joyfulness and appreciation of the natural world into which Beethoven and Jordan immerse the audience. No. 6 is paired with No. 8 – the somewhat arbitrary choice of which symphonies to release on the same CD is not one of the better points of this series, in which Nos. 1 and 3 were offered together, as were Nos. 4 and 5. But the mixing of No. 6 with No. 8 turns out to produce some unexpectedly interesting juxtapositions. No. 8 is, in its own way, as unusual as No. 6 – a fact that is not often appreciated, but one of which Jordan seems quite aware. No. 8 is not really a “small” symphony and certainly not a delicate one: Beethoven uses the fff designation in No. 8 just as he does in No. 7, but nowhere earlier. No. 8 is a compressed work, with a great deal of material packed into compact form, and this is how Jordan handles the symphony. No. 8 is in the same key as No. 6 – Beethoven’s only home-key repetition in his symphonies – and both build to climactic finales, which in the case of No. 8 leads to an immensely extended coda despite the short length of the symphony as a whole. Jordan revels in the oddities of No. 8 in a way that shows the work not only as jovial but also as extremely clever, giving audiences a chance to experience it in a distinctly non-Haydnesque mode. All these Jordan performances have so much to recommend them that the occasional missteps only intermittently register: there are some unwarranted in-movement tempo changes here and there, occasional rushing of passages, and capricious decisions once in a while – such as the pause immediately before the very last note of No. 2. But if Jordan’s readings have quirks, they are not, on the whole, quirky: they are well-considered, very well played, and again and again are genuinely revelatory.
Robin Ticciati, born in 1983, is nine years Jordan’s junior and does not quite have Jordan’s wide-ranging conducting experience or repertoire. But what distinguishes Ticciati is that he is wholly unafraid to tackle pretty much anything without preconceptions and without being concerned about the traditional handling of a piece of music – or the traditional view of a composer. If Jordan’s Beethoven seems to spring from carefully considered and well-thought-out analysis of each symphony, Ticciati’s conducting sometimes seems tied to enthusiasm and a kind of carefree iconoclasm – which does not, however, result in reinterpretations for their own sake, but in ones that look at a piece of music in a way that differs from the usual. That is certainly the case with the new Linn Records release of Ticciati’s Bruckner Sixth Symphony, which is surely one of the most muscular readings this symphony has received on CD. Ticciati sees nothing cathedral-like or organ-like in Bruckner, at least in this symphony: he conducts at a very brisk pace, bringing the symphony in at about 51 minutes even though most conductors take 60 to 70 minutes to negotiate it. The conducting does seem fast at times, especially in the opening of the first movement, but it takes only a few minutes of listening to be caught up in Ticciati’s interpretation and captivated by it. It is not charming, exactly, and certainly not long-breathed or expansive; nor is it full in sound – which means, to put it positively, that it is not clotted, overly massive or thick. Indeed, this is a very Schubertian performance: Bruckner’s similarities to Schubert are not always evident in performances, but here Ticciati offers a Bruckner Sixth that is significantly shorter than Schubert’s “Great” symphony and has many of the same sensibilities and a considerable dose of similar melodiousness. Ticciati simply refuses to be troubled by the unusual elements of Bruckner’s Sixth, such as the basically tuneless Scherzo: he paces the movement nicely and simply lets it unfold with clarity and solid instrumental balance – the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin is at its usual level of excellence here. This is Bruckner played with clarity, rather as shaped by Mario Venzago, the only other conductor to have played the Sixth at this pace in a recent recording. Venzago, however, who is 35 years Ticciati’s senior, produced a carefully considered performance with considerable intellectual underpinning. Ticciati’s reading sounds far more impetuous and, yes, youthful. This is the only Bruckner symphony in which the composer did not make a series of revisions, so everyone uses the same score except for some very minor elements. As a result, whatever differences exist between performances really reflect the predilections of the conductors, not often-arguable alterations within the music itself. So it is clear that Ticciati regards the Bruckner Sixth as a work that is strongly in line with Romantic ideals even though it is generally not deemed particularly “Brucknerian” and lacks numerous hallmarks of the composer’s style. This is Ticciati’s first recording of a Bruckner symphony, and it is impossible in light of the specific work he chose to know how he would handle others in the cycle. The one thing that does seem sure is that Ticciati would approach other Bruckner symphonies without hidebound preconceptions, just as he does the Sixth. Whether that rather freewheeling way of conducting Bruckner would work equally well in the other symphonies is a question whose answer will have to wait until Ticciati delves more deeply into this repertoire.