May 02, 2019


Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 1-3; Overture in the Italian Style in D; Rosamunde—excerpts. Copenhagen Phil conducted by Lawrence Foster. PentaTone. $29.99 (2 SACDs).

Bruch: Double Concerto for Clarinet, Viola and Orchestra; Eight Pieces for Clarinet, Viola and Piano. Giovanni Punzi, clarinet; Eva Katrine Dalsgaard, viola; Tanja Zapolski, piano; Copenhagen Phil conducted by Vincenzo Milletari. Brilliant Classics. $9.99.

Mahler: Symphony No. 5—arranged for piano four hands by Otto Singer. Piano Duo Trenkner / Speidel (Evelinde Trenkner and Sontraud Speidel). MDG Gold. $18.99 (SACD).

     The juxtaposition of Schubert’s early symphonies with some of his later stage music is a surprising one that reveals similarities of structure and approach in ways that are not obvious even for listeners who already know the symphonies, Rosamunde, and the two “Italian style” overtures. A very interesting PentaTone release featuring the Copenhagen Phil (an amusingly odd name that unfortunately makes this very fine ensemble sound like a “philharmonic light”) offers listeners much to think about as well as a great deal to enjoy. Lawrence Foster conducts the first three symphonies with a pleasantly light hand and an emphasis on their dancelike elements that serves them well. The first two symphonies are usually considered highly derivative, of Mozart and/or Haydn, and certainly there is much in them that echoes those composers – but the wonderful choice of themes, the exceptional melodic gift that Schubert already had so clearly when he wrote these works in his mid-teens, and the willingness to shift from key to key abruptly and surprisingly (and in the main very effectively), all mark these pieces as distinctly Schubertian. It is true that both have very long first movements that somewhat overbalance the rest of the works, and each first movement starts with a highly serious slow introduction (Adagio in the first symphony, Largo in the second) that is somewhat formulaic, in the sense that nothing else in either work has equal intensity. But by Symphony No. 3, Schubert has clearly started finding his own way, offering a much shorter first-movement introduction, a better balance among the movements, and a scurrying finale that radiates joie de vivre. Foster and the Copenhagen Phil give the impression of genuinely enjoying playing this music, not just doing so out of a feeling of obligation: the strings are fleet and light throughout, and the woodwinds, always so important to Schubert, percolate along merrily in all three symphonies. The two-SACD set, recorded in PentaTone’s usual top-quality sound, next moves to the distinctly Rossinian Overture in the Italian Style in D of 1817 (two years after the Symphony No. 3). The weightier and lighter elements of this concert piece are nicely balanced both by Schubert and by these performers – and it is disappointing that only this overture, not its companion in C, can be heard here (there was plenty of room on the disc for both). The recording concludes with five excerpts from Rosamunde, stage music representing Schubert in a significantly later developmental style. Although these entr’actes and ballet pieces do not seem chronologically much later, dating to 1823, the intervening years after the Overture in the Italian Style in D were ones in which Schubert’s music underwent considerable change, attaining a richness and persuasive depth that it had previously lacked. This is especially noticeable in the first entr’acte, which scholars believe may have been intended (perhaps in somewhat different form) as the finale of the “Unfinished” symphony (which is actually only one among multiple unfinished Schubert symphonic efforts). This entr’acte is strong and effective music, by all accounts far more so than the play for which it was written. The remaining excerpts offered here are on the lighter side, but lack nothing in the way of charm and beauty, and the last of them – ballet music marked Andantino – is especially graceful and played here with great sensitivity. Again, something is missing that could have been included: the Rosamunde overture, which, although largely recycled from Die Zauberharfe, is thoroughly enjoyable and deserves to be heard more often. So this recording, already first-rate, could have been even better with slightly expanded repertoire – but what it does offer is more than enough to engage listeners and get an audience thinking about Schubert’s expressiveness and the differing manner in which it comes across in his early symphonies and his writing for the stage.

     Twelve years Schubert’s junior and also destined to live only into his thirties, Mendelssohn was another composer of apparently endless lyricism and a personal style that developed early – and whose future direction, had he lived longer, it is impossible to know. What is surprising to hear on a new Brilliant Classics release is how Mendelssohnian music could sound more than 60 years after Mendelssohn’s death. That is the effect of listening to some very late and little-known music by the long-lived Max Bruch (1838-1920): Mendelssohn still had nine years to live when Bruch was born, and was a lifelong influence and source of admiration for the younger composer. Indeed, in his later years, Bruch – much like Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) – tended to be ignored or dismissed as hopelessly out of touch with the fast-changing musical times and tastes of the early 20th century. And this was certainly true of Bruch, but it was no accident: he affirmed repeatedly that the beauties of Mendelssohn’s time and of the Romantic era in general were what he saw as the best possible expressions of which music was capable, and he showed no inclination to adopt the harsher and grittier musical approaches created in late Romanticism and afterwards. Interestingly, Bruch, like Brahms, became deeply interested in the clarinet as a solo instrument only very late in life – in Bruch’s case because his son, Max Felix Bruch (1884-1943), played the instrument. But while Brahms created two wonderful sonatas (Op. 120) that can be played by clarinet or viola, Bruch composed two works to be played by clarinet and viola. They are redolent of beauty to a degree that is almost cloying (if not quite), and they use the very similar ranges of the two solo instruments – and their capability of producing very similar sounds – in ways that create a remarkable intertwining of string and woodwind, quite unlike anything else by Bruch or, indeed, much else by any other composer. The Double Concerto for Clarinet, Viola and Orchestra dates to 1911, the Eight Pieces to 1910, and both works are tremendously assured in their writing, in their balance and intermingling of the solo instruments, and in their unending flow of truly gorgeous melodies that are harmonized in the manner of decades earlier but sound less like a throwback than like an extension of the Mendelssohnian model. Very rarely heard, these works are wonderful to discover, and they sound absolutely lovely in performances featuring Giovanni Punzi and Eva Katrine Dalsgaard – and, in the concerto, the same Copenhagen Phil heard playing Schubert, although here directed (very ably) by Vincenzo Milletari. There is some genuine cleverness in Bruch’s concerto, starting at the very opening, which features two cadenzas – one for each instrument – before the music begins to move ahead. The first two movements of the concerto have nearly equal tempo indications, much as do the two completed movements of Schubert’s “Unfinished” symphony: Bruch marks the first movement Andante con moto and the second Allegro moderato, those being the exact tempo markings used by Schubert, but in reverse order. The result of this pacing in Bruch’s work is a sense of dreamy, serenade-like flow for most of the concerto, until the energetic start of the finale finally interrupts the mood. But here too Bruch offers clever touches, for example by not bringing in the solo clarinet for almost 50 bars. The concerto is less a tour de force for the soloists than a chance for them to cooperate in multiple ways. The Eight Pieces contain more “showcase” elements, but they too opt primarily for expressiveness rather than virtuosity for its own sake. They are not connected in any way and, indeed, Bruch did not think they should be played in sequence – but his son did so anyway, starting a tradition that continues on the rare occasions when these pieces are heard at all. Opening and closing with considerable lyricism, and containing one rather overt tribute to Mendelssohn in the seventh piece, the Eight Pieces include two with titles in German that lie at the series’ heart. These are the fifth piece, Rumanische Melodie, and the sixth, Nachtgesang, both of which take the set to expressive heights not only for clarinet and viola but also, to some extent, for piano – which Tanja Zapolski plays with appropriate dedication and warmth.

     It remains somewhat amazing to realize that the Bruch clarinet-and-viola works were written six years and more after Mahler’s far more forward-looking Symphony No. 5. Mahler lived only to age 50 but was obsessed for decades with pushing music into new and largely uncharted realms, not so much for philosophical reasons (as Schoenberg was) as because he was constantly seeking new ways to offer works that were, in essence, “songs of myself.” Mahler was almost entirely a symphonist – even his song cycles are symphonic in scope and structure – and was nearly obsessive in his search for ways to delve deeper and deeper into his own consciousness and display what he found to the world. By the time of his Symphony No. 5, he had passed through the Wunderhorn and otherwise song-related stage of the first four symphonies and moved to an entirely abstract, non-vocal concept conceived in three large “parts” (the first and second movements, the third movement on its own, and the fourth and fifth movements). Mahler complained that no one understood his Fifth, and it was partly in an attempt to make understanding possible that he went along with the plan for a piano-four-hands version to be made by Otto Singer (1863-1931). Singer, himself a composer, was a good choice for the role, being known for arranging the works of Richard Strauss. His piano-four-hands score was published in 1904, two months before the symphony’s first performance. It did not come into being without struggle – pretty much everything in Mahler involves struggle – but the resulting work is quite fascinating to hear, and quite surprising in many ways. Evelinde Trenkner and Sontraud Speidel do real service to the music in presenting it on a new MDG Gold SACD. Mahler’s Fifth is comparatively familiar now, but conductors do not always pick up on the sense of pervasive loneliness and isolation with which the first movement is imbued, as Singer, Trenkner and Speidel do. And if the wonderful horn passages of the central third movement are deeply missed in the piano-four-hands version, this movement – the symphony’s longest, whose pacing and structural importance are key to the overall architecture – makes complete sense in a recording in which the pianists produce the effect of elegance and irony rolled together into the form of a dissonant but not-quite-grotesque dance. Trenkner and Speidel nicely put across the delicacy and beauty of the Adagietto, and their sure and deliberate pacing of the finale shows it as the symphonic capstone that Mahler wanted it to be – indeed, this rondo comes across to better effect than the movement sometimes does in orchestral performances. Singer’s arrangement of Mahler’s Fifth will never supplant the orchestral version, and was never intended to; Trenkner and Speidel, for all their skill, cannot produce the numerous sonic effects that Mahler, an expert orchestrator and brilliant conductor, knew just how to evoke. But this is a recording that Mahler lovers will find very much worth having for the new light that it repeatedly shines on a complex, difficult and still imperfectly understood symphonic score.

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