September 05, 2019
(++++) VERY WELL KNOWN, VERY WELL PLAYED
Bruckner: Symphony No. 9. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conducted by Manfred Honeck. Reference Recordings. $19.98 (SACD).
Holst: The Planets; Elgar: Enigma Variations. Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton. BIS. $19.99 (SACD).
Schumann: Piano Concerto; Mendelssohn: The Fair Melusine; Piano Concerto No. 1. Ingrid Fliter, piano; Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Antonio Méndez. Linn Records. $18.99.
Even music that is familiar and has frequently been recorded can sometimes come across as fresh and new when performances are sufficiently revelatory – as is Manfred Honeck’s of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Not since the days of William Steinberg has this orchestra sounded so warm, full, and emotionally evocative – thanks in part to the superb quality of the Reference Recordings audio, but also to Honeck’s outstanding direction: he seems determined to have the Pittsburgh players sound as good as members of the very best European orchestras, and in this case he has succeeded brilliantly. Indeed, the Pittsburgh Symphony could easily be mistaken for one of the great German or Austrian orchestras here: it has the full, rich, sumptuous sound, the superb balance of sections, the sense that every player is a virtuoso lending his or her particular expertise to the group, plus the warmth-with-precision that only the very best orchestras attain, and even then often only sporadically. Honeck’s Bruckner Ninth has these qualities throughout in one of the most intimately detailed, carefully structured readings of the three-movement version of this symphony currently available. Honeck gives some hints of his approach in exceptionally detailed booklet notes that prove he is almost as good a writer as he is a conductor. The notes also show, for those interested, how it is possible for multiple performances of the same music to sound so tremendously different. Notably, Honeck sees the third movement of Bruckner’s Ninth in a very specific religious context, to the point of indicating ways in which individual musical phrases need to be played so that words from the Agnus dei of the Roman Catholic Mass, although never spoken, will lie perfectly atop the rhythms and emphases. Honeck is neither right nor wrong about this: Bruckner never said he was doing anything like this, but it is in line with the composer’s deepest beliefs and much of his nonmusical behavior, and is therefore a wholly justifiable speculative approach – and a fascinating one. It becomes an organizing principle of great strength in the third movement. Similarly, Honeck’s notions about the death-preoccupation and actual journey into the netherworld that he sees in the first two movements are not correct but are plausible, and what matters is that they inform his performance in such a way that the orchestra’s playing communicates Honeck’s thoughts on the symphony to a very great degree. Officially, Bruckner put nothing extramusical into his Symphony No. 9, but he certainly put a great amount of his personality and beliefs into it; and by building this performance around his knowledge of those elements of Bruckner’s personality, Honeck erects a monumental musical edifice that is wholly convincing even for listeners who have not the slightest idea of how and why Honeck conducts the music this way. This is a breathtaking performance – perhaps literally, since it was recorded live, but there is nary a breath from the audience – and it is one against which all recent readings of the first three movements of the Ninth can be measured. But “there’s the rub,” as Hamlet said: the conclusion of the third movement here is so perfect emotionally and musically that it evokes a desperate desire for the fourth movement, which Bruckner did not live to complete. Honeck’s performance makes it abundantly clear that these three movements are not a totality, and it would be a marvelous thing if Honeck were to consider, in the future, performing the entire Bruckner Ninth with, perhaps, Gerd Schaller’s excellent reconstruction of the finale. Schaller’s version is not wholly Bruckner – a complete Bruckner finale of this symphony will never exist – but it is so full of Bruckner, and so Brucknerian in the parts completed by Schaller, that a conductor with Honeck’s skills could produce a transcendent four-movement performance by using it. Schaller himself is a marvelous advocate for his completed Bruckner Ninth, and Honeck would surely be another if he brought to the finale as much intelligence and directorial mastery as he here brings to the symphony’s first three movements.
Holst’s The Planets is a suite rather than a symphony – its movements have no musical connection, although they have a clear thematic one – but sometimes a performance can, through sheer will and intensity, make the seven sections sound as if they belong together structurally despite the many contrasts among them. That is what happens in the new BIS recording of The Planets featuring the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under Andrew Litton. Through subtle and careful emphasis of Holst’s innovative orchestration, Litton shows again and again that the movements of this astrological mystery tour make perfect sense in the order in which Holst placed them and, moreover, tell a convincing story that takes listeners from the most earthy (and Earth-ly) events to the most cosmically evanescent. Litton achieves some of this effect through careful tempo choices – “Mars, the Bringer of War,” for example, really stampedes and storms ahead here. But Litton does even more by carefully showing the parallels as well as the differences between and among sections of The Planets. This is especially evident in “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” and “Uranus, the Magician.” The “Jupiter” movement is the most traditionally harmonized and the most “19th-century” movement in the suite, full of warmth and a kind of rough good humor. “Uranus” sometimes seems similar in a way, but Litton focuses on its unusual sounds and altogether different atmosphere (no pun intended) to give listeners a wholly different experience. In a somewhat similar vein, Litton does not let the comparable tempos of “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age” and “Neptune, the Mystic” make it seem that the movements have anything in common communicatively: this Saturn is a wholly inward-focused character, while Neptune looks outward, outward, ever outward, the eventual fadeaway of the instruments and female voices (from the Bergen Philharmonic Choir and Edward Grieg Kor) happening so gradually and subtly that the actual point of their cessation is virtually indeterminable. Thanks partly to the excellent SACD sound, this recording is as noteworthy for its softest passages as for its loudest ones. And the sonic excellence is also a reason for the quality of Litton’s performance of Elgar’s Enigma Variations, which are simply wonderful here. From the lyrical and Romantic, to the gentle and sweet, to the ebullient and dramatic, these variations call on all the expressive potential of an orchestra – and the Bergen Philharmonic gives them everything they require. Litton never loses sight of the fact that this work, unlike The Planets, is very much a musically unified one – it consists, after all, of variations on a theme – but neither does Litton shrink from establishing each variation as its own miniature sound world, expressive of a different scene that in turn reflects a different one of the personalities honored by Elgar in this work. There is something a trifle self-indulgent about the Enigma Variations, since they are all about Elgar’s inner circle – and the final, longest variation is about Elgar himself. But there is also something delightfully outgoing about them, and Litton does an expert job of having the music reach out beyond its time and beyond the underlying intimacy of its concept to become as broadly entertaining as it can be.
Insightful excellence of playing is not limited to orchestras: sometimes it is the combination of soloist and ensemble that shines new or additional light on well-known music. That is the case with a Linn Records release featuring pianist Ingrid Fliter and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Antonio Méndez. The repertoire here is scarcely new or surprising, but the small size of the orchestra – about three dozen players – gives the Schumann and Mendelssohn concertos a light, fleet feeling that fits the Mendelssohn perfectly and provides a different perspective on the Schumann from the one that it usually receives. Fliter’s technique is light-handed, too, and the absence of any sense of dramatically pounding the keys for emphasis is, again, just right for the Mendelssohn and somewhat unusual for the Schumann. Fliter’s performance of the Mendelssohn is so well-proportioned that it creates the hope that she will offer the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 2 at some point, hopefully with the same orchestra. Fliter and Méndez see the music exactly the same way – this is not always the case with soloists and conductors – and the result is a tightly knit performance that nevertheless feels spontaneous, its lightheartedness never lapsing into triviality but carrying listeners along with a buoyant exuberance that is altogether winning. The Schumann concerto, which tends to be more weighty in most performances, here has transparency to go with its heft: the small size of the orchestra helps the middle voices as well as the main themes come through clearly, and both Fliter and Méndez have a good sense of the “fantasy” nature of the concerto, which indeed began life as a piano fantasy that consisted entirely of what is now the first movement. The interesting thing about this Schumann performance is that there is no sense of the piano being in competition with the orchestra or straining to be heard above it, yet neither is there a sense that the orchestra is holding back to allow the piano to come through clearly. The orchestra’s small size is a reason for this, of course, but so is the restraint in accompaniment that Méndez shows throughout. Méndez also offers a very accomplished, lithe account of Mendelssohn’s The Fair Melusine overture: all the beauties of the music come through clearly, and the work flows with all the smoothness that fits with its literary theme and with Mendelssohn’s elegantly proportioned instrumentation. Even listeners who are quite familiar with all the works on this CD will find, again and again, that these performers highlight something new and interesting as they play these works not only with skill but also with understanding and a strong feeling for the emotions that the composers sought to elicit.