October 31, 2019


Beethoven: Symphony No. 9. Anja Kampe, soprano; Daniela Sindram, mezzo-soprano; Burkhard Fritz, tenor; René Pape, bass; Wiener Singverein and Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Philippe Jordan. Wiener Symphoniker. $18.99.

Bruckner: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 9. Lucerne Festival Orchestra conducted by Claudio Abbado. Accentus Music. $16.99 (2 CDs).

Dimensions, Volume 2: Works for Orchestra by Erich Stem, Bill Whitley, Brian T. Field, Mark Francis, and Jan Järvlepp. Navona. $14.99.

FLUX: Society of Composers, Inc., Volume 33—Music by Ryan Carter, Wendy Wan-Ki Lee, Chi-hin Leung, Igor Karača, Ingrid Stölzel, Jonah Elrod, Leah Reid, Matthew Heap, and Nathaniel Haering. Navona. $14.99.

     Philippe Jordan concludes his Beethoven cycle with the Wiener Symphoniker, on the orchestra’s own label, with one of the most operatic versions of Symphony No. 9 in recent memory. It is an altogether fascinating reading, one in which the first three movements constitute a prologue to a remarkable conclusion that turns this ever-new work into more of a cantata than a symphony. Indeed, although Jordan does not exactly give the first three movements short shrift, he moves through them in such a way that Beethoven’s Ninth shows its distinct similarities to Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2, Lobgesang, which in fact is based on Beethoven’s final symphony but which reduces its first three movements significantly in length in order to allow its sung portions to expand, extend and emerge triumphally. Jordan’s analogous approach to Beethoven has its pitfalls, and, indeed, some of the pacing is questionable: the first movement occasionally sounds perfunctory, and the third does not breathe as deeply or intensely as in other performances. But there is a reason for everything Jordan does here, and it becomes clear in the finale, which is blessed with a solo quartet of exceptional opera singers – all four of whom are known for their roles in Wagner, who becomes a looming if unstated presence throughout the last movement. Indeed, so steeped in Wagner are Anja Kampe, Daniela Sindram, Burkhard Fritz and René Pape that the ways in which Beethoven’s vocal lines look forward to Wagner – or rather the ways in which Wagner drew on Beethoven as a model – seem particularly clear here. The “Wagnerianism” of the singers’ experience is pervasive: remarkably, both soprano Kampe and mezzo-soprano Sindram have sung Sieglinde in Die Walküre and Kundry in Parsifal. Yet the singers and conductor do not attempt to turn Beethoven’s finale into something Wagnerian – rather, they emphasize its operatic elements, including its times of high drama (such as the very first vocal entry) and even its unusual forms of contrast (the “Turkish March” section). The finale comes across as a huge set of variations on a not-initially-stated theme – which is exactly what it is, but this structure is rarely as clear as it is here. And the pacing of the first three movements becomes retrospectively important as the finale progresses, resulting in a totality that is highly dramatic and musically convincing, if not the sort of “plea for brotherhood” (and sisterhood) that it is in some other readings. The singing of the Wiener Singverein is as clear and admirable as the playing of the orchestra, and the overall performance is so well-thought-out that it puts the Ninth not only in the sequence of Beethoven’s symphonies but also in the series that includes his cantatas and other religious music, such as Christus am Olberg and the Mass in C. And the affirmation of the finale here definitely recalls the mood, although not the music, of the conclusion of Fidelio.

     Beethoven did not complete another symphony after the Ninth, although he did begin a Tenth. But the Ninth has always seemed a fitting capstone for his symphonic works. So too, but in a different sense, does Bruckner’s Ninth stand atop his symphonic production. But there is an important difference, because Bruckner never finished his Ninth – and despite all the assertions that it is “complete” in its three-movement form, it most definitely is not, and was never conceived by the composer to finish as it does. Using the incomplete Bruckner Ninth as the completion of a great conductor’s podium career therefore has something of an eerie feeling about it. It also produces a sense of genuine amazement on a new Accentus Music release featuring the August 26, 2013 Bruckner Ninth conducted by Claudio Abbado at the Lucerne Festival – in what was to be Abbado’s last appearance. It is easy to read too much into this: Abbado and the audience did not know this would be a finale for the conductor, who died on January 20, 2014. And there is certainly no sign of flagging ability on Abbado’s part – quite the opposite, in fact. This performance was not intended by him or the Lucerne Festival as a memorial, but it is hard to imagine a better one. Abbado lets the very long lines of the music spread out and out and out, a series of concentric ripples reaching away toward, if not quite to, infinity. The pacing of the first movement goes beyond leisurely: it has a sense of eternity about it, or rather a sense of the eternal, a measured pace that feels as if it could go on forever even though, objectively speaking, the reading is not an especially slow one. The scherzo, which can and frequently does have a demonic undertone, has none of that here: it is a disturbance in the cosmos, but one that serves only to reassure the audience that everything will eventually be resolved and “this too shall pass.” And the third movement is simply magnificent, building with what sounds like complete naturalness to a massive climax that seems predestined by all that has come before and that leads to a “peace that passeth all understanding” that is little short of astonishing – and that will leave sensitive listeners practically agape with the desire for what comes next. But nothing comes next: although there are now several first-rate completions of Bruckner’s Ninth, Abbado ends matters here, having brought the audience to a remarkable pinnacle from which they, like Moses, can see the Promised Land without ever getting to enter it. The beauty and brilliance of the interpretation shine forth, but also produce a sense of enormous disappointment that Abbado never conducted, say, the Gerd Schaller version of the finale. Still, this is an extraordinarily beautiful version of the first three movements, and one that produces something akin to the religious experience that Bruckner surely hoped to evoke in a work dedicated “to beloved God.”

     Abbado handles earlier Bruckner with nearly equal skill. The Ninth is paired with the later, Vienna version of Bruckner’s First, taken from an earlier (2012) Lucerne Festival performance. This is actually Bruckner’s second symphony, after the one now numbered “00” but before “No. 0.” Numbering issues aside, here too Abbado does wonderful things with the music. It is arguable whether the much-changed 1890-91 Vienna version is “preferable” to the original 1865-66 Linz version; in fact, both are worth hearing and contrasting, and Abbado’s performance of the symphony in its later form is exceptionally effective. The reason is that he makes the symphony almost classical in its lines, using the remarkable clarity of sectional playing by the Lucerne Festival Orchestra to show clearly that Bruckner’s music at this stage, even after revision, was strongly Schubertian – even as the composer was developing his own unique compositional voice. The Bruckner cycle by Mario Venzago gave the symphonies performances along the same lines, but most conductors still tend to focus on Bruckner’s massed and massive elements rather than his poised and delicate ones. This Bruckner First by Abbado makes a strong argument for Bruckner as a composer who, in addition to seeking grand sounds from a large orchestra, wanted to highlight more-delicate elements of instrumentation – not, to be sure, to the extent that Mahler would later do, but with much the same purpose of contrasting attentiveness to individual orchestral sections with the massed full-ensemble sound. Abbado’s memory is well-served by both his Bruckner First and his Bruckner Ninth.

     Two new (+++) Navona releases offer neither especially early nor especially late material by their composer participants, instead proffering anthologies that are intended to reflect contemporary thinking in works for orchestra (Dimensions) and solo musicians or small groups (FLUX). The five pieces on “Dimensions, Volume 2” are performed by three different orchestras under four different conductors, adding to the somewhat chaotic feeling of a CD whose intended audience is difficult to pin down, since the works are disparate enough to make it likely that even listeners who enjoy one or two of them will not necessarily feel the same way about the rest. The Athens Philharmonia Orchestra under Michalis Economou handles two pieces here. Bill Whitley’s Bonzai Down is intended as a musical portrait of a specific location in Corvallis, Oregon. It alternates speedy and slower sections in an overall rondo form, the faster portions more attractively propulsive than the somewhat static slower ones. Mark Francis’ Concerto No. 2 for Guitar and Orchestra, “In Somnis Veritas,” with guitar soloist Dimitris Kotronakis, has three increasingly speedy movements intended to reflect a title that means “In Dreams There Is Truth.” The mainly gentle first movement gives way to a second that is more irregular rhythmically and features a central section for guitar alone. The finale is the most interesting movement, largely because Francis includes a ratchet, toy piano and toy train whistle (shades of Leopold Mozart!). The music leaves the impression that guitarists would enjoy playing it. The CD also includes two works played by the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra. Brian T. Field’s A Letter from Camp is a setting of a Walt Whitman poem, conducted by Pavel Šnajdr and featuring soprano Lucie Silkenová. The opening is suitably dramatic, and the music throughout conveys the anguish caused by war not only for those who fight but also for their families at home. This is scarcely a new message, and the vocal music is not exceptional in conveying it, but the piece is heartfelt and effectively orchestrated. Considerably more upbeat is Street Music by Jan Järvlepp, conducted by Petr Vronský, which has the feeling of a dance (the cha-cha) mixed with the sounds of a steel band and assorted percussion. This is placed at the end of the CD and provides a very effective, lighthearted conclusion to the disc – it is the most appealing music here. As for the work that opens the recording, that is Erich Stem’s Portland, played by the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jiří Petrdlík. Like Whitley’s piece, Stem’s is location-specific to Oregon: the title refers to the state’s largest city. The idea here is to give a feeling of city life, which the work does in general terms that urban residents, whether or not familiar with Portland, Oregon, may recognize. Percussive outbursts and smoother sections alternate, with enough hustle and bustle to convey that there is much going on. Indeed, when it comes to this disc as a totality, there is a bit too much happening: listeners need to refocus their attention and attentiveness again and again as the recording pulls them hither and thither.

     The refocusing must occur even more quickly on the CD called FLUX, which contains nine different pieces. Taken as a whole – which is not the right way to take them – these works provide a miscellany of sounds, noises, effects and musical thoughts recorded over nearly a decade (from 2010 to 2018) and bearing no significant relationship to each other. The disc is a sampler, a chance for listeners who want to know what some unfamiliar contemporary composers are doing musically. Anyone who finds a piece here particularly interesting will need to look elsewhere for similar pieces by other composers, or for additional works by the same person. On a better filtering algorithm, by Ryan Carter, is an electronic assemblage performed by Present Music. The Earthy and Ethereal Bond, by Wendy Wan-Ki Lee, is a piece for flute (Ritsu Okuda) and cello (Tomoki Tai) in which the instruments simply go their own ways. Unicorn Dance, by Chi-hin Leung, uses sounds exotic to Western ears – it is played by the Asian Young Musicians’ Connection, consisting of Kohei Nishikawa on nohkan, gamin (single name, no capital letter) on piri, and Wei-yun Wang on bass sheng. Whatever interest the sounds themselves may have, there is certainly nothing danceable here, nor does any such thing appear to have been sought. Echo Caves, by Igor Karača, is for soprano saxophone (Jeffrey Loeffert) and piano (played by the composer), and is on the conservative side in not trying to make the instruments produce sounds beyond their comfortable range – although the music never really seems to go anywhere. The Voice of the Rain, by Ingrid Stölzel, is for flute (Sarah Frisof), cello (Hannah Collins), and percussion (Michael Compitello), and is one of the more interesting pieces here, allowing the instruments to mingle as well as contrast and using the cello for some sections that are actually expressive. Urban Sky Glow, by Jonah Elrod, is for solo marimba (Brian Baldauff) plus electronics that serve neither to accentuate nor to contrast in any particular way with the marimba’s sound. Crumbs, by Leah Reid, is a short work for percussion (I-Jen Fang) that takes little advantage of percussive instruments’ varied capabilities, sounding more electronic than it actually is. And the Earth Sang to Me Through the Wind, by Matthew Heap, is a piano piece (played by the Khasma Piano Duo: Katie Palumbo and Ashlee Mack) that tinkles along, up and down the keyboard, with no specific point of origin or particular destination. And Medical Text p. 57, by Nathaniel Haering, is almost a parody of contemporary music, although not intended that way: a solo voice (Daniel Bayot) squeaks, grunts, screams, clears its throat, gasps, cackles, and occasionally says decipherable words against an electronic background that communicates nothing more than the words do – which is to say, nothing at all. The genuinely unpleasant nature of some of the sounds here is probably supposed to mean something, and indeed, there is a lot of “supposed to mean” throughout FLUX. But just what is meant, and to what end, is something that listeners interested in the latest try-to-push-the-musical-envelope trends will have to judge for themselves.

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