October 24, 2019
(++++) SYMPHONIES WITH SOMETHING EXTRA
Mieczysław Weinberg: Chamber Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3. East-West Chamber Orchestra conducted by Rostislav Krimer. Naxos. $12.99.
Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 90-92. Bayerisches Kammerorchester Bad Brückenau conducted by Johannes Moesus. Profil. $18.99.
John A. Carollo: Symphony No. 3. London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Miran Vaupotić. Navona. $14.99.
The four chamber symphonies by Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996) are all late works, written between 1987 and 1992, the last of them finished a full half-century after his Symphony No. 1 of 1942. The chamber symphonies bear some resemblance to his strings-only symphonies, Nos. 2, 7 and 10, but more than that, they were deliberately conceived as conclusions to Weinberg’s symphonic output and, at the same time, as expansions and rethinkings of some of his music for string quartet. Indeed, Chamber Symphony No. 1 began as a revision and expansion of String Quartet No. 2, then was later revised further by Weinberg into its final form. It is a comparatively popular work in its symphonic guise – nothing by Weinberg is yet heard really frequently, but within his oeuvre, this piece is programmed more often than others. The reasons are clear in a very fine, well-paced and transparently played performance by the East-West Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Rostislav Krimer, on the Naxos label. Chamber Symphony No. 1 is, in a word, accessible: it lasts less than half an hour, has four movements with standard tempo indications, and offers direct (yet not simplistic) expressiveness and an easy-to-follow formal structure. Weinberg’s music is often compared to and contrasted with that of Shostakovich, his close friend and sometime mentor, but this chamber symphony requires no such comparative thinking: it shows Weinberg’s mature style clearly and, as a result, can actually be a good introduction to his music. Certainly the enthusiasm and clarity with which the work is played on this disc speak well both for the music and for the performers. The same qualities are in evidence in the reading of Chamber Symphony No. 3 (1990), which again is more than “just” a symphony for strings: this piece is based on Weinberg’s String Quartet No. 5. But unlike the earlier chamber symphony, which can still be thought of as an (expanded) arrangement of its source, this third one differs substantially from the chamber music on which it is based. For one thing, its longest movement, an Andante finale, is not in the predecessor quartet at all. Chamber Symphony No. 3 is more intense than No. 1 and somewhat thornier to absorb: it has elements of lyricism but is largely unsettled emotionally throughout, with a dominant feeling of turmoil and even despair that eventually leads, at the very end, to a level of acceptance that is not fully conciliatory with the emotionally distressing matters with which it has been wrestling. Krimer and the East-West Chamber Orchestra nicely balance this chamber symphony’s elements of equanimity and anguish, exploring it carefully and systematically and playing it very well indeed.
If the Weinberg chamber symphonies offer something additional through their echoes of the composer’s chamber music, Haydn’s Symphonies Nos. 90-92 offer something more than usual on a new CD from Profil – in part through what two of them do not include. These three symphonies occupy a rather odd place in Haydn’s later output. After creating Nos. 82-87 for Paris and Nos. 88-89 as a pair for the Esterháza orchestra, Haydn was asked to produce a trio of symphonies for Prince Kraft Ernst of Oettingen-Wallerstein. He eventually did so, and those are Nos. 90-92 – which Haydn carefully and cleverly wrote in the keys of the C minor chord (C, E-flat, G) and all of which he orchestrated for the same instrumental complement. The very fine performances of these works by Johannes Moesus and the Bayerisches Kammerorchester Bad Brückenau offer the symphonies just as Haydn planned and intended them – but there is more to these works’ story, and knowing the other elements helps listeners hear the symphonies in a new light. For one thing, Haydn, a shrewd and not always 100% forthright businessman, actually sold the symphonies twice – first to the same Paris organization that had commissioned Nos. 82-87 and only on second thought to Prince Kraft Ernst. Thus, these were clearly “commodity” symphonies, designed by Haydn to appeal as widely as possible and to take advantage of what was at the time (1789) his very considerable fame. For another thing, Symphonies Nos. 90 and 92 are never heard today as Haydn originally wrote them and as Moesus conducts them: they are played with trumpets and timpani, which Haydn added later to give these two works greater heft and a more celebratory feeling. It is these added instruments that Moesus notably omits. On top of these matters, No. 92, with the added instruments, has long been called the “Oxford” because of a later performance in a city far from Oettingen-Wallerstein. Because of all these factors, Moesus’ first-rate interpretations of Nos. 90 and 92 are world première recordings in the original orchestration, and these readings fit beautifully with that of No. 91 to produce a three-symphony sequence far more unified than anything else in Haydn’s late symphonic production and all the more interesting to hear as a result.
John A. Carollo’s Symphony No. 3 of 2017 has little in common musically with either the works of Weinberg or those of Haydn, but it does have some “extras” of its own. For one thing, just as Weinberg based his first and third chamber symphonies on earlier works, so Carollo based his third symphony on a song cycle he had written earlier, to texts by William Blake, called Awake Humanity to Nature’s Beauty! Also, just as Haydn added additional instruments to his original versions of Symphonies Nos. 90 and 92, Carollo added something to his orchestra for Symphony No. 3: a wordless soprano voice. This is not in itself anything particularly new: Nielsen has a wordless soprano and baritone in his Symphony No. 3 of 1910-11, and more-recent composers have used the vocalise technique as well – for instance, Giya Kancheli in his Symphony No. 3 of 1973. Still, the vocal elements are effectively handled by Carollo, and they work particularly well because his medium in the symphony is essentially tonal, albeit with plenty of dissonance and a perhaps inevitable emphasis from time to time on percussion. The four-movement symphony is only about the length of most of Haydn’s – just 28 minutes on a Navona release featuring the London Symphony Orchestra under Miran Vaupotić, with soprano Emma Tring. The symphony is evocative in a mostly straightforward way: the opening “To Morning” sounds like movie music used at dawn; the second movement (“Gestural Rituals”) is filled with percussion and with sweeping strings that, again, sound filmic; “In the Garden of Earthly Delights,” the third movement, which features the vocalise elements, has a chamber-music-like opening, a speedier middle section, and a brass-and-percussion conclusion in which the soprano sounds rather pained; and the finale, “Let the Evening Stillness Arouse,” starts with tone painting resembling that of the first movement and remains mostly on the quiet side until the volume picks up toward the end for an emphatic climax and fade-out. The music is well-crafted and is very well, even sumptuously played by the London Symphony Orchestra, but the symphony is not especially original in sound or orchestration, despite the inclusion of the soprano voice. And the disc, being quite short and having just this one work on it, gets a (+++) rating – it appears to be aimed at current fans of Carollo who want this new symphony to add to an existing collection.