December 19, 2019
Mahler: Symphony No. 9. Bamberger Symphoniker conducted by Herbert Blomstedt. Accentus Music. $16.99 (2 CDs).
Schubert: Symphony No. 9, “Great.” Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Maxim Emelyanychev. Linn Records. $18.99.
Haydn: Symphony No. 99; Mass in B-flat, “Harmoniemesse.” Mireille Asselin, soprano; Catherine Wyn-Rogers, mezzo-soprano; Jeremy Budd, tenor; Sumner Thompson, baritone. Handel and Haydn Society conducted by Harry Christophers. CORO. $18.99.
Hummel: Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3 arranged for Flute, Violin, Cello and Piano. Uwe Grodd, flute; Gould Piano Trio (Lucy Gould, violin; Alice Neary, cello; Benjamin Frith, piano). Naxos. $12.99.
Superstitious worries about the number nine when it comes to symphonies trace directly to Beethoven’s works, since the Ninth was his final such work – although, more accurately, it was his last completed symphony, since he did start a Tenth, some of which is quite playable. Because Beethoven was the first major composer to make symphonies monumental, the fact that he finished only nine came to be perceived as a barrier of sorts. Thus, much tends to be made of the fact that Schubert also wrote nine symphonies – although he too started on a Tenth, left several incomplete (notably the one known as the “Unfinished”), and it is arguable whether his Seventh should be counted and therefore maybe he only completed eight and started a Ninth. This sort of thing quickly becomes silly: Dvořák also wrote nine symphonies, and unlike Beethoven or Schubert did not start another after his “From the New World,” but the consensus for many years was that Dvořák actually produced five symphonies, the ones now numbered 6, 7, 5, 8 and 9 – until four early ones were discovered. And then there is Bruckner, whose Ninth remained unfinished but who created one after his No. 1 that is now called “No. 0,” so the Ninth was really his Tenth – or, to be completely accurate, his Eleventh, since there is also a very early work now numbered “00.” And yet one composer, Mahler, took the numerological issue of the number nine very seriously indeed, to the point that after his Eighth he assiduously avoided called Das Lied von der Erde a symphony – that would have been No. 9, a prospect that seems genuinely to have frightened Mahler. Yet when he did give No. 9 to a work, it became his last completed symphony – although, again, he started on a Tenth, and got much further with it than Beethoven did with his, to the point Mahler’s No. 10 is often performed in any of several completions made after the composer’s death. Still, the notion of Mahler’s Ninth as a “farewell” of sorts persists, and at its best can inform well-considered performances with the kind of resigned beauty that is everywhere apparent on a new Accentus Music release in which the symphony is performed by the Bamberger Symphoniker conducted by Herbert Blomstedt. It is highly noteworthy that this reading was led by a conductor who at the time was one month shy of his 92nd birthday – surely an age by which most people are contemplating their own mortality, never mind the fact that Mahler himself died two months before he would have turned a mere 51. Although it is impossible to know just what Blomstedt was thinking as he prepared for and conducted this performance, certainly his handling of the music shows him attributing to it some intimations of immortality, especially in the outer movements. The opening Andante comodo is very commodious indeed, proceeding at so leisurely a pace that its unfolding seems almost like that of a gorgeous flower being watched as it blooms nearly in real time. The movement grows and grows as Blomstedt paces it as a very slow, deliberate walk, almost a meandering, although it is clear that there is a destination – one that is not revealed even by the movement’s end. The middle movements here seem more like byways, roads not taken, or at least not taken satisfactorily. The gentle Ländler of the second movement provides little respite, for there has been nothing from which significant respite is required: it simply offers a feeling of pleasant, pastoral relief from the first movement’s quest. The third movement is much less biting and frenetic than it can be, as if Blomstedt is at pains not to disturb the first movement’s mood too greatly even here, when Mahler – as heard in many performances – becomes truly demonic. This is actually the least successful movement in Blomstedt’s reading, being just a bit too mild to provide the intended contrast with the finale. But once the finale arrives, concerns about the preceding movement evaporate, since here Blomstedt picks up the mood of the Andante comodo again seamlessly, only with even greater depth, as is justified by the simple tempo marking of Adagio. And gradually, with a steady pace and increasing certainty, the destination implied in the first movement comes into focus in the fourth, as the symphony ends with quiet beauty that is part resignation and part acceptance. This is a highly knowing performance by a conductor who, surely cognizant of his own mortality, makes the final complete symphony of a much younger composer into a statement for all ages.
At the other end of the conductorial age scale is Maxim Emelyanychev, new principal conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, who was born in 1988 and was 30 when he made a newly released recording of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 for Linn Records. This is a reading so packed with the impetuousness of youth that it is easy to think about the fact that Schubert completed the symphony when he was not yet 30 – and died at 31. This is a polarizing (+++) performance, one so packed with vigor and intensity that the gentility and gentleness of Schubert are nowhere to be found: this is driven music, which Emelyanychev pushes hard and harder, especially in the first two movements. The opening Allegro ma non troppo main section does not acknowledge the ma non troppo at all: there is nothing expansive here, only a headlong burst of intensity that is undeniably exhilarating but that runs roughshod over many of the beauties with which the movement is packed. The second movement’s Andante con moto really does move at a fast walk: no time for sightseeing here, or even for thinking about where one may be going – it is more a power walk than a stroll. There is vivacity to this movement, but it comes at the expense of perception of beauty. The symphony’s second half works better. The strongly rhythmic third movement is effective and particularly well-played, despite some inexplicable rubato in which Emelyanychev periodically seems hesitant to move on from one section to the next. Then comes the finale, the only movement here that really thrives under Emelyanychev’s approach. It is rushed, yes, but less so than the first movement, and here the speed comes across as a kind of headlong joy that may not fit the expansive themes perfectly but that is convincing in its own way. It is highly unlikely that Emelyanychev will interpret this symphony the same way in a decade or two, much less in the five decades that separate his age from that of Blomstedt. For now, what Emelyanychev offers is an interpretation filled with vigor but largely lacking in nuance and expressivity – decidedly a matter of taste.
The tastefulness with which the Handel and Haydn Society under Harry Christophers performs the music of Haydn can never be doubted, and a new (++++) CORO recording shows once again the excellence of this period-instrument group and is leader. The symphony they offer is not Haydn’s Ninth – which is largely eclipsed because it follows the “Morning, Noon and Night” trio of Nos. 6-8 – but his 99th, one of the less-often-heard of the composer’s final dozen “London” symphonies. The neglect of this splendid work has never been understandable and is even less so after one hears how Christopher and his ensemble perform it. Maybe it needs a title to bring it to the popularity level of the “Surprise,” “Miracle,” “Military,” “Clock” and “London” symphonies from the same batch. Christophers actually proposes one: the “Harmonie,” that being the German word for a full wind band – and Symphony No. 99 does indeed make extensive use of the orchestra’s wind complement. From its stately opening to its Andante with extensive employment of winds to its exceptionally clever and witty finale, the symphony is a delight throughout, and the verve with which the Handel and Haydn Society plays it serves to make it even more enjoyable than it usually is. It is paired here with Haydn’s final large-scale work, the sixth and last mass that the composer created for Prince Anton Esterházy, whose interest in music was minimal and in strong contrast to that of his father, Prince Nikolaus, whom Haydn served for the better part of three decades. Prince Anton did, however, want Haydn to write a mass annually for the nameday of Anton’s wife, and Haydn did just that – six times, with the final such mass being composed in 1802. That is the work heard here, and it was in fact designated Harmoniemesse (although not by Haydn himself) because of its extensive use of wind instruments. Even in our much-more-secular age, it is a marvelously expressive work with some special touches that show how creative Haydn remained at the age of 70: the usually tender Benedictus, for example, is here a fast choral movement full of eagerness, and the concluding Agnus dei progresses from a radiant beginning to a more prayerful central section, then stops altogether before closing with bright, emphatic expressiveness. Soloists, chorus and instrumentalists all handle the Harmoniemesse beautifully, making both the meaning of its devotional elements and the power of its exceptional musical creativity equally clear.
It would have been interesting if the creativity of Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Beethoven’s sometime friend and sometime rival, had led him to arrange Beethoven’s Ninth for a small instrumental ensemble of the sort that could be found in many households – or could readily be put together – in the early 19th century. Hummel did not do this, though. But he did arrange Beethoven’s first seven symphonies (as well as the Septet, Op. 20) for flute, violin, cello, and piano – the same instruments for which Hummel made arrangements of half a dozen Mozart symphonies. A new (++++) Naxos CD featuring Uwe Grodd and the Gould Piano Trio offers listeners a chance to hear what Hummel did with Beethoven’s First and the “Eroica,” and the result is fascinating. Unsurprisingly, the classical lines and comparative mildness of No. 1 come across better on these instruments than does the far more expansive, broader, deeper and more emotionally trenchant No. 3. Also unsurprisingly, Hummel – a brilliant pianist – reserves much of the “good stuff” in these arrangements for the piano, even taking some elements that Beethoven originally assigned to the flute and giving them to the pianist rather than the flautist. The purpose of these arrangements, though, transcends any of their oddities and forgives them. Hummel re-created these symphonies – probably shortly after Beethoven’s death – for the express purpose of making more people aware of Beethoven’s genius, which Hummel himself never doubted even when he and Beethoven found themselves at odds. There was no “standard repertoire” in the 1830s, no easy way for people to get to concerts to experience Beethoven’s music, no recordings of it – it was only through arrangements that people could play for themselves, with family members and friends, that these symphonies could become known. And Hummel’s handling of the symphonies accomplished just what he intended, by bringing Beethoven far more attention from music lovers than he would otherwise have had. Heard in that context, these arrangements are very fine indeed. Grodd and the Gould Piano Trio play them straight and without exaggeration, in finely balanced performances that do indeed have the piano prominent much of the time but that also function as a clear introduction to the music. And some of what Hummel did comes off exceptionally well: for example, while the first two movements of the “Eroica” inevitably lack the power of the original, the lithe and lively finale is surprisingly effective in this chamber version. Certainly, in the 21st century, these Hummel productions are interesting sidelights on Beethoven rather than any sort of introduction to him. But sidelights do cast light, and Hummel’s handling of Beethoven’s First and Third Symphonies for a small ensemble very skillfully showcases many of the pleasures of music that was not always known as well as it is today – and that gained some of its popularity precisely because Hummel presented it in this form.