April 02, 2020
(++++) LESSER SYMPHONIES?
Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 6; Overtures in the Italian Style in C and D. City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).
Louise Farrenc: Symphony No. 1; Overtures Nos. 1 and 2; Grandes Variations sur un thème du comte Gallenberg. Solistes Européens, Luxembourg, conducted by Christoph König; Jean Muller, piano. Naxos.$12.99.
Before the full complement of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies became reasonably well-known, there used to be a wry statement that he composed three symphonies that he quirkily numbered 4, 5 and 6. Something similar remains true today where Schubert is concerned: a sense that he wrote two symphonies that he happened to number 8 (“Unfinished”) and 9 (“Great C Major”) – or sometimes, to complicate matters further because of arguments over the count, 7 (“Unfinished”) and 8 (“Great C Major”). The manifest charms of Schubert’s earlier symphonies and his many unfinished symphonic portions (far more than one) continue to get less attention than they deserve – although well-played cycles of the full set are slowly redressing the neglect of the less-often-played examples. Edward Gardner’s Chandos recordings with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, featuring unusually clear and well-proportioned SACD sound, are a most welcome addition to the “complete Schubert” groups. The second entry in the series, featuring Symphonies Nos. 2 and 6, offers the same characteristics as the initial one of Symphonies 3, 5 and 8 (“Unfinished”): vivacity, headlong momentum in the fast movements, a delightfully light touch, and willingness to proceed at tempos that initially seem too fast to allow lyricism to shine through but that turn out to work very well. In the new recording, the first movement of No. 2, after its very short slow introduction, proceeds as quickly as a finale, but when lyrical flow is called for, it is there. The second movement is graceful, almost fragile; the third strides forward smartly, with strong rhythmic emphasis; and the finale zips about with carefree abandon and absolutely wonderful articulation from the strings. No. 6, called the “Little C Major” to distinguish it from No. 9 in the same key, is certainly shorter that the grand later work: about half an hour, while No. 9 lasts almost twice as long in some performances. But No. 6 is not so “little” after all in Gardner’s interpretation. He opens it with a strongly accented flourish that shows this to be a larger-scale work than Schubert’s prior symphonies, then preserves momentum through the very good-humored and rather Haydnesque first movement, ending it decisively before moving into a delicate, carefully phrased opening of the second movement, after which the material unfolds with particularly intricate and well-balanced interactions between winds and strings. The third movement sounds distinctly rushed at the start, but it is in fact marked Presto, although rarely taken at that pace. Then, as so often in these performances, Gardner finds a way to make the tempo work – and the contrast between the speedy Scherzo portion and very different Trio is highly effective. The opening of the finale, however, is the one significant disappointment here: perhaps trying to give the movement more heft than its almost-trivial initial tune provides, Gardner presents the material in stop-and-start fashion with wholly unjustifiable rubato that he then brings back whenever the initial material returns. There is no valid reason or justification for this, and it almost outweighs the otherwise exemplary handling of a movement that can tend to sound somewhat overextended, as if Schubert is here reaching for something a touch more monumental than the good-natured thematic material can readily handle. On the whole, though, the movement, and the symphony as a totality, come off in fine fashion and constitute effective arguments for getting to know more of Schubert’s symphonic output than the two hyper-familiar symphonies. As a bonus, the recording includes upbeat and engaging readings of Schubert’s two lightweight and highly melodic overtures “In the Italian Style” – which, in this context, means the style of Rossini. And very Rossinian they are: the one in C even includes what are now known as “Rossini crescendos.” These are unprepossessing works that offer only surface-level shine, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that: their brightness is quite infectious.
There are also two overtures on a new Naxos CD featuring performances by Solistes Européens, Luxembourg, conducted by Christoph König, but their style is not “Italian” and not substantially imitative of anyone: they quite clearly show the neglected (but now being rediscovered) style of Louise Farrenc (1804-1875). These overtures date to 1834, six years after Schubert’s death, and come from a different world than his “Italian style” ones: they are dramatic and powerful, and what lyricism they contain seems less free-flowing, as it always does in Schubert, and more intellectual – inserted to provide deliberate contrast with the intensity of which the works mainly consist. These overtures have no specific program, but both hint at pathos and tragedy, the second (in E-flat) to an even greater degree than the first (in E minor). The overtures on this disc are adjuncts to the main work, the first of Farrenc’s three symphonies – all of which remain nearly totally neglected, and undeservedly so. Farrenc had a considerable reputation in her time as both composer and pianist, and indeed, like Clara Schumann, was much admired as a virtuoso – besides which, Robert Schumann thought quite highly of Farrenc’s piano compositions. Farrenc’s Symphony No. 1 (1841) certainly has its derivative elements, its debt to Beethoven being the most apparent on a first hearing, although its hints of Mendelssohn and Schumann become clearer afterwards. What is interesting here is that despite sounds that are occasionally like those of one composer or another, the totality of Farrenc’s First is not reminiscent of anybody in particular – she clearly has her own way of adopting and adapting the styles of predecessors and contemporaries, producing as a result a symphony that, like her earlier Overtures, focuses mainly on drama while also allowing plenty of room for lyricism and a certain level of piquancy. The performance heard here is a strong one: the music flows naturally, and the overall effect is of a well-structured symphonic work that progresses clearly (if not exactly relentlessly) through a standard four-movement, half-hour expanse, finally reaching a very satisfying conclusion. The work is certainly worthy of being heard considerably more often. This disc also includes the world première recording of Farrenc’s Grandes Variations sur un thème du comte Gallenberg, for piano and orchestra, but this is a piece of less interest than the symphony and Overtures. It is certainly well-made, but it is quite superficial, being mostly a kind of showoff opportunity for the soloist. The theme itself is nothing special, and that is scarcely an unusual circumstance in sets of variations. But the variations, which showcase all sorts of pianistic techniques and capabilities and would have shown off Farrenc’s own skill quite well, seem more to be “going through the motions” than engaging in anything more substantive. True, music can be superficial and still charming – Schubert’s “Italian style” overtures being cases in point. But there is something a bit mannered, if not quite pedantic, in these variations, and while they are played quite well by Jean Muller, they are not a rediscovered gem in the way that Farrenc’s Symphony No. 1 and two Overtures are.