July 22, 2021


Brahms: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. András Schiff, piano and conducting Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. ECM New Series. $28.50 (2 CDs).

Dvořák: Symphonies Nos. 6-9. Park Avenue Chamber Symphony conducted by David Bernard. Recursive Classics. $16.99 (2 CDs).

     If András Schiff and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment have any say in the matter – and one can only hope that they do – the days in which Brahms was known for his turgidity will end soon. It cannot happen soon enough. The longtime use of hyper-sonorous pianos and huge massed orchestras of 100-plus players for Brahms’ two piano concertos has been challenged, on and off, for decades, but old ideas, even obsolete ones, die hard. To be sure, some performers found ways, many years ago, to present Brahms’ concertos with grandeur and beauty without suffocating them beneath a blanket of overwrought sound: both Clifford Curzon and Leon Fleisher managed this in recordings, thanks in large part to their collaboration with George Szell, one of whose most-notable accomplishments with the Cleveland Orchestra was to give it chamber-music-worthy clarity, elegance and poise. By and large, though, the need to have the Brahms concertos resound through huge concert halls with as much warmth as possible continued to favor performances in which piano and orchestra alike produced great gobs of clotted sonority – beautiful, to be sure, but clotted nonetheless.

     Schiff and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment will have none of this, none whatsoever, on an absolutely wonderful ECM New Series recording of the piano concertos. This is limpid Brahms, delicate Brahms, a Brahms of linear progress rather than chordal massiveness – yet Brahms with his forcefulness intact, his creativity unimpaired and even accentuated, his sheer melodiousness flowing nonstop and to marvelous effect. The dedication of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment to historically informed performance is one reason these readings are exemplary. Another reason is the ensemble’s size: 50 players, comparable to the 49 in one of Brahms’ favorite orchestras, the Meiningen ensemble led by Hans von Bülow. Still another is Schiff’s use of a piano made by one of Brahms’ favorite manufacturers, Blüthner – and constructed in about 1859, the year in which Brahms gave Concerto No. 1 its première. Truly, the stars are in alignment for these performances – which is to say that Schiff, the orchestra and Brahms are all stars, and they fit with proverbial perfection. The dynamism of the first movement of Concerto No. 1 – the longest movement in either concerto – is accentuated rather than attenuated by the use of a piano with clearer sonority (especially in its lower register) than more-commonly-heard ones. The work’s second movement has a real chamber-music feeling about it, with the piano primus inter pares for long stretches. And the finale has matched verve and clarity, with a genuinely distinctive piano sound that casts the music in a new and far brighter light than usual. For example, the second theme does not swoon here – it provides apt contrast but does not drip with treacle. There is enough audible contrast between the characters of the piano’s middle and upper registers to give different sections of this last movement their own personalities, with the cadenza and conclusion merging delicacy and strength in a manner that is almost unheard-of in Brahms performances – and decidedly deserves to be heard much more often.

     In Concerto No. 2, to which the adjective “autumnal” can be applied more deservedly than it is to many other Brahms works, the opening horn-piano duet sounds far better-balanced here than usual, leading into a declamatory cadenza in which Schiff clearly sets forth the emotive center of the entire work – on which he proceeds to build not only throughout the first movement but also in the three that follow. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment sounds richer and fuller here than in Concerto No. 1, without ever losing the transparency and fine balance that fit its size so much better than they fit ensembles twice as large. The concerto, although constructed by Brahms with formal care, sounds in many ways like a fantasia here – a wide-ranging set of emotional evocations and responses that flow one into the next, not so much seamlessly as inevitably. The ebb and flow of the second movement come through with heightened clarity, and the string sections with unusual delicacy. And the strings’ opening of the third movement re-characterizes the entire concerto, turning it nearly into chamber music of the utmost delicacy and warmth, almost as if Brahms has let out a sigh of relief – or, more likely, contentment – and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment has felt and reproduced it perfectly. The piano enters in this movement only after the orchestra has been playing for two minutes; and when it does, Schiff sensitively parallels the mood already established by the ensemble and expands upon it to excellent and very moving effect. After this, the finale is all geniality, a dancelike expression of pleasure communicated trippingly by soloist and orchestra alike. Not even the gorgeous second theme really sounds “autumnal” here: everything is too lively, in the sense of being full of life, for the music to portend the kind of wintry conclusion implied by an association with the fall season. This remarkably engaging two-CD set shines a great deal of light on elements of Brahms that have been there all along but that have, over time, been obscured by changes in piano building, orchestral size, concert-hall construction and sonority, and other factors. Like other great composers, Brahms is moving and involving even when his music is performed in ways different from those he intended. But this top-notch recording of the piano concertos shows how much greater the effect of his music is when performers of the highest quality take the time and make the effort to allow today’s audiences to hear Brahms’ music as the composer meant it to be heard.

     As surprising as it is to hear Brahms played by a chamber-size orchestra – and to hear just how good his music sounds with a smaller ensemble – it is equally surprising to hear a chamber ensemble tackle symphonies by Dvořák, to whom Brahms was a longtime mentor and friend despite some inevitable religious strains in their relationship in light of Dvořák’s devout Catholicism and Brahms’ humanism bordering on agnosticism (which once led Dvořák to lament, “Such a man, such a fine soul – and he believes in nothing!”). This area of profound disagreement aside, the two men led musically interrelated lives, not only because of the well-known relationship between Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances and Brahms’ Hungarian Dances but also because of some similarities in their symphonies that are truly exceptional. This is nowhere more apparent than in Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6, the first of four offered in exceptionally thoughtful and well-played versions by the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony conducted by David Bernard on a two-CD set from Recursive Classics.

     There are some complications regarding Dvořák’s symphonies. For some time, only five were known. What is now called No. 6 was referred to as No. 1; No. 7 was No. 2; No. 5 was No. 3; No. 8 was No. 4; and No. 9, “From the New World,” was No. 5. Then, after Dvořák’s death, three more symphonies were found – plus a fourth whose manuscript even the composer had lost. So for a time, Dvořák was considered to have composed not five symphonies but eight – or rather nine. In fact, all nine of these works have much to recommend them, although the very first to be published – which is now known as No. 6 – is the first in which the entire symphony holds together well and effectively, concluding with a thoroughly satisfying finale. Bernard, an exceptionally thoughtful conductor as well as a skilled one, makes a fine case for the importance of Dvořák’s last four symphonies in these recordings, although it could have been even better if he had chosen to offer the entire cycle, whose very first complete recording (conducted by István Kertész) remains, after more than half a century, an unequalled achievement in this repertoire.

     Perhaps there will be more Dvořák symphonies to come from Bernard and the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony – but whether or not other recordings are made, it is a real pleasure to have this one. It turns out that an orchestra of more-modest size can bring as many benefits to Dvořák’s music as to Brahms’. This is clear from the very opening of Symphony No. 6, where the strings’ admirable clarity of articulation gives the music freshness and rhythmic solidity while also providing a fine contrast with the winds and brass. The flow of the second movement is gentle and pastoral, the interplay of winds and strings especially well-handled. The third movement, a furiant and the least Brahmsian part of the symphony, has considerable flair here: fast-paced and propulsive, it borders on the frenetic and, if not quite danceable, is notable for its enthusiasm. The fourth movement’s opening could actually (if momentarily) be mistaken for the opening of the finale of Brahms’ Symphony No. 2, so close is it to the conclusion of that other D major symphony in sound and rhythm. Here Bernard starts with an unfortunate accelerando instead of plunging headlong into the Allegro con spirito (the same tempo indication Brahms used). Once the correct tempo is reached, though, the movement progresses, well, spiritedly, with affability aplenty and an easygoing forward motion that is all the more pleasurable for not sounding unduly driven, as it does in some performances. The expansiveness of this movement caps the symphony neatly, with a kind of good humor that complements Brahms’ Second while showcasing Dvořák’s distinctive handling of the material.

     It is worthwhile to listen to Dvořák’s last four symphonies in sequence to hear just how much changed, and did not change, as he refined and further developed his compositional style. No. 6 dates to 1880, No. 7 to 1885, No. 8 to 1889, and No. 9 to 1893. The Bernard recording does not offer the symphonies this way, pairing No. 6 with No. 8 on one disc and No. 7 with No. 9 on the other. This is presumably because of the now-obsolete notion that CDs can only reproduce audio at high quality for 80 minutes: Nos. 6 and 7 together last 81 minutes in these performances. In any case, switching discs is a small inconvenience, and is worthwhile in order to listen to Bernard’s approach to No. 7 after hearing how he handles No. 6. The Seventh is Dvořák’s most tightly knit and intense symphony, fully exploring its D minor tonality – a strong contrast to the D major of No. 6. The ominous, almost growling opening of No. 7 sets the scene immediately, and the entry of the horns a few seconds later establishes a dark mood that is largely unrelieved throughout the work. Here the comparatively small size of the orchestra helps keep the music clear without interfering with its pervasive strength and warmth – a benefit for this symphony as much as for Brahms’ music. Bernard conducts this movement in a way that gives it substantial power – orchestra size notwithstanding – and maintains its dark elegance throughout. The gentler second movement provides some relief, with some especially beautiful horn passages, but it too has moments of intensity, as if to remind listeners that the skies are far from clear. There is a bit too much uncalled-for rubato here and there – this music does not require that sort of attempt at additional emphasis – but the effect is by and large a powerful one, with the ending particularly affecting. The Scherzo has a pleasant dancelike flavor although, again, it has dark moments and retains minor-key wistfulness, if not quite sorrow. There is another distinctive near-growl as the finale begins, and Bernard ensures that this movement really goes all-out emotionally, with emphatic chords, brass fanfares, timpani emphases, and an overall feeling of inescapable drama. No other Dvořák symphony has such sustained emotional depth, and Bernard and the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony explore it to very fine effect.

     The exuberant Symphony No. 8 contrasts to an exceptional degree with No. 7. In this sunny G major score, only the very opening of the first movement has a degree of introspection – once the flute dispels the partial cloudiness, matters become decidedly upbeat. Bernard keeps things well-paced, if perhaps a bit expansive for an Allegro con brio movement; brass and timpani help establish and sustain the mood very well. The clarity of the strings in the Adagio ensures that the movement never bogs down: it flows lyrically without ever plumbing any particular depths. The lovely third movement has lyricism aplenty of its own, with the fine balance of sections within the orchestra a highlight: everything fits beautifully with everything else, and Bernard is careful to bring out the primary thematic material without downplaying subsidiary elements. The trumpet call that opens the finale then heralds a movement rife with enthusiasm and even a degree of elegance. It is a positive, assertive movement, to be sure, but Bernard paces it with a degree of marchlike emphasis that underlines the strength of the material and, as elsewhere in this performance, the especially well-handled sectional balance of the ensemble.

     And then there is Dvořák’s final symphony – which, like the Seventh, is in a minor key (E minor) and is quite clearly from the New World but not of it. This is first and foremost a Czech symphony, and one thing Bernard does particularly well here is to highlight the ways in which that is true. Far from being an aberration among Dvořák’s works, No. 9 fits clearly in the cycle of symphonies, and is filled with the same techniques as prior works. The handling of structural material by various sections, the use of timpani, the pointed emphases from the brass, the way second and subsidiary themes flow from and relate to primary ones – these are audibly similar in Symphony No. 9 to elements of earlier symphonies. The Ninth is so popular and so often played that it is very difficult to put in context, but the task is made easier because Bernard’s use of a smaller-than-usual orchestra helps pinpoint ways in which the Ninth is an extension and outgrowth of the earlier symphonies, not a leap in a new direction. Certainly the themes have an American (and African-American) flavor, but the way they are presented, contrasted and developed is very much the same way in which Dvořák created, modified and worked with themes from Czech and other sources in earlier symphonies. Bernard is clearly well aware of this, and accordingly treats the Ninth the same way he handles the Sixth, Seventh and Eighth in terms of pacing, rubato, balance, emphases and contrasts. The first movement is strongly accented, its striding and lyrical themes well-contrasted, its slightly too speedy conclusion making the ensuing Largo seem even slower than it is. This second movement is warmly evocative without the overdone, dripping sentimentality it is sometimes given. The English horn stands out even more than usual against the smaller-than-typical orchestra – yet another instance in which the size of the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony works to the music’s benefit. The extremely quiet ending of this movement is especially impressive and makes the start of the Scherzo all the more effective. Bernard takes pains with the rhythmic contrasts in this movement, making it almost into a short series of vignettes – an interesting and pleasant approach. And the finale strides boldly forward from its first notes, an exercise in strength both of thematic material and of playing: the orchestra goes all out to make the movement as exciting as possible. And so it is – but it is also, in part, sweet almost to the point of being cloying. Bernard never gives in to the temptation to swoon, however: thoughtfulness and careful balance are everywhere here, as in his readings of the other three symphonies in this release. What Bernard and Schiff prove in their handling of Dvořák and Brahms is, first, that even thrice-familiar Romantic music can do with some rethinking and reconsideration from time to time; and, second, that the very large orchestras and broad sound to which listeners have long been accustomed in this repertoire do not necessarily display the material at its best. Smaller forces really can make a bigger impression when deployed with sufficient skill.

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