March 31, 2022


Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 (1874 version). Philharmonie Festiva conducted by Gerd Schaller. Profil. $17.99.

Sullivan: Incidental Music to “Macbeth,” “King Arthur” and “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Maggie McDonald, mezzo-soprano; RTÉ Chamber Choir and RTÉ Concert Orchestra conducted by Andrew Penny. Naxos. $13.99.

Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra; Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Susanna Mälkki. BIS. $19.99 (SACD).

Legends and Light, Vol. 2—Works for Orchestra by Helen MacKinnon, Nan Avant, Richard E. Brown, Deborah Kavasch, Anthony Wilson, Ben Marino, and Kim Diehnelt. Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by David Watkin; Brno Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Pavel Šnajdr. Navona. $14.99.

     The wonderfully wide tonal palette of a full symphony orchestra gives composers unmatched ability to use sound as a way of expressing their personalities and their structural and communicative concerns. And a composer’s use of orchestral sound can vary significantly from piece to piece – even in different versions of the same piece. That is just one important discovery inherent in Gerd Schaller’s recording for Profil of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 – in a version that very few listeners are likely ever to have heard. This is the original, 1874 version of the symphony, not the 1878/1880 version played nearly 100% of the time (even Georg Tintner, whose Bruckner cycle included several original versions and an alternative to the usually performed finale of No. 4, did not essay the 1874 form of this work). Schaller is engaged in the fascinating and somewhat quixotic quest to record all the versions of all the Bruckner symphonies by the time of the bicentennial of Bruckner’s birth in 2024. The 1874 version of the “Romantic” symphony is part of that endeavor. And the performance is genuinely revelatory. Philharmonie Festiva, which Schaller himself founded, is a marvelous Bruckner orchestra and as supple an ensemble as any in Europe; and Schaller is as sensitive, committed and thoughtful a Bruckner conductor as will be found anywhere in the world. What this performance shows is that the much-revised “Romantic” symphony (so styled by the composer himself) ended up being, in effect, at least two separate works (much as was to occur later with one of Prokofiev’s symphonies – his No. 4). The substitution of the famous “Hunting” scherzo for the original 1874 one is the most-obvious aural difference, but there are so many other alterations that Schaller’s performance is basically one surprise after another for an hour and a quarter. The earlier Fourth is, like the first version of the Third, more expansive than the final version; it is more harmonically daring and more rhythmically complex; and the orchestral sound – that matter of the tonal palette – is fuller to the point of sometimes seeming overdone (compare Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 – what is it about Fourths? – in the familiar later version with the more-transparent, more lightly scored earlier version, which was actually the second symphony that Schumann completed). The 1874 version of Bruckner’s Fourth simply sounds very different from the more-familiar later symphony, and nowhere more so than in the original scherzo, which has a cragginess approaching crudity, in contrast to the warmth and sumptuous sound of the later “Hunting” scherzo. Schaller and his Philharmonie Festiva make an excellent, completely convincing case for the 1874 Bruckner Fourth, which surely will not supplant the later version but just as surely is a highly deserving work in its own right and certainly ought to be performed more frequently.

     The non-Savoy music of Sir Arthur Sullivan – that is, Sullivan without Gilbert – is also worthy of far more frequent performance, as Andrew Penny made clear in a series of recordings in the 1990s with Ireland’s RTÉ Concert Orchestra. A Naxos re-release of one such recording, with performances from 1993, stands the test of time very well indeed. Of the 17 tracks on the disc, 16 were world première recordings – plenty of testimony to the rarity of hearing Sullivan’s non-Savoy stage music. The excellent performances here, and the appeal of the music itself, together make a strong case for re-examining this aspect of Sullivan’s career. The only item on this disc that had been previously recorded is the Macbeth overture, which shows Sullivan in rare serious-and-intense form, quite different from what operetta lovers are accustomed to – although some individual musical elements do have the ring of familiarity from time to time. There are six other Macbeth pieces here, and all of them reflect the mood of the play and the general darkness and magical elements of Shakespeare’s scenario quite successfully. Sullivan’s personal style is unmistakable throughout, but in the one-minute Chorus of Spirits of the Air, he also channels Mendelssohn to quite an extraordinary degree: this may be the most “elfin” music Sullivan ever wrote. The Macbeth music dates to 1888, but the other Shakespeare incidental-music suite heard here, for The Merry Wives of Windsor, is from the same year as the first version of Bruckner’s Fourth: 1874. This is an ebullient, five-movement, dance-focused work in which Sullivan cleverly makes even the “fairy” music considerably less light-footed and transparent than is the Macbeth music, since the tragedy involves genuine magical elements while the comedy has mortals posing as supernatural beings. Sullivan proves quite adept at capturing the playful mood of The Merry Wives of Windsor, incorporating into the suite two songs (sung with clarity and expressiveness by mezzo-soprano Maggie McDonald) and, in the finale, a chorus (the fine RTÉ Chamber Choir). This very welcome CD reissue also includes an unusual vocal-only suite of five choruses from King Arthur, a blank-verse drama for which Sullivan provided the choral material in 1895. Sullivan did not arrange these choruses as a suite himself – that was done after Sullivan’s death in 1900 by his secretary, Wilfred Bendall – but the sequence does show how well Sullivan, toward the end of his life, used choral forces to communicate serious moods effectively. Sullivan’s skill with both vocal and orchestral settings is very much in evidence throughout this interesting and unusual CD.

     The traditional bounds of the symphony orchestra were not always enough for composers as the 19th century gave way to the 20th, and composers’ overall handling of symphonic forces underwent changes both evolutionary and on the extreme side. Particularly in his later music, Bartók stretched the bounds of the orchestra in numerous ways, creating distinctive sound worlds both through his expectations of performers’ playing and through his emphasis on bringing percussion to the forefront. Although scarcely the only (or first) composer to do this, Bartók used his highly personal feeling for orchestra color in ways that still sound unmistakably his. This is especially notable in the two works on a superbly recorded SACD from BIS, featuring the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Susanna Mälkki. Both the Concerto for Orchestra and Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta are familiar orchestral showpieces nowadays, but in the best performances – including the ones here – they still sound fresh and new, thanks in large part to the way Bartók creates a sound world encompassing but not beholden to earlier approaches to large-ensemble playing. Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta has a bland title that conceals very considerable creativity: this is a four-movement work that is essentially two sets of two movements, each containing a slower piece followed by a speedier one. But the characteristics of the slower movements are dramatically different, and the way Bartók employs specific orchestral sections gives individual movements completely different characters. The dominance of the strings in the very first movement has given way by the fourth movement to percussion being front-and-center, but this is by no means a straight-line progression – and one thing Mälkki does particularly well is to give each section of the ensemble just the right level of prominence throughout individual movements and within the overall work. This actually makes Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta sound a bit like a preparatory piece for Concerto for Orchestra, written seven years later (in 1943). That is not quite true, but certainly some of the instrumental balancing acts in the earlier work appear again, in related but different guise, in the later one. Concerto for Orchestra is a surprisingly upbeat piece for a work written in wartime by a composer in failing health. Indeed, it is a work filled with humor even though its central Elegia is serious, passionate and deeply lyrical. Mälkki and the Helsinki players handle the piece’s manifest difficulties without any apparent trouble at all, and the final Presto is as impressive a display of orchestral togetherness as listeners are likely to hear anywhere. What is missing here, however, if only to a slight degree, is the very humor that helps make this piece so unusual. Neither the Giuocco delle coppie nor the really funny Intermezzo interrotto is as forthright in delight as in some other performances: everything is impeccably played but a touch further on the serious side than is really necessary. Still, the playing itself is so good that the performance as a whole does a first-rate job of showing just how effectively Bartók used this work to showcase both his attitudes toward orchestral sound and the ability of an orchestra to transmit those feelings with clarity and skill.

     The seven contemporary composers whose works appear on a new (+++) Navona CD called Legends and Light, Vol. 2, also have their own ideas about tonal color and the use of specific instruments to expand and extend traditional orchestral sound. Helen MacKinnon’s The Rinns of Islay is an old-fashioned kind of piece, a musical travelogue paying tribute to an island in the Hebrides where earlier generations of her family lived. Less atmospheric than Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides, and not focused on a single place as Mendelssohn’s overture is on Fingal’s Cave, MacKinnon’s work is also considerably longer, its five movement lasting more than 20 minutes and collectively portraying elements of the island (the work’s title refers to a specific peninsula overlooking the Atlantic Ocean). This is a large-scale and unashamedly Romantic work that treats the orchestra respectfully and includes some clever instrumental effects, such as the use of pizzicato strings and a glockenspiel in a section about a time when it rained for nearly three months straight. Nan Avant’s Tributum: For Celtic Bagpipes and Orchestra relies more heavily on instruments not usually found in orchestras, including both Scottish Great Highland Bagpipes (the familiar ones with their unique sound and a nine-note range) and Irish Uilleann Pipes (which have a two-octave range and greater flexibility).Tributum is a nine-minute work in three sections, all of them very much dominated by the sound of the pipes, which really do sound like nothing else in the orchestra – for better or worse. Avant writes broad, sweeping themes that would not be out of place in film music, and the piece itself sounds as if it could represent scenes from Scottish and Irish history as shown on a movie screen. Richard E. Brown’s Voices of the Night: A Nocturnal Fantasy for Orchestra is another work in three parts, slightly longer than Avant’s and using more-conventional instrumentation – nothing more exotic than a vibraphone. Like Avant’s work, Brown’s sounds a bit like film music, seeming to portray suspenseful dance-like scenes that are eventually resolved soothingly, more or less the way Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain resolves in Disney’s Fantasia. Deborah Kavasch’s Lost Voices follows a similar sequence, but with greater drama, moving from dissonance and brass exclamations that almost sound like attacks, through periods of grieving exemplified by strings and winds, to an eventual calm conclusion that seems at least resigned, if not quite optimistic. These four works are ably handled by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by David Watkin. The other three pieces on the disc are well-played by the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra under Pavel Šnajdr. Anthony Wilson’s Manannán – Legend of the Sea intends to evoke both the power and beauty of the sea and the relationship it has with a character from Irish mythology who is not of the sea as Poseidon is but is able to harness the sea’s power and majesty. This is a skillfully structured piece that uses the orchestra well in mostly conventional ways; it does not give an especially strong impression of the sea (along the lines of Debussy’s La Mer), but it does have a well-measured propulsive pace. Ben Marino’s Yrast 2.0, the shortest work on this disc, has a clever title based on a technical term in nuclear physics, and Marino has the orchestra sound as if it is representing a series of building and crashing waves – actually more like the sea than is the ensemble in Wilson’s work. But Marino here tries to illustrate (more or less) the intense whirling energy within an atomic nucleus. The concept is intriguing and the unceasing repetitiveness of the piece is explained by its illustrative purpose, but even at four minutes, it seems to take a long time to go nowhere in particular (while, however, sounding good as it goes there). Finally, Kim Diehnelt’s Striadica: A Symphonic Passage, full of grand gestures and percussion in contrast to delicate and even lyrical sections, comes across as neither more nor less than a tour of the orchestra’s sections and their varying abilities to produce differing but complementary aural worlds. Well-constructed, as are all the works here, it does not have a particularly clear or convincing argument, but it is effective in showing the orchestra’s varying capabilities in terms of both sound and emotion. As usual with anthology discs, the pieces on this CD are of varying levels of interest, but what they all have in common is their creators’ skill in composing for a mostly traditional orchestra and discovering that it remains quite possible in the 21st century to use large groups of musicians for variegated and emotionally satisfying communication with an audience.

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