A Crop of Recordings I: Shostakovich, Scriabin, Schönberg, Nielsen, Brahms, Strauss, and a Piano Recital
SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 10. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: Passacaglia • Andris Nelsons, cond; Boston Symphony Orchestra • DG 4795059 (64:00) Live: Boston 2014
With this new Boston Symphony release, subtitled “Under Stalin’s Shadow,” Andris Nelsons undertakes a recorded Shostakovich cycle in Symphony Hall. Music on the CD frames the composer’s relationship with Stalin, if one dare call fear a relationship—Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk first arousing official ire—and the Tenth Symphony’s scherzo devolving to us today as a vicious portrait of the dictator at the time of his death in 1953.
Evil in music is an odd thing. We want it. It titillates the safety of our easy-chairs. Composers mine myth and literary drama to excavate it. That’s pretty safe. We deal regularly with Shakespearean tragedy in the concert hall. And fictional spring “rites” and “miraculous Mandarins” thrill audiences, no matter how grisly the stories and how many virgins dance to their death. Things get hairier, of course, when Shakespeare is updated for the present sufficiently to be suspected of political content—and hairier, still, when a dictator is satirized directly.
Even so, not all musical dictators are the same. Music protesting the Hitler era reminds us often of Nazi victims. Think: “A Survivor from Warsaw,” But so far as I am aware, there are no symphonic portraits of Hitler, himself—certainly nothing in the orchestral repertory. No major work comes down to us portraying Hitler as a person, strutting around, saluting, giving speeches in guttural cadence or exhibiting fits of carpet-chewing rage. He doesn’t figure in opera, either. Maybe Hitler is all too real and creepy, too much a malignancy from our own world and its presumed advancement. Oddly, we don’t mind seeing him in the movies or on TV. And “Hitler lite” has been popular ever since Hogan’s Heros and The Producers.
But we are happy enough to portray Stalin and Stalinism in music. Stalin’s face is a mask of pipe-smoking sociopathic benevolence. His personality is not visible like Hitler’s. In that sense he’s a less interesting subject. But the regime’s miseries and irrationalities substitute for that. In some subtle way, we think relentless barbarism and strutting fakery a more normal part of Russian history. Gogol wrote of it almost two centuries ago. And composers have given us plenty of it….right up to “Lieutenant Kije,”
It’s not entirely clear that Shostakovich wrote the scherzo of his symphony after Stalin’s death. Some materials in the work date from 1946. But Shostakovich’s correspondence places the symphony’s composition during the spring and summer following Stalin’s stroke. Given the evident and daring sarcasm in the music, that’s probably accurate. Andris Nelsons’ approach to Shostakovich is similar to what I noted in his first release as Music Director in Boston, the Sibelius Second Symphony: cushioned and expressionistic. This is an odd combination, in a way. Nelsons is what Beecham would have called a “ritardando” conductor. And his manner and facial expressions seem to suggest that nearly every bar is to be milked for emotion. Fortunately, tempos here are normal. This is not a ponderous performance. But Nelsons tends to miss the cold driving edge in music like this. The Passacaglia opens powerfully, but comfortably. And though the sound is wide-range, perspective on the orchestra is just distant enough to shift emphasis towards the bass. I won’t say it sounds tubby, but we’re getting there. This is pretty plush Shostakovich. And to that extent it fails our notion of “wonderful evil.”
SCRIABIN Symphony No. 1¹. The Poem of Ecstasy • Mikhail Pletnev, cond; ¹Svetlana Shilova (sop); ¹Mikhail Gubsky (ten); ¹Moscow Conservatory Chamber Choir; Russian National Orchestra • PENTATONE LC 12686 (SACD 79:56)
This CD contains a very unusual performance of the Scriabin First Symphony. Leif Segerstam, generally no speed demon of a conductor, gets through the work on BIS in forty-seven minutes. Pletnev takes fifty-five here. This is by far the lengthiest rendition of the symphony I have heard. So the question is immediately to be asked, what, if anything, is gained and what is lost?
The result, I am happy to say, is the dreamiest of dreamscapes, revealed to us in seductive sound. But this is not quite the same as describing it as a romantic performance. Pletnev is always an extremely refined conductor, everything beautifully in place, textures carefully judged and to die for, but he is not the sort who gives in to spontaneous wildness. You might say he is the Christoph Von Dohnányi of Russian conductors—something is always held back.
The First Symphony, itself, is a bit like Frenchified Wagner which morphs at the end into choral Elgar. Pletnev’s slower tempos play effectively into the prototypical post-Tristan notion of “seamless melody.” The odd thing is that the performance does not sound slow. Where on earth are the extra seven minutes? Most of the unusual length, it turns out, is revealed in the second movement allegro drammatico, where the almost waltz-like contrasting theme is played scarcely faster than the introductory lento. But if you don’t know the music is supposed to go faster, you may not catch the difference. It is not as if other Scriabin CDs cut a rug and this one doesn’t. These aren’t symphonic dances. Elsewhere, the performance simply leans into things nicely and fades in and fades out slowly. The symphony is beautiful done this way. But many listeners may still prefer Riccardo Muti’s more red-blooded and ecstatic power with the piece.
The Poem of Ecstasy, you might say, reveals the same virtues here, but to lesser effect–it disappoints our sense of wildness. Poetic? Yes. Ecstatic—well. In this piece it becomes critical to go over the top. The last few minutes should ratchet up and gobsmack the listener, make you drop your jaw and break into four letter words under your breath. Pletnev’s is a perfectly good way to approach the piece. But it is too polite, as was his earlier 1999 CD for DGG. Seeking for sheer excitement and intense thrills, I would turn the listener to Gergiev or the new Kirill Petrenko version on the Berlin Philharmonic Digital Concert Hall.
So I come away from Pletnev, as I often do, wondering… What does one make of unimpassioned sensuality?
SCHÖNBERG Pelleas and Melisande. Violin Concerto¹ • ¹Kolja Blacher (vn), Markus Stenz, cond; Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne • OEHMS OC 445 (69:35)
Arnold Schoenberg is a composer who radiates unpleasantness. Don’t mistake me. He does it wonderfully. We need him the way we need good horror movies. But he’s always sounded like Brahms having a nightmare. It’s a different experience from listening to Shostakovich, who trades in misery, but at a physical and political level. Schoenberg doesn’t come at you with tanks and guns. He attacks your sanity. His music is deceptively rich and romantic, his motifs of Brahmsian texture and length. But ultimately he bathes your dreams in acid with snarls of regret.
I’m pleased to report that the new Pelleas and Melisande from Markus Stenz evokes the music’s grim kaleidoscopic with a fine growling beauty, much having to do with rich close sound. This performance dates from 2013 and immediately follows a Cologne Radio Orchestra CD released by Jukka-Pekka Saraste on Profil the year before. Do we detect a certain Cologne rivalry? However that may be, both of these versions of the symphonic poem are gorgeous. Saraste is fractionally slower and richer, the Stenz marginally punchier. But both do it proud.
There are other choices, of course. Barbirolli’s 1967 LP was perhaps the most impassioned Pelleas and Melisande ever recorded–and indeed this was the version which got the piece into public affection. The cover featured Klimt’s The Kiss, and this is exactly what the music sounded like. Karajan later taped it for DGG with great beauty, but little neurotic passion—and Boulez recorded it in Chicago, if I dare say so, with neither. Thielemann’s DGG version, as one would expect, is heavily Wagnerian–well–note the adverb.
But for really up-to-date sound in Pelleas and Melisande and an exciting middle-of-the road rendition, Stenz is a fine choice.
So, too, is this version of the Violin Concerto. I know for recent comparison only the Hilary Hahn CD from DGG with the Swedish Radio Orchestra. But Hahn is given such dry sound, all charm is lost. And charm is not exactly a prominent feature of this concerto, rejected by Heifetz for its premiere. Kolja Blacher is Julliard trained, accomplished and recorded beautifully here. Blacher’s version soars as much as the music permits, with flawless intonation, fleetness and little tooth-jarring edge. If the combination appeals to you, this is the performance to have, sweepingly accompanied and as lyrical as possible. But if I said Stenz makes Schoenberg smile, you’d know I was lying.
NIELSEN Symphonies Nos. 1-6 • John Storgårds, cond; BBC Philharmonic Orchestra • CHANDOS CHAN10859-61 (3CDs 211:36)
NIELSEN Symphonies Nos. 1-6 • Paavo Berglund, cond; Royal Danish Orchestra • RCA 886444954105 (3CDs 198:58)
It’s always a confession of age to say one is present at the creation. Be that as it may, I recall the profound impact Leonard Bernstein’s Nielsen Fifth made, when it was released in 1963. The average music listener had never heard of the composer, certainly not I, yet almost immediately, it seems, concert life shifted and Nielsen became a pillar of the repertory. American audiences of the day had the good fortune of learning Nielsen’s music at the hands of two extremely passionate conductors, Leonard Bernstein and Sir John Barbirolli. It did not creep into our repertory in the slightly nerdy way revivals tend to—promoted with dry scholarship and awkward provincial orchestras. It burst in upon us.
In the decades following, a Nielsen “style” emerged, passionate, powerful and nearly always slightly frantic. In most performances of Nielsen, lyrical elements find their serenity torpedoed by convulsive goings-on underneath and only seem to survive after considerable struggle and perpetual anxiety. So it is eye-opening to hear the symphonies performed by John Storgårds and the BBC Philharmonic for their sheer gorgeousness. We don’t tend to think of them that way.
The BBC Philharmonic has been extremely fortunate sonically. The new Salford studios provide about as beautiful a window on an orchestra as is possible these days. Every texture falls softly and transparently on the ear. The light and lyrical horns, a glory of this orchestra, emerge from shimmering textures. Nothing is edgy and metallic. And bass lines are soft and caressing.
Storgårds is not particularly slow, as Rozhdestvensky tended to be in Chandos’s earlier cycle. But he is just even-tempered enough to give brass passages time to play all the notes without sounding rushed or clipped or blurred. The impression this gives is that one would easily reconstruct the score from what is heard. None of this, fortunately, is done with the usual metallic heartlessness of a “clarity guy.” And there is enough excitement remaining for all but the most intense listener. Storgårds is good with timpani, especially when winding down from climaxes. To my ears there is a difference between serene and dull, exciting and manic, romantic and merely glutinous.
Indeed, I find Storgårds’s central Adagio climax in the Fifth the most noble, powerful and beautiful to encounter since Bernstein’s. The fade-aways are heartbreaking. The first three symphonies revel in their slow movements, as well, achieving a dreamy nostalgia. I suppose you might argue that the Fugue in the Fifth could be more violent and that the Sixth would benefit more from the sort of sardonic smile one can imagine on Blomstedt’s face in his San Francisco set, but nobody who purchases these CDs will be very disappointed. The music comes across so beautifully, it is hard to wean oneself from them.
The Paavo Berglund cycle, also reviewed here, is a reissue of performances dating from the late 1980s and early 90s. At the time, the sound was very good, and that it remains. But the set reveals the occasional thinness and metallic quality of digital microphone technique in those days and is not fully competitive with the seductive beauty of Chandos. The orchestra seems occasionally just slightly disorganized, as well.
Berglund was an odd duck of a conductor, left handed and a bit dry. If the orchestra he conducted felt in the mood for excitement, the performance would be exciting. But otherwise one would often be in the hands of a Kapellmeister. The Nielsen symphonies here suffer a bit from this fact. Much is understated to a fault. The First Symphony opens mezzo-forte without much bounce. The soaring theme two minutes into the first movement of the Second Symphony is played entirely legato, which is sort of interesting, but again without much power. The Third Symphony is white-hot and was a favorite for a long time, along with his Sixth, the best in the cycle. The Fourth underplays some of the important climaxes, unfortunately. The Fifth has fascinating moments noodling around between snare drum attacks in the opening march. But once again, you feel the drama has been cadenced too quickly.
Not to put too fine a point on it, we have here two Nielsen cycles which do things a bit differently. If you ever wondered what Bruno Walter would have sounded like in Nielsen, try Storgårds. If, however mistakenly, you ever wondered what Nielsen would have sounded like under George Szell—God help you!—try Berglund!
BRAHMS Symphony No. 3. STRAUSS Suite from Der Rosenkavalier • Yannick Nézet-Séguin, cond; Philadelphia Orchestra • PHILADELPHIA ORCHESTRA B00X6S53HS (65:57)
There is an elephant in the room in Philadelphia, and I’m afraid it’s called Verizon Hall. Ever since the Philadelphia Orchestra’s new performing venue was inaugurated in 2001, there has been an extremely pregnant silence about the acoustics. The whole point of the exercise, after all, was to leave behind dry sonorities in the Academy of Music and capture at last on home turf the orchestra’s gorgeous textures. The Philadelphia Orchestra produces historically the richest and most voluptuous sonorities in America, but it has always been hampered by the need to record somewhere other than in its home–usually with unappealing results.
During the Sawallisch years, except for some Strauss well-recorded in Japan at Suntory Hall, one might have been forgiven for thinking the ensemble just another generic European radio orchestra. In the Muti 1970s, odd experiments were undertaken–playing in a warehouse and having reverberation piped in from the lobby. Nothing worked. Nobody hearing those LPs was ever be able to recognize the sound of the orchestra from them.
Unfortunately, the first few concerts recorded at the Kimmel Center under former Music Director Christoph Eschenbach hinted at a continuation of the problem. Now we have a release of Brahms and Strauss under Yannick Nézet-Séguin. It seems to dash all hope.
Dry halls force conductors to smear things out in a desperate attempt to get some continuation of texture. It’s hard to maintain energy and precision when doing that. And everything is mercilessly exposed. Here the orchestra does not even begin together. The whole enterprise, I’m sad to report, is slow, wooden and unpleasant. And the Strauss does nothing but thump for knights of the living dead.
This is frankly one of the tubbiest, deadest-sounding and most turgid CDs I have ever heard anywhere since Toscanini recorded in Studio 8H. This is a live performance, and the audience appears to have soaked up what little air was to be found in the hall. Will Verizon ever record better than this? If not, they’d better tear it down and start again. As heard here, this is a symphony for Serta mattresses and clouds of dust.
FOLDING TIME • Clara Yang, piano • ALBANY TROY1572 (68:59)
MUCZYNSKI Maverick Pieces; ANDRES How can I live in your world of ideas?; CHOPIN Ballade No.4; YOUNG Reflection on a Tang Poem; SCHUMANN Humoresque
This lovely recital by Chinese-American pianist Clara Yang speaks to the core of what a musical heart means by romance. It might easily have been all-Chopin or all-Schumann, and we would surely come away beguiled by Ms. Yang’s light, fluid take on 1840s sparkle and sentiment. But how much better to “fold time” in upon itself and mix-in from our own day pieces which speak to the same ardor, ebullience and nostalgia. The emotional origami of love and loss works in any century, after all.
Among the newer works, a real find is Robert Muczynski’s Maverick Pieces. Muczynski (1929-2010) was a Chicago born traditionalist who held sway at the University of Arizona. Ms.Yang knew him at the very end of his life. Indeed, this CD is a tribute. Her program notes suggest a link with Bartok, and the music does bring that spiky edge with it. But Muczynski sounds even more American than that, in the same way Samuel Barber does. These are short, gleaming, clever and sonorous pieces, delivered effortlessly and beautifully. I can’t stop playing them!
Timo Andres is not far behind in appeal. Andres is a young New York City composer. His How can I live in your world of ideas?is a sort of Unanswered Question for piano. It begins soberly and evenly but ends up being interrupted and tickled by all sorts of things, including the last trill of the Emperor Concerto’s first movement cadenza.
Now sit down at a piano a midnight. Hit the soft pedal, use your cat’s paws and push-out enormous sustained chords with as many fingers as you can come up with. Sooner or later you’ll begin to think you are Debussy. That’s the spirit of romance we find in Phil Young’s Reflection on a Tang Poem. The poem itself evokes a still harbor at midnight. Indeed, La cathedrale engloutie sprang to mind, even before I read the notes. A very evocative dreamscape. But like Schumann, it also contains swirling fistfuls of notes–the very psychic storms which lead to the notion of the romantic era itself.
Having begun with a lovely Fourth Chopin Ballade, the recital finishes off with a flowing-brook rendition of Schumann’s nostalgic Humoresque. Albany Records has provided beautiful, gleaming sound.
Now it only remains for you to be in the right mood. Pull someone close to you. Lean over to whisper. Fold your arms around….Fold time.