A Crop of Recordings II: Elgar, Rachmaninoff, Strauss, Schmitt, Magnard, and Beethoven
ELGAR Sea Pictures¹. Polonia. Pomp and Circumstance Marches Nos. 1-5 • ¹Alice Coote (mez); Mark Elder, cond; Hallé Orchestra • HALLE CD HLL 7536
About a year ago Sarah Connolly, Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony brought us rich rolling Sea Pictures as part of their Gerontius CD set for Chandos. In that voluptuous traversal Sarah Connolly sings like the golden girl who would be queen. This is grand Elgar in the tradition of Janet Baker, where soft low notes yearn and consecrate. At times the “r”s roll and things veer imperial. But there is another, more intimate way to woo these chords. It struck me immediately. Alice Coote nearly whispers the music to you like a woman in love. It isn’t a question of volume, of course. Coote sings all the dynamics as written. It’s her manner, so personal, so confessional. It matters less that her voice is slightly lighter than Connolly’s or that the orchestra’s pulse is less nautical. This isn’t tourist Elgar. This is three o’clock in the morning Elgar. And at that hour intimate tears are welcome.
The rest of this CD is devoted to orchestral Elgar, as part of Mark Elder’s increasingly complete survey of the composer’s music. Polonia seems to contain virtually everything Polish short of Paderewski’s kitchen sink—but still manages to sound like Elgar. Here, as everywhere, Mark Elder gives us polished, feeling performances. And the Bridgewater Hall organ blends and supports well in grander moments.
Those parameters add up to a very good near-best for the Elgar marches. I confess, though, I’m still addicted to Yehudi Menuhin’s collection on Virgin. As a conductor, Menuhin was far more aggressive than as violinist, and some of the energy he and the Royal Philharmonic put into Pomp and Circumstance nearly knocks you over. Indeed, the tempos in the Second and Third Marches are terrifying and the recorded percussion throughout vivid and diaphragm-thumping. Elder’s approach is more “normal” and its refinements considerable. But in terms of being visceral, I’d have to say that the drums here, while going deep, have a bit too much velvet in them, and Elder’s tempos here and there slow down to turn corners, which isn’t always the best way to march. But I quibble. If I were to rank digital performances of the marches, Menuhin would be at the top of the list. But he may have used an electronic organ. Ashkenazy, with the Sydney Symphony on Exton might be next, featuring terrific SACD sound and a proper organ. But Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra have certainly achieved levels of excellence in Manchester that Sir John Barbirolli never managed technically—and would have regarded with pride.
RACHMANINOFF Symphony No. 2. LIADOV The Enchanted Lake • Andrew Litton, cond; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra • BIS-2071 (70:54)
I’ve now spent fifty years with the Rachmaninoff Second Symphony in my ears. I started out slowly, with Alfred Wallenstein on the radio and William Steinberg conducting a LP of the truncated edition for Command, the long defunct 60s label which featured sound recorded on 35mm film. Then along came Paul Kletzki with the full score and a slightly anomalous sounding Suisse Romande orchestra, quickly followed by Eugene Ormandy and Andre Previn in various lush guises. After these pioneers, the deluge—everyone recorded the piece. I’ve heard most of them. There are few bad versions. The only challenge the symphony poses is length and perhaps a certain sameness of texture. But to transcend that is difficult. The challenge of finding an hour’s worth of light and shade amidst so much rich romance has been enough over the years to dissuade the less sensual, no-nonsense conductors. It says something that Boulez and Haitink won’t go near the piece. They probably fear getting stuck plodding through it.
An absence of glutinous thickness in this performance amounts to genius. I find myself noting details along the way I’ve never heard so beautifully put. Every moment means something. There’s an instinctive sense for the music’s fine points one doesn’t often encounter. Andrew Litton has always revealed a special feeling for Rachmaninoff. Indeed, his 1990 cycle with the Royal Philharmonic, available on Erato, is still highly competitive. But Litton has been something of a frustrating conductor in other repertoire. He favors big, soft genial performances of virtually everything, and sometimes you feel he adds nothing by way of interpretation more than a sense of comfort.
This version of the Second Symphony is exactly one second longer than his Royal Philharmonic CD. But that consistency now reveals a quarter century of insight. Every phrase has thought behind it. And the ability of the Bergen Philharmonic to provide little nuances of texture, portamento and balance is unsurpassed. This is one of the world’s unsung orchestras. Litton has managed to elicit from it a remarkable delicacy. Even the thumpy brass-and-cymbals moments in the Scherzo seem fresh and glowing. I’ve never heard swoopy-swervy portamento in Rachmaninoff more natural than this—or the big climaxes expanded with less bombast. Unsurprisingly then, Liadov’s Enchanted Lake could not float or shimmer more than it does here, as well. BIS has provided ideal sound from Grieg Hall, as it reliably does, with a lovely sense of surround.
This performance now becomes my benchmark for the Rachmaninoff Second Symphony. As Litton completes this new Rachmaninoff cycle, we will have a lot to look forward to.
STRAUSS Ein Heldenleben. MAGNARD Chant funèbre • Jean-Claude Casadesus, cond; National Orchestra of Lille • NAXOS 8573563 (61:00)
It’s always intriguing when the French try to be German. Seldom attempted in life, it still happens less than one would suppose in music. We don’t normally get recorded Bruckner, Mahler and Strauss cycles from the established Francophone orchestras. But something has begun to change in recent years. Montreal now brings us Beethoven symphonies. The Suisse Romande records Bruckner under Marek Janowski. If the CD results in Geneva occasionally seem tizzy in the brass department, you’d be hard put to say French-speaking musicians sound that different any more. And now we have Ein Heldenleben from France—and not from Paris—but Lille. One form of hubris to match another.
So what sort of hero do we have here? Definitely a noisy one. Thirty seconds-in occurs a thump so loud on the podium that I checked the hallway for intruders. And throughout the performance there are many such heavy-footed bumps onstage. But this reflects the physical persona of the conductor and the approach of his bootmaker, not musical efficacy. I was looking more for some sign of Frenchness. It occurs in the first bar. Ein Heldenleben is a grand voyage through life—and iconic German orchestras normally play the first chord as if it were an ocean-liner clearing its throat. Here something else happens: the opening chord carries no special weight, but the notes immediately following have a Gallic swagger. I was reassured—it wouldn’t be French without thinking itself cool.
That said, this is not an unusual performance. The National Orchestra of Lille is a good one, with no special qualities either good or bad. Perhaps the battle scene is less chaotic sounding than customary. But no harm in that. And every so often one is aware of woodwinds with real “perky-power.” You might say that’s the Frenchness coming through, as well.
Magnard’s Funeral Song is an unusual pairing, more introverted than something by Franck, but written along the same lines. Magnard’s appeal, like Stenhammar’s, lies in a gentle bardic quality founded on the past. I’m tempted to call it modal expressionism. The music makes full use of modern chromaticism, but serves itself up with harmonic suspensions, ancient scales and timeless ornamental trills. At some deep level I find Magnard the most subtle of French composers—especially in the Third and Fourth Symphonies. The Chant Funèbre is a simple, effective tribute to the composer’s father, more an indicator of the composer’s style than an exemplar of any virtuosity.
Naxos has given us excellent sound—now quite expected—far more reliably than in its early days among the obscure orchestras of Europe. But both budget sound and regional orchestras have come a long way in the decades since. We used to speak of their provinciality. But now, to the degree we remain unaware—-perhaps the provinciality is our own….
SCHMITT Antoine et Cléopâtre Suites Nos. 1 and 2. Le Palais Hanté • JoAnn Falletta, cond; Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra • NAXOS 8.573521 (59:43)
The more I think of it, the more certain I am we could describe Florent Schmitt as the Respighi of France. It’s always difficult evoking the musical style of a composer famous for exhibiting eclectic tendencies. Printed words are poor scouts for the ears. But as I listened to these Shakespearean Suites, Belkis, Queen of Sheba kept coming to mind—so much so that I was tempted to say JoAnn Falletta exposes Respighi as a thief. Florent Schmitt’s Anthony and Cleopatra dates from 1920, twelve years before Respighi’s music, but there are—shall we say—suspicious similarities. That mentioned, Schmitt’s music is written largely in an updated Straussian style, with late-D’Indy-type bombast thrown in for good measure. There is also a great deal of seductive oriental lassitude—suggestive of harems lounging around on pillows wearing filmy robes. Unfortunately, there are a few too many artillery shells going off—a slightly too literal sense of what makes for excitement—and a tendency to stride around noisily like Liszt. A number of early twentieth century composers seem to have been bewildered by all the noise they were free to make around the time of the First World War. D’Indy, Enesco, Schmitt, you might say, were seduced by the literalism of it in ways Mahler, Elgar, Strauss and even Respighi were not—(The Pines of Rome is good music, though one does wonder about Roman Festivals!) The lines of battle for musical armies and crowds are hard to draw tastefully.
The music here, in any event, was written to be performed between scenes of Shakespeare’s play and is surely effective. But Schmitt is really at his best with dripping sensuality, which is why La tragédie de Salome remains in my view the most satisfying orchestral work he wrote. Antonio de Almeida’s 1970 LP with the New Philharmonia is still untouched in its decadent beauty, alternately bedroom-eyed and orgiastic—and sadly un-transferred to CD. Nighttime at the Queen’s Palace hints here at that sort of sensuality. France has always had a love affair with the Mediterranean, often with Spain. But during the colonial period things got more exotic still. Saint-Saëns wrote his Egyptian piano concerto. Magnard inserted middle-eastern scales into the scherzo of his Fourth Symphony. And as late as 1955, Jacques Ibert would evoke all of this still in Ports of Call. Fair to say, nobody writes guilt-free musical decadence like the French.
Edgar Allan Poe’s The Haunted Palace would seem at first an even better subject for Schmitt’s impressionistic tendencies, but if anything, musical goings-on at this palace seem to involve more smash-bang than the battle of Actium in the First Suite. None of this is the fault of the performers, who manage to dodge all the cannon balls. Falletta, the Buffalo Philharmonic and Naxos are to be commended for bringing Florent Schmitt effectively back to life. Swoon. Pretend you’re in Egypt. But be prepared to duck!
Hall of Fame Review
MAGNARD Symphony No. 3 • Ernest Ansermet, cond; Orchestre de la Suisse Romande • DECCA 00028947857150 (38:24)
Although Alberic Magnard’s reputation flourishes and his music is now recorded with some frequency, it wasn’t always thus. I took a chance in 1969, bringing home a London LP of the unknown composer’s Third Symphony. But the black cover and dignified side-portrait of Ernest Ansermet—his last recordings all ceremonially released this way—seemed evocative of something deep and lasting. It certainly was for me, and then some.
It’s hard to explain what one means by aristocratic music, beyond the obvious avoidance of vulgarity and too much anxious tension. But a high-minded aesthetic exploration and formal shapeliness in Magnard’s style leave it aglow with timeless beauty—plus a certain almost English reserve. There are all sorts of comparisons to be made, none of them perfect—-perhaps because it seems to me this symphony itself is a perfect work of art.
Franck’s cyclical style is present, for instance. That’s immediately noticeable. But Magnard employs subtle ancient modes and chorales, floaty high string writing and quiet mystery, where Franck drowns the listener in neo-organ soup and brass blattiness. Some hear Bruckner in Magnard’s earnestness, with its rarefied high tremoli and open vistas. But Magnard represents reverential warmth—not religiosity. And there are no grand blazing climaxes. If Ernest Chausson had lived to compose in 1903, I expect his style would be the closest comparison we’d have. But it would be Chausson in a mood to reminisce and honor—not evoke and dramatize.
The Magnard Third opens with a short mysterious introduction, chromatic and almost Mahlerian. This will later become a gentle and uplifting low-brass chorale in the Finale. Indeed, in some odd way, the entire symphony is as inevitably and perfectly put together as Beethoven. The work’s emotional heart lies in high string writing throughout. It seems to levitate and soar gently—like parts of the Mahler Tenth—but with a kind of serene formal perfection. The music hang-glides. A peasanty melody in the Scherzo barely disturbs the warm textures. A rondo Finale is just exciting enough to move the piece forward without suddenly becoming noisy and extroverted.
And there is the secret of this recording. If you cut the treble by six decibels, the 1969 sound is a thing of glowing introverted perfection. The Suisse Romande sonorities are darkly polished, smooth and technically secure—not always the case with this orchestra. Ansermet’s conducting (this was his last recording) seems valedictory, as well. Good as subsequent performances by Ossonce and Sanderling have been, this CD is special. The coupling for the LP was Lalo’s Scherzo and, until recently on CD, Ansermet’s version of the Chausson Symphony. The catalog number above finds it joined with the Liszt Faust Symphony, but that may change.
In any case, the Magnard Third Symphony is more than Hall of Fame. It’s desert island.
BEETHOVEN Symphonies Nos. 5 and 7 • Manfred Honeck, cond; Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra • REFERENCE RECORDINGS FR-718 (71:27) Live, Pittsburgh 12/5-7/2014
No wonder Manfred Honeck’s contract with the Pittsburgh Symphony has been extended to 2020! This is resplendent Beethoven from an orchestra with a great Beethoven tradition. If we were back in the hallowed LP days of Steinberg, these performances would surely form the centerpiece of an important new Beethoven cycle, in competition with Reiner, Karajan, Ormandy, Klemperer and other greats of the time. The Pittsburgh symphony has been reclaiming its first rank recording status of late. This CD can only help. The orchestra actually hasn’t taped Beethoven since a Steinberg Fifth in the fifties and a stereo Seventh in 1962. So this return to profile is long overdue. The group is in superb shape—strings responsive and subtle—its famous brass section vivid and innovative. Heinz Hall is one of Cyril Harris’s acoustic successes. And Reference Recordings supplies a realistic, enveloping soundstage, heard as a stream. I can only suppose it will play vividly as an SACD.
Manfred Honeck has written informative notes describing his choices of tempo and phrasing. They match up well with what you actually hear. (This isn’t always the case. Some conductors set paper afire but light music with wet matches—critic’s secret.) He gives interesting reasons for ending the second movement pizzicato, for instance—the way Carlos Kleiber did.
So how do I love this CD? Let me count the ways. We have here fairly big Beethoven with normal vibrato. What separates these performances from the Beethoven style of fifty years ago is mostly a greater opportunity for phrasing allowed by the Bärenreiter Edition of the symphonies. So this way with Beethoven may seem nimbler than the lumbering herds of yesteryear—but not really lighter. Honeck has no HIP interest in pretending Beethoven wrote for cutlery and kettles. What he does have is a flawless sense of drama and how to build tension and power.
The way Honeck begins the Fifth Symphony is illustrative. The declamatory “fate” chords open huge, slowish and powerful. You think “Klemperer?” Will it chug on slowly? Sag in the middle? But not at all. The answering phrase is quiet and fleet. And what we actually have is a corsair of a performance, which occasionally slows down to pound out the famous rhythm. Indeed, responsiveness is the name of the game. Just where the listener might get bored in the stream of sound, Honeck finds some inner voice with which to surge into view. It’s uncanny, his forensic sense of dynamics. Fading away from climaxes, Honeck sometimes mines a little squawk in some brass instrument at phrase-end—-spicing the music just right. The great moment has taken place and now the music clears its throat for more excitement. Thrills don’t miss a beat.
When we come to the Seventh Symphony, all this is true and more. Honeck’s take on the Scherzo involves a violent dance trio that goes crashing through walls in a way I’ve never heard before—a real “wow!” effect. Usually, it’s the timpani hammering-out drama between two slightly lame dance phrases. Here, the phrases themselves are of unusual violence—the last two chords of each three note phrase heavily emphasized. It’s worth the price of admission. What with a deeply felt but slippery/slithery and eerie slow movement, and a Finale of remarkable precision and energy, we have standout Beethoven throughout. Heinz Hall is certainly on the Beethoven map again.
[with thanks to Fanfare Magazine for permission to reprint]