A Crop of Recordings IV: Enescu, Suk, Poulenc, Martinů, Tchaikovsky
ENESCU Symphonie Concertante. Symphony No. 1 • Truls Mørk (vc); Hannu Lintu, conductor; Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra • ONDINE ODE 1198-2 (54:04)
As collectors know, exploring outside the basic repertory is often both frustrating and rewarding. The search for significant neglected music, one learns early, is not so easy as it appears. Many worthy pieces one falls in love with turn out to be partial works of genius, with uninspired moments we choose to forgive, defects of length and proportion, or performing requirements condemning them to obscurity. The vetting of history’s marketplace is a good filter, it turns out, and undiscovered masterpieces are few. The other frustration is discovering a genuinely neglected great work, only to have it repeatedly fall by the wayside through poor advocacy.
The Enescu First Symphony (1905) is a beautifully made late romantic work in nearly Elgarian style, with fabulously catchy motifs, galvanic rhythmic propulsion and a lovely depth of mystery. It doesn’t sound folksy, disorganized or “Romanian” in the least. And it contains no boring moments to try the listener’s patience. Indeed, the symphony had better wash up on a desert island with me. I’m that fond of it. But until recently, available performances from Romania made the work sound like a blatty exercise in herding cats. And Lawrence Foster’s dull and dry EMI CD of the first two symphonies did little to help the situation.
Fortunately, Chandos and Rozhdestvensky came to the rescue in the late 90s with superb BBC Philharmonic performances of both works. And now we have Hannu Lintu’s traversal, equally masterful and well recorded, but faster and more propulsive. Perhaps the First Symphony will have a chance to be heard more widely. (A hopeful sign is the recent YouTube performance by the American Symphony under Leon Botstein. The sheer volume of screaming applause should be a heads-up. Audiences love it!)
Lightning seldom strikes twice, of course. The Enescu Symphonie Concertante is a gently enjoyable concerto, written in 1901 in the same style as the symphony. It sounds vaguely French. And Truls Mørk is a superb advocate for it. But it doesn’t immediately leap into memory as unforgettable, like the symphony. Nor does it have the one catchy movement concertos need to win audience attention. But it is a more serious work than the Saint-Saens, easier and dreamier to take in than most. It should be performed more often.
Enescu’s music underwent a difficult evolution in the new century, as did Vincent D’Indy’s and Rachmaninoff’s. Composers who resisted atonality had to seek originality in other directions. They didn’t always pull it off. D’Indy ended up with apocalyptic bombast in his Third Symphony. Enescu’s later music, like Rachmaninoff’s, featured shorter motifs than before. But unfortunately, though Enescu continued to compose tonally, he never found a “late style” as pithy and memorable as Rachmaninoff’s. Instead, Enescu experimented with “start and stop” and tended to juxtapose materials which didn’t easily go together. I confess to losing patience with his music after the Second Symphony.
But in our heart of hearts, every composer has a “sweet spot.” And the first two symphonies of Enescu represent his. Of these, the First Symphony is the sweetest!
SUK Asrael Symphony. A Summer’s Tale. The Ripening. A Winter’s Tale • Kirill Petrenko, conductor; Berlin Comic Opera Orchestra • CPO-5550092 (3CDs 2:52:41) Live: Berlin 2002
If you ever wonder why the Berlin Philharmonic chose Kirill Petrenko to be their new Music Director, your questioning surely stops here. When I first heard these performances a few years ago, I was stunned at their energy and fire. This was no ordinary musician.
Petrenko reminds us of Toscanini, but might transcend him for energy. We read what Toscanini was supposed to be like — ablaze with passion at high speed. But the iconic Italian on CD mostly sounds brisk and inflexible to me today — one clinical dog-sneeze chord after the other. It’s hard to judge that. Toscanini received such dry sound, we have less sense of what his conducting would sound like in a good hall with good recording. Even in Carnegie Hall he was not often lucky with the microphones. And we don’t have that clear an idea of how Toscanini’s energies played out when he was thirty years old, as Petrenko is here. My own father had a Carnegie Hall subscription in the twenties and thirties. Hearing the NBC LPs, he’d say, “He didn’t really sound like that….” In any event, we may have lost our admiration over the years for the “palate cleansing” Toscanini represented. That impulse seems largely directed towards early music these days. Petrenko, to contrast, is a flexible, feeling musician, yet at a higher level of intensity than we usually expect. A word to describe his conducting style would be “convulsive.” But he never lacks poetry. And that’s key.
Suk’s music is an acquired taste, but a deeply satisfying one to me. It’s declamatory and bardic, like Bruckner on the way to becoming Janáček. Many chords are orchestrated in octaves for grand effect. Smetana and even Mussorgsky are in there somewhere. Suk is also one of the first composers before Shostakovich to give stasis a try. There are long moments which just “hold” and “wait.” This poses structural challenges to the interpreter. But unlike with Shostakovich, the anxious waiting is personal, not political. Suk takes his lyricism from Dvořák and knows how to twist the emotional knife with it. His birds cry out and take flight. His melodies fade away into wispy sadness and break your heart.
The greatest work here is Asrael (Angel of Death), which is actually Suk’s Symphony No. 2 in C-minor. It’s one of the most personal pieces of music ever written — with good reason. The composer’s mentor and father-in law, Dvořák, had just died unexpectedly. As Suk set out to compose this tribute, his young wife, Ottilie, Dvořák’s daughter, also died suddenly — from a cardiac arrhythmia. Towards the end of the fourth movement you hear a subtle high speed rim-tapping on the snare drum — Suk’s broken-hearted tribute to the out-of-control pulse that killed her. I know of no requiem or memorial piece more moving than this one.
Suk’s music appears now to be coming into its own. There are six or seven modern recordings of Asrael available, in particular, all of them good ones. But there is a tendency for conductors and orchestras to revel in Suk’s lush sonorities and grand climaxes unthinkingly. If you are not careful, this music can seem one big beautiful brassy kaleidoscopic moment after another, like too much Arnold Bax. Petrenko’s knack is his ability to keep the music going somewhere — to give a reason for all this. There’s intensity of direction in his conducting. He clarifies the harmonies and keeps them moving forward with insight. And the music grows in stature as a result.
Suk never wrote another symphony after Asrael. Like Strauss, he satisfied himself with producing large, subdivided symphonic poems, which gave his lyric and romantic gifts fuller sway. A Winter’s Tale is just a short evocative work. But A Summer’s Tale and The Ripening are in the same mold as Asrael, only without its gift for immediate melody. The Ripening, especially, winds up Baxian, which makes it a bit harder to untangle in your ear. The pieces are beautifully constructed, however and become favorites with repeated listening. CPO’s sound here is excellent and the Berlin Comic Opera Orchestra’s quality a real surprise, given that we are scarcely aware of it stateside.
I confess to being something of a romantic about music which addresses artistic life “of the person” as it was conceived in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Goethe’s ideas of the young man on a personal voyage of discovery; Whitman’s inspirations for undertaking it; Berlioz and Schumann’s tributes to freedom and happiness as a result of it; Romain Rolland’s personal explorations; Vaughan Williams’s impassioned summation of them in A Sea Symphony: all these appeal to me. Suk is a fellow traveler on this voyage. Unlike Mahler — or especially Strauss — he doesn’t celebrate himself. Movement subtitles for The Ripening include “recognition,” “fate,” “resolve,” and “self-moderation.” The one called “love” is downright edgy and indecisive! It’s all so earnest and “modern” and curiously innocent. It reminds me of the entry in Gatsby’s youthful diary at the conclusion of Fitzgerald’s novel: “Study needed inventions.”
Needed or not, these pieces enrich us. If you have half a heart, they will speak to hopes and dreams and add to the beauty you have known. Kirill Petrenko is the ideal conductor to bring them alive.
POULENC Piano Concerto. ¹Concerto for Two Pianos. Aubade. ¹Sonata for Piano Four Hands. ¹Elégie for Two Pianos. ¹The Embarkation for Cythera, for Two Pianos • Louis Lortie, Hélène Mercier¹ (piano); Edward Gardner, conductor; BBC Philharmonic Orchestra • CHANDOS CHAN 10875 (72:44)
You might say Francis Poulenc’s musical essence is pastiche. Just as something beautiful and serious takes place, Poulenc’s harmonies morph with a smirk into French versions of the Marx Brothers and go bounding off in unexpected directions. Depending on your nature, this can vary from charming to infuriating. The composer, himself, was frustrated at an inability to span long symphonic structures — but he also lived in the era of jazz and Dad — -where thumbing your nose was seen as a tribute. So Poulenc’s musical style is hardly offspring of an inferiority complex. In any case, Stravinsky was the major influence in this neoclassic mosaic.
But Poulenc annoys and pleases, to the extent he may, by hitting the streets and music halls. He’s not put off by vulgarity or cliche. Indeed, like Gershwin and Copland, Poulenc often manages to craft crudity — leaving it elegant and humorous. But his music is definitely more Maurice Chevalier than Charles Boyer.
I’m happy to say that Louis Lortie and Hélène Mercier reveal the same zest and talent for these pieces as the composer himself. I’ve always enjoyed Lortie’s natural musicality and gentle tone. Mercier is definitely on the same page with him there. Oddly, you may think, I hear Brahms’s Serenades in Poulenc’s music — rather hidden away, of course. (But try the Sinfonietta’s slow movement sometime and you may agree with me). Lortie has just the right touch, in the event. Poulenc’s lyric impulses are appealing in his hands. Lortie has supplied detailed and insightful notes, as well.
To the extent Poulenc was a musical sponge, there is a lot to talk about. My own small contribution is noticing that a few minutes in, the Piano Concerto suddenly turns Handelian for moment and goes dashing off into the seventeenth century. With composers like Poulenc or Satie, one scarcely asks why. But there often is a why. The concerto was composed in 1949. A year earlier the Oscar winning Hollywood film was Forever Amber, set in the time of the Great Fire of London. David Raksin’s score contains just such Handelian moments throughout. Not quite a crib. But certainly a tribute.
EMI’s LP of the Concerto for Two Pianos, performed with Jacques Février, is of course the benchmark — and still in remarkably good sound. The program here is different. No harpsichord concerto. But you won’t be disappointed. The smaller pieces ultimately distill the same way. Gardner and the orchestra are as French as necessary — but never excessively “Ooh, La La.” The BBC have supplied Chandos with ideal sound, one of many acoustic successes coming from the Studio City, Salford. More Poulenc, please.
MARTINŮ Špalíček Suites Nos. 1 and 2. Rhapsody-Concerto¹• ¹Mikhail Zemtsov, (viola); Neeme Järvi, conductor; Estonian National Symphony Orchestra • CHANDOS CHAN 10885 (64:55)
Bohuslav Martinů composed what a far more innocent generation might have called “modern music.” By this they would have meant something like Stravinsky — but less “unpleasant.” I often think how lucky new music audiences were in the 1940s and early 1950s. Twelve-tone composition from the Vienna school of composers and their imitators of course existed — but had yet to dominate concert programs for new music. Accessible symphonic works by Hindemith, Martinů, Bartok, Copland, Harris, Hanson, Rorem and Bernstein were routinely premiered — just to mention a few composers working here — and not leaving out Vaughan Williams, Honegger, Prokofiev, Britten, Walton, Shostakovich and many others still active across the pond. Audiences didn’t yet approach the first half of a symphony concert with dodecaphonic dread and murderous impatience. Before too long, of course, contemporary music would become the dogfood the dog refused to eat…. But in Martinů’s day, his approach was the ticket to listener satisfaction.
The Martinů symphonies began to appear in 1942. By 1946 there were five of them, all popular. (A Sixth and final symphony would be composed in 1955.) Martinů’s style is a synthesis of Stravinsky and Dvořák. Earlier Martinů is more like Stravinsky — later Martinů more melodic and voluptuous. Dvořák gives us sweet melodic cadences and “furiant” dance energy for drums and cymbals. From Stravinsky we encounter pounding rhythms and the tendency to compose parallel lines in different keys. And pretty much on his own, it seems, Martinů occasionally waxes “minimalist” with special woodwind and trumpet wriggles which dance in place. The combination makes for a curiously easy style to take in. It also makes for a style perhaps too easy to spin out. Like Vivaldi, Martinů can seem at times to have composed the same piece over and over again.
The Špalíček Suites date from 1932 and are thought of as containing instrumental ballet numbers, but in actual fact the music was written to accompany a fairly complicated balleto-operatic pageant with singers and chorus. The title translates as “Chapbook,” which isn’t terribly helpful, until it’s explained that these were collections of popular ballads and stories from all eras somehow linked together in narrative. So we get everything here from Puss n’ Boots to Cinderella to bumble bees and the Devil. If you like animals in music, move over, Prokofiev and Saint-Saëns! Most of the numbers are fast and full of zest. Neeme Järvi is right in his element here — that’s his normal tendency. And without being exactly memorable melodically, the two suites are extremely enjoyable and glowingly recorded by Chandos.
The Rhapsody Concerto is precisely what its name suggests. It’s a richly melodic and enjoyable viola concerto in two movements that goes where it pleases — and pleases mightily. Composed in 1941, it represents the composer’s later lush style. Mikhail Zemtsov, based in the Netherlands, has a deep viola sonority that leaves me wishing for more. If the Martinů symphonies are your cup of tea, try this. It’s a smoothie.
TCHAIKOVSKY Swan Lake Suite. GLAZUNOV Two Concert Waltzes. SHOSTAKOVICH The Golden Age. STRAVINSKY Circus Polka • Kazuki Yamada, conductor; Orchestre de la Suisse Romande • PENTATONE PTC 5186557 (70:54)
This radiant CD, subtitled Russian Dances, is one of the nicest of its kind I’ve heard. Readers of a certain generation will recall with nostalgia Ernest Ansermet’s affectionate way with Tchaikovsky, Glazunov and Stravinsky, assisted then as now by the satin and velvet acoustic of Geneva’s Victoria Hall and by the orchestra to which he devoted his life. Today’s Suisse Romande is a far more virtuosic ensemble, comfortable even in Bruckner as few Francophone orchestras are. What hasn’t changed is the beautiful warmth of the hall and a lovely plangency from the orchestra. There is plenty of life here — but not one tooth-grating moment of harshness. That’s hard to achieve in Shostakovich and Stravinsky. Smooth realism characterizes Pentatone’s sonic approach in general — but this must be one of their most convincing successes. How they take the razors out of trumpets and leave the burr is a point of fascination. This really sounds like an orchestra heard from an ideal seat.
I was also intrigued to follow the rising star of Japanese conductor Kazuki Yamada, recently appointed MD in Monte Carlo and already Principal Guest at the Suisse Romande. Judging from the fine results in an earlier Suisse Romande CD of Bizet and Fauré, Yamada has a perfect temperament for music like this — a simple free sense of rhythm and lift and a feeling for texture. His Stravinsky and Shostakovich manage snark in a slightly more sonorous way then we are used to. We will be hearing more from him, I’m certain.
A word about the program. Although pseudo-precisely designated “Opus 20a,” Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake “Suite” doesn’t really exist. It refers simply to a usual compilation of excerpts conductors happen to prefer. We have all the normal selections here except the Finale. Instead, Yamada gives us the best performance of the Mazurka I have ever heard. I liked it so well, I compared it to Dutoit, Tilson Thomas, Ormandy and several others. To my surprise, it was the most satisfying of all. Good notes here, too. Let’s have more ballets from this team!