A Crop of Recordings X
De Falla The Three Cornered Hat. Nights in the Gardens of Spain. Homenajes • Juanjo Mena, cond; Raquel Lojendio (soprano); Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano); Juanjo Mena, conductor; BBC Philharmonic • CHANDOS 10694 (76:40)
This CD has already become a favored and frequented member of my collection. Chandos has a long and successful history of recording the BBC Philharmonic, but this is the first recording I’ve encountered from their new venue in MediaCity, Salford. I’m happy to report that the transparency, fine balances and smooth listenability of the old Studio 3 are alive and well in the new facility. And the performances, under recently appointed Music Director Juanjo Mena, are as idiomatic and atmospheric as one could hope for.
De Falla is in many respects a late romantic composer hard to pigeon-hole. If you set aside flavors of Spain for a moment and the influence of Stravinsky, de Falla’s music shares a lot with his gentler contemporaries, such as Stenhammar, Elgar, Busoni and even Reger. And like Respighi and Walton, his music can appear contemporary one minute and charmingly archaic the next. His late orchestral piece, Homenajes (tributes), illustrates this manner of evoking nostalgia. Without jumping out at one, the work grows in one’s affection. But his special talent, like Bartók’s, is “music of the night.” And as with Ravel, de Falla evokes more perfume than menace from the darkness.
The special charm of Nights in the Gardens of Spain is its ability to seduce and hypnotize the listener with stillness, with sounds rustling in the bushes and the heady fragrance of night jasmine. The more rhetorical moments in the music soar on French horns or trumpets—but are then lost in the vagueness and mystery of the dark. All is suggestion. And as performed here by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, I cannot imagine the piece interpreted more evocatively. One listens in a dream…
There is a similar rightness here to The Three Cornered Hat. Edges are soft and cushiony in Mena’s interpretation, but the rhythms are firm. And the evocative soprano moments, though few in number, are idiomatically handled by Raquel Lojendio. Listeners looking for ultimate snap and energy in the ballet may find Ozawa’s performance with the Boston Symphony more to their taste. And there is always the iconic Frühbeck de Burgos/de Larrocha CD to consider. But by my lights, this is the dreamscape to turn to.
DIEPENBROCK Elektra. De Vogels. Marsyas: Suite • Antony Hermus, conductor; Bamberg Symphony • CPO 777927-2 (67:46)
If you’re ever at a stylistic loss keeping track of late romantic composers and their splashiest works, here’s a clue to one of them. If the music sounds like Richard Strauss with castanets, it must be by Alphons Diepenbrock! One notices this for an odd reason—castanets are normally part and parcel of evoking cultural Spain or prototypical Spanish temperament—but not for Diepenbrock. There’s nothing remotely exotic or Spanish about his music. He just seems to like the sound of them. You can’t, in any case, readily imagine sturdy Dutch burghers stamping their feet to Flamenco in the street and singing about death with bitter flashing eyes.
That said, Diepenbrock is a master of orchestral color and the three late works recorded here his very best. They were composed between 1917 and 1920. I’d place De Vogels (The Birds) and Marsyas at the top of the list, with melodic content to die for. Elektra, as one would expect, is highly dramatic and violent. But Strauss did it better. And richly scored as the music is, one doesn’t quite remember it afterwards.
De Vogels is probably the best “bird” overture yet written—pace Respighi! It opens like Don Juan, with an avian flock rushing upwards at the listener, flushed from the bush. But its temperament is more similar to Till Eulenspiegel. The birds flutter vividly, trill realistically and mock each other cleverly, at one point invoking Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on the piccolo. It’s a zestful piece, even when you’re not thinking in feathers, and deserves wider exposure to the concert hall.
The Marsyas Suite, if anything, is better still—a desert island selection for me. It’s one of those sensual, kissy, post-Tristan evocations that speaks to the romantic heart, sharing something in common with Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Im Sommerwind, and Verklärte Nacht. But where Webern turns severe at moments and Schoenberg is ever acidic, Diepenbrock veers towards nostalgia and open nature worship. It’s quite a glorious piece. The second movement adapts a rising string motif from the beginning of Siegfried’s Rhine Journey into a wonderful love melody. Too bad Wagner didn’t think of it! It’s that good.
The performances here are excellent. I first noticed Dutch conductor Antony Hermus leading a Tristan synthesis CD with the Hagen Philharmonic, released on the Acousence label. While that orchestra is certainly not the Berlin Philharmonic, I couldn’t help noticing Hermus has a real sense of atmosphere. His Prelude to Act 3 on that CD is nearly as atmospheric as Stokowski’s famous one from the late fifties with the Symphony of the Air—and more menacing than Karajan’s. So I am not surprised to find Hermus on top of the brooding Wagnerian moments here. The Bamberg Symphony is a fine orchestra. And CPO has given us uncontroversial sound. Nobody buying this CD will be disappointed.
But given the choice—and we have the choice—listeners may find Hans Vonk’s Chandos CD with the Residentie Orchestra of The Hague even more colorful and evocative. The soundstage is all one could wish for, and the late Dutch conductor a dedicated Diepenbrock whisperer. By all means get to know the music, though. It might well whisper to you, too.
HOLST The Planets.The Perfect Fool. • Charles Mackerras, conductor; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic • ERATO 5615102 (49:07)
There are many ways to skin a planet. I posted Hall of Fame reviews in Fanfare not long ago for two utterly incompatible interpretations of Holst’s symphonic suite. Hall of Fame is nearly a form of beatification, so I’d better explain. You wouldn’t think it, but The Planets can sound as seductive as Debussy. Neville Marriner’s 1978 LP with the Concertgebouw finds Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun in it somewhere and everywhere. The result may have been accidental. But it caught on—even though none of the performers was happy with it at the time. I found the approach addictive and still sometimes do. More in that review.
Most of the time though—as you do—I want to experience a remarkable set of Holstian illusions and be carried into the vastness of space. It’s quite bizarre, really. Space is totally silent. Yet composers have been writing “space” music with utter conviction for centuries. And Holst’s may be the most perfect of all. It evokes so indifferent a universe. But a silvery Englishness comes through at the same time—-a sense of personhood, nobility and the rightness of things. It’s you out there. It’s an English universe. And you rather enjoy being mowed down by Mars.
This 1998 performance by Charles Mackerras does just that. It has a convulsive quality to everything that moves forward. Mars is a motorized blitzkrieg here. (It was written before the First World War, but seems to suit any war.) They’re not just coming at you on motorcycles with sidecars. They’ve got tanks! Only the 1971 Steinberg/BSO LP hammers this out faster. But Mackerras benefits from ideal sound and floor-shaking bass, with brass, organ and drums perfectly balanced. The soundstage is set ideally—at a certain remove. The planets come at you from a distance and then run you over. I prefer this CD for sound to all others, because you sense the planets orbit better. And of course: the organ glissando in Uranus. Best ever, a grand rip from below!
But there are many moments in The Planets which Mackerras gets right. Just a few here. Three minutes into Mars, the “war machine drops its load.” Not even Shostakovich ever came up with a better catastrophic event. There’s no other word for it. It’s astonishing, though, how badly most conductors understand the texture of that one chord. You’d think they never heard a crate drop in the street. But Mackerras balances the orchestra to perfection. You wonder if the floor will collapse under you. Another important quality is where things speed up. Mercury is fleet after a nicely romantic Venus, but Jupiter grips and runs forward. Mackerras is a terrific accelerando conductor—the planet whizzes along. Mackerras does similar things in Uranus and Saturn. And all along you realize he takes timpani seriously, not just winds. This performance keeps moving and has propulsive power.
Holst’s famous hymn tune in Jupiter is done here the best I’ve yet heard it, almost surprisingly. Most conductors phrase this amorphously. I expected a touch of impatience, perhaps. But Mackerras inserts nearly imperceptible pauses after each phrase, as if it were being sung to break your heart, which it will.
The Perfect Fool included here is also the best version I’ve heard, more violent, convulsive sad and engaging than Hickox, Boult or Previn. Come up with a new planet, rename this ballet, and nobody would be any the wiser. You’ll find yourself playing straight on through, as it is.
This CD was briefly admired, then forgotten and doomed to various combinations which may change. It started out on Virgin and is for now to be found on Erato, as above. But so long as it’s out there in space somewhere, I’m happy.
RACHMANINOFF Symphony No. 2 • Mariss Jansons, conductor; Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra • RCO LIVE RCO16004 (55:48) Live: Amsterdam 1/28-31/2010
What do you say about a Rachmaninoff symphony when it’s conducted like Brahms? That’s the question here. The Rachmaninoff Second Symphony, admittedly written in Dresden in 1909, was the composer’s formal answer to critics of his disastrous first effort and to his own nagging doubts about structure. If we stop to notice, the symphony is held together with a seemingly unobtrusive murmur down below which comes to dominate the entire score from all directions. It shapes the music into motto-thematic cohesion. One readily senses a structural similarity to the Brahms Second Symphony. But surely any Teutonic comparison must end here….
There are certain conductors who best stay away from Rachmaninoff in general—and the Second Symphony in particular. Bernard Haitink had the good sense to do so. So did Pierre Boulez. (I admit that’s a cheap shot!) Mariss Jansons was an important conducting “discovery” in the 1980s, bringing us intense whiplash Tchaikovsky from the Oslo Philharmonic (then a little-known orchestra internationally). And I’ve heard him subsequently deliver powerful, grim Shostakovich.
But though Jansons has recorded the Rachmaninoff symphonies excitingly before, this third, most recent effort with the Second—less exciting—reminds one that a certain choppiness always underlies his vision of Rachmaninoff, however authoritative. I confess to wanting more sensuality and less sinew, especially in the absence of energy. Jansons is a “clarity guy,” like Szell or Toscanini. They had the good sense to stay away, too. Patrician? Yes. Warm and fuzzy? Filled with soul? No. And on a bad day? Dull.
Jansons balances his orchestra to favor the strings but elicits a disappointingly opaque blend of everything else. It would sound appropriate for Brahms. Little sticks out.There’s mahogany perfection. Unfortunately, having homogenized the texture, Jansons proceeds through the music without an iota of portamento. It sounds gray, vertically phrased and heartless to me, insistent instead of passionate—and not that insistent. It never swoops romantically, and though the hall sound is burnished—as it should be in the Concertgebouw—very little color burbles up through the strings. Jansons tries here and there to slow down for secondary melodies, but his rubato sounds uncomfortable and artificially applied to me. He’s too cautious with his timpanist—too cautious in general.
I suppose you can tell I don’t like any of it. Wondering about my objectivity, I played Andrew Litton’s stunning new BIS CD from Bergen. Back to life again—with some of the most beautiful portamento, natural rubato and color you will ever encounter….
I don’t fault Mariss Jansons for diligence. He must care enough about the piece to fuss with it a bit and record it so often. He adds an unnecessary cymbal crash at the final reprise of the last movement’s romantic secondary melody. But nothing Jansons does erases one’s suspicion that he hears this music in black and white.
SIBELIUS Symphonies: No. 5; 1 No. 7. 2 En Saga • Mark Elder, conductor.; Hallé Orchestra • HALLÉ 7543 (72:13) Live: Manchester, 111/6/2014; 23/18/2010
In music, even the cold should be sensual. It doesn’t do to be stiff on the ice. That’s what seems to befall these new Sibelius performances from Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra. It may be my bias, but I think it essential to approach Sibelius pictorially. Ignore the landscape with its lake birds, fulminating clouds, and granitic glaciers at your peril. There’s heart in them.
Obsess over how beautifully organized the thematic fragments are. Marvel like a mathematician at the symphonic machines Sibelius created, propelled by ostinatos and chugging strings. Ignore the natural flow of water and wind. Get everything clarified by the bar line—and if you do no more than that, you’re dead! The Hallé are an accomplished orchestra and play with dedication and accuracy. But Elder has adopted an extremely cautious, vertical phrasing approach that drains the music of much of its contrast and evocation. Nothing in his approach makes the listener squeal internally with delight and think “How beautiful”!
For one, little happens in the lower reaches of the orchestra. It’s hard to think of Sibelius as anything but a composer who builds from the bottom up. Where is Sibelius without throbbing basses, purring tubas, growling trombones and buzzing woodwinds struggling upward for air like scuba divers? Nothing like that takes place here. Elder has balanced the orchestra so everything at the bottom occurs with grey discretion. (I had to put on a rival CD of the Fifth to reassure myself that basses existed in the piece.) There is nothing wrong with the sound per se. Everything was recorded in the usual Bridgewater Hall acoustic. You are seated about row Q in a decent hall. The trouble seems to be Mark Elder’s view of Sibelius. He’s balanced the orchestra entirely with the midrange in mind. Nothing is allowed to stand out—even the timpani—the big climaxes seem dialed back. And Sibelius’s usual brooding richness is missing.
More dispiriting, though, is a perfunctory sense from the outset that one is just listening to “an opening horn call” in the Fifth Symphony, “a pendulum melody” in the finale, and so forth. The performance isn’t fast, but it tends to the metronomic. There is little “give” in it—the sense of flow or flower. Elder conducts similarly in the Seventh. He never leans into beauty. Rapt breathing which leads into the great sunburst chorale comes across as traffic direction. And a persistent lack of activity deep down in the orchestra robs the symphony of its power struggle.
En Saga, I must say in fairness, is fine. It delivers better energy. If nothing else, Sibelius’s demands for aggressive bass-drumming give the sound picture a better floor. If you wondered about the “saga’s” meaning—there is none. It’s an early piece in Sibelius’s bardic style. But it tells no story beyond the composer’s exploration of his own psyche. Here’s one of the few times in life we can be grateful someone was a legend in his own mind!