A Crop of Recordings XIII: Richard Strauss, Hans Rott, Alberto Ginastera, Robert Schumann, and Gabriel Fauré
STRAUSS Elektra Suite. Der Rosenkavalier Suite • Manfred Honeck, conductor; Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra • REFERENCE RECORDINGS FR-722SACD (Streaming Audio: 58:33) Live: Pittsburgh 5/13-15/2016
This is a groundbreaking recording—and a wonderful one! I first became aware of Elektra on an old Fritz Reiner/Inge Borkh LP of excerpts. The unusual violence of Strauss’s harmonies appealed to my teenage ears. Not long after, Georg Solti taped the complete opera, though without, I felt, the same crushing power from the podium as Reiner. But the sound of the orchestral score remained with me, and I always hoped someone would put together a suite. It’s taken 54 years in my case—but here it is!
Manfred Honeck, himself, catalysed the effort, in collaboration with Czech composer Tomás Ille. Honeck has written detailed program notes, complete with timings and examples, explaining the progress of the music and relating it to the opera’s plot and action. I’ve noticed before that this conductor writes his own CD notes explaining artistic choices. He’s extremely effective at it.
Strauss pushes the borders of harmony in Elektra and employs a complex orchestra of 110, larger than most of his tone poems. Indeed, the composer states he has written to the limit of capacity that the ears can bear nowadays. (I expect symphonic audiences would have been happier during the century following, if more composers had agreed with him and similarly pulled-up short of scorched-earth atonality.) Be that as it may, the music’s edginess and instrumental subdivision poses organizational difficulties. Honeck has marginally re-scored it down to the merely mammoth forces customarily used in Strauss’s tone poems. Most importantly, he has woven the punchy, mercurial, polyphonic score into a coherent and exciting symphonic poem. It’s only liability may be length. With any luck, the Elektra Suite will become part of our concert repertory.
The suite from Der Rosenkavalier makes for a perfect CD bookend to the music from Elektra. In Elektra (1909), Strauss looks forward. In 1911 he seems to say, “Enough of this. Now let’s turn to Mozart.” That he was able, in this opera, to create beauty as lasting as Mozart’s is one of the wonders of the result. This music needs no explanation—just impassioned advocacy, grace and a sense of ecstasy. Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony possess these attributes in spades. With each new CD release, beautifully captured here by Reference Recordings, Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony reveal increasing indication of being one of orchestral music’s great historic partnerships. And half a century after the fact, I note that at last the violent harmonies in Elektra have a persuasive advocate. Pace, Fritz Reiner!
GINASTERA Panambí. Piano Concerto No. 2¹• ¹Xiayin Wang (piano); Juanjo Mena, conductor; BBC Philharmonic Orchestra • CHANDOS CHAN 10923 (Streaming Audio: 69:07)
I’m delighted to welcome a second release in Juanjo Mena’s Ginastera series with the BBC Philharmonic. I reviewed Vol. 1 in Fanfare 39:5 with considerable satisfaction. It featured the moody Pampeana No. 3—Ginastera’s Third Symphony—a seductive introduction to the special sound world of this Argentine composer. Now Chandos brings us the earliest and most famous ballet, Panambí (written between 1934 and 1937) paired against the much later Second Piano Concerto of 1972, which harbors severe twelve-tone intentions. Severity fails, fortunately. The piece succeeds—about which more in a moment.
I cannot imagine, in the event, a better—or better recorded—survey of the charms and challenges of this composer than this new CD. BBC’s MediaCity, Salford studios consistently produce the richest recorded sound in England—full and detailed down below, gleamingly transparent above, floaty as the mind can dream—and so it is here. High percussion, flecks of musical light and tintinnabulation are important features in Ginastera’s tone painting, and they are rendered with Rembrandt-like subtlety. Ginastera is often described in terms of rhythm alone—compared to Stravinsky. But evocation and nature depiction are more at the heart of his music than we suppose. Stravinsky’s emotional palette is dry. He can etch a musical Picasso. But he can’t evoke a misty dawn. His music never waters plants.
In the sweepstakes of easy comparison, Ginastera’s Panambí is often called “the Latin Rite of Spring.” You can take pounding drums to heart and see why it’s said. But it’s an obvious point. And one misses an obvious difference. Stravinsky brings us the heartless world of insects—cold and convulsive. Le Sacre may feature maidens dancing themselves to death, but there’s nothing human about it. Your ears are down with the entomology wars between the blades of grass, horrified at what’s coming toward you with six legs and a proboscis.
Ginastera composes entirely from a warmer heart. The music of Panambí is closer to Aaron Copland’s Billy the Kid, in fact, than to anything by Stravinsky. And Ginastera’s nature painting owes a lot to Albert Roussel. Indeed, one selection of the ballet is based on a melody I can identify from the finale of Roussel’s Symphony No. 1, Poème de la forêt.
There is a human scale to this music. It stands Ginastera in good stead with his much later Second Piano Concerto, where the composer tries to pull off a fair number of cerebral tricks. I defer to the program notes for details, but it involves taking a dissonant chord from Beethoven’s Ninth, using its seven notes to begin a tone row and then completing the tone-row with notes of Ginastera’s choosing. Fortunately, Ginastera cannot resist rhythm, and while the concerto sometimes exhibits the profile of a “modern” piece, it hammers along as beautifully and sonorously as Samuel Barber, exhibiting the same phenomenal ear for high textures as in Ginastera’s early ballets. One forgets the theoretics. It’s too colorful.
One miscalculation on the composer’s part seems to exist without doing damage. There’s a left-hand scherzo too difficult to play—so Xiayin Wang uses both hands. Sounds like a plan to me! She and Juanjo Mena are entirely on the same page when it comes to bringing this music to life. I should mention, also, that the finale of Panambí features a brief choral apotheosis. The Ladies of Manchester Chamber Choir rises to the occasion in fresh satin. This is a beautiful CD in every way.
ROTT Symphony No. 1 • Constantin Trinks, conductor; Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra • PROFIL PH15051 (58:13) Live: Salzburg
For a mystery madman composer most listeners had never heard of thirty years ago and whom we know almost entirely by a symphony written at the age of twenty, Hans Rott is doing pretty darn well in the catalog. Solid versions by Paavo Järvi, Leif Segerstam, Dennis Russell Davies and an unusually rapt, poetic one by Sebastian Weigle already exist. Segerstam, not surprisingly, is the slowest—mistaking the music for Mahler at his screechiest—every chord straining for meaning just short of collapse. This new CD represents something of a mystery, itself—listed without date as a live performance on the back of the CD—and led by Constantin Trinks, an Austrian conductor whose work I’ve not encountered before. Not to worry. This is a spectacularly alive and vivid-sounding traversal of Rott’s path-breaking 1880 symphony, featuring the best timpani playing and tight sense of forward motion of any account I’ve heard. It jumps to the top of the list for pleasure, sound and coherence.
Rott attempts the impossible in this work—Brucknerian religious uplift, fugues, a Bach chorale, a Mahlerian scherzo and a summational finale with a Brahmsian hymn that turns into Proto-Mahler. His slow movement will break your heart with Bach-like dignity. It consoles with velvet. But Rott’s Brahmsian element never quite works in the finale.The snarky Mahlerian world he invents doesn’t go well emotionally with a tune that belongs in the Academic Festival Overture. Rott had his problems with Brahms, who took one look at the symphony and dismissed him outright as talentless—indeed, told him to give up music! Not long after, Rott was arrested on a train for threatening a passenger with a gun and claiming Brahms had set dynamite in the car. He died of TB in an asylum a few years later, joining Schumann and Scriabin in our reputational sweepstakes for composers who were—at the risk of lèse majesté—seriously nuts!
Be that as it may, Constantin Trinks and his Salzburg Mozarteum sweep all the marbles together and make remarkable sense of them with sharp, urgent timpani and purposeful brasses. This must have been a “wow” of a concert. I love the originality and elegiac heart in this symphony more with every passing year. In this performance it’s a better work than you expect. But you’ve been told. So expect it!
SCHUMANN Cello Concerto¹. Symphony No. 2 • ¹Jan Vogler (vc); Ivor Bolton, conductor; Dresden Festival Orchestra • SONY 889853721221 (Streaming Audio: 59:00)
Finally, they’ve done it right! At last, an original instruments performance of romantic music beautiful in every dimension—never asking for suspension of disbelief. That’s a personal point of view, of course. I haven’t heard every HIP Schumann cycle—just most of them. We’ve come a long way, though. If HIP style had been time-capsuled thirty years ago the way Roger Norrington brought it to us—metallic—aggressive—rigid—future generations might conclude we had mistaken Robert Schumann for a street artist banging on cans. This CD could not be more different.
The Dresden Festival Orchestra is an early music group of about 50 performing on gut strings. Cellist Jan Vogler is heard here on gut as well. I’ve always suspected the softer sounds emanating from “organic” strings would be the authentic ticket to beauty in music performed without modern vibrato—and that conviction strengthens here.
Ivor Bolton conducts with a genuine spark. You might argue he takes the dreamy, haunted introduction to the Symphony a bit fast, as though it were by Handel. But when the tuttis kick in, you realize how effective an orchestra of Schumann’s time could be made to sound. Brass, and especially timpani-roll hairpins, really come into their own. The supporting string sonority has a rich rubbery quality. This group rides well over bumps. When the orchestra digs deep, there is a special beauty to the way it growls. And for some reason, portamento sounds fuller and more slithery. On metal strings—lacking velvet—it merely sounds louder. Schumann was often criticized for his orchestration, but at this dimension and with these instruments, he seems inspired and luxuriously transparent—powerful but not opaque. Bolton is both fiery and romantic here. The slow movement begins with a beautiful fillip of portamento—but does not distend a la Bernstein. (I had the opportunity to hear Bernstein perform the Second Symphony live twice. By the late sixties, his way with this Adagio was simply out-of-control and embarrassingly neurotic.) Bolton is much faster, but the give and take is lovely. And his outer movements are as exciting as one could possibly want. Experiencing these balances at this level of energy is very special, indeed. The exciting chorale-coda is done with as much golden, triumphant lift as I have ever heard it. This Schumann Second goes to the top of my list.
Jan Vogler’s lovely rendition of the Cello Concerto is cut from the same cloth. It benefits similarly from an absence of gritty scraping. Cellists sometimes take on the instrument like a recalcitrant feral pet—as if in a struggle to avoid being mugged by it. The relationship here seems a lot more affectionate. It suits the pleasantly ruminative nature of Schumann’s concerto. And the concerto itself, not drowning in an orchestra of 75, seems less pallid than its reputation. As I suggested from the top, at last HIP is beginning to sound like music to my evolving ear. Delving into the past, we suppose there must have been—then as now—a very human and objective sense of beauty and ugliness in music. But many an early group sounds like a collection of hardboiled-egg slicers—missing that point to prove a point. Let’s hope Ivor Bolton and the Dresden Festival Orchestra bring us more Schumann—and show these scholars how it’s done!
FAURÉ Violin Sonata No. 1. Apres un reve. Morceau de lecture. DEBUSSY Minstrels. Beau Soir. RAVEL Pièce en forme de habanera. Berceuse sur le nom de Gabriel Fauré. Violin Sonata • Christian Svarfvar (violin), Roland Pontinen (piano) • BIS-2183 (61:08)
This new BIS CD represents a happy marriage of temperaments—a refined Swedish production of works by three of France’s most subtle composers—and as happy an experience of chamber music listening as you are likely to encounter in an appropriately seeking mood. You won’t have to go too far to find a Frenchman who thinks only Fauré captures the essence of France. There’s a three o’clock-in-the-morning, secret-telling intimacy to the two Fauré violin sonatas which might convince you this is so. Christian Svarfvar captures perfectly here the quiet, heartfelt nature of the First Sonata, his tone all gleaming satin supported by rich rolling chords from Roland Pontinen. There’s something about this piece which makes you want to pull the curtains at midnight and hug somebody. It made a big impact when first heard in 1877 and immediately established the composer as a chamber music giant. When performed so beautifully and seductively, you feel this way all the more. I have fond memories from 1967 of Zino Francescatti and Robert Casadesus playing the sonata in person. Francescatti seemed to own the piece. But gentle efforts here find everything in the music one could wish for—and win the day in effortlessly real sound.
The two Fauré encores are similar sweet nothings, After a Dream sounding just as you would expect and the 1903 Reading Piece a pleasant adagio with sight-reading difficulties built into it by Fauré to test the ability of his students at the conservatory. Debussy’s Minstrels is from the Preludes, Book 1, arranged quite effectively to seem like a bit of banjo duel between violin and piano. Svarfvar emits some effortless glissandos and proves as entertaining as he is insightful. Beau Soir, from a love poem by Paul Bourget, captures what you might call the Fauréan side of Debussy’s temperament—a quiet, heartbreakingly evocative tune sounding exactly like its title.
As we continue with Ravel, the performers bring us two more gentle pieces before finishing the program with leavening muscularity, jazz snark and spikiness in the Ravel Sonata. The Habanera is an indolent arrangement of a Vocalise-étude originally set for low voice in 1907. Ravel’s Berceuse on the Name of Fauré is a somewhat morose late work, composed in 1922 as a tribute to the aging composer and based on musical notes to be found in the spelling of Fauré’s name.
The Sonata in G took Ravel four years to compose before it was premiered in 1927. During this time, the W.C. Handy jazz orchestra was performing in Paris, and Ravel began to experiment with the idiom seriously. His finale here predicts the Piano Concerto in various ways, and bitonality early on in the work defeats the softer side of things which has prevailed in this collection up to that point. In particular, the parts of the concerto’s finale where piano and orchestra chase each other around like mice are replicated here. Svarfvar and Pontinen do the sonata proud, nonetheless, tossing it off with spirit–but without roughness. That’s the essence of this CD–svelte Swedish musicianship and the civilized emotions of France. Or is it the other way around? Either way, a lovely CD!
FAURÉ Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 •Judith Ingolfsson (violin), Vladimir Stoupel (piano) • ACCENTUS ACC-303713 (53:51)
It seems to be raining Fauré violin sonatas. No sooner do I celebrate the First Sonata’s appearance on BIS, exquisitely performed by Christian Svarfvar and Roland Pontinen, than Judith Ingolfsson and Vladimir Stoupel promptly show up on the doorstep with both sonatas on Accentus. Ingolfsson is Icelandic born, Stoupel from Russia but of French citizenship. Both live in Berlin, where this CD was recorded.
My interest in these pieces was stimulated reading Proust as a college student. In his novel, Remembrance of Things Past, Proust’s fictional composer, Vinteuil, has written a violin sonata whose “little phrase” becomes a catalyst for the evocation of love-memory in the narrator—and a symbol of our distillation of experience through musical recollection. Given Proust’s easy familiarity with major musicians of the day, such as Reynaldo Hahn and Camille Saint-Saëns, and his tendency to disguise real persons of note, there has been something of a discussion for nearly a hundred years now regarding just which composer was being referenced. Scholarly investigation seems to have settled on the Saint-Saëns G minor sonata. Or perhaps, some think, Proust was really writing about the late Beethoven Quartets. But I’ve always thought the insights you get from Proust are of the deep, three-o’clock in the morning sort—the little stabs of nostalgia you have when alone with your own thoughts. So in my mind I’ve always plumped for Fauré. The slow movements of both violin sonatas evoke the very definition of nostalgic purity.
The question then becomes, who evokes best? I came to know the Fauré violin sonatas as played by Zino Francescatti and Robert Casadesus for CBS—and had the good fortune to hear the duo live in the First Sonata. They still “get” the second sonata best. Ingolfsson and Stoupel are both refined musicians, nicely recorded—though not so gloriously as Svarfvar and Pontinen, who float into the room. But there is also a very slight tendency from Ingolfsson and Stoupel to plod. Overall, though, this new CD is to be welcomed. The First Violin Sonata receives a lot of performances. The Second, without ever breaking from tonality, swerves into exquisite reaches that can take you far away—and perhaps leave some listeners behind. But barring the cryogenic reappearance of Francescatti and Casadesus—one is grateful for these beautiful and respectful performances.