A Crop of Recordings XV: Bizet, Brahms, Dvořák,and Jongen!
BIZET Symphony in C Major. Carmen Suite No. 1. L’Arlésienne Suites Nos. 1 and 2 • Marc Soustrot, conductor; Aarhus Symphony Orchestra • DANACORD DACOCD 775 (74:51)
As well-written program notes remind us here, Georges Bizet was an unlucky man. Chain-smoking killed him at 36. He died thinking Carmen a failure. And his Symphony in C went unknown and unheard until Felix Weingartner unearthed it eighty years later at a 1935 concert in Basel. None of this gets in the way of the fact that the piece is memorable from beginning to end, even if similarities to Gounod’s symphony are a bit on the suspicious side. Bizet’s own symphonic effort was catalysed by the experience of transcribing Gounod’s work for two pianos. At times one can hardly tell the two pieces apart.
Be that at as it may, it’s a pleasure to have this program. Bizet’s Carmen and L’Arlésienne Suites appear in various combinations on CD with the Symphony in C. The composer has been luckier in our time than in his own. There are many fine choices for the listener–and now this one. Charles Dutoit and Jean Martinon are major competition, the Dutoit recorded beautifully in Montreal for Decca. And I’ve always felt Leonard Bernstein captured the zest of the youthful symphony to perfection.
Marc Soustrot, it must be said, is not a flamboyant conductor. Though the Aarhus Symphony gives us attentive, appealing readings. I’m groping for another adjective. The music is not exactly dull, but not electrifying, either. Perhaps “light” is the way to speak of these performances. The Farandole could be more manic. But L’Arlésienne’s famous Adagietto is hushed and beautiful, and everything is in character–in good serviceable sound. Nobody who buys this CD will be disappointed. It’s not exactly the answer to Bizet. But I’m not certain anybody was asking the question, either.
BRAHMS Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Tragic Overture. Piano Concerto No. 1¹. Double Concerto²′³. Piano Quartet No. 1. Schicksaslied • Michael Gielen, conductor; ¹Gerhard Oppitz (piano); ²Mark Kaplan (violin); ³David Geringas (cello); Southwest German Symphony Orchestra • SWR19022CD (5 CDs: 318:35)
Michael Gielen is about to turn 90 as these commemorative CDs are released. This comprises Vol. 3 of SWR’s “Gielen Edition”, devoted to Brahms and recorded between 1989 and 2005. Everything but Schicksaslied has been available before. The SWR sound is excellent and consistent throughout the set.
I’ve had a love-hate reaction to this conductor for forty years, ever since I heard him perform the Mahler Fifth in Carnegie Hall with the Cincinnati Symphony–head buried in the score. It’s what motivates me to write about these performances. Gielen was something of an “enfant terrible” in Germany for much of his career, a modernist who made greatest impact on radio. Page through biographies of Karajan, Furtwangler, Böhm, and respectful mention of Gielen is always there in the background. But you never have the sense anyone experienced a life-changing romantic event going to one of his concerts. I certainly didn’t. Gielen was a “wow-less” conductor.
I do admire Gielen in vocal works. He gets to the essence of something like Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony or Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder. Understated tendencies and tight phrasing unravel such music nicely. And soloists supply the passion. Schicksaslied is pleasantly serene and lacking in turgid textures. It sounds like Hubert Parry here. But elsewhere, I am mostly amazed over the years at this conductor’s seeming disinterest in anything one would call “beauty” or “passion.” Gielen appears to have had but a single mode of phrasing–short smooth arcs of sound. His performances are astonishingly consistent. A Gielen reading is silky–but without any rubato or give at romantic moments. It never surges towards romance or dynamic power, or digs deep into the bass. The Tragic Overture sounds like someone looking out the window on a grey day.
We have here five CDs of sewing-machine Brahms–played without HIP twang–but delivered with autistic heart. I say so, because this isn’t deliberately cold music making. It’s simply indifferent to what most of us are looking for in any music. Getting all the inner details audible seems to be the beginning and end of it for Gielen. His Brahms passes by–I’m sorry to say–with all the fascination of Telemann on lunch radio. No matter how hard I try, sooner or later these performances lose me and become background music, only to remind of their existence again when some phrase is so blunt it stands out. This version of the Haydn Variations, for instance, has the shortest final cadence I’ve yet heard. You’re waiting for an usher to appear and bark “Next!” Gielen suffers from what I’d call “spontaneous methodicity.” Unfortunately, you can’t very well criticize an individual concert, thinking the next one will be warmer. It won’t be. This is just what he’s like….
Gielen’s way with the Piano Quartet in Schoenberg’s transcription illustrates even more where the problem lies. This music is as unbuttoned as Brahms ever got. But Gielen’s conducting is “un-swoopy”, unable to respond. There’s something comically mechanical about the last movement. It sounds like someone manufactured a Webern action robot and set C-3PO to dancing at a Gypsy wedding. Gielen stands at the bar listening to the tinkle of cocktail glasses–but misses the party.
Mark Kaplan and David Geringas are well suited to this approach. There is nothing warm and fuzzy about their take on the Double Concerto. Gielen doesn’t leave them any room to be. But their rather dry way of phrasing suggests philosophical agreement. This is too bad, since this last orchestral work of Brahms often seems, as it is, like a sheet of sandpaper set to music.
Gerhard Oppitz isn’t a romantic pianist, either. Colin Davis got a fine, expansive Munich CD performance from him in the Brahms Second Concerto, available on RCA. But here, in the First Concerto, the collaboration reinforces clinical tendencies. There is no emotion in the heartbreaking grace notes of the slow movement. And, as ever, nothing digs deep. The drama of Brahms’s shattering introduction is as blah as I’ve ever heard it. Michael Gielen doesn’t appear to have any interest in timpani.
So you can imagine how dreary the First Symphony sounds, with a mildly thumping introduction, played through without any sense of portent whatsoever. The Allegro is nicely fast, as Brahms used to be. Overall, these are readings at normal tempo, but they come out swift, because Gielen doesn’t ever conduct as if there is anything to be gained by silences between chords. I do applaud him for omitting the exposition repeat in the Second Symphony. Brahms’s opening material is so long, a repeat is like getting on a bus to return home when you’ve forgotten your keys–not worth the effort in my view. In the Third Symphony, its slashing reappearance seems part of going forward, not back….Trouble is, Gielen doesn’t slash–here or anywhere else. I can’t find much excitement in these performances–no power, no grimness in the Fourth Symphony’s finale, for instance. Nor are the inner parts of the Second and Third Symphonies beautiful. They just go by.
Michael Gielen may be hale and hearty at 90. I hope so. But musically? He’s been a stiff for decades.
DVOŘÁK Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4 • Karel Marc Chichon, conductor; German Radio Philharmonic • SWR SWR19009CD (74:23)
This CD represents Vol. 3 of Karel Marc Chichon’s ongoing Dvořák cycle, generally well received at Fanfare. The German Radio Philharmonic–in case you are wondering–is not an obscure interloper in the mysterious hierarchy of German broadcasting orchestras. It’s the SR group we used to call the Saarbrücken Radio Orchestra–now merged since 2007 with an ensemble formerly beaming from Kaiserslautern on SWR. That’s confusing enough to us networkless, if not radioless, Americans. But the combined city names amount to syllabic overkill even in German–hence the pabulum title.
It’s hard for me to banish memories of István Kertész when it comes to the Dvořák Third and Fourth Symphonies. Kertész had a way of sweeping through this music that was sensitive but large scale. It didn’t hurt that the London Symphony brass was at his disposal during one of its glory eras. The Third Symphony was thought a big heroic work at its premiere in 1874, with a funeral march worthy of burying national heroes. It’s the piece which made the composer’s career. Among modern performances, Bělohlávek on Decca can’t really be bettered for sound or authenticity or sweep. If you like the piece nearly violent, the Vienna Philharmonic with Chung is superb and well-recorded for DGG.
Chichon’s way, in contrast, is on the small-scale side, almost delicate. You can’t be certain how many strings he is using, but everything sounds “light”. Timpani are discretely in the background–perhaps too much so. And the brass repeatedly pull back. The good side of all of this is that the music remains pretty. It’s not dull.
Dvořák, especially early Dvořák, is like music by a politely turned out ten-year-old. No matter how serious and adult he seems, you detect an underlying tendency to leap around. There’s a nimbleness to Dvořák’s energies ultimately at war with gravitas and his many Wagnerisms. So at least I’m glad to report that Chichon keeps things moving supply and naturally, breaking into dance as needed. He’s received good but slightly boxy “radio orchestra sound” from the engineers. It could almost be “Eastern European”, but in an odd way this seems to contribute to a sense of authenticity.
The Third Symphony is the better piece of the two, swooping along where the Fourth merely natters at the listener endlessly with patterns and sequences at the same volume level and tempo. I leave to scholars deciding how good the Fourth actually is. You could accuse it of being dry, in the same way Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony often is. But the Dvořák Fourth does have a beautiful waltz-like melody in the first movement and a few glories in the last. It certainly doesn’t deserve the numberless nonexistence it once had.
JONGEN Symphonie Concertante. Passacaille et Gigue. Sonata Eroica • Christian Schmitt (organ), Martin Haselböck, conductor; German Radio Philharmonic Orchestra Saarbrücken-Kaiserslautern • CPO 777593-2 (68:16)
It’s fair to say not many concertgoers and collectors knew Joseph Jongen’s Symphonie Concertante before the mid 1970s, when George Prêtre’s Angel LP hit record bins. Then along came Michael Murray’s 1984 CD for Telarc from Davies Hall, with Edo de Waart and the San Francisco Symphony. This performance established Jongen’s symphony in the concert repertory and assured its future as a sonic blockbuster. When Meyerson Hall in Dallas was inaugurated, with acoustically adjustable walls, it wasn’t long before Jongen’s Symphonie Concertante was released on Dorian CD with Eduardo Mata and Jean Guillou. That was in 1994, and those two digital performances have coexisted nicely as favorites ever since. Now we add a fine new version to the mix–and with the Passacaglia and Gigue–unexpected delights.
There aren’t that many standard pieces for organ and orchestra which really appeal to concert audiences. The Poulenc Organ Concerto, Saint-Saëns’s Organ Symphony, this work by Jongen and a festival prelude each by Richard Strauss and Samuel Barber–that pretty much covers the field. Truth is, a long reverberation time is needed to tame the blast-furnace aggression of loud organ sonorities, and few concert halls exist capable of doing that. Symphony Hall, Boston is one of them. The Albert Hall in London is another. More typically, when an organ makes its entrance, the listener feels as if the room has suddenly developed electrical problems. For this reason, the best recordings of organ and orchestra tend to occur in cathedrals.
Christian Schmitt and Martin Haselböck are relatively fortunate with their venue, the Philharmonie in Luxembourg. There is adequate reverberation for an organ to blend in, if not quite the seductive acoustic we find on Telarc in San Francisco. (Murray’s recording was made in the large, pre-renovation Davies Hall). The CD booklet lists Schmitt’s organ stop choices in considerable detail for scholars and organists who may want to study the sonority in detail. I have no special criticism in mind for Schmitt or Haselböck. Heard via streaming, the performance is similar to de Waart’s and Mata’s, but is perhaps recorded less kaleidoscopically and more set “onstage”at the end of a tunnel.
What remains is the music and why we like it. I find myself responding to Jongen the same way I do to Duruflé. His music has a wonderful fluidity emanating from Gregorian chant. The Symphonie Concertante’s contrasting melody a few minutes into the piece is comfortingly warm, svelte and delivered with the inflection of gentle conversation. The phrase lengths so vary, that you’ll never succeed in humming it properly. A lot of the piece is like that, slipping by without boxing itself up in tight rhythms. And Jongen has the good sense to use mostly trumpets, cymbals and the orchestra, where one might otherwise be tempted to overpower the listener with enormous Bach chords. It’s a terrific work and worthy of its popularity.
I’m happy to report that I enjoyed Jongen’s Passacaille et Gigue just as much. This rather subtle piece for organ and orchestra ultimately dances up a storm. It’s as if Jongen had listened to Debussy’s Gigues, gone “harrumph” and said to himself, “I’ll show you a jig!” The amusing thing is that Jongen uses exactly the same tune Debussy does.
The CD winds up with Jongen’s Sonata Eroica for organ solo, which is exactly what it’s title would suggest, a big heroic piece. But for all the massive block chording, it’s wonderfully slithery and more inviting to the ear than most thorny organ sonatas. It can sometimes be a form of heroism to listen to organ recordings. Not here. All we confront with this CD is the likelihood of enjoyment.