WALTON Symphony No. 2. Cello Concerto¹. Improvisations on an Impromptu of Benjamin Britten • Edward Gardner, conductor; ¹Paul Watkins (cello); BBC Symphony Orchestra • CHANDOS CHSA 5153 (SACD 69:53)
It has taken time for Sir William Walton’s Second Symphony to find a secure place in the repertory. But I think this new CD from Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony fully confirms its place in the canon and right to be there. Walton is the sort of artist, like Oscar Wilde, who interests sociologists, because he hides depth in the shallows. This also means he is frequently underestimated. The Second Symphony, written in 1960, was made to suffer this fate and only now is being properly appreciated.
Walton’s style, admittedly, is confusing. Above middle C he sounds like Berlioz crossed with Woody Allen. Below it, he might as well be Fred Astaire portraying Elgar. It is a peculiar mix of nervousness and nobility, glib wit and pomp, romance and reserve. Does one conduct it like a divertimento?
Where the Second Symphony is concerned, that is always the question asked of the first movement. It resembles Walton’s Partita for Orchestra, then recently completed. And it tends to skate along the surface, like diluted Stravinsky at the dance. It is easy to overbalance the piece in the treble and come out sounding tizzy. I am happy to say that Edward Gardner avoids the trap and manages to dig in, though not quite so much as Bryden Thomson, also on Chandos. Thomson’s manner is slow and nearly Brucknerian — but exacts a penalty on excitement.
The BBC Symphony are live wires here throughout, and the whooping climax at the center of the first movement stands out, with rich kaleidoscopic sound delivering plenty of tuba and bass drum. The Stravinskian ending is tart and exciting, (though I’ve concluded over the years that no conductor will ever get it to sound as tart as Szell. Personality, no doubt!)
The second movement takes us back to the hints of lushness found at the end of Walton’s First Symphony and advances them into full fledged sensual drama. The climax is sort of Puccini done English style — sex minus the checked table cloth and spaghetti. Even so, there is real emotion here and a brooding that goes beyond the moment.
The Finale is one of the greatest passacaglias written since the Brahms Fourth. It growls upward on massive low brass trills, like updated Bruckner. The theme contains all twelve tones of the scale and is manipulated in every conceivable way, often in counterpoint, frequently breaking the rules, as all good composers must. Sometimes it is stated with the beginning and end notes chopped off and sometimes in retrograde or inversion, but always in an exciting and original way. A central quiet section, much like that in the Brahms Fourth, is magical and eerie, with the French horn rising like the moon over a lion panting in the bushes.
Gardner gets committed playing from the BBC SO. And the fine sound and playing extend to the Walton Cello Concerto, richly delivered by Paul Watkins at a slightly faster pace than Raoul Wallfisch, who is featured in the Bryden Thomson Walton survey. Watkins is satisfying overall, if not quite so subtle and smooth as my favorite Christian Poltéra performance.
The Britten Improvisations show another side to Walton’s musical genius: his ability to compose in the style of another composer without losing his own. This set of variations gets it just right. You can tell it is Britten. And yet you know it is Walton. Once again, Gardner is a little faster and more coherent than Thomson, his Chandos competition.
ZEMLINSKY The Mermaid. Sinfonietta • John Storgårds, conductor; Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra • ONDINE ODE 1237-5 (SACD 69:25)
Zemlinsky’s The Mermaid is a remarkably evocative piece of music, whether fantasy, suite or symphony — desert island material in the mind of this critic. It beguiles from below the waves like a scuba-mask La Mer, all bubbles, shimmering refraction and slow-motion fluidity. For a work ignored more than seventy-five years and withdrawn soon after its premiere, it’s a satisfying presence on CD, awash with fine performances by Chailly, Conlon, Beaumont, Judd, Dausgaard and now John Storgårds. It needs a Strauss-worthy orchestra capable of breaking your heart with a waltz and a conductor who will dance as if performing Glazunov on the deck of a diving submarine. This it has fortunately received. Now the music garners the mixed blessings of a new edition.
Antony Beaumont has prepared a corrected score for this performance and written the notes. His own CD of The Mermaid with the Czech PO is perhaps the lightest and most graceful of them all, but it preceded the discovery of new pages. I have no complaint with the small changes here and there. Beaumont is our leading Zemlinsky scholar, after all, and the orchestration sounds ever more fascinating. But Beaumont has restored an extra five minutes of music which Zemlinsky himself cut in the second movement. I think it’s a mistake to do so.
When a symphonic score courts danger in 1905, a backward glance tells us, it likely falls prey to excesses of striding Straussian bombast and percussive noise. This appears to be the tendency Beaumont has restored and what Zemlinsky, under no pressure to do so, eliminated with good sense just before first rehearsals. It sounds like the blustery portions of Macbeth you wish someone had trimmed back. Here the restoration shifts the emotional balance away from grace and subtlety and renders marginal the beautiful melodies.
It says something about Zemlinsky that his 1934 Sinfonietta begins with a quotation from Korngold’s Sinfonietta: the “Motif of a joyous heart.” Although by now his style has foreshortened in a Hindemith-like direction, the music frequently sounds warm and romantic despite the rigor. And rather than mechanistic, it sometimes suggests irony, prefiguring Malcolm Arnold. The performance here is of a chamber orchestra reduction from the original larger score, but subtly reduced and satisfying. The melody in the second movement will torture the listener with familiarity. It vaguely resembles Jerry Goldsmith’s theme for The List of Adrian Messenger, but I’m not certain that’s why I know it. More importantly, though, I like it.
A word about the sound and conducting. John Storgårds is very good at unraveling the music, but not quite so intuitively graceful as Beaumont nor so richly nautical as Chailly. The recorded sound is full and enveloping, enjoyably close. This gorgeous kaleidoscope of a piece has yet another fine performance. And musicologists have begun to tamper with it, so we know it will be around for a while. I think they call that progress.
ZEMLINSKY String Quartets Nos. 1, 2, 3, and 4. Quartet in E minor • Brodsky String Quartet • CHANDOS CHAN 10845(2) (2CDs 152:23)
It’s a good thing Antony Beaumont’s notes accompany this beautiful and beautiful-sounding survey of the Zemlinsky String Quartets. The Second Quartet, in particular, is virtually a movie score in miniature and as filled with hidden references as any Roman à clef. I don’t know if explanation helps, but it’s certainly interesting! Neurotic difficulties affecting the Schoenberg/Zemlinsky circle of friends are well known. (Alma Schindler threw Zemlinsky over for Mahler. Schoenberg married Zemlinsky’s sister, Mathilde. Mathilde was soon unfaithful with a young painter. The painter then killed himself.) In this world, nobody ever seems quite fully in love with the person he or she is with. But out of the general unpleasantness seems to have emerged not only catharsis, but a creative catalyst. We owe Verklärte Nacht to Schoenberg’s miseries, and similarly, we trace the striking drama and eventfulness of Zemlinsky’s Second Quartet to a different perspective on the same events.
Most listeners will know Zemlinsky’s music from his Second Symphony or symphonic poem The Mermaid. Early Zemlinsky sounds like Brahms leavened with the lyricism of Dvořák and tempted by Brucknerian progressions. The First Quartet parallels this. It clones Brahms with a suppleness emanating from Dvořák. Zemlinsky has a genuine lyric gift, and this quartet would be popular with audiences, given the chance.
The Bruckner influence soon mostly disappears, to be replaced by Zemlinsky’s own version of large-orchestra grandeur and tone-painting, not quite Straussian, never quite atonal, but colorful. In this respect he is like Franz Schmidt. The Second Quartet, its hidden references and tricks aside, is a remarkable emotional exercise from this period in chromatic quartet sonority and moment to moment mood-change. The music swoops and swells, slithers and rustles with such lyric imagination and creativity of sound effect, you could use it effectively in a Hollywood drama. This is a work of genuine evocative appeal. Perhaps history will think even better of it than that.
The Third Quartet seems to have followed in the wake of Schoenberg’s 1923 announcement of the twelve-tone system. The music veers in the direction of atonality but ends up more minimalist than dodeca-systematic. It is as though Zemlinsky, adopting dodecaphonic technique, seeks to disparage it, the same way Nielsen did, when he deliberately composed a ridiculous scherzo for the Sixth Symphony.
The last mature Zemlinsky Quartet, his Fourth, reveals a loosening of Schoenbergian rigors and a settling into Bergian harmonic seas. And the early Quartet in E minor, also included here, is, as one would expect, a pleasing dry run for the Brahmsian beauties of the First Quartet. The Brodsky Quartet utterly mesmerize as performers with their nimble suppleness. They are swift and light and lyrical, less aggressive, more beautiful tonally and more imaginative than the recent Escher Quartet survey of most of this music. Zemlinsky ultimately had a romantic heart. So do these players.
GOLDMARK Rustic Wedding Symphony. Prometheus Bound Overture • Frank Beermann, conductor; Robert-Schumann-Philharmonie • CPO 777484-2 (58:36)
Will the dreadful vulture that nibbles at Prometheus’ liver not at the same time sup on our ears? Will not instead of the hero his brother Epimetheus make his sudden appearance and make everything that music has in the way of evil stinging insects fly out of Pandora’s notorious box?
I wish I could tell you those lines were submitted in jest for the Bulwer-Lytton atrocious fiction prize — a hundred years ago. But no such luck. Eckhardt van den Hoogen, our CD program note annotator, is a contemporary and goes on in this vein for seventeen pages of classical prose so dense, it’s the reader who feels “Prometheus bound.” Wade through this and you begin to think Henry James a rustic. Along the way, you learn Goldmark was a composer of clarity and moderation. And you wonder how van den Hoogen could recognize that….
In the event this is a nicely performed CD with a reason for being. The Robert-Schumann-Philharmonie is a versatile medium-sized group in Chemnitz and has recorded a well-turned Schumann cycle with Frank Beermann. The Goldmark overture performed here owes a lot to Schumann, especially brass fanfares in the Julius Caesar Overture, and is worth a hearing played as well as here. It resists going dramatically over the top. Not too many “dreadful vultures.”
The Rustic Wedding used to be more popular than it seems to be now. I heard Bernstein perform it live in New York — and he recorded a famously romantic version for CBS — still available. The temptation for Bernstein in Schumann was always the slow movements, and that’s what shined ecstatically — the “Garden” movement. Beermann approaches the symphony more for delicacy. He doesn’t have as huge a string section for broad brush effects. But the Robert-Schumann-Philharmonie woodwinds are perky and shade things appealingly. And I, for one, don’t mind a bit less oompah. Beermann’s view is pastoral and idiomatic without being clumpy. Good sound, too, as nearly always with CPO.
There are two other modern CDs of the Rustic Wedding Symphony currently available. Lan Shui sounds a bit too rich and big with the Singapore Symphony on BIS and takes 43 minutes to Beermann’s 39. The Royal Philharmonic on Universal, interminable under Yondani Butt at 47 minutes — may be said to bring up the rear.
Brahms would have liked this, one suspects. So will the listener. In any case, the time will pass quickly. Our torturous annotator worries whether Goldmark’s walk from the wedding hall to the church is too long — and whether it’s a civil wedding. He even suggests Goldmark, a bachelor, would have written a more passionate movement if he had waited until after the wedding to compose it! All of this with multiple footnotes and ingrown clauses. Read the program notes and the music will finish ahead of you. The Tortoise and the Hare. But this time the hare is the winner — and the tortoise is for laughs.
IBERT Escales. Sarabande pour Dulcinée. Ouverture de fête. Féerique. Divertissement. Hommage à Mozart. Paris. Bacchanale • Neeme Järvi, conductor; Orchestre de la Suisse Romande • CHANDOS CHSA 5168 (82:15)
I’d forgotten there might be such a thing as a French William Walton. And who’d ever think it would be Jacques Ibert — often ignored, like Jean Francaix, as the “other” Poulenc? It’s hard to be an eclectic. Ibert isn’t much of a presence these days. Decades ago you’d sometimes run into Martinon’s performance of the Festival Overture on lunch radio or the Parade movement from the Divertissement, but I haven’t encountered either in a long while.
The overture is a major piece, written in 1940, and astonishingly like a French Orb and Sceptre ten years before its time, with a memorable striding march, a deeply moving inner chorale over soft brasses — and drum and cymbal energy to remind you of Walton or Bliss. It belongs at the Proms. You don’t normally expect such a nobly triumphant moment in modern French music, especially on the eve of WWII…. Above and beyond, the overture foreshadows David Raksin’s gorgeous theme to The Bad and the Beautiful. I can’t stop playing it: you’re on top of the world. You sweep out into the day. There’s Lana Turner sitting in a Cadillac convertible wearing a cashmere sweater. Sun gleams on the hood ornament. And you don’t want to behave any better than you have to. Now that’s a tune!
Neeme Järvi and the Suisse Romande capture the spirit of this piece perfectly, as they do the rest of the works in the collection. There’s a good Dutoit/Montreal CD available on Decca duplicating much of this repertory effectively, especially Escales — but not the Festival Overture.
Escales, Ibert’s take on La Mer, is the other major work in view. Escales has fared better in the concert hall and on recordings, beginning with Charles Munch. But the Suisse Romande do it proud, capturing perfectly its Mediterranean breezes, solar mirages and sense of baked lassitude. Decca’s sound for Dutoit is no slouch. But Järvi and Geneva’s Victoria Hall are spectacularly well served by Chandos here. In SACD, this is surely a stunner.
The gentle Sarabande pour Dulcinée is a third work I’d single out — sad and beautiful — with a lingering effect that gives pause. If I don’t say too much about the remaining works, it’s because they are self-explanatory in the way snarky eclectic pieces tend to be — street life and police whistles. The Bacchanale, for instance, gets going in a way which tells me Leonard Bernstein had some of this in mind for West Side Story. And there are many comparisons to be made with Poulenc along the way.
He was born to bustle. But it’s the serious side of Ibert which wins our hearts here. Too bad he didn’t leave us any symphonies.