BRAHMS Piano Concerto No. 1. 4 Ballades • Paul Lewis (piano), Daniel Harding, conductor; Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra • HARMONIA MUNDI HMC902191 (70:09)
Call me a fool for love, but I’ve been listening raptly to this CD for days without entirely understanding why. A full explanation only dawns on me now. The Brahms First Piano Concerto, as many know, began life as a symphony (after brief flirtation with being a sonata). For the first time in my experience it actually sounds like one.
This isn’t to say pianists and conductors don’t get together and set out to make the concerto “big”. We’re used to hearing the first movement sludge-by like an asphalt mixer singing trills. Barenboim and Barbirolli take more than fifty-two minutes plumbing for gravitas. And no doubt someone will eventually perform it even more slowly than that. Earnest bombast is the most common approach. Alternately, there’s a Fleisher/Szell/Cleveland tradition which moves like a battlecruiser, blowing the listener out of the water with fiery trumpets and impetuous energy in a mere forty-six minutes. This we hear less often. Either way, there’s usually a tendency for the pianist to lead things and for the orchestra to get generic treatment. It’s easy to fall into this trap with early Brahms, because we don’t think of his textures as subtle or beautiful. I’ve yet to encounter paeans to Brahms’s thick orchestration in the German Requiem, for instance.
But orchestral beauty is what gobsmacks us here. Daniel Harding clearly conceives of the piece as a symphony with an obbligato piano part. It takes a perfect storm of conducting, playing, engineering and balances for it to sound this way. Maybe it’s luck. But I’ve never heard Brahms’s explosive introduction sound this interesting. Harmonia Mundi’s sound is close but full and without edge — an utterly gorgeous acoustic stage. It’s a CAT Scan. None of this would matter if Harding were not such an original conductor. At forty-nine minutes, he’s fast enough for energy and slow enough for beauty. There are all sorts of hairpin dynamics and tiny surges. The timpanist is to die for. And Harding applies little wisps of portamento throughout, suddenly tantalizing you with emotion where nothing seems to be going on. The finale’s great secondary melody, indeed, is the swoopiest I’ve ever heard, even surpassing my old Brendel/Schmidt-Isserstedt LP with the Concertgebouw for ritardando charm. The Swedish Radio Symphony play with an astonishing depth and subtlety. This is not your typical one-rehearsal concerto delivery….
And the pianist? Left out? Everything is only possible because Paul Lewis comes through more softly and is integrated into the orchestra better than in any concerto recording I have heard in years. It’s not that he’s less loud. He’s balanced markedly less loudly than we are accustomed to hearing in relation to the orchestra. This allows the listener in. I might argue here and there that Lewis is too understated, but he gives us in compensation some of the most limpid and cushy phrasing I’ve heard. You’d scarcely sense he’s playing a percussion instrument. The performance flows. The same quality comes through in the Four Ballades — drama without clangor — fluid beauty.
This CD is a gem. It takes some doing to inveigle an experienced listener into falling in love all over again with a familiar work. But Daniel Harding and Paul Lewis have managed it.
GODARD Symphonie gothique. Symphony No. 2. Three Morceaux • David Reiland, conductor; Munich Radio Orchestra • CPO 555044 (69:11)
Benjamin Godard (1849-1895) is a prolific French composer who took after Schumann. He’s cozy, like Joachim Raff, almost light at times. Early romanticism is at the heart of his temperament. Wagner’s sensuality and torment are missing. Except for an occasional march-about that reminds one of Lalo, you might not be aware he’s French. Godard came into prominence around 1880 with performances of the music featured here. CPO’s liner notes reveal a bewildering array of symphonies, published and unpublished. But one gleans an impression the Second Symphony and Gothique are best of the lot.
The Gothique is a bit of an experiment — written “after Bach” in the same way Franz Schmidt’s Third Symphony sought to capture the spirit of Schubert. It works surprisingly well, beginning with a genuine Baroque-flavored Maestoso. Godard doesn’t overdo it. The symphony is only nineteen minutes long. Without pilfering anything, it sounds in places like chorales orchestrated by Respighi, Reger or Elgar. I’m tempted to call it a “suite in the olden style”.
The Second Symphony is lovely from beginning to end. It surges forth sunnily with horns and strings over soft timpani — as B-flat majorish as music can be. Somehow that mood never vanishes. A variations slow movement takes one into Brahms territory, where ebb and flow conveys a genuine sweetness. Godard can spin a melody. And a charming scherzo actually has charm, instead of just hoping for it. If the finale sounds like a blustery cross between Elgar’s Froissart and Schumann’s Julius Caesar Overture, so be it. The horns whoop somersaults. The music holds together. And it does so cyclically — that’s the French connection, the Franckian element. The Second Symphony ends the way it began, with wonderful leaping chords for brass and timpani. It has the virtue of forward motion, which few forgotten symphonies do. If I had to take fifteen French Symphonies to a desert Island, I think this would now be a contender.
It’s refreshing to encounter a composer from this period who isn’t trying too hard to rattle the world’s metaphysics. Almost every symphony that fails in the late nineteenth century seems to do so in grandiose attempts to sum itself up with an immense finale pulling every thematic thread together. Godard doesn’t seem to suffer from “monument-itis”. This is all finely honed music. Which isn’t to say he’s anodyne. The three short pieces supply us with a compelling telegraphic funeral march which was criticized at the time for having no contrast, a Brésilienne waltz that I know I’ve heard somewhere before — good as anything by Bizet — and a light chipper occasional piece titled Kermesse. But listener beware. There’s a mistake. Unless the zippy piece is meant to be a funeral march witnessed at a trot from your own horse, CPO (or Naxos’s stream site) has clearly mislabeled the CD tracks and reversed Kermesse with it.
But David Reiland and the Munich Radio Orchestra, warmly recorded, are certainly on the right track with Benjamin Godard.
RESPIGHI Sinfonia Drammatica. Belfagor Overture • John Neschling, conductor; Liège Radio Philharmonic Orchestra • BIS-2210 (69:01)
I love this CD. It will take a while to explain why. If only Respighi had known when to stop. This remarkable over-the-top symphony is tantalizingly “1913”. The last few years before the First World War, had one been prescient, brought us in whole cloth a musical vocabulary we would later call film music. We owe Korngold the most for this. It’s all there in his early Sinfonietta. But Mahler, Debussy, the Russians, Italians such as Casella — and especially Respighi in this Sinfonia Drammatica — made their mark in the lush new idiom, as well. Unfortunately, where Korngold promised fresh romance, happiness and Brenda Marshall around every bend, Respighi evokes something between an elephant’s lament and a hippopotamus belly-dance. This music is gorgeous, but it veers towards the morose. And it weighs a ton, adding organ pedal tones at every opportunity to textures of Wagnerian and Straussian richness.
It’s too much for the long pull. You gag. The symphony literally “stumbles” open, like a man too heavy for his own good tripping off the curb. The piece is cyclically constructed in three movements, all nicely interrelated and culminates along the way in a noble anthem. But it contains little variety of light and shade — and nearly crushes itself to death. The last chord is a dead ringer for the gong-shattering conclusion of Elgar’s Crown of India.
I wish Respighi had reworked the first part and given it to us as a tone poem. At 18:00 in the first movement we encounter a first iteration of the mammoth march which would later climax The Pines of Rome. It’s highly addictive, and I confess to listening to it without the rest of the symphony. It swells slowly but then fades, more in the manner of The Fountains of Rome. There is also a woodwind motto I like, featured in the slow movement, which owes something to Webern’s Im Sommerwind. But as early critics pointed out, Respighi seems “unfamiliar with economy of means”. This failing he eventually would overcome exploring and updating early music. In so many respects, Respighi would wind up a miniaturist — indeed a delicate colorist.
But the most mature and popular Respighi works combine this sensitivity with massive drama and a legend-telling genius for making the past come alive. A creamy clarinet melody by Respighi can take up residence in your ears and seem to fade away like cooking oil wafting from Imperial Rome at sunset.
Respighi’s Belfagor Overture dates from 1924 and benefits from ten years of refining his new style. As so often with opera-based music, its plot is gruesome — in this case a young woman, Candida, being courted by Satan in the form of a cavalier named Belfagor. The CD cover, featuring graphics from the original production, depicts Belfagor as the most decrepit balding werewolf you can imagine. He looks like a furry Mahler — moulting! If that was the best the Devil could do, no fears for Candida. Pictorially, it might better have been named Wolf of the Undead. The music itself is good Respighi, though, now more transparent, energetic and with a fine romantic melody in the middle.
John Neschling seems to be a modern Respighi tickler, at least where this continuing cycle with the Royal Liège Philharmonic is concerned. This is the first version of the symphony I have been able to sit through without being bored. There are only three other performances in the catalog, La Vecchia’s with the Rome Symphony, Nazareth’s with the Slovak Philharmonic and Edward Downes’s for the BBC. All are much slower and give off that sense of not quite knowing the music they are playing. Chandos, unsurprisingly, supplied a magnificent soundstage for Downes’s BBC Philharmonic, with unimaginably deep organ pedal tones. Subwoofer-ites, rejoice!
But it’s all so heavy….BIS carries the day here, I think. I can’t imagine how you would improve upon the engineering. Even heard as a stream, it’s quite wonderful. The Belgian orchestra plays beautifully and intuitively. I hesitate to say, “Try it, you’ll like it.” But rendered like this, the Sinfonia Drammatica might just have a future.
TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No. 6. DVOŘÁK Rusalka Fantasy • Manfred Honeck, conductor; Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra • REFERENCE RECORDINGS FR-720SACD (67:03) Live Pittsburgh 2015
Manfred Honeck has a winner here again with the Pittsburgh Symphony. It would be hard to praise this CD too much. Not only does he bring us the most exciting recorded Tchaikovsky Pathetique I know — plus arrange a fine unified suite from Dvořák’s Rusalka — he’s taken trouble to pen the best CD program notes I recall reading anywhere, complete with audio index points and examples of what he’s trying to accomplish. Honeck’s observations about Tchaikovsky’s life and music are well thought out, profound and so easily understood, they should be used in school. This is how to do a CD.
Printed musical quotations and obscure terms are the literary curse and affectation of far too many program note booklets. They look good on the page, all those graphically reproduced clefs, black dots and accents. But bewildered hordes in the audience are lost in church, so to speak, confronting lines of music most can’t sight-read. Then we give them the near-death experience of reading something like And now, in inversion, four augmented sixth chords in B-flat leading to the recapitulation of…Sleep? Or is it suffering? None of that occurs here, fortunately.
Once again, as demonstrated in his recent CD of the Beethoven Fifth and Seventh Symphonies, Honeck’s conducting is replete with push-me-pull-you. He charges ahead with great energy, but can delay a cadence for all the emotion it contains when he wants to. One doesn’t have to be a cynic — or think of Richard Strauss speeding up to make his card game — to realize this sort of flexibility is the essence of good tempo choice. One doesn’t want to bore.
Reference Recordings has produced an up-close sound stage, perhaps fractionally dry because of audience presence. But I suspect we really have podium perspective and this is deliberate. Honeck writes of the care he’s taken with the recorded sound. Up close, Honeck’s volatile timpanist and Pittsburgh’s rock solid brasses are heard to fullest advantage. So is the fiendish intensity of every string figuration. The timpani, in particular, find myriad ways of surging forth and breaking step mid-roll. They add remarkable degrees of excitement when played this well. Honeck’s central climax in the first movement has a wonderful rolling quality, as if one were surfing over large waves with ever deeper troughs. I’ve waited decades to hear it done that way. This is romantic phrasing. But unlike many romantic conductors, who wimp out at the edges, Manfred Honeck knows how to slug hard and surge until you feel the “g” forces. He’s all about dynamics and about surprising you subtly just when you need it. The lopsided waltz has a heartbeat. The march flattens you. The finale moves you but doesn’t drip on you. I can’t think of a better performance. And the sound is so solid you pinch yourself thinking it all real.
Similar infectious qualities inhabit the Rusalka Fantasy. This is some of Dvořák’s best music — much of it vaguely familiar and Slavonic Dance-like even if you don’t know the opera. Honeck has put together a suite which makes musical sense and holds together. It’s a symphonic synthesis, not a series of “numbers”. A sidelight (and highlight) to this production is the violin performance of the Song to the Moon by the Pittsburgh Symphony’s thirty-two year old concertmaster, Noah Bendix-Balgley. This was his last concert before taking up the post of concertmaster at the Berlin Philharmonic. One isn’t surprised. The Pittsburgh Symphony is one of the world’s great orchestras. It always has been. But there is something different now. It’s in the limelight. And one profoundly thanks Manfred Honeck for that.
IRELAND String Orchestra Music — A Downland Suite. Cello Sonata in G Minor¹. Summer Evening. In a May Morning. Soliloquy¹. Bagatelle¹. Berceuse¹. Cavatina¹ • David Curtis, conductor; ¹Raphael Wallfisch (cello); Orchestra of the Swan • NAXOS 8.571372 (63:34)
John Ireland was a miniaturist of the human heart. The score to his Cello Sonata quotes a line from Aldous Huxley’s The Trellis:None but the flowers have seen/Our white caresses. As I listen to a cross section of his music, I realize much of it is indeed love music — the gentle, graceful, lonely sort the British are so good at.
I put A Downland Suite in top order here, though Naxos had a different program arrangement in mind. I wouldn’t normally tinker with a listing, but this CD includes the most beautiful version I have ever heard. It want to call special attention to it. I’ve been in love with A Downland Suite since it was first put together in the 1970s, long after the composer’s death in 1962. Its centerpiece is the Elegy — six and a half minutes to rival Elgar’s Nimrod in dignity and sadness. That and the Minuet — familiar to British TV and movie audiences — have been part of the cozy vernacular of English life since 1932.
It startled me to listen to the Elegy and find tears rolling down my cheeks. David Curtis and his Stratford-upon-Avon based Orchestra of the Swan give us some of the most perfect string nostalgia I’ve ever heard. Swans indeed! Curtis is slower than Boult, silkier than the English Chamber Orchestra and avoids the heavy inflection of Hickox. A perfect porridge. Naxos has supplied us rich floaty sound to dream on — the kind where quiet playing vanishes like a mist.
The Cello Sonata, transcribed for strings from piano, necessarily veers towards a darker sound, but once again, though this is a serious work, we realize it’s the rich personal moments that matter. Ireland composes with none of the astringency of Britten. Instead, without being folksy, Ireland is somehow domestic. And occasionally, as in In a May Morning, composed as late as 1940, he sounds Elgarian and Edwardian in the potted palm manner.
Raphael Wallfisch and David Curtis are on the same page here. The smaller pieces are played with simple beauty. At its best, there is something curiously satisfying about the British approach to emotion in music. Less breast-beating. Much English music — and its nostalgia — seems to go by, instead, at the pace of normal life. Maybe that’s the key to David Curtis’s performance here. He lingers…but not too long. It leaves you thinking nothing beautiful is ever yours until it is taken away.