A Crop of Recordings XI

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DVOŘÁK Slavonic Dances, Op. 46 and Op. 72 Complete • Antal Dorati, conductor; Minneapolis Symphony • MERCURY LIVING PRESENCE 4343842 (68:00)

It would be hard to suppose people don’t dance with so much vigor as in the past, but you’d be tempted to think so hearing these white hot versions of the Dvořák Slavonic Dances from Antal Dorati and the Minneapolis Symphony. You might as well be in a wild and wooly Czech cafe where things are “jumping.” Dorati recorded this music three times, his later LPs performed with the Royal Philharmonic and the Bamberg Symphony. But this earliest stereo version from 1958 with the Minneapolis Symphony is not just energetic — it’s incandescent.

In the Dvořák recorded sweepstakes, George Szell’s Slavonic Dances with the Cleveland Orchestra have established themselves as our benchmark for historic performance, rightly so, with their combination of elegance, energy and good sound for the era. Kubelik is in the mix, too. But Dorati’s dances here, up close, joyous and fiery, have me asking both to move aside. This is simply the most galvanizing, spirit-lifting traversal I know. I am happy to confer upon it such Hall of Fame immortality as we may. Listen to it and you are tempted to cut a rug — as if immortal, yourself.

Mercury’s famous three microphone technique was never better exemplified than here — nor their use of 35mm film more justified. Hearing it digitally as a stream from YouTube, one is astonished to experience almost no distortion at all — not only that — but Mercury manages to deliver full dynamic range. The sheer punch of bass drum and cymbals would nearly fool a digital engineer. You are located almost on top of the percussion onstage. One wonders why more record companies didn’t use 35mm film at the time.

In later life, Antal Dorati, seen onstage, was not what you’d call an exciting conductor. He was a left-handed person who led with the baton in his right and always looked a bit awkward. And towards the end of his career Dorati became known as an “orchestra builder”, the unfortunate reputational curse of the B+ conductor condemned to perpetual understudy. But all I can suggest is that in his Minneapolis days, Dorati must have been a pistol! And it surely helps that he was Hungarian. One of the joys of this version is that wherever there is a sudden accelerando, the orchestra takes off like a bat out of hell without inhibition. The old joke used to be “A Hungarian enters a revolving door behind you — and comes out ahead of you.” That was never more true than here!

ELGAR Symphony No. 1. In the South Overture, “Alassio”¹ • Antonio Pappano, conductor; Santa Cecilia Academy Orchestra • ICA ICAC 1538 (74:32) Live: Rome 1/2012, ¹3/2013

It wasn’t so long past that almost nobody in North America had ever listened to Elgar’s First Symphony. Indeed, before Sir John Barbirolli’s bin-breaking Philharmonia release landed on these shores in 1965, few had even heard of it. American record stores might carry an LP of the Enigma Variations, if you were lucky. But today’s twenty or so CD performances of the symphony by orchestras from all over the world would have been unimaginable.

Given the general excellence of this new version by Sir Antonio Pappano, I can only say one would have been blessed to have it in the nineteen sixties. But our embarrassment of riches begs carping, so I do. Recordings of the Elgar First range from 46 to almost 59 minutes in length. The composer, Sir Georg Solti, Daniel Barenboim and Sakari Oramo conceive of the music convulsively, with an underlying anxiety to the fore. They are a bit faster. Barbirolli, Otaka and Pappano think of it more placidly and romantically. And Jeffrey Tate, slowest of all, appears to have sex with the dead.

Pappano and the Santa Cecilia Orchestra sound remarkably like Barbirolli and the Philharmonia. Basic tempos are similar. Phrasing is rounded, slow and weighty. Even the recorded sound is similar. Where they differ is that Barbirolli knew to keep the music flowing. Pappano repeatedly slows down to make something beautiful happen. Here and there he elicits exquisite inner touches of portamento — those tiny cries of the heart Elgar laces throughout in so many odd transitional places. And I am fascinated with what Pappano does to the first movement coda. He builds a Brucknerian tower at the end of the development section — then slowly has it crumble before your ears, as the motto theme emerges from the wreckage. The slow movement conveys powerful nostalgia. It would be hard to argue there is much more to be found in it. But…here is the flaw. Energy is set too low and slow throughout the performance. We experience, as in opera, scene after lovely scene. But the more kinetic music doesn’t catch fire well. There are huge silent Brucknerian spaces between phrases. The symphony, itself, is magnificently structured around its motto march. And that striding tempo appears everywhere. But if it’s too much of a slow march, it’s like trying to ride a stalling bicycle. You wobble and fall over.

No such affliction befalls In the South, which catches Elgar at his most Straussian and Pappano at normal tempo. It, too, was once unknown. Not surprisingly, the central lyric interlude in these hands sounds very moonlight and marinara, but the huge chords grinding uphill like Sisyphus which frame events are powerfully carried out, as well. In the South is one of music’s great swashbuckling pieces. And this Elgar Symphony, it has becomes totally clear with time — is one of the greats. It can survive interpretation. You can’t love it to death, exactly. But it seems conductors have now begun to try.

PROKOFIEV Symphonies Nos. 4 and 7 • Andrew Litton, conductor; Bergen Philharmonic • BIS-2134 (81:58)

Andrew Litton is a warm, cozy sort of conductor. How much you like this CD will have a lot to do with how affectionately you conceive of Prokofiev. I’m probably in a minority, but I find a lot of Brahms in Prokofiev’s music — especially in the way he cushions melody with rich textures from the bottom up and makes it flow. You might say I experience updated Brahmsian satisfactions. So I love this release!

Our usual emphasis with this composer is colored by a negative view of Russian history. We tend to perform Prokofiev for cynical snark, dissonance, edgy percussion jangles, piercing shrieks from trumpets–and do what we can with general screechyness and vulgar thumps to evoke pleasant experiences like war, brutality and death! Not here. Hence the warning. It must have been hard to be Russian during this time, write serenely innocent music — and be believed.

The Seventh Symphony has almost been made to suffer for being too nice, it seems. Prokofiev thought of it as absolute music and defended its relative harmonic simplicity by saying it had been written for children. But history suggests the “children” were Party bureaucrats who wanted accessible music and were determined to force it into being. Prokofiev even felt obligated after the premiere to write a second, noisy ending to the symphony, which he subsequently begged conductors outside Russia not to play. Both are included here. I agree. The music ends best quietly. One does wonder at the number of Soviet era symphonies with “phony finales”. The Prokofiev and Shostakovich 6th Symphonies both conclude with a sort of lopsidedly suspect triviality. But the Prokofiev Seventh, in comparison, keeps its integrity.

I fell in love with Walter Weller’s elegant LSO traversal of the Seventh in the late seventies, all graceful flow, soaring melody, plummy textures and light-as-a-feather glockenspiel spice. It’s still available from Decca. But I think Andrew Litton will become my go-to man now for this symphony. It’s a fraction heavier and richer, more mysterious and lingering. But there’s more sweetness than anger in it — an endless stream of beautiful sounds from the Bergen Philharmonic, gorgeously recorded.

The Fourth Symphony is far more of a problem child. I don’t think anyone could fully pull its disparate elements together. It started out as a piece drawn from Prokofiev’s ballet The Prodigal Son. Decades later it was recomposed and expanded in a more dramatic direction. The finale sounds like it shares credit with Albert Roussel and Aaron Copland, if you can get your mind around that one. But the first movement’s lovely falling melody, like an Appalachian Spring version of the second movement from Brahms’s A German Requiem, is so gorgeous that I keep coming back to the symphony for more. Serene string playing in the slow movement has me thinking perhaps Litton will end up the Eugene Ormandy of our day. The Bergen Philharmonic is deep plush.

Andrew Litton recently recorded a beautiful, massive Prokofiev Fifth, affectionately sprung with rounded chords and reviewed here. You begin to recognize the adjectives. If that’s the way you like your Prokofiev, more atmospheric than edgy — and I do — then this CD of the Fourth and Seventh is the one for us.

SIBELIUS Symphonies Nos. 3, 6, 7 • Osmo Vänskä, cond; Minnesota O •  BIS-2006 (82:00)

I had the pleasure of hearing Osmo Vänskä conduct the Sibelius Sixth live here in San Francisco a few years ago. I was struck at the time that he managed to elicit ethereally quiet playing from our orchestra, uncommon with Michael Tilson Thomas. It was an impressive performance. Now that he concludes his recorded cycle from Minnesota with this release of Sibelius’s three smallest-scaled and most ascetic symphonies, we see how much tiny wisps of sound matter in Vänskä-world. These are performances of chamber-like subtlety, with much happening at the threshold of audibility. They are slightly smaller in scale than usual — reflecting perhaps the conductor’s many years in Lahti — but capable of unexpected power and extreme dynamics — again like chamber music. The finale of the Third Symphony, for instance, builds nicely and attacks vigorously with brass and timpani. The Sixth gets unexpectedly exciting as it proceeds — with more tension than I have ever heard. But one is always aware of each instrumental section playing separately, with none of the vague romantic blend we usually hear. This has its benefits. Vänskä makes you pay attention to the voice of each woodwind, each cello, each viola — and shapes every phrase to sound short but smooth, silvery, clipped and “Finnish”. The approach is so consistent throughout, you cannot help but admire the perfection of his vision. And the dedication and concentration from the Minnesota players reflects utter conviction. They manage a ravishing clear brook of sound at the opening of the Sixth Symphony.

But a side effect of this approach is an almost Haydnesque way with the faster music — the first movement of the Third sounding almost Bartokian. The ghost of Arturo Toscanini and the “clarity conductor” raises its head. And when we come to the Seventh Symphony, whose chorale Vänskä plays small-scale at first — like a lover serenading a girl on her balcony while trying not to wake the neighbors — one doubts if all this gleaming refinement can compete with the sheer surging massiveness evoked by Colin Davis with the Boston Symphony. Davis’ way with the symphony in his 1976  recording is so apocalyptic, with such power from basses, trombones and timpani, you might almost mistake it for Shostakovich. It’s one of a kind. Davis was a conductor who built sonority from the bottom up. Vänskä isn’t.

Another consideration with these works is the beautiful slow second movement waltz in the Third Symphony. If you want it dripping with sentiment and moody sensuality, nobody does it like Leif Segerstam with the Danish Radio Orchestra. Vanska is smooth and slow as well. I always feel it might work faster, though. Maazel/Pittsburgh tries that, but Maazel sounds merely like Maazel — which is to say — cold.

Other visions of Sibelius are not wanting, of course — many of them. But this CD concludes a distinguished cycle — a genuine artistic vision presented in finished detail. We are the better for having it. And the Minnesota orchestra is definitely back from troubled times.

SCHMIDT Variations on a Hussar’s Song. Fantasia¹. Chaconne • ¹Jasminca Stančul (piano); Alexander Rumpf, conductor; Rheinland-Pfalz State Philharmonic • CAPRICCIO C5274 (73:26)

Ha! Rumpf! And that’s no gripe. It’s recognition! This lovely CD from Ludwigshafen brings us the most enjoyable Schmidt Variations performance available so far. I admit the field isn’t large, and if it’s a favorite piece of mine, I can’t automatically assume you have heard it before or even heard of it. I hadn’t either until I was thirty. Hans Bauer led the New Philharmonia in the 1970s for EMI, the first contact I had with the music, but Bauer framed the Hussar’s melody in a somewhat strutting way. The tune is a jaunty one, and Schmidt risks alternating between its Elgarian buoyancy and eerie darkness suggestive of his Fourth Symphony. (Both pieces were written in the early 1930s.) It can appear disjointed. The trick is to make the whole function well together, and Alexander Rumpf does just that. He softens the Hussar melody, makes it swoop with portamento — and captures perfectly its natural evolution into something bigger. (Reger’s Mozart Variations face a similar issue — a childish melody contrasted against lush, late romantic sonorities. If you tinkle the tune, the more impressive variations will seem elephantine and ridiculous.)

An alternative approach for Hussar conductors is taking Schmidt’s opening mood to heart — five minutes of fog and gloom — spookily reminiscent of the Roussel Second Symphony — and imbuing the Hussar theme, when it appears, with a seriousness it cannot support. Franz Welser-Most unifies everything this way on his LPO CD, but I find the result heavy and lacking in sparkle. Similarly for Naxos, Vassily Sinaisky creates less interest with the variations than he should.

The Rheinland-Pfalz State Philharmonic do themselves proud here, clearly enjoying the experience and performing each variation with real sonority and character as a little gem. My personal favorite, the short, syncopated second variation, has a wonderful Elgarian brass growl which stays with one. Capriccio supplies open, transparent sound. This is definitely now the go-to CD.

But Schmidt-lovers will wonder what on earth is going on, if they play the 1899 Fantasia without having read the program notes! It starts out like the suite from Notre Dame, (which is where all the music ends up a few years later.) But a few moments in, Schmidt turns to the piano. I put it that way advisedly, because there is nothing whatsoever “pianistic” about its presence. There is no passagework. There are no runs.  No trills. It doesn’t produce a contrasting “atmosphere”. It doesn’t play against anything harmonically, the way it might in Martinu. Schmidt simply assigns a few notes to the piano which the clarinets might otherwise appropriate. Jasminca Stančul is perfectly fine in this undemanding part — but the part itself was soon to be left on the Notre Dame cutting room floor.

There was a time when the Intermezzo from Notre Dame might be found on lunch radio. Forty years ago many people would have recognized it. Herbert von Karajan recorded it twice. But I doubt there is that much familiarity with the interlude today. The concert suite from the opera, in any case, contains it in better form than here. Fantasia is a dry run — a curiosity. This is its premiere recording.

Chaconne, our remaining work on this CD, is a nearly half-hour long piece written in 1931 simultaneously for organ and in orchestral garb. The orchestral expansion is minimal. It takes, one might say, an especially fugal personality to enjoy twenty-seven minutes of slow heaving. I don’t appear to possess it. Schmidt was given to experiments: his Third Symphony was in response to a Schubert contest. But not every experiment works. This time I do say Harrumpf!

About the author

Steven Kruger

Steven Kruger is a former classical concert agent. For a number of years he supervised the roster of conductors at Shaw Concerts in New York City, representing such artists as Sir Andrew Davis, Sir Neville Marriner, Rafael Fruhbeck De Burgos, Jose Serebrier and Robert Shaw.

Born in New York City in 1947 to a German immigrant father and an American mother, Kruger is a descendant of 19th century Bach biographer Philipp Spitta. He was educated at Phillips Exeter and Princeton, and received his degree in Philosophy, but turned to music administration after a brief career as a military officer and as a stockbroker.

Early in his exposure to music, Kruger developed a special fondness for the British Symphonists, and as a concert agent was able to play a part in the revival of such composers as Elgar, Delius, Walton, Bax and Vaughan Williams during the late 1970s.

He continues today as an advocate for these and other 19th and 20th century neo-romantic symphonic composers, such as D’Indy, Magnard, Korngold, Schmidt and Tubin, who were at one time eclipsed by the mid-century fashion for academic music. Now living in California, Steven Kruger reviews selected concerts in Davies Hall by The San Francisco Symphony and international visiting orchestras. Since 2011, he has written program notes on demand for the Oregon Symphony, including their recent CDs, “Music for a Time of War” and “This England”. He contributes a regular CD review column to New York Arts twice a month called A Crop of Recordings and is a masthead reviewer for Fanfare, America’s most serious remaining hardcover journal devoted to recorded music.

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