D’INDY Symphony No. 2. Souvenirs. Istar. Fervaal: Prelude • Jean-Luc Tingaud, conductor; Scottish National Orchestra • NAXOS 8.573522 (80:03)
As I soak-in timeless Wagnerian caresses from D’Indy’s Fervaal Prelude, it strikes me I’d be happy in D’Indy’s rather normal dream world—but not in Wagner’s! Many post-Wagnerian French composers had a sunny touch for chromatic melody and an ability to go “creepy”while resisting portentousness and Wagner’s claustrophobic sense of inner misery. D’Indy certainly did. When a trumpet sounds in D’Indy over tremolos, it means there’s a breeze and a bird calling deep in the woods—no more—no less. An intoxicating mood means you feel like embracing someone—or remember wistfully having done so—not that you are about to die! That appeals to me. And he also avoided the other side of Wagner’s French influence: César Franck’s sticky religious incense and guilty Roman Catholic sensuality. Somewhere between these Scylla and Charybdis extremes we encounter Vincent D’Indy and this remarkably beautiful and affectionate group of pieces. Jean-luc Tingaud conducts in the same tight and exciting way he approached the Paul Dukas Symphony in C recently for Naxos.
The music here seems to speak of the events, loves and losses of ordinary life. In that sense it’s like Chausson—warm and affectionate. Souvenirs, indeed, is a memorial to the composer’s wife, who died of a brain hemorrhage in 1906. It’s a beautiful piece, setting forth in gentle sadness and then moving on to a cheerful/wistful set of reminiscences from their life together.
Istar is an old favorite—a backwards series of variations, where the theme is only stated at the end. The Goddess Istar must shed a garment at each of Seven Doors of the Dark Abode to have her lover returned from the underworld. Perhaps this is why she sounds so well behaved as she undresses. Salome she is not! The melody with which D’Indy reveals her to be au naturel could have been written for Little Red Riding Hood. But the music is gorgeous.
The D’Indy Second Symphony is now coming back into the repertory again. A well-organized cyclical work in the Franck/Chausson manner, it was once championed by Pierre Monteux but after his death disappeared for many decades, only to be revived on CD in the 1990s—most notably by James DePreist for Koch and more recently by Rumon Gamba on Chandos. I love all three digital versions. DePreist is the heaviest-textured of the group, but with highly enjoyable deep bass. Sometimes, though, he and his Monte Carlo Philharmonic seem to be sight reading and not entirely sure where they are going. Rumon Gamba is a bit tighter and makes more sense of the first movement.
Tingaud and his Scottish National Orchestra are if anything more coherent, still, and on the fast side, two minutes quicker than anyone. The bass drum is there when you need it, but the overall approach is deft. Only in the last movement rondo does Tingaud really hit you with it. But his urgent tempo is extremely exciting. Elsewhere, Tingaud stresses clarity of textures almost to the verge of being pointillistic. DePreist gives us a Wagnerian soup. Choose your bits and bytes and make your choice. But do listen to this.
ROUSSEL Bacchus et Ariane Suites Nos. 1 and 2. DEBUSSY 6 Epigraphes Antiques. POULENC Les Biches Suite • Kazuki Yamada, conductor; Orchestre de la Suisse Romande • PENTATONE PTC 5186558 (75:55)
Here’s yet another gorgeous CD from Kazuki Yamada and the Suisse Romande. Just a few months ago I reviewed Yamada’s Russian Dances, featuring Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Suite, and was swept away by its danceable grace and galvanic spirit—and simply gobsmacked by soft, plush textures captured in Geneva’s Victoria Hall. Under the baton of Yamada a much improved Suisse Romande Orchestra conveys the same remarkable warmth it did in the days of Ernest Ansermet. Yamada’s soft way around phrase corners glows as much as Ansermet’s would have. Victoria is proving itself a perfect armchair venue for Pentatone listeners, with a rich enveloping bass, creamy reverberation and no tendency towards stridency.
I mention this, since vivid sonic competition for our Roussel here comes from Neeme Järvi’s 1990s bass-rich CDs with the Detroit Symphony. (Järvi’s Detroit recordings of the Third and Fourth Symphonies, variously paired with the ballet, are still hard to improve upon.) Actually, Järvi recorded only the Second Suite from Bacchus and Ariane. But it’s a stunner. So I am delighted to report that Yamada is just as fine and brings us both suites.
Bacchus and Ariane is Roussel’s 1930 bid for major ballet immortality, building upon Stravinsky’s Le Sacre, Ravel’s Daphnis, Pierné’s Cydalise and Florent Schmitt’s La Tragédie de Salomé. The First Suite is seldom heard live, as it begins with Stravinskian energy but winds up quietly. The Second opens dreamily and finishes convulsively and more cumulatively, which explains its popularity in the concert hall. Key to the Roussel mix is gleaming energy in huge cymbal-shimmered brass climaxes, supported by perpetually shuddering and thumping bass drum rolls. For all its brightness and energy, Roussel’s music must be performed, like Sibelius, from the bottom up. Yamada gets that—hands down. But it’s not dark, ominous music, the way Sibelius’s often is. It’s not even sensuously neurotic-sounding, like Schmitt. For all its evident eroticism, Roussel’s music isn’t “dirty”or pornographic. In that sense you might say he is the French William Walton—transfigured into erotic cleanliness by irrepressible Stravinskian spirits.
In digital sound, Yan Pascal Tortelier, with the Ulster Orchestra and Georges Prêtre, performing with the French National Orchestra, are both insightful Roussel-ites in their own ways. In fact, I’ve never heard a bad performance of this music. Roussel almost invariably comes off. But what makes Yamada our sweepstakes winner is his rich carpet of mellow sound. Stravinskian elements in Roussel can be oppressive, if the upper midrange is too bright or Roussel’s many bass drum rolls not sufficiently enveloping or floor-shaking. Prêtre’s recorded sound for Roussel on EMI now begins to show its age with a certain harshness, and Chandos’s recording of the Ulster Orchestra for Tortelier is typically overbright and a little lacking in plums below.
Debussy’s Epigraphes Antiques are gentle, late-in-life, near-minimalist piano pieces, orchestrated by Ernest Ansermet in 1939 and sounding remarkably like the Ravel of Tombeau de Couperin. That’s not a criticism. These are lovely, mood-setting miniatures. Yamada does them full justice, as he does Poulenc’s Suite from Les Biches (translated as The Courtesans by the liner notes and presented at the time as The Little Darlings). In French the word has considerable nuance. Poulenc bases his score on Watteau’s paintings of Louis XV in the “park of coquettes”. The reader can take it from there. Poulenc himself described his ballet as a “contemporary drawing room party suffused with an atmosphere of wantonness, which you sense if you are corrupted, but of which an innocent-minded girl would not be conscious.” This is true to form. It’s hard to imagine a piece by Poulenc which doesn’t turn to the audience with a wink.
Looking backward, Poulenc’s mark as a composer was to have crossed seemingly impregnable boundaries between music hall and concert hall, earnestness and snark—and to have done it more effectively than Satie and the spirits of Dada. Underneath it all in his music we encounter a sort of Brahmsian integrity, which keeps him in the concert hall. What? Brahms, you say? But try the slow movement of the Sinfonietta, sometime. You’ll think of the Brahms Second Serenade. One has to be in the right mood for the combination. Sometimes you wonder with Poulenc—especially when so well performed as here—did everyone have too many champagne cocktails? And is anyone wearing pants?
STRAVINSKY The Firebird (1910 Original Version)¹. Apollo² • ¹Zoltán Peskó, ²Gérard Korsten,conductors; SWR Symphony Orchestra • SWR 19020 (76:06)
This CD is actually labelled Diaghilev—Ballets Russes—Vol. 10—which sort of explains the mix of conductors above. The SWR Orchestra of Baden-Baden and Freiburg is giving its last gasp dazzlingly en pointe with a major ballet project—before hanging up shoes and merging with the Stuttgart Radio Orchestra as a new SWR Orchestra—shorn of its spa towns. The two ballets here, composed in 1910 and 1928—were bookends for the fame of the Russian Ballet, which first arrived in Paris in 1909 and closed down in 1929. These performances come from the SWR archives. Be not deterred. The Firebird was recorded in 2001, Apollo in 2012, both in Freiburg’s Konzerthaus. This venue has been a source of many open and natural-sounding CDs from Southwest German Radio over the years—and never better than here. Firebird, in particular, is as transparent as I have ever heard it.
I don’t simply celebrate for sound. Many decades of Michael Gielen’s leadership, introducing a wide range of contemporary pieces, left this orchestra remarkably responsive to small nuances. Dodecaphonic works which used to torture audiences with screeches and squawks were sometimes interesting coming from these players, rendered more delicately and making more sense. SWR still does piquant woodwind peeps, tiny tremoli and eerie mood moments well and with a light touch.
All this takes nothing away from fine conducting by Zoltán Peskó, who unravels the complete 1910 Firebird beautifully. It’s not so often recorded in this form. All ballet scores are necessarily tied to a visual element, with dancers onstage, something resembling a plot or an idea, and of course, a set. In the 18th and 19th century past, concert suites drawn from them would be considered lighter by nature than the symphonic music of the day. But ballet essentially moved along like “regular” music. As late as 1899, a work like Glazunov’s The Seasons could ravish and excite in ways not that different from a symphony.
So it must have been astonishing to experience The Firebird for the first time. It’s not just the originality of the music’s beginning—basses prowling the hall like nocturnal jewel thieves—but the sudden decisions Stravinsky makes to start and stop, change texture entirely, flower in place motionlessly, explore a minimalist moment and then proceed following a logic of his own. The music now seems much more glued to the dancers’ every twitch. Suddenly, the concert hall listener may wonder if he gets the logic—or if the missing visual element is so key that the music might not hold together that well without the dancers. There’s a lot of sudden noodling and snarky woodwind action of indeterminate meaning to the listener.
The question then becomes how to rescue as much of the music as possible in a useful way for the concert hall and on CD. Compared with the full ballet here, Stravinsky’s 1919 suite flows better and is easier to take in. Of course, modern ears are now used to grappling with larger, more diffuse musical structures. We make sense of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe as a full ballet. It competes well with the Second Suite for our affections. And note how well audiences have adjusted to Le Sacre du Printemps. There exists no such thing as a “suite” from this music. Full concert presentations of The Firebird seem to be increasing in popularity, as well. But there will still be many listeners who get bored at the episodic nature of some of the scenes from the complete score. I’m usually one of them.
What caught my attention this time is the sound—so beautiful you want to hear the little moments, whether they make plot sense to you or not. I compared Peskó’s approach to Dorati’s and Salonen’s and Haitink’s on CD. All give us the full ballet. In each case, so well served by the sound, I felt Peskó had the key to making individual moments light and interesting and part of the whole. The others, good as they were, seemed heavier and more opaque—less balletic and intuitive. That makes you want to skip ahead, when the dithery stuff comes at you, razzing for no reason like a PA system in lumpy or edgy sound.
Apollo, Stravinsky’s final bookend for the Ballets Russes, is different, for strings alone, minimalist as ballet goes, an indoor cat. Done well, Apollo’s appeal is psychologically open-ended. It holds together without question as pure music. In the theater, you only need a stage floor and light for this piece. And I doubt armchair listeners spend much time with Apollo thinking about Greek gods and legends. More likely they are catalysed into their own thoughts. I may be alone, but I find it Stravinsky’s most evocative piece. I know best Herbert von Karajan’s Berlin Philharmonic CD from the early seventies. Karajan is all glowing textures and satin haze. And the nostalgia he mines seems to carry a timeless quality. It’s not Tristan, but somehow it evokes for me a similar sense of nostalgic regret. The performance here, led by South African-born Gérard Korsten, shares in some of the virtues above, but is recorded a fraction close to the stage. In the more aggressive moments, this detracts a bit from perfection. The mesmerizing quality of this ballet, with its empty set, depends on wizardry for its success. It needs “illumination” or at least a perfect “glow”. We don’t quite get that here. I’m not normally a Stravinsky-lover, but I trolled into this CD for The Firebird and found I did…. I suppose that’s what critics are supposed to do.
SCHREKER Der Schatzgräber: Symphonic Interlude. Die Gezeichneten: Prelude. Das Spielwerk: Prelude. Memnon: Prelude. Der Ferne Klang: Nachtstück • Lawrence Renes, conductor; Royal Swedish Orchestra • BIS 2212 (68:30)
If personality, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once suggested, is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then Franz Schreker’s music surely exhibits plenty of it….Experiencing this collection of operatic preludes is to immerse oneself in a vibrant post-romantic world—alternative to the one formerly thought a near-possession of Richard Strauss. In recent decades, revival of music by Franz Schmidt, Alexander von Zemlinsky and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, just to name Austrians, has taught us to listen with more nuance to this era, and Franz Schreker is among the rediscovered composers. But even this new awareness has left Schreker at the rear of the pack. During the 1920s, he was Germany’s most popular operatic composer after Strauss. And to a certain superficial extent he sounds like Strauss. Wherefore, then, the oblivion? I think I know why.
First, the good stuff. If one adjective could describe Schreker’s music, it would be luxurious. Listen to Schreker and you take a deep dive into a world even more richly swirling and emotionally quivering than Korngold’s or Zemlinsky’s. Schreker’s special orchestral touch is the sudden high-speed run or glissando of entire sections of the orchestra. It’s clever and works well kinetically. Something is always doing somersaults or trembling within mix. There’s lots of celesta and vibraphone. Indeed, few composers are so atmospheric. It’s all gleaming and gorgeous and expensive-sounding. Fortunately, nothing Schreker composes is insipid or formulaic. Still….here’s the problem. The music’s personality seems to consist in nothing but a series of gestures. It’s hard to tell these preludes apart after a few minutes.
Most of the music sounds as if you sat down at a concert ten minutes late and missed all the melodies. Schreker is melodic, to be sure, but by the time you hear something, it’s the cadential phrase of a tune you don’t get in full, the resolution of a drama you don’t quite understand and the rich development of motifs you never entirely experience. I expect it worked beautifully for Schreker to bring his opera audience immediately into the stage drama this way. But even though these preludes and interludes are fairly long and elaborate, you find yourself questioning what on earth all the bustle and high emotion is about. It’s like waking up in the middle of a 1930s movie and wondering how you got there.
The pieces here were intended for the concert hall as well as for their respective operas, (in the case of Memnon, an opera Schreker never wrote) They date from 1906 through 1933, but seem largely in the same idiom. There are some Middle Eastern elements, to be sure, in the Memnon Prelude, which has a procession sounding like Ravel (and cribs a brass line from the left-hand concerto). But most mine a vein somewhere between Frenchified Strauss and Arnold Bax. My favorite is the best known—Prelude to Die Gezeichneten (The stigmatized)—which opens mysteriously, like Ives’s Housatonic at Stockbridge and then manages to morph itself into cinematic high drama.
I may not have conveyed how beautiful this all is. The Royal Swedish Opera Orchestra is unfamiliar to me—but utterly first-rate. And Dutch conductor Lawrence Renes has the perfect sense of texture and flow for this music. BIS, on home turf at the Berwald Hall, has supplied unimprovable sound. And the liner notes do a yeoman service in exploring the impossibly complex background of Schreker’s operatic plots. As for me, I’m just happy to put on this CD and wake up in Hollywood. Schreker, himself, had no such luck. Marginalized by the Nazi regime, he died of a stroke in 1933 at the age of fifty-six.
PROKOFIEV Piano Concertos Nos. 1, 3 and 4 • Olli Mustonen (pn), Hannu Lintu, cond; Finnish Radio SO • ONDINE ODE 1244-2 (69:36)
This is the most beautiful Prokofiev piano concerto CD I have ever heard. It strikes me immediately why. Take any composer from early in the last century who hit the scene as an enfant terrible or who experienced war, and I will show you a tendency to sound metallic and mechanical. Bartók, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Hindemith, Prokofiev and even Vaughan Williams in his Fourth and Sixth Symphonies couldn’t help reflecting the machine age in which they lived and powerful engines of destruction which had come into being. We’ve become accustomed to a certain kind of autopilot aggression in these composers. And it has taken several decades for digital sound and microphone technique to work through edgy tendencies of its own.
So what a remarkable experience to sit down to Prokofiev and hear none of this! Describing music in words is always difficult, like evoking sunlight by how it smells. But it occurred to me that Mustonen and Lintu have put together extremely thought-out interpretations designed to let the listener hear every single note from both piano and orchestra. Normally this is done with everyone going flat-out and trying to be heard through a steely wash of sound. But the approach here is different, like an intense conversation between two spies carried on under one’s breath. The purpose is not to win the conversation—but to get all the information transferred—suppressed energy.
As a result, we find here beautifully burnished piano tone, each note delicate, and a creamy orchestra playing with utter clarity. George Szell would love the Mozartean dovetailing. So do I. Throw in Ondine’s wonderful sound and the Finnish Radio Orchestra’s cat’s-paw clarinet, and all competition seems to fall away.
Some things never change, though. I’ve always had a strange reaction to Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto. Just as strobe lights at rock concerts might trigger an epileptic fit, the seasick-sounding theme with which it begins always has the effect of literally upsetting my stomach. It’s the only piece of music I’ve ever encountered which makes me woozy. That aside, once the piano takes off running, you realize what jewel-like technique Mustonen possesses, every note perfectly even, runs delicate beyond belief. Suppressed urgency carries the listener along with excitement. And a wonderful clarity is achieved. It’s the difference between screaming into a microphone to be heard and whispering intimately into it—to be better heard.
The velvety Finnish Radio clarinet at the beginning of the Third Concerto makes you sit up and listen. It later makes its mark in the lovely fall-away from the first movement development climax. As listeners will recognize, the music launches itself off a sort of ski-jump, vroom, (the only playground slide I know in music) and then falls away into creamy nostalgia dovetailed between piano and clarinet. Just plain gorgeous here. Another inspired moment is the central slow movement passage where piano and orchestra take off “galumphing”, for lack of a better term, as if playing things backwards for the sheer hell of it. The finale begins slowly, with exactly the opposite effect you would expect. It sounds more exciting than usual, precisely because you can hear each note. By the time speed is needed, it’s there. But over and over I have the same reaction: I’m actually listening to notes which usually just fly by.
The Mustonen and Lintu Fourth Concerto performance exhibits all the same virtues. But I expect this concerto will never achieve the popularity of the Third. Simply put, you don’t come away from it with memories. But it does noodle along beautifully here.
I’ve always had the odd notion that Brahms is hiding somewhere inside Prokofiev—that perhaps they had the same sense of nostalgia behind closed curtains at three o’clock in the morning. Viewed this way, Prokofiev can only seem more wonderful when played for meaning and softness, with everything purring richly. From the top—this is as wonderful as it gets.