DVOŘÁK Slavonic Dances Opp. 46 and 72 • Jiří Bělohlávek, conductor; Czech Philharmonic Orchestra • DECCA 4789458 (75:00)
Every time I hear the Czech Philharmonic properly recorded I’m reminded what a glorious orchestra they are—overdue for appreciation. The ensemble recently signed a major contract with Decca and released Dvořák symphonies and concertos on CD, led by Jiří Bělohlávek. There’s also a complete Tchaikovsky project in the works from Semyon Bychkov. And now we have this beautiful take on the Slavonic Dances, captured without compromise.
There’s no dearth of performances to love. Everyone has a favorite. The dances have been lucky in the studio. Versions nearly sixty years old from Szell in Cleveland and Dorati in Minneapolis still leap off the page to make our pulses race with very little sense of sonic limitation. Every major conductor has recorded at least some of them. In the digital era, Ivan Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra especially fascinate listeners with a seat-of-the-pants approach rooted in folklore. Fischer has a unique talent for what you might term “cafe feel.” His CD of the Brahms Hungarian Dances includes a zither and sounds profoundly Gypsy.
Jiří Bělohlávek is a different sort of conductor, institutional in a good way, like Eugene Ormandy. A Bělohlávek performance features normal tempos, velvet textures and plenty of energy. But there’s no ice and steel and no hysteria. Phrase corners are rounded. So these are extremely luxurious sounding versions of the Slavonic Dances, lovingly played and timbrally authentic. (Nothing sounds so much like a wolf in the night as a Czech oboe.) But it’s the soft strings and beautiful colors which ravish and make such an impact here. Only a great orchestra is capable of playing like this.
One of the mysteries of genius is why these Slavonic Dances appeal so much. That’s not even the hardest question. It’s why they are so emotionally satisfying as a totality, as a concert evening on their own. Dvořák doesn’t set out directly to explore the human psyche. But his combination of joyous energy and nostalgia seems to say something about life that needs saying. The quieter moments in this music speak to the human heart. And if you love this CD as I do, I’m tempted to suggest it proves you have one!
DVOŘÁK Symphonic Variations. Slavonic Rhapsodies • Jakub Hrůša, conductor; Prague Philharmonia • PENTATONE PTC 5186554 (60:36)
I know of no better compliment than to say this CD made me love these early Dvořák works for the first time. When programmed for a large orchestra, the Symphonic Variations often underperforms with audiences, coming across as a meandering work, lumbering, with little to say. One almost gets mad at the piece for not being so memorable as the Brahms Haydn Variations. Sir Colin Davis championed it, but it’s not greatly sought-out by conductors. And the Slavonic Rhapsodies, too, ruminate more than they kick on the dance floor, so lovers of the Slavonic Dances frequently step away from these feeling let-down, as well.
In Fanfare 39:6, I reviewed a CD of Dvořák overtures from these same forces, with considerable disappointment. The Prague Philharmonia is an ensemble of 55 players, dedicated most of the time to the Viennese classics. With “big” Dvořák under their fingers, the result was too understated. And the soundstage turned out tunnel-like, a rare recording failure from Pentatone.
But this time the matchmaking works. Polished-up to a cat’s purr in beautiful sound, the Symphonic Variations achieves Mozartean charm and subtlety, even sweetness, and springs to life and meaning this way. The Prague Philharmonia is a talented group, founded by Jiří Bělohlávek, and Jakub Hrůša has continued Bělohlávek’s style of warm, rounded phrasing.
It’s hard to say exactly why the music sounds so comfortable, but one imagines an orchestra of 55 would have been typical in the Bohemia of Dvořák’s day—grandiose temptations necessarily limited. The scale here permits individual instruments to charm and seduce. We hear the link with Mendelssohn and Mozart more clearly than usual, and a chamber music mindset allows us to enjoy Dvořák’s string passagework for its beauties. The composer was a violinist, after all.
My reaction to Jakub Hrůša’s way with the three Slavonic Rhapsodies is similar—these are done delicately enough to be genuinely pretty. Bass drum and cymbal moments are soft and avoid the blousey quality early Dvořák sometimes reveals—Bruckner without the leavening toward chorales. There is nothing to annoy here—and much to love. Jakub Hrůša writes movingly about Dvořák in the liner notes. I’m happy to report the music-making here is every bit as beautiful as anything that can be said about it.
RAVEL Ma Mère l’Oye. L’Éventail de Jeanne • John Axelrod, conductor; Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire • NAXOS 8.5753354 (61:48)
Naxos is in partial competition with itself here. Leonard Slatkin recorded Mother Goose for the label not too long ago with his Lyon orchestra. If we broaden our notion of competition to include Marc Albrecht miking in Strasbourg for Pentatone, we now have three regional French orchestras showing us what they can do with the ballet on recent CD. Mysteriously, no Paris orchestra has left us a recording of the piece since the days of Jean Martinon.
Ballet is a special enforcer of tempo. You can’t whirl the music faster than dancers can pirouette, and you wouldn’t turn something static like Parsifal into a tableau. Anyone en pointe might fall over before the next chord. So a special talent is needed to keep music alive within the parameters. Call it push-me-pull-you, if you like, or suppleness. It’s what makes the difference between dance music and plodding. I was reasonably happy with John Axelrod’s take on Ma Mère l’Oye throughout this CD, until he decided to love it to death in The Fairy Garden, started to go slack and began to plod.
Axelrod takes about three minutes longer for Ma Mère l’Oye overall than most conductors. He’s an American working primarily in Europe. It’s said he has conducted 160 orchestras. And Axelrod was Music Director of this particular Orchestre National from Nantes in 2012, when the CD was recorded. I did a quick survey for the review of “Mother Geese” and “Fairy Gardens” on CD. with the following result. Giulini: stiff as a board. Slatkin: grey. Albrecht: gorgeous! So perhaps Marc Albrecht and his Strasbourg Philharmonic would carry our French orchestra sweepstakes. Still, this is a highly interesting CD in excellent sound from an accomplished orchestra. It contains the first complete French version on CD of L’Éventail de Jeanne.
The very strange L’Eventail de Jeanne is this CD’s special reason for being. Jeanne’s Fan, as the ballet translates, was a multiple-author children’s ballet commissioned by dance school patroness Jeanne Dubost in 1927. Dubost approached ten composer friends, gifting each a leaf from her fan and requesting a piece. The assembled collection of dances they wrote makes for the ballet.
Given that this music was intended to be performed by ten-year-olds. is French, and comes from the era of car-klaxons and cabaret, it should be no surprise to observe that almost all of it is light, witty, bouncy and sarcastic. Even more telling is that the more famous composers seem to stand out in some Darwinian way—justifying history—as better. Or is it just familiarity?
Ravel’s Fanfare, a tiny piece, was so popular it had to be repeated at the premiere. My ears perked up, too, when I heard the Waltonian/Sibelian Valse by Ibert, the Sarabande by Roussel and Florent Schmitt’s Kermesse-Valse. Roussel, especially, is not fully able to get away from his trademark creepy harmonic fogs here—all to the good. The remaining composers, Poulenc and Milhaud we know, but Ferroud, Roland-Manuel, Delannoy and Auric do well but leave us a little without mental points of comparison.
That’s it. There’s really no weak link. It’s just that we haven’t met all of them. This is often what happens when crossing cultures at the second echelon of fame in music. How many Americans know the music of Pierre-Octave Ferroud or Marcel Delannoy? And how many Frenchmen are familiar with Howard Hanson or David Diamond? Probably about as many…
DANSE MACABRE • Kent Nagano, conductor; Montreal Symphony Orchestra • DECCA 4830396 (69:00) Live: Montreal 10/2015
DUKAS The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. DVORAK The Noon Witch. MUSSORGSKY Night on Bare Mountain. BALAKIREV Tamara. SAINT-SAENS Danse Macabre IVES Halloween.
I never know quite what to say about musical collections put together to illustrate an idea. Yes, one sees the point immediately. The music here all has some connection with Halloween. And it’s even being reviewed in time for Christmas. So I’m part of the plot. But do listeners actually lean back in a Barcalounger, yawn over a piece of pumpkin pie and say to themselves “ I want an hour of Hallowe’en music?” With all due respect for holiday commerce, I doubt it. Most of us leave that sort of trick and treating in the hands of radio stations—and then proceed to treat the experience like elevator music. When we listen at home, we want the piece, and it’s usually easier to hunt for Handel than Barge Music—or was it Royal Celebrations? One could argue that the Sibelian ruminations in Tamara have very little to do with Charles Ives. But as it happens, the works here seem to have coexisted on an actual concert program…..
None of this detracts from a perfectly serviceable CD which is a pleasure to listen to. We have here only the second program Kent Nagano has recorded in Montreal’s new symphonic hall. The orchestra was famously miked for decades in St. Eustache Church, a reverberant space chosen in the early eighties by Decca’s engineers—and largely responsible for the group’s international living-room success as a benchmark for digital sound.
Charles Dutoit’s idea of sonority was “light cream”: L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in Geneva’s Victoria Hall transplanted to Montreal. I’m happy to report Nagano has maintained this essential warmth and softness. The new hall is more immediate in sonority—almost dry—but in a gleaming, velvety way. The orchestra sounds gorgeous and richly supported from below. If anything, a slightly cold metallic edge the Dutoit CDs sometimes had is gone. In its place is a closer and more involving experience. You are surrounded by a finite space. You can hear the coats of the people sitting near you. But there is plenty of expansion in the climaxes. It’s a nice combination of attributes. In recent years more and more CDs sound like this. You are really almost there.
Performances here are suave and idiomatic without trying too hard, playing into the essential immediacy and warmth of the hall more than any wildness possible at the extremes. I’ve heard crazier Mussorgsky. But there is plenty of excitement. The orchestra has lovely woodwinds—the Noon Witch bewitches. The first violin bedevils unusually well in Danse Macabre. Trumpets sound spectacular. And for low purring beauty, we have here my favorite Tamara. (Gergiev’s recent CD effort from the Barbican is acoustically unpleasant.) Cymbals, trumpets and percussion are important in most of this music and well recorded for impact.
If you scratch your head at the presence of Charles Ives, so did I. This little bit of clever confusion for string quartet, with a touch or two of piano and a few drum thwacks, is the first of Ives’s Three Outdoor Pieces. In the composer’s words, “It is a take-off of a Halloween party and bonfire—the elfishness of the little boys throwing wood on the fire, etc, etc…it is a joke even Herbert Hoover could get.” There’s something reassuring about a reminder that Presidents are supposed to be obtuse and have tin ears. You’ll enjoy hearing it all the more if yours are golden.
LALO Symphonie espagnole. MANÉN Violin Concerto No.1, Concierto español • Tianwa Yang (violin); Darrell Ang, conductor; Barcelona Symphony and National Orchestra of Catalonia • NAXOS 8.573067 (62:55)
This is an inspired CD in every way. Tianwa Yang has recorded several Sarasate programs for Naxos recently—in perfect preparation for the repertory here. She has one of the fleetest left hands I’ve yet encountered on the violin—a Heifetz level of ease. Saying so doesn’t suggest the extent of her talent. More about her in a moment.
The CD also introduces Joan Manén—to me anyway—largely an unknown here. Manén was a Catalonian violinist/composer nearly as famous as cellist Pablo Casals in his day. He died in 1971. This Concierto español dates from 1898 (when he was fifteen), with some revision in 1935. And it’s a beauty, pure and simple, a perfect choice to go with the Lalo. It flows like an elegant waltz and spins soft melody at the listener, all without cheap effect, some of it so beautiful you stop what you are doing. If I had to compare it to something, I’d say Jacques Ibert in a sincere mood. There’s no street in it. It’s aristocratic. Manén was the sort of violinist whose music-making broke female hearts. You get the impression he must have stood before the salon—not to dazzle—but to woo and ravish. Happily, he dispenses with the musical cliches of Spanish culture—no stomping Flamenco boots or wails of black despair.
If you pause to think of it, how remarkable is the global appeal of Spanish-flavored music! Only the Manén here is actually from Spain. We have a Chinese-born violinist—a French composer—a Singaporean conductor usually in charge of a French orchestra in Brittany—all clearly besotted with the spirit of Spain. In this instance, a Spanish orchestra keeps them honest and timbrally on target. The Barcelona Symphony understands this music intuitively, the way American orchestras always get Gershwin. Their playing jumps off the page with energy and ease—but also a special kind of elegance and lightness. When Spanish flavor is overdone, it turns “Hollywood” and the listener gets something more like Zorro with castanets. Not here! Naxos’s engineers have produced a perfect window, utterly clear and concert-balanced. You are close, but the violin is inside the texture, not jumping out at you.
I was so stunned by the spirit and immediacy of this performance and by the feather-light nuanced beauty of Yang’s playing, I had to explore what was so unusual about it. Jascha Heifetz kept coming to mind. But when I sampled Heifetz in the Symphonie espagnole, I was surprised at how Russian and unctuous he seemed in Lalo’s famous first movement melody—far heavier than Tianwa Yang and utterly un-Spanish. Then I turned to Anne-Sophie Mutter, only to encounter an institutional performance even less idiomatically Spanish in feeling. It might as well have been by Max Bruch. Tianwa Yang is clearly the most “Spanish” of all. “Go figure,” as they say on the turnip truck. And let’s not leave out Darrell Ang. This young conductor produces real sparkle and bounce. Lalo must strut properly. It does. The composer had a military background. There’s always a parade ground somewhere in his music—though the finale veers in the direction of a bunny-hop. And Ang follows Yang’s wisps of nuanced phrasing to a “T.” This is a genuine collaboration.
So I’m tempted by superlatives. This pair is worth watching. We have a lovely addition to the violin repertory. And we have here the best version of the Lalo I’ve heard— the most vividly recorded, too. I don’t know what it tells one to say so, but I’ve been listening to this piece for fifty-four years. And I’ve never liked it so much as today.