A Crop of Recordings XVIII: Honegger, Bernstein, Rachmaninoff, Smetana, Vaughan Williams

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Arthur Honegger

Arthur Honegger

HONEGGER Rugby. Symphonies Nos. 3 and 5 • Mario Venzago, conductor; Bern Symphony Orchestra MUSIQUES SUISSES MGB 6287 (56:58)

This is the most fascinating Honegger CD I know—brought to us with foundation-shaking  percussion, virtuoso string and brass playing—and astonishing podium originality. Mario Venzago is a Swiss conductor who has recorded the Bruckner symphonies, some of them with this same Bern Symphony—sounding world class here. He’s the sort who takes chances with tempo, the way Bruckner conductors are either admired or forgiven for doing.

Now imagine someone like Eugen Jochum conducting Honegger in paragraphs, as if it were Bruckner—squeezing the last iota of beauty and drama from each—and you have Mario Venzago’s approach here. Intriguingly, though pace varies considerably, these pieces all time-out normally. But flexible conducting imbues the usually grey music with an astonishing amount of glowing beauty and Waltonian zest. That’s not a misprint!

There is a marvelous intuitive feeling to this orchestra. It’s their  music. Over and again you say to yourself, “Of course!” It’s not just tempo. Venzago hears into the textures and makes them flower. You simply did not know before that there was this much inside the score to listen to. Rugby is so beautifully done, it could be Debussy’s Jeux. Honegger usually has all the charm of sandpaper. This is a genuine surprise.

Herbert von Karajan used to insist no symphony left him more of an emotional wreck than the Honegger Liturgique. Karajan’s own Berlin Philharmonic recording of the work is famously intense. In the digital era, I’ve sworn by Jean Fournet’s stately, probing account and Järvi’s punchier, more percussion-based whirl inside the score. All are extremely effective advocates. But now, kindly step aside for Mario Venzago.

The composer wrote his Third Symphony in horror over WWII. But this work is no churchly memorial, though the music does offer at times lovely consolation. Honegger’s “liturgical” comment is reducible, you might say, to a shout of “Enough!”  Like Shostakovich, Honegger retained a special disdain for mindless power. The finale’s opening march is a portrait of it—one of music’s great displays of “they’re coming to get me.”

Usually, this march is murky at first and too slow for the listener to figure out what’s happening. Venzago plays it for thumps and scares. How he does it speaks for his approach to the music everywhere. It comes at you ominously and fast, like a troop of SS officers clicking down the hall slamming doors. Nothing lame about the approach. The catastrophic apotheosis at the end of the movement is normally played slowly and strictly in tempo—a junior cousin to the Pines of Rome. But Venzago approaches this climax with snarling trombones strafing the orchestra. You nearly duck. Then he hits you over the head with a massive culmination, giving each moment of violence a taste of freedom, with huge pauses, before reigning back. This is “Bruckner conducting” of a high order. You emerge alive—beaten up—and definitely in need of balm for the spirit.

I don’t know that you’ll find any in Rugby—it’s gloriously done, but—well—no helmets! And if your body makes it, surely the Honegger Fifth Symphony will succeed in crushing your spirit.  Or so I thought. To my astonishment, for all the grimness and gravity built into it, the piece can be made to burble like Walton. It’s astonishingly pretty! The first movement actually exhibits grace. It usually sounds like a cement mixer. Of course, Honegger’s Fifth Symphony is ultimately morose. This is 1950. The age of anxiety. Honegger kills us all off with a final “D”. But this CD is so beautiful, I’m dying of surprise.

Leonard Bernstein in 1951

Leonard Bernstein in 1951

BERNSTEIN Symphonies Nos. 1¹ and 2 • Marin Alsop, conductor; ¹Jennifer Johnson Cano (mezzo); Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano); Baltimore Symphony Orchestra NAXOS 8.559790 (Streaming audio: 59:32) Live: Baltimore ¹2013/2014

Leonard Bernstein was fortunate to be part of Tanglewood’s creative circle in 1942, when his First Symphony, Jeremiah, found itself bypassed for the New England Conservatory prize in favor of Gardner Read’s Second Symphony—a piece never heard from again, so far as I know. Fritz Reiner asked the young composer to premiere Jeremiah in Pittsburgh, however, where it was well-received, and not long after, Bernstein’s famous 1943 conducting debut (in Strauss) for an indisposed Bruno Walter brought everything about him to world attention.

Though the first two Bernstein symphonies are well established in the repertoire now, Jeremiah remains the less popular of the two, featuring as it does two slow movements, a sung text in the finale, very little kinetic music outside the scherzo, and a quiet ending. It was original, you might say, in ways that put off juries, but the music is entirely tonal, well-integrated and ruminates with genuine beauty. The first movement, Prophecy, ultimately gathers tentative, hopeful phrases into a chorale which consecrates like Vaughan Williams; Profanation is a classic lopsided Bernstein dance. It sounds like West Side Story rumbling in biblical Jerusalem—not too far off the mark, actually—and Lamentation features a lovely sung melody of regret. Jeremiah also borrows a lot: Pierne’s Dance of the Styrax from Cydalise et le chevre-pied in Profanation—I may be the first to notice that. And the finale takes so much from Copland, Bernstein later felt sheepish about it.

We’re lucky to have Bernstein’s original stereo recording of Jeremiah still sounding so well in the catalog. As always, Bernstein had a special swing and sweep with his New York Philharmonic, an inimitable rhythmic snap. And Jennie Tourel’s timbre is so dark, rich and authentically Hebraic, you taste the olive oil. She takes you back thousands of years. Nobody could probably equal her for authenticity. Jennifer Johnson Cano is effective just the same, with a lighter sprung voice and a more operatic approach than Tourel.  I prefer her to Michelle DeYoung’s more obvious vibrato on Leonard Slatkin’s Chandos CD. Slatkin’s BBC Symphony performance also pairs The Age of Anxiety, so the Slatkin and Alsop CDs are major competitors, both in excellent modern sound. Of the two Jeremiah performances, Slatkin’s is wilder, in a tizzy, like Roy Harris strung out on something. But Marin Alsop makes the work sound highly unified and solidly voiced. I liked it.

I felt a bit differently about Alsop’s performance of The Age of Anxiety: a little stiff and low-energy. It misses the lilt. Thibaudet never sounds American. And now I’d move beyond Slatkin’s excellent version with James Tocco, too. But that’s because we have the fleet, graceful and electrifying Jeffrey Kahane with Andrew Litton for comparison on Erato.

The Age of Anxiety is a very New York piece. It begins with two nearly inaudible clarinets blending in and out of each other—like rival taxi horns far away in the middle of the night. Anybody who has been all alone in the world at three o’clock in the morning knows the sound. The music then proceeds to take itself very seriously indeed, depicting the Ages of Man with a sort of pre-DNA pseudo-certainty that used to afflict nervous poets and West Side sociologists. There’s something a little “Fantasia” about the way the music strides along. I keep imagining cartoon cro-magnon man, bent over his jaw, wearing an animal skin, carrying a club.  Bernstein’s tone row for Part II is equally cinematic—and winds up resembling the score to an Army atomic blast training film. As the symphony concludes, and as the composer himself admitted, the listener experiences “pure Warner brothers.”

The trick is to find light and grace in the music—keep it moving. Otherwise it can be turgid.  Kahane and Litton are wildly successful in this. I prefer their 1999 studio version to either of the composer’s own—and any other. Here’s an acid test. Turn to the second variation, Poco piu mosso, thirty seconds into the track, and take in how beautifully Kahane and Litton make the tempo transition. The tintinnabulations are so natural, it sounds like a child joyously throwing leaves in the air. Litton floats the music—and it sounds perhaps greater than it is. Marin Alsop shifts gears like a bus driver at an intersection.

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Sergei Rachmaninoff

RACHMANINOV Symphony No. 1 • Gabriel Feltz, conductor; Dortmund PhilarmonicOrchestra DREYER GAIDO DGCD21100 (Streaming audio: 45:43) Live: 2/23-24/2016

Gabriel Feltz is a talented conductor working mostly with Germany’s less-known regional orchestras—and soon to be Music Director of the Belgrade Philharmonic. His work has been largely unremarked our side of the Atlantic. (We overlook Dortmund and Belgrade the way Europe ignores Denver and Kansas City.) But he has recorded most of the Mahler symphonies for Dreyer Gaido with the Stuttgart Philharmonic and a good bit of Beethoven, Strauss and Rachmaninov—including a fine Second Symphony of the latter—in Dortmund. Both orchestras play well enough to enjoy—without being world-class—and the engineers consistently supply a high-impact soundstage set about five rows further back from the usual SACD perspective—bass drum and timpani as a result more seemingly dominant and solidly onstage in front. This conductor likes drums.

I did a quick survey of these CDs. A consistent portrait of Gabriel Feltz emerges. Here is a high energy conductor who goes turns lean at codas and climaxes. Not unexpectedly, I didn’t find him to be a sensualist, but unlike some such athletic conductors, he is not always fast. Feltz has a good sense of architecture and likes to slow down and explore whispery quiet. He’s not a one-gear conductor. His Zarathustra, in fact, is among the slowest on CD but boasts an astonishing dynamic range and all sorts of hairpin dynamics in the opening which make it fascinating.

The Rachmaninoff First Symphony CD in question here features the fastest and most energetic finale I have yet heard in this work. Most conductors take their cue from the symphony’s weighty beginning and play the piece throughout with wooden dignity. Feltz hammers the listener with the best of them but never gets stuck in the molasses. Glazunov may have been drunk leading the symphony’s disastrous premiere—the tempo was said to “sway”— but Taneyev’s criticism still holds: Rachmaninov’s inner melodies easily turn static. Here they purr and slip by nicely.

Feltz is not afraid of happy energies, fortunately, and conducts joyously—as if this were the Borodin Second Symphony, which at its best dashes along with the uncomplicated zest of a puppy. Some versions of the Rachmaninoff, Dutoit’s, for instance, pare down the use of bass drums in the first movement central climax and a few other places. It’s an attempt to “de-barbaricize” the music and turn it into a more genteel piece. This doesn’t work. The symphony just becomes lugubrious. Feltz includes every thwack. And for the first time, the finale ends sweepingly and excitingly the way you expect it to. Most conductors struggle through the last bars like moving men with a crate, half-dropping it twice on a stair landing. Feltz strides up to the stairs and punches them out! This may well be the best performance yet.

1860 portrait of Bedrich Smetana with his second wife Bettina

1860 portrait of Bedrich Smetana with his second wife Bettina.

SMETANA Má vlastJakub Hrůša, conductor; Bamberg SymphonyOrchestra TUDOR 7196 (Streaming audio: 80:41)

Bedrich Smetana’s symphonic cycle, Má vlast, like all great music, is universal in beauty. But there is no denying it speaks to the Czech patriotic heart in an individual way. The work’s title is frequently mistranslated “My Country” or “My Fatherland”, notions that speak only to pride. There is no adequate word in English, but a fuller equivalent would be “My Homeland”, as discussed by the notes in some detail.  The essence of feeling in the music is nostalgia, almost as if Smetana were the Stephen Foster of his country—pining for the “old Kentucky home” he left behind. Of course, Smetana was not an exile. His nostalgia was for the country he wanted his homeland to have been—then just being properly formed as an independent nation. In all its picturesque beauty, the music is filled as much with sweet regret and the wisdom of experience as flag-waving drama and forward movement. It alternates almost equally between static contemplation and proclamation—making it hard to tie together in the concert hall. A good performance both sweeps the listener along and blinks stoically through tears to say “You can’t go home again”.

Authentic versions of these tone poems generally feature Czech performers or, in this case, a Czech conductor and an orchestra originally founded in 1946 by German players expelled from Czechoslovakia at the end of WWII. This is music with a national “accent”, and it always helps to have a sense of that special timbre. It’s beautifully achieved here. Jakub Hrůša has written the CD’s insightful program notes and reveals himself to be as deeply dedicated to Smetana as a conductor could possibly be. He recorded Má vlast with the Prague Philharmonia a few years ago—a lyrical, small scale reading—the orchestra only features 55 players. And if you scroll through YouTube, you’ll find him far afield with a version by the Seoul Philharmonic. Hrůša, a now rapidly rising conductor, has just been appointed Music Director in Bamberg. This CD is his first release with the orchestra and in my opinion, a triumph of balanced energy, gentle emotion and clear sound. The Bamberg sonority is not luxurious, but this doesn’t detract from the performance. There is a built-in severity to much of the music.

Má vlast hasn’t been that lucky in the studio. The full cycle isn’t recorded that often. Interpretations by Czech conductors, such as Kubelik, Neumann and Bělohlávek were compromised for decades by poorly engineered sound, miked behind the Iron Curtain. Kubelik’s last go-round (1990) with the Czech Philharmonic on Supraphon is digital and reflects an intense performance in celebration of his country’s “velvet” revolution. James Levine’s CD with the Vienna Philharmonic now shows its age, too—sounding metallic, with glaring brass. Harnoncourt, also in Vienna, lacks forward motion and is too slow. Until recently, the best other modern versions were from Neeme Järvi—a highly kinetic performance by the Detroit Symphony for Chandos and Claus Peter Flor’s CD with the Malaysian Philharmonic on BIS. Neither interpretation, unsurprisingly, sounds particularly Czech.

This one does. There is something beguiling and profoundly right about Hrůša’s way with the music. Kinetic moments are at usual tempo, with fine energy. The fugal elements in Tabor sweep along in full spark, bringing to mind Walton’s headlong charge in Henry V. And nobody does the “dog-walk” in Blanik better. (In case you wonder what on earth I mean, thirty seconds into this movement, Smetana composes two minutes of sheer animal trotting. Maybe it’s meant to depict horses seen at a distance, but I vote for the lighter footfall of paws….) All this comes off exceptionally well.

Where Jakub Hrůša shines best, though, is in the quieter touches of sadness and hesitation. This is ultimately an introverted reading. His Moldau may be upstaged by Karajan’s 1970s EMI performance for sheer smooth luxury—if rivers can be luxurious—but that’s the only arena in which Hrůša  need give quarter emotionally. This is a satisfying version of Má vlast —taken in totality as a recording—and a privileged glimpse into the human heart.

Ralph Vaughan Williams conducting

Ralph Vaughan Williams conducting

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Job. Symphony No. 9 • Andrew Davis, conductor; Bergen  Philharmonic Orchestra

CHANDOS CHSA 5180 (Streaming audio: 77:29)

This immensely appealing new CD from Sir Andrew Davis features an appropriate pairing—Vaughan Williams’s comforting dance-meditation on old age and suffering—and the striving final symphonic work of his life—bookends. The composer died in 1958, just hours before Sir Adrian Boult recorded his Ninth Symphony on 35mm film for Everest. That performance—with its special urgency, sense of loss and nearly digital sound—would be hard to surpass. It’s been part of my DNA now for five decades. But it isn’t the only way to do the piece.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Job was conceived as a full-scale symphonic ballet, inspired by William Blake’s woodcuts, and first performed by the composer at the 1930 Norwich Festival. A year later it was premiered on the London stage in reduced form, fulfilling its title, A Masque for Dancing. Herbert Howells once suggested Job captures “movement in tranquility.” True, but for those who love the music, there is more to it than understated ballet.

Job is written in an arc—from serenity to Satan—and back. It’s louder portions veer towards the deliberately ugly, culminating, you might say, in the Devil blaring away at the organ. It’s the sweetness and serenity of bewitching melodies, though, that stays with the listener. Serenity in the music of Vaughan Williams is a deceptive thing, because it runs deep. It doesn’t signify simple contentment, good spirits or the sensual appreciation of nature and love. Oh, those elements are there, all right. But Vaughan Williams makes you fear losing them.

It’s like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s distinction in This Side of Paradise: “The sentimentalist thinks things will last. The romantic knows desperately that they will not….” There is something muted and timeless about the beauty here—immutable. You come away shedding a tear for everything beautiful you’ve known. The courtly dances with which Vaughan Williams dresses-up his modal harmonies, though looking backward, only serve to remind the listener that this has all happened before—maybe to Job—maybe to you—that this is reality—that it will continue—and that you won’t—at least not here. You could say Vaughan Williams teaches acceptance.

Much is written about the Vaughan Williams Ninth Symphony, as well, in terms of tragedy and death and its “lastness”—just as so much discussion of the Fourth Symphony revolves around its supposed prediction of WWll. As it happens, the composer’s wife Ursula commented on both notions. The Fourth Symphony, she explained, had more to do with RVW’s temper and the slamming of doors than anything. So much for Hitler in the 1931 crystal ball. And the Ninth Symphony, which smashes its way towards finality never quite making up its mind whether to be in major or minor key? A great statement about death? Probably not. “It’s just like him!” she said.

To this listener, who first brought home that Everest LP as a teenager, there is nothing of death in this symphony. It’s always been wonderfully creepy and powerful, with chromatic yearning and modal energy in equal measure—and real person emotions. The slow movement’s main theme, for instance, is basically “Heh, Heh, Heh” twelve times over, but contrasted with one of those surging threnodies RVW could write which soar only to fall back knowingly to earth. The Scherzo trips over itself to start a new tempo and sports a crazy cadenza. Three noodling saxophones—heard throughout the piece— give it a wonderful “kitchen sink” English feel, a sense of cockney energy ready to burst beyond the bounds of something. (This was the “kitchen sink” era, after all, of Rita Tushingham and Laurence Harvey.)  The Finale is a beautifully worked out journey, fugal, knowing, inevitable and as we suggested with the help of Lady Vaughan Williams—ambiguous. Midway through is to be found an unforgettable, haunting passage for horn and trumpet over quiet timpani. Forget death—you are way beyond it—somewhere in the far reaches of the solar system.

Where performances are concerned, Sir Andrew Davis is fractionally faster in both pieces and to a similar degree less immediately sentimental than Sir Adrian Boult on EMI. Otherwise, these readings are mainstream and very effective. This is the first time I have heard the Bergen Philharmonic perform Vaughan Williams. It has a tendency to bury the brass and percussion in its string sonority—a quality which taken to the extreme in, say, the Vienna Philharmonic—would make a performance totally un-English. I found myself turning up the volume repeatedly to “get inside” the sound. Fortunately, the Bergen musicians and Sir Andrew know better than to apply Wagnerian sonorities to the music. So it retains its snarky Englishness, if a touch more politely than for Boult. The Bergen recorded sound would be hard to improve upon.

This CD rounds out the Chandos Vaughan Williams symphonic cycle originally intended for Richard Hickox, who died before completing it. The only competitive modern version of Job comes from David-Lloyd Jones on Naxos—brassier and bigger in concept than the Davis—more romantic. Chandos also publishes a fine symphonic set from the 1980s, led by Bryden Thomson—unfortunately minus Job, which he never recorded. Thomson is fast in the Ninth. And his brass is much more cutting, hurling itself into the E-minor breach like Sibelius in the First Symphony. Boult is more massive. Davis splits the difference.

Whatever you do, don’t split. Listen!

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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