Gardner Read, Symphony No. 2 (1942) • Gardner Read, cond; Boston Symphony Orchestra • YouTube (Streaming audio: 23:58) https://youtu.be/cp7WtB2Ps-0
If you ever wondered who stole a Paderewski Prize from under the nose of Leonard Bernstein’s Jeremiah Symphony, here is the culprit, and here is the work that did it. It’s better than you think. Gardner Read (1913-2005) seems to have been one of those composers who wins competitions and gets punished by history for it. His music skirts the wild edges of the safe and known. Dismissed by Copland as “too romantic,” Read has largely been forgotten.You can find three of his symphonies on YouTube. But although the composer lived until his nineties in Manchester-by-the Sea, Massachusetts, I had never heard a note of his music before curiosity about the Second Symphony drove me to the bizarrely wonderful and nightmarish work it turned out to be.
I need to warn you that the Boston Symphony is recorded here in 1942 with a hash of distortion, though you can derive some comfort for the strings by virtue of an expansive Symphony Hall acoustic.There is an immense amount of hiss, and every brass climax is so broken up with intermodulation distortion, you practically need scientific instruments to determine which chords were actually intended. Still, the piece has a unique quality, and the gritty, wretched recording almost adds to it.
The work is in one continuous movement, like the Barber First Symphony, beautifully structured and worked out. It’s a fast-moving creepy-crawly emotional nightmare, not just warlike and newsreel influenced, as with so many symphonies of this era, but the kind of music that runs you flat-out, so frightened you don’t catch your breath for more than a few seconds at a time. Then it’s off and running again from some horrible fate to the accompaniment of garbage can lids flying in alleys and cars screeching to a halt in front of you in the dark, their headlight beams bouncing, as you scream endlessly for the help that does not come and pray for speed from legs that scarcely move. With this symphony Gardner Read invents a harmonic language for the cold war horror picture. It’s the music of nakedly paranoid hysteria. Think: Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Imagine you are Samuel Barber. One morning you awaken to a large human-sized pod from outer space growing in the basement. It makes chromatic snarling noises like Alban Berg and Paul Hindemith in a very bad mood, and gradually develops facial features like your own. You are suddenly overcome with a state of hysterics and compose a Second Symphony. This is what Gardner Read’s music sounds like. The woodwinds are always shrieking “Look out!” Things are always going crash-bang. Only towards the end do you experience some curiously riveting, emotional music. It’s redemptive. But it’s doomed. That’s what seems to grip you. In Gardner Read’s Second Symphony the pods win!
Hans Pfitzner, Symphony in C-Sharp Minor • Christian Thielemann, conductor; Munich Philharmonic Orchestra • MUNICH PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA 0793052112257 (Streaming audio: 41:51) Live: Munich 2/13/2008
Hans Pfitzner is likely the German post-Romantic composer hardest to love. He sounds like Brahms without melodies, Schmidt without uplift, Schreker without luxury, Mahler without neurosis, Berg without eeriness, Strauss without sex, and Hindemith sans brass bands. Simply put, Pfitzner is a chromatic downer. The Second Symphony in C-sharp minor was derived from the 1922 Second String Quartet, Op. 36 and orchestrated by the composer in 1933. It’s considered to be his best symphony, though there are few recordings. A later Symphony in C, Op. 46 at one time attracted considerable attention from the likes of Karl Böhm, Herbert von Karajan, and Georg Tintner. Our piece in question, by contrast, remains something of an orphan.
That tends to be the fate of symphonies derived from chamber music. They fall into pattern-sameness and eventually bore. In this instance, we could use a lot more percussion, but of course there is no way a string quartet can really evoke timpani, bass drum and cymbals. The resulting symphony is in four traditional long-limbed movements, all essentially comprised of the same textures endlessly unfurling, the finale an elaborate rondo which pulls together everything that has come before. The scherzo is Mahlerian and a little tighter. But overall you have to be careful not to turn the music into amorphous sludge. Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt and Joseph Keilberth championed the piece, but there exists only one digital CD I know of, a winning 1993 release from Werner Andreas Albert and the Bamberg Symphony on CPO.
And then there’s this one from 2008, just released. The Pfitzner Second does slowly grow on you. But a quick YouTube comparison with the Schmidt-Isserstedt or Keilberth reveals Thielemann’s ponderous tendencies at work. His performance fails to soar. Pfitzner’s music is orchestrated so thickly to begin with, your ears are thirsty for light and altitude. Thielemann stresses everything that is heavy and opaque. Energy is low. The music meanders and plods. The Munich Philharmonic play well and are well recorded. But the CD brings little pleasure. This is romanticism for depressives.
Bruckner, Symphony No. 1 (1891 Vienna revision, ed.G. Brosche). March in D Minor. 3 Pieces • Gustavo Gimeno, conductor; Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra • PENTATONE PTC 5186 613 (Streaming audio: 63:06) https://www.naxosmusiclibrary.com/catalogue/item.asp?cid=PTC5186613Here is a wonderful CD from unexpected sources. I’ve never thought of the Luxembourg Philharmonic in terms of Bruckner before, and I remain still largely unfamiliar with Gustavo Gimeno, the orchestra’s Valencia-born Music Director since 2015. But Pentatone usually knows what it’s doing, and that turns out to be no exception here. Gimeno, once a percussionist with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, ultimately served as assistant to Claudio Abbado. The older conductor’s considerable influence appears to be on impressive display here. Gimeno emerges a superb Brucknerian, directing phrases richly polished like Abbado’s with a sure sense of sonority, breathing and destination. He balances the orchestra rock-solidly from the bottom-up, illuminating even better than his mentor Bruckner’s deeply gruff symphonic journey and capturing without accent its proper Teutonic demeanor. The Luxembourg Philharmonic sports captivating dark horns, notably more vivid than Abbado’s in the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, and real standouts in the Scherzo. This performance is so accomplished and the Pentatone sound so involving, I’ve had a hard time moving on to other listening. It’s that good. Yet I’m of two minds and find I miss Eliahu Inbal for Teldec or Daniel Barenboim with his Berlin Staatskapelle on Universal, just to name two who have recorded the earlier “Linz” edition with electrifying energy.
Readers will note that the Luxembourgers bring us here the Bruckner First Symphony’s more luxurious, so-called “Vienna” revision of 1891. Abbado also favored this score in his 2012 Lucerne Festival CD for Accentus. I’m not so sure I do. Bruckner suffered misfortune with editors and with conductors who didn’t understand his music. But here, I’d argue he visited misfortune on himself.
There’s a parallel to be made with Mendelssohn and a late revision of the Italian Symphony. Mendelssohn died before he was able to rewrite the first movement, but couldn’t resist modernising the Pilgrim’s March into something hard-to-hum, adding memory-challenging chromatic twists to the Minuet, and creating all sorts of diversions in the Finale, interrupting its purpose. Such December/May revisions tend to be uncomfortable hybrids. Bruckner, just completing his Eighth Symphony, also in C minor, seems determined to thicken every chord here and alter each simple melody and horn call to match the chromatic temperament of the larger work. But this elephantiasis ill-suits a formerly thrusting, athletic symphony. It sounds as though someone let Arnold Bax loose on Beethoven’s Fifth! Almost all memorable moments have been replaced by something less direct.
Until recently, performances of the Bruckner First mostly used the 1877 Nowak “Linz” edition: far leaner and fascinatingly aggressive. Gone from the symphony’s revised 1891 edition is its menacing horn call midway through the Finale. Gone in the same movement is the sense of being chased by a ticking time-bomb that overshoots and comes back to get you. Gone is most of the battling, slashing forward motion and many of the duels between timpani and raw-cutting brass. It’s all replaced by upholstery and gleaming thick chords modulating this way and that. These are beautiful in their own way, but….
The incidental pieces on this CD are early and reveal Bruckner sounding more Mendelssohnian than one would suppose. You wouldn’t guess the composer at first. But a certain gruffness in the March in D minor and a tendency to compose awkward, start/stop transitions in the three remaining pieces reassures us that Bruckner is in there somewhere, waiting to come out. I just wish he had stayed in Linz!
SAINT-SAËNS Piano Concerto No. 3. Rhapsodie d’Auvergne. Africa. Caprice-Valse • Romain Descharmes (piano); Marc Soustrot, conductor; Malmö Symphony Orchestra • NAXOS 8.573477 (Streaming audio: 57:16) https://www.naxosmusiclibrary.com/catalogue/item.asp?cid=8.573477
This delightful new CD of Camille Saint-Saëns’s Third Piano Concerto not only transcends its lagging popularity among the five with a beautiful performance, but sheds a good deal of light on the composer, himself. Saint-Saëns, like Liszt, was a human workshop of musical invention and influence. He didn’t always go radically far with what he tried but was determined to be modern. You encounter his experimental mentality here. The Piano Concerto No. 3 dates from 1869 and is superficially a three movement work of the expected sort in E-flat, with a rondo finale. But it’s interesting to see what Saint-Saëns was already toying with.
His previous concerto had begun with a cadenza hinting of Bach, unusual enough in its day. This one opens with an almost de Falla level of sinuous swirling piano and French horn atmospherics, evoking a dazed, hypnotic sense of something exotic and North African. The first movement takes time settling into key this way and traces not only chromatic curves but throws structural ones: it features a cadenza before the development, just to keep listeners on their toes. It’s 1869. Yet from the flowing pyrotechnics you might think Rachmaninoff or Ravel just around the corner.
This is nothing, though, compared to the Andante, where hushed strings and a heart-tugging Elgarian melody ravish listeners decades before time. There’s even a quick quote from Tristan, just to make sure we get it. In other places, the music turns “Middle Eastern” once again, a recurring notion in Saint-Saëns. This movement confused listeners of the day with seemingly meandering harmonic phrases, but the impact of its main melody remains far more touching, romantic and nostalgic than the pro forma sentiment Saint-Saëns would write into his adagio for the “Organ” Symphony seventeen years later. There are moments here which would work in a 1940s Gene Tierney film.
In his Finale, Saint-Saëns snaps back into format with a virtuosic Chopinesque rondo and an easily hummable melody. One becomes ever more aware in this movement what a superb pianist Romain Descharmes is. Throughout this concerto and the more incidental pieces, we encounter from Descharmes the sort of intuitive phrasing, Gallic spirit and warm easy virtuosity which will surely make him a pre-eminent French pianist in this repertory. Move over, Pascal Rogé and Jean-Yves Thibaudet! Here is soft, seductive, supple pianism, with just the right touch of energy and feathery runs. Not to be left out of the considerable praise intended, Marc Soustrot and his Swedish orchestra are on the same page throughout and ravishingly recorded. The integrated balance between piano and orchestra is perfection itself and the venue in Malmö ideal for this exceptionally fine orchestra. I don’t know when I have enjoyed Saint-Saëns so much!
Our three incidental pieces, played and directed in the same spirit, represent Saint-Saëns at a later stage. But it’s interesting to note: despite a greater sense of assurance, he takes no further harmonic risks than in 1869. His pleasant Rhapsodie d’Auvergne dates from 1884. Most listeners know their musical Auvergne through folk-tune song arrangements by Joseph Canteloube. None of Canteloube’s famous Auvergne ditties is actually used here. But the main melody is genuinely from Auvergne: Saint-Saëns encountered a washerwoman singing it in her backyard. It has the same sort of dreamy longing found in Canteloube, though the piano and orchestra eventually go on to Lisztian virtuosity, as they do in Africa. One does, though, ultimately suppose Auvergne the gentlest of provinces.
At the other end of the exotic spectrum on our CD is found the kittenish “Wedding-cake” Waltz for the composer’s pianist friend, Caroline de Serres, written in 1886. It celebrates her marriage with simple high spirits and clever modulation, capturing champagne bubbles on the dance floor. No Berliozian giddiness or Ravelian sense of disturbance spoils the ball. Saint-Saëns was never seriously interested in menace. Nor, puzzlingly did he ever seem to go any further in the harmonic directions he might have been expected to take after the Third Concerto in 1869. At a crossroads with signs pointing to Wagner, Debussy, Strauss and Mahler, Saint-Saëns turned back in his next concerto: to Mozart. But I look forward to hearing what Descharmes and Soustrot do with it. This cycle represents some of the best Saint-Saëns music-making in a long while.
BRAHMS Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4 • Thomas Hengelbrock, conductor; NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra • SONY CLASSICAL 88985405082 (Streaming audio: 75:42) https://youtu.be/hJknAA1aoL4
Here is a first commercial recording from Hamburg’s spectacular new Elbphilharmonie, miked in November 2016 with its renamed orchestra before the hall opened. It’s a delightful release sonically and a breath of fresh air as a set of performances. We may not have here the equivalent of Jimmy Carter essaying a Boston accent, but this supple, amiable new CD does represent what Gramophone has rightly called South German Brahms. Hamburg, with a famously buttoned-up Protestant temperament, was Brahms’s home city, and his symphonies in the hands of NDR have always been weighty, powerful experiences for serious burghers. It’s the sort of place where your aunt’s offer of a second piece of cake and another sherry means “Please leave!”
Thomas Hengelbrock, the Elbphilharmonie Orchestra’s Music Director since 2011, is not well-known stateside except as a co-founder of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, but his NDR symphonic post is an important one, following in the footsteps of Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, Christoph Eschenbach and Christoph von Dohnanyi. And indeed, I sense in Hengelbrock a musician of stature. His Elbphilharmonie is world-class here and profoundly subtle, with a special capacity for effortless phrasing.
These performances are characterized by any number of gentle moments of interplay where the music seems to dovetail with little flips of sound and open its heart. Woodwinds are feather-light and float beautifully in the new Elbphilharmonie acoustic. Lower strings purr. Horns are gorgeous, more luminous than heavy. High strings caress without fingernails.The dominant impression you have is how comfortable, legato and easy everything seems. Here is Brahms sashaying down the tracks, balancing on a rail. This is not chest-crushing, awkward Brahms. Bigger moments remain fleet and amiable, but electrifying just the same. The Allegro Giocoso is especially exciting. Hengelbrock’s timpanist clearly loves violent sforzandos! Drum sonority rolls around the hall seductively. And the rich slow movement string melody in the Fourth Symphony, I’d argue, is as consoling and ecstatic as you’ll hear anywhere. I don’t know what makes me happier—the wonderful new hall—or the intuitive playing evoked by Thomas Hengelbrock. The NDR in this hall may well flourish as a great orchestra—not just a solid one.
But you will certainly do a double-take upon hearing the strange first two notes of the Brahms Fourth Symphony on this CD. Hengelbrock performs for us the plagal cadence Brahms originally wrote to introduce the opening melody. The two chords were in the autograph score but never made it to publication and practice. They unnecessarily mimic the end of the movement—minus timpani albeit—and transition to the opening melody with an awkward orchestral gulp. Brahms’s wiser judgment seems to have prevailed, but It’s interesting to hear the symphony in this form.
While the opening tempo of the Brahms Third Symphony here is swift, the way it was done fifty years ago, and nothing drags anywhere, one could argue that Hengelbrock has too slow a way with the third movement of this symphony, robbing it of some grace and giving the work two Andantes. Once again, though, the sounds from this new hall fall so kindly on the ear, you find yourself not minding. The performance is otherwise not unusual—just extremely pretty. And the Fourth Symphony here is even better than that. It’s the most enjoyable new version I’ve heard in years.
This may be Hamburg. And this may be Brahms. But when Hengelbrock offers us a second piece of cake and another sherry, I think he actually means it. I don’t suppose in Germany they call that “the South in your mouth,” but maybe they should.