A Crop of Recordings XXI: Brahms, Pierné, and Mahler

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Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms

BRAHMS Symphonies 1-4 • Andris Nelsons, conductor; Boston Symphony Orchestra BSO Classics BSOCL1701 (Streaming audio: 2:48:13) Live: Boston 11/2016 https://youtu.be/D1OShulGgYI

It’s good to have Brahms symphonies from the Boston Symphony once again. They sound right, with caveats. A full cycle hasn’t been a reliable tradition since Koussevitzky. Charles Munch recorded only three of the symphonies on LP in Boston. Erich Leinsdorf did produce as set, but Seiji Ozawa recorded merely the First in 1977 for DGG, and Bernard Haitink’s Philips CDs from the early nineties disappeared pretty much as soon as they were released. There were no BSO Brahms symphonies released by James Levine with the orchestra during his tenure. The Boston Symphony has always been a European-leaning ensemble, less “Hollywood” in sonority than the Philadelphia Orchestra and minimally “Broadway” in energy compared with the New York Philharmonic. Symphony Hall’s burnished acoustic, a byproduct of sonic archery from its cupids in alcoves, its high ceilings and a pliant wooden floor, is a conspirator in this and ideally suited for Brahms. 

So too, you might think, is Andris Nelsons. Nelsons is a success as Music Director in Boston, where his rich personal sense of drama dovetails well with the throbbing string layers and rounded brass and woodwind corners he seeks to achieve in the hall. If ever there were a conductor suitable for Strauss, Bruckner and Wagner, this is it. I’d add Brahms, except I find Nelsons mistakes Brahms for Wagner a bit too often here. This Brahms is too seamless and otherworldly. But it’s certainly gorgeous. The Boston Symphony is in remarkable form, every transition a subtle insinuation, and the sound all one could wish for, spacious, deeply terraced and solid.

Here we have conducting of the old North German school: rich, gleaming Brahms, every change-point pensive and rapt. Barenboim and Thielemann come to mind, with Nelsons occupying a middle ground between the heavy Furtwängler-like ebb and flow of Barenboim and Thielemann’s monolithic power. I contrast this approach with the lighter, more graceful “South German” Brahms of Thomas Hengelbrock, whose new CDs of  two Brahms symphonies with the Elbphilharmonie I review with considerable delight in this issue of Fanfare, as well.

Nelsons is prima facie what Sir Thomas Beecham mischievously termed a “ritardando conductor”. The result isn’t necessarily slow, but with Nelsons things tend to go mushy and dreamy. The first movement of Symphony No. 1 goes by pretty fast, but it slithers. And its quieter moments seem to be hunting for Tristan. (Contrast Abbado/Berlin on DGG in the first movement introduction, at a similar basic tempo, and you will know what it feels like to be beaten-up by double basses. Any one of the climaxes Abbado produces in the symphony will punch and sear more than here.)

I’m not certain any of this poses a problem, though, except that one can love a piece of music to death.  We have for the most part mellow, mainstream conducting here. I’ll simply say Andris Nelsons is frequently rescued throughout this set of symphonies by a burst of energy, as he teeters on the brink of too much affection. But it is still a beautiful experience to hear how the horns play off each other in the finale of the First Symphony and witness throughout how much power the BSO strings are capable of mustering. It’s idiomatic-sounding Brahms.

The four performances are consistent. I find the first movement of the Second Symphony too emotional here, offering itself too many opportunities to slow down and kiss its future, but there is a brooding quality to the result that some will like. Nelsons skips the exposition repeat. Good thing, at this tempo. You’d miss your bus to the development. The finale doesn’t lumber.  but it doesn’t electrify, either, the way Karajan used to. Slow oscillating horns in the second movement are magical and haunting, the sort of effect Nelsons is good at.

Nelsons’s way with the Third Symphony is swift and graceful, gently emotional and a bit expansive and Parsifal-like at the end, and the Fourth Symphony’s slow movement, heart of the piece, manages ultimately that deep special purr which tells you all is right in Brahms’s world. Nelsons is decently kinetic in the Allegro Giocoso, but I’m sometimes struck by the notion that if this conductor cannot make a phrase swoon, (and there is no way to do so in this movement), he becomes ordinary.  Other conductors have made more of it.

Here we are then: a full modern set of Brahms Symphonies from the Boston Symphony. They are bit on the dreamy side, but then, after so many decades with gaps in the catalog, one hardly expected this orchestra to record them at all.  I must be dreaming.


Gabriel Pierné in 1898

Gabriel Pierné in 1898

PIERNÉ Ramuntcho: Suites Nos. 1 & 2. Cydalise et le chèvre-pied: Suite No. 1 (excerpts), No. 2   Darrell Ang, conductor; Lille National Orchestra ● ?☛⦸✗☒? 8.573609 (Streaming audio: 62:02) https://www.naxosmusiclibrary.com/catalogue/item.asp?cid=8.573609

1937 wasn’t such a good year for French composers. If you were Maurice Ravel, Albert Roussel or Gabriel Pierné, you died. If you were lucky, your reputation lived. If you were Gabriel Pierné, it mostly didn’t, survived as you were for decades by a “March of the Fauns” and an occasional piece for harp and orchestra. Pierné didn’t leave behind the same body of orchestral work as the others, but by the 1970s a much deserved revival nonetheless occurred, principally with excerpts from the ballet Cydalise et le chèvre-pied (the Satyr), recorded by Paul Paray with the O.R.T.F. and a bit later by Jean-Baptiste Mari with The Paris National Opera Orchestra for EMI. Both efforts are still alive and well on YouTube, as is an earlier recording led by the composer. 

Pierné’s full score to Cydalise dates from 1915 and mimics Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, premiered two years earlier, in length and use of a wordless chorus. The ballet is not so seamlessly evolving and hall-friendly a work as Ravel’s, still containing closed form “numbers” and making insufficient use of the chorus to justify being often staged. So David Shallon and the Luxembourg Philharmonic, who released the full ballet in 2009 for Timpani in wonderful SACD sound, not to mention great insight and affection, pretty much have the field to themselves. Theirs is a stunning, gorgeous account.

That situation changes little here, though I greatly enjoy this new release. My complaint is that we get here only about half of the first suite from Cydalise. A much fuller account is the set of selections recorded by Jean-Baptiste Mari, still without the choral portions, but much closer to being complete. It also includes a fine version of the Ramuntcho music. Caveat in place, Darrell Ang turns out to be a spirited conductor, and Naxos has given him fine sound, with pleasant depth where Pierné combines bass drum rolls with timpani, as is his wont. An amusing selection is the Dance of Styrax, a sort of syncopated hoof-kicking conga for the lead dancer dressed as a goat. I once heard it announced over the radio as “Dance of the Steers”, which would have been even more amusing and doubtless suited its belligerence, if cattle had taken to shoving their necks sideways and swaying to the music. No such luck.

If I seem to be discussing this program backwards, it’s because Cydalise et le chèvre-pied is a remarkably accomplished work, harmonically. It sounds as advanced as Roussel’s Bacchus et Ariane, written fifteen years later, indeed quite similar. Pierné’s style borrows propulsion from Stravinsky in the same way, melded with folk feeling from Fauré and delicacy from Renaissance dance. The mix is recognizably French, with high spirits and high piccolos fresh and breathy as countryside. Above and beyond any such description is the intangible. This is inspired music. It wears well.

Ramuntcho dates from 1908 and contains a greater variety of tone painting than Cydalise, more cinematic and less Stravinskian.  The ballet is based on Pierre Loti’s colorful 1897 novel of romance and loss in Basque country. (A soldier returns home to find his girlfriend has entered a nunnery. She dies of anxiety trying to decide whether to go back to him. Just another cheerful nineteenth-century plot!) The ballet was a success largely due to its ability to scene paint and bring the novel alive. This it does beautifully, and it captures Basque spirit perfectly from the very first tableau, a Zortzico, the traditional Basque dance in dotted ⅝.

Ramuntcho has been lucky on modern CD. Juanjo Mena and the BBC Philharmonic recorded a romantic, lush version for Chandos in 2011. Darrell Ang brings us a touch more sinew. But more Pierné, please! He died eighty years ago. This revival is both timely and overdue.


Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler

MAHLER Symphony No. 5  • Osmo Vänskä, conductor; Minnesota Orchestra BIS 2226 (SACD: 75:30)

Here is a fascinating Mahler Fifth, pure in conception from beginning to end, almost a cerebral meditation on itself, all the more interesting brought to us from a conductor known mostly for his Sibelius. It would be hard to intuit a priori how Osmo Vänskä might conduct Mahler, but my personal clue is the unearthly way he approaches late Sibelius: as if it were Webern, each chord and sequence perfectly illuminated like a museum jewel on a pedestal. This is beautiful Mahler in a glass case

I’ve never heard the symphony so successfully taken “uptown” before. It’s even more refined than Karajan’s DGG version from 1976. Although Vänskä chooses normal basic tempos, disruptive vulgarities of “the street” are missing, and we are elevated above them. This is not pictorial Mahler, wilfully crude Mahler, nor sensual sweeping Mahler in the usual sense. But it isn’t quite the byproduct of an engineering mind, either. It’s not proto-Hindemith. It’s scholarly, meditative Mahler. The Adagietto has us gently holding hands in a quiet, serene heaven where palms never perspire and everyone collects stamps. It’s the quietest I have ever heard.

Maybe I shouldn’t have picked on Hindemith. I keep thinking of this performance as a perfect machine, like an engine in a plastic block, where you see all the parts moving and sliding to perfection. The Minnesota Orchestra and BIS have produced a remarkable X-ray of the score (with a dynamic range to test the threshold of hearing), and one takes it all in with fascination. Vänskä reminds me a good bit of George Szell in his desire to achieve clarity, and this is impossible to pull off with a truly precipitate view of Mahler. Missing here is the sort of slithery fever Sir Georg Solti would bring to the finale or a kind of louche coyness Maazel would insert into the Scherzo’s little waltz. But Vänskä keeps us interested, shifting gears wherever the next bar can be made clearer or more beautiful. He’s not a robotic driver. He’s a pointillist.

A good example would be the opening funeral march. I’d call it “erratically stiff”, made up of shorter, more clipped chords than usual, yet not totally predictable. There’s something about the wooden way it lurches along that reminds one of sputtery civic funerals on silent film before the First World War and keeps you listening. There are times when this way of conducting the symphony leaves one yearning for sheer abandon. That’s the assessment each listener must make for oneself. I vacillate. The noble second movement brass chorale, which returns at the end of the piece, is voiced here as if on the parade ground, perfectly done, but slightly discreet at the music’s triumphal end. Maybe someone is taking a nap in heaven.

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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