A Crop of Recordings XXIV: Rued Langgaard, Ruth Gipps, Hubert Parry, Vilhelm Stenhammar, and Witold Lutosławski

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LANGGAARD Symphony No. 2¹, “Awakening of Spring”; No. 6, “The Heaven-Rending.” Unnoticed Morning Stars. GADE Tango Jalousie² ● ¹Anu Komsi (soprano), ²Sakari Oramo (violin), conductor; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra ● DACAPO 6.220653 (Streaming audio: 70:40) https://www.naxosmusiclibrary.com/catalogue/item.asp?cid=6.220653

Rued Langgaard

Rued Langgaard

“Let me please introduce myself. I am a gentleman of wealth and taste. And I laid traps for troubadours….” So goes the Rolling Stones song, Sympathy for the Devil. Danish audiences never quite knew what to make of Rued Langgaard, at once romantic composer and obsessive throwback to apocalyptic Christianity. His Sixth Symphony, officially termed “The Heaven-Rending,” later came to be known as “The Antichrist.” The Danes, hearing the struggle in his music and perhaps a bit fundamentalist at the time, were never sure on which side Langgaard stood! Langgaard was passionately convinced Satan operated in modern life as power behind the scenes, devilishly pulling the strings of music, culture and government—and was ultimately responsible for the First World War. A special culprit and convert to this evil, in Langgaard’s eyes, was Carl Nielsen, the celebrated Danish composer of his day, whose modernism and humanism Langgaard alternately copied and excoriated. These views and other personal eccentricities, plus music which over time gradually became episodic and minimalistic, ensured Langgaard would remain unpopular in his home country. 

Germany was another story. Langgaard’s First Symphony, “Pastorals of the Rocks,” written in his teens, was so impressive at a sight-reading, the Berlin Philharmonic premiered it in 1913 at a successful concert. It’s a beautiful work, full of melodic ideas, including a spectacular waltz in the first movement, and featuring one of those “summation finales” which perhaps tries too hard. But individual movements are gorgeous and imbued with genius and sweep. Langgaard proved himself at the outset a composer of hushed, reverential slow movements and passionate uplift. It would be in Germany that his Second and Sixth Symphonies would also make their mark. 

Langgaard’s Second Symphony, “Awakening of Spring,” is a fully successful work that charges out of the melodic box in B flat, every bit as fresh and winning as spring, itself. It sounds like something Hubert Parry wrote and Franz Schmidt revised. The first movement coda is a syncopated march made up of brass fanfares. It’s hard to keep your feet still and avoid jumping up for its sense of triumph! The slow movement is essentially a fervent prayer for strings. Langgaard makes use of a traditional Danish Christmas hymn to stunningly moving effect. And, indeed, the purpose of the symphony is to show the growth of a human soul in awareness before the mystery of life. It’s a “What’s it all about, Alfie?” sort of symphony. The finale is a sweeping, dramatic song for soprano and orchestra, redolent of something by Strauss or Elgar. The poem it sets by Emil Rittershaus has to do with mystical speculation. “Thought follows the larks,” writes Langgaard, “who seem to disappear into the eternal blue of the sky.” Hence the uplifting high voice of the soprano, her part beautifully rendered here by Anu Komsi. Langgaard then quotes Goethe’s famous final aphorism from Faust:“Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis.” (All that is transient is merely a parable). That seems to have been Langgaard’s default view of music in general.

Langgaard’s Sixth Symphony, “The Heaven Rending,” proceeds to be just that. The score’s inscription reads: “Then Jesus intervened with power, wrestling against the heaven-rending army of evil.” It’s a clever set of variations, deliberately alternating between a pure “moral” theme and Satan’s nasty take on it. Moreover, Langgaard conceived of this music as an attack on Carl Nielsen’s humanism, expressed in the Fourth Nielsen Symphony, “The Inextinguishable.” Like Nielsen, Langgaard uses two sets of timpani. At a critical moment, he comes up with 8 trumpets sounding from all sides of the concert hall. It is a battle worthy of the apocalypse. And here is where one realizes Nielsen was a genius and Langgaard can’t quite pull it off. It’s remarkable how much noise composers learned to make around 1914. (The original score of Langgaard’s Sixth Symphony dates from 1919, though it was revised numerous times later). But learning to do so in a way that moves as opposed to overwhelms has to do with features of harmony more than orchestration. The reason we listen happily to Strauss in a big “war” moment, or Respighi at his most massive, but tend to find similar music by d’Indy or, in this case, Langgaard, merely noisy, results from the predictability of the ever thickening harmonies.

Unnoticed Morning Stars, also performed here, is a movement from Langgaard’s 14th Symphony, written in 1947. By then, this composer’s works had become, let’s just say, a little bit odd, so I have nothing negative to say about Sakari Oramo’s choosing an incomplete snippet here from the Langgaard opus. It’s a lovely swan song of sorts, no more out of place than Strauss’s reversion to a simpler style in his sunset works.

The Vienna Philharmonic is in velvet form here, with unimaginably beautiful horns, and this time it’s recorded in the Konzerthaus, where sonority from a microphone perspective is often better than in the Musikverein. Sakari Oramo delivers romantic, intuitive performances. And for an encore, he plays the violin in Jacob Gade’s Tango Jalousie, which is probably the best known piece of Danish music ever composed. It originally appeared in a Douglas Fairbanks silent film ‘Don Q, Son of Zorro’. But it owes its fame to Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. No such luck for Langgaard’s own music.

This is a wonderful release. The Devil always does well in music. Releasing him can be exciting. As the Rolling Stones wrote: “Just call me Lucifer, ‘cause I’m in need of some restraint!” Try this.

GIPPS Symphonies Nos. 2 and 4. Knight in Armour. Song for Orchestra ● Rumon Gamba, conductor; BBC National Orchestra of Wales ● CHANDOS CHAN 20078 (Streaming audio: 69:20) https://www.naxosmusiclibrary.com/catalogue/item.asp?cid=CHAN20078

Ruth Gipps

Ruth Gipps

Gipps is a rare find: a mid-century English symphonist who never fell under the spell of Schoenberg or Stravinsky, who remained a romantic with something to say, and who was a woman. Ruth Gipps (1921-1999) began her career precociously and simultaneously as pianist, cor anglais player, and composer under the wing of Sir Henry Wood. She studied with Ralph Vaughan Williams and Arthur Bliss. A tone poem, Knight in Armour (1940), featuring the cor anglais with Gipps playing in the orchestra, first captured public attention, and her Second Symphony (1945), my favorite of the works here, was a submission for a “Victory Symphony” commission at the end of the Second World War. It didn’t win, but nonetheless saw a few performances. The Fourth Symphony, in a slightly more modern language, but nothing that would frighten our own Howard Hanson, dates from 1977 and was brought to public attention by Sir Arthur Bliss. 

Gipps spent much of her career as a founder of student orchestras and as an academic, teaching at the Royal College of Music, where she was ultimately forced to resign due to her hostility to dodecaphonic music. A somewhat combative personality, Gipps managed to hector and alienate the BBC in the press trying to obtain a broadcast of her Fourth Symphony. But her contribution to British musical life was ultimately recognized, and she received the MBE.

All well and good. But why should we like this music? What does it sound like? Set aside Vaughan Williams and Walton on their pedestals for a moment. And leave aside the strict serialists in their spare parts garages. Most of the rest of English symphonic music in the gritty kitchen sink fifties and sixties emerges sounding sarcastic to me, sociological, melodically defensive and bitter (think Malcolm Arnold). Ruth Gipps does not. Hers is celebratory, happy music. It aims to uplift. It isn’t too cool for its own good. Gipps doesn’t mind holding hands. The slow sections of her Second Symphony (in one movement) are gorgeous and reverential.

Gipps writes low for the orchestra, leading with purring horns and trombones over richly carpeted strings and percussion, like the film composer John Barry, sometimes like Holst. She orchestrates a full palette without getting grimly clotted, like Arnold Bax, or seeming generic, like Edmund Rubbra. Gipps’s music moves along sprightly. It has purpose, but it takes joy in emotion, dreaminess, and innocent daily bustle. It resembles Vaughan Williams in this. But it doesn’t suggest that composer’s modal rigors very often. Instead, it splays out beautifully into the cinematic lushness of the day. The two shorter pieces feature a good bit of diaphanous cor anglais playing in the English bucolic tradition. The Fourth Symphony, in four movements, declaims a bit more brassily than the Second and sounds more like a television score of the 1970s in its ruminative moments, but its modernity is only superficial. 

Rumon Gamba and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales are perfect for this gambit. This conductor specializes in ignored romantic music, and the sound is Chandos at its best. Ruth Gipps’s hopeful England appeals to me. Listen to her way with the moors and meadows, and you might think livestock could purr.

PARRY Symphony No. 4 (original version). Prosperine¹. Suite Moderne?● Rumon Gamba, conductor; National ¹Chorus and Orchestra of Wales ● CHANDOS CHAN10994 (Streaming audio: 74:59) https://www.naxosmusiclibrary.com/catalogue/item.asp?cid=CHAN10994

Sir Hubert Parry

Sir Hubert Parry

It’s always intriguing when a composer decides to revise a failed early work. Something is generally lost along with what is gained or improved, and other motives may be at work than a pure impulse to render the original music better—at worst simply a desire to be more modern. Sir Hubert Parry, for instance, is an important link in a musical chain that extends from Handel through Mendelssohn to Brahms and Sir Edward Elgar. He seems to have struggled for a while figuring out where he belonged on it. Parry’s Fourth Symphony, composed back to back with his prior one, was premiered in 1889 with Elgar sitting in the audience. But whatever Elgar may have thought of it, the music was received with indifference. Five weeks earlier, however, Parry’s Third Symphony, known as “The English,” had experienced a far more triumphant unveiling. It’s easy from this distance to see why, and also to understand why that work acquired the sobriquet it did. 

The Third Symphony tootles along pleasantly like Handel. It exhibits a sleek, nearly royal serenity as it spins out one gorgeous tune after another, sashaying down the street. It’s clearly English. The Fourth Symphony is longer, more notably “structured,” and in the grim raspy key of E Minor. It alternates between a certain amount of happy Handelian noodling and a more serious Brahmsian declamation. But given that Parry was reasonably happy with the two performances his symphony did receive in original form over the years, we might say it was imitating Brahms which did him in with the audience.

Twenty years later, Parry decided to revise the symphony, and did so massively in a Brahmsian and now Elgarian direction. He replaced the charming scherzo with a blowsier one that thunders Teutonically. Elsewhere, he gave the orchestration more power from timpani and the brass down below, recomposed almost entirely the outer movements and, you can argue, achieved a greater assurance. The original version’s first movement, for example, ends with some eccentric, awkward flourishes. The revised version is well voiced.

I’ve always loved the Parry Fourth in the only way one could know it, as grandly and solidly revised in 1909 by the composer (available on Chandos CHAN 9120(3) with Matthias Bamert), but after the initial shock of playing this release without reading the cover carefully and thinking I was being tricked by memory, I’ve come around to the idea of admiring this original version nearly as much. Rumon Gamba has done us a service. This version contains a tiny hushed intermezzo of great beauty which Parry later excised. The original scherzo has freshness and charm. The later one, totally new, lumbers. The first movement contains some lovely secondary material, which was also later excised. And since all the development sections are extremely different, we essentially have now two symphonies based on the same themes. One version, the original on this release, leans backward towards Handelian heart and dignity. The later one storms the ramparts somewhere between Brahms and Elgar. It’s up to you to decide where you lie on the mood scale between grace and bluster. I’d opt for the Mendelssohnian virtues with this piece.

The Fourth Symphony is framed on our recording by the tuneful early Suite Moderne and the late 1912 ballet Prosperine, written at the time of the Fifth Symphony. Both are gorgeous and nostalgic in their own way. Early Parry is unashamedly so. And the short ballet score indicates how effective was Parry’s ultimate style, foreshortened, perky, and noble without pomposity.

If your appetite is whetted for Parry by any of this, then let me suggest that he got things very right in his final, Fifth Symphony and you should listen to it. In something under twenty-five minutes, it is a thing of perfection, economy and heart. In recent decades, Matthias Bamert has been our only digital guide to Parry. Unfortunately, he leads a blustery, heavy-handed version of the Fifth for Chandos. I tell people to avoid it. Sir Adrian Boult’s EMI/Warner version from the late 1970s exists on YouTube and is head and shoulders better. (https://youtu.be/gINhWoPEDho)  I can only hope now that Rumon Gamba will record this music for us. It’s the sort of piece which makes you fall in love and then says goodbye too quickly. Meanwhile, beautifully recorded and conducted, we have this intriguing restored Fourth…

STENHAMMAR Symphony No. 2¹. Serenade?● Herbert Blomstedt, conductor; Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra?● BIS-2424 (Streaming audio: 82:11) Live: Gothenburg ¹2013/2014 https://www.naxosmusiclibrary.com/catalogue/item.asp?cid=BIS-2424

Vilhelm Stenhammar

Vilhelm Stenhammar

This eagerly awaited release brings Wilhelm Stenhammar’s two finest symphonic works under the wing of Herbert Blomstedt, Sweden’s grand old man of the baton. Blomstedt, now in his early nineties, has been ceremoniously taking both pieces on guest conducting rounds of late. I had the good fortune to hear him perform the symphony in San Francisco not long after these tracks were laid down. Here he leads both works gently and beautifully with the composer’s own orchestra. (The Second Symphony, in fact, was a special 1915 parting gift from Stenhammar to the musicians of the Gothenburg Symphony, where he had been chief conductor.) These performances, almost as if in memory themselves, radiate affection and good spirits in special hands. 

All of this, mind you, is to be understood in a very understated way. Stenhammar’s music is an interesting combination of Brahmsian sentiment, Bachian counterpoint, the occasional brass progression of Bruckner, and a special timeless quality which comes from harmonic suspension and orchestral trills expressed in ancient modes. This is romantic music, but it is also reserved, well-behaved, and Swedish. Compared with Mahler, for instance, one would say it totally lacked hysteria or neurosis, almost amusingly so. There’s a video of Blomstedt on YouTube speaking about the music. He closes it out looking you sternly in the eye like the Protestant clergyman he nearly is and laconically saying “I wish you a good time with it.” Not exactly invitation to an orgy!

Stenhammar’s rigorous but ascetic Second Symphony is a different animal from his orchestral Serenade—-in the same way Brahms’s Fourth Symphony differs from his own Serenade No. 1. All are big pieces. But the symphonies don’t trade in tone painting or sensuality. The Serenades do, are more luscious, more rhapsodic, and aim to evoke. Stenhammar’s Serenade is almost his Symphonia Domestica, judging from the way it pleasantly meanders, burbles and suggests. While it features the composer’s room-shaking experiments with pedal timpani and bass drum rolls, it also conjures up some of the most beautiful nostalgic melodies one could imagine. It’s supposedly set in Italy, but the music sounds like the memory of a Scandinavian summer night. In love with both, I have never been able to decide which piece I prefer.

The most exciting recorded performance of Stenhammar’s Second Symphony is still Neeme Järvi’s 1984 live BIS CD from the Bergen Festival with this same Gothenburg Symphony, a feverish affair with a wild timpanist and eager tempi. The first movement coda sounds like someone gone insane with a feather duster, and the double fugue in the finale comes at you like a Mack truck. It has a surging, noble excitement all its own. In comparison, it’s fair to say Herbert Blomstedt brings us less tension and release. But, as there sometimes is with elder conductors, a serene knowingness can be a fine substitute for nervous tension, and that’s the case here. 

Similarly, Järvi’s 1986 BIS release of the Serenade remains the most galvanic performance to date. But even in Blomstedt’s hands there is plenty of excitement. And he nearly breaks your heart at the end with the reverence he evokes. The scherzo features an oscillating, shaking, screaming climax that comes rolling downhill at you like an avalanche and explodes in your face. It’s the most original movement of a beautifully integrated piece. But there are many beauties along the way, all profoundly logical for seeming spontaneous. The Serenade begins with a sudden awakening of household bustle and five movements later finishes out the way it started. The music walks you affectionately home and nearly tucks you in bed. You hear it pad around a moment or two in stocking feet, then there is a little rustle, like mice in the wall saying goodnight. It’s that sort of piece. You come away from it warm and toasty the way you do from Hansel and Gretel. I only wish the music were that popular! Fine sound.

LUTOSŁAWSKI Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4; Jeux vénitiens?● Hannu Lintu, conductor; Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra ● ONDINE ODE 1320-5 (Streaming audio: 57:21) https://www.naxosmusiclibrary.com/catalogue/item.asp?cid=ODE1320-5

Witold Lutosławski. Photo Juliusz Multarzynski

Witold Lutosławski. Photo Juliusz Multarzynski

First symphonies by avant-garde composers often turn out to be the most enjoyable works they produce, at least as concert audiences might judge them. Tendencies which may later turn extreme and challenge patience are present in embryonic form. The composer aims not just to dazzle with a new voice, but works with and seeks to surpass an established tradition. Eager to please, he comes up with an illuminating screen dump of wonderful ideas. This form of originality can yield symphonic gems, especially when the composer has a talent for succinct organization at the start and doesn’t overdo it. 

Henri Dutilleux’s First Symphony, for example, employing Honegger as a springboard, always strikes me as containing far more enjoyable music than his ultra-sophisticated, dissonant and more famously dry Second Symphony. Similarly, Witold Lutosławski’s First Symphony (1941/1947) hits one between the eyes here with such originality and immediacy, you cynically suspect this is why one doesn’t run into it in the concert hall. Instead, the Fourth Symphony, a much later work in his most compressed style—more difficult to listen to—or the Concerto for Orchestra, a reasonably accessible late piece, are usually played.

I’m grateful to the liner notes here for mentioning Albert Roussel. That’s the light bulb which flashed on in my mind the moment I heard this music. Lutosławski’s First Symphony is the young composer’s answer to Roussel’s Third, and it’s nearly as good! Its primary similarity is the thrusting way the music moves and the way climaxes hit and release. Most of the Roussel hallmarks are there: the snarky short motifs, the rich brass/cymbals/bass drum roll climaxes of explosive size, the Stravinskian razzle-dazzle, the constant motion, a spectral waltz for a scherzo. 

What’s missing is Roussel’s warmth. Roussel’s melodic contours have their origin in Vincent d’Indy and retain the ability to melt your heart. Lutosławski’s motifs, by contrast, seem to devolve from Bugs Bunny or Tom the Cat: the sort of tinny chords you encounter in cartoons when somebody sticks his toe in a light socket and gets a shock. The razz captures your attention, but it doesn’t make you want to swoon! Another feature of Lutosławski’s tone palette, just emerging in this First Symphony, is his fondness for high string filigree of the icy sort and a reliance on cold metallic percussion sounds. Imagine yourself in an airplane hangar. Now drop a wrench on the concrete. That’s the sound of later Lutosławski, but it’s present here in early form. 

Jeux vénitiens dates from 1961 and is a case in point, a highly refined work of Lutosławski’s more abstract style, deft and a bit of a mind tease. But I’d much rather hear the First Symphony. Airplane hangars are lonely. And when I encounter the understated Fourth Symphony, contoured vaguely like the Sibelius Seventh, very telescoped, I am grateful that it keeps moving. That’s the Roussel influence. But there seems to be no humanity in it. 

All said and done, though, here is a sonically gorgeous release, beautifully conducted. It would be hard to improve upon it. Hannu Lintu is an ideal interpreter of the music, more transparent than Esa-Pekka Salonen, more energetic than Antoni Wit, and more penetrating and less glib than Edward Gardner with the BBC SO on Chandos, which is the Finnish Radio Symphony’s only modern sonic rival in this repertoire. Lutosławski’s First Symphony, especially, stands out here as an important contribution to the 1940s. This was the decade, after all, where music managed to make its peace with dissonance before dissonance, itself, decided to break off relations with the human ear. Tubin, Honegger, Dutilleux, Hindemith, Vaughan Williams, Martinů, and now Lutosławski, one might argue, wrote some of their best works then.

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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