A Crop of Recordings XXV: Gliere, Respighi, Lortzing, Antheil, and Wagner

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GLIÈRE Symphony No. 3, “Il’ya Muromets” ● Gabriel Feltz, conductor; Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra ●  DREYER GAIDO DGCD21112 (Streaming audio: 83:11) https://www.naxosmusiclibrary.com/catalogue/item.asp?cid=DGCD21112

Reinhold Glière

Reinhold Glière

Reinhold Glière was fortunate to thrive under Soviet Communism. A long-limbed bardic style, featuring haunting melodies evoking the Russian ecclesiastical past, ruffled no political feathers. Nor did velvety explorations of Scriabin-influenced chromaticism. He was never purged. But Glière paid a price for fame in the world of democracy and commerce, it would seem. His greatest work, the 1912 Mahler-length Symphony No. 3, “Il’ya Muromets”, was deemed “too long” for the concert hall in America. To ensure its presentation, Leopold Stokowski persuaded the composer to pare it down drastically, and it was in this incomplete condition that the work took root in Philadelphia and in American ears. 

It’s possible that Stokowski reduced the score even further as the years passed. By the time he recorded the symphony in stereo with the Houston Symphony in the late 1960s, a performance still available, “Il’ya Muromets” was down to 38 minutes. In its natural state, with a pedantic conductor like Harold Farberman, the piece comes in at 93 minutes! As someone who frequently experienced Stokowski live and noticed how much he cared for chromaticism, I have to laugh when I consider that Stokowski’s Houston recording of the slow movement features all the Scriabinesque windswept string filigree Glière wrote at the beginning and at the end, but leaves out entirely the main meat and melody of the movement! I would argue as well, that only the scherzo escaped Stokowski’s way with a medieval sword. The outer movements are hopelessly unbalanced. Arms and legs have been hacked off. Meanwhile John Cleese of the Pythons, it would seem, is telling us it’s “just a flesh wound”!

Eugene Ormandy, fortunately, took up the Philadelphia Glière tradition, too, and recorded “Il’ya Muromets” twice. I know the later RCA LP well, with good sound from 1972 and still available from ArkivMusic as a CD-R.  In Ormandy’s reduction, the work comes in at just under an hour and at least makes sense. Ormandy’s lush strings and splendiferous brass sound quite Russian, and Ormandy’s swift but supple tempos create real excitement.

In the digital era, I am happy to say that we now have three quite wonderful versions of the full work. Edward Downes and the BBC Philharmonic create the lushest sound world–but not much edge–for Chandos. JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic, for Naxos, are intense and swift, like Ormandy, but a touch rigid and tight. George Szell is lurking in there somewhere, but Falletta’s performance is definitely exciting. And you get from her performance the sense that the work makes for good structural logic in the concert hall. Lastly, and I would say best, we have this remarkably authentic-sounding new performance from Gabriel Feltz and the Belgrade Philharmonic, evocatively and powerfully recorded by Dreyer Gaido.

 Glière’s music sprawls for the same reason Bruckner and Shostakovich symphonies do. Glière is an annunciatory composer. This means great tremolo-supported brass declarations followed by silences, and that’s where conductors like Farberman can get stuck going too slowly, carried away with the import of each proclamation. Gabriel Feltz is assisted by the authentic Eastern European sound of his brass section. It’s heavy and rich and yet slightly blunt and raw and funereal. Feltz manages to summon almost unbelievable weight. His fast tempos are nearly as swift as Falletta’s, but Feltz’s evocation of the sense of legend is somehow deeper and truer. This is memorable music, unforgettably good music, emotional with not a hint of neurosis. It emerges from gloom and doom, celebrates joyously like Borodin along the way, and then devolves to despair and mystery once again. Though the symphony sports a heroic title, it would seem the hero has a hard time. The legend of Il’ya Muromets would give one nightmares. It’s one of those lovely pre-Freudian tales involving decapitation, eye-stabbing, defeat by the enemy and the turning of the hero to stone. It’s not exactly the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. But then, well, it’s Russia and the Balkans, no happier in 1912 than now, it would seem. Fortunately, in Glière’s hands, inspiration does not stop, and this candidate for “world’s longest symphony”, as conducted by Gabriel Feltz, almost ends too soon.

Ottorino Respighi

Ottorino Respighi

RESPIGHI Roman Trilogy: Roman Festivals. Fountains of Rome. Pines of Rome ●JoAnn Falletta, conductor; Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra ●?◾?☛⦸✗☒?8.574013 (Streaming audio: 62:13) https://www.naxosmusiclibrary.com/catalogue/item.asp?cid=8.574013

Ottorino Respighi’s Roman Trilogy can always count on success with audiences. That takes nothing away from the excellence and evocative beauty of these new jewel-like performances by JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic. Interpreting Respighi is necessarily an exercise in moderation, given the ease with which Respighi’s climaxes can be made to suggest all hell breaking loose. But his music is not vulgar unless conducted to overwhelm, the way Roman Festivals, in particular, so frequently is.

Informed listeners often approach this piece with a twinge of guilty affection. Many performances cross over into vulgarity and take you on a sweaty amusement park ride, the sort that leaves you with cotton candy on your face, bubble gum stuck to your shoe, and far too much sense of the crowd. (Respighi, we scarcely need reminding, includes a carousel and its music in the score.) Falletta, though, steers the festivals “uptown” and makes the music gleam with precision and purpose. In Giubileo it’s the gorgeous quiet filigree you remember. This is the most beautiful performance of the work I know. That’s not the usual adjective.

Respighi’s music in this trilogy, if we stop to think about it, is about evoking the grandeur of an eternal city and an eternal past. In its way it is a delicate memory. It’s not really meant to suggest the populist present. Falletta is helped in this sense of reverence and mystery by Naxos, which has delivered a voluptuous, terraced soundstage at a certain distance. What I notice most is how beautifully integrated brass and percussion are with the lower reaches of the orchestra and especially with the organ. Respighi performances recorded up close tend to be about the brass. Those miking from row X, like this one, generally feature a “tilt” towards the bottom of the sound spectrum. Falletta takes advantage of it, giving us velvet everywhere, along with all the integrated brass precision one could wish for and deep organ pedal tones of great power. The Buffalo Philharmonic shines here with the kind of unanimity a conductor like George Szell used to seek.

In Fountains of Rome, winds and percussion are imaginatively engaged. You can really hear the water pyrotechnics. And Pines of Rome benefits, as one would hope, from the powerful organ sonority in Kleinhans Hall. (Kleinhans uses a touring organ, entirely digital, but the results are not artificial in timbre.) If I have any quarrel at all, it would simply be that the timpanist could have been more audible in the final march up the Appian Way. The march begins in a murky distant dawn and comes to a halt at parade rest in front of the listener. The basses and bass drum provide the pulse for this army, at first indistinct and menacing. As it approaches, the timpani become stronger, moving towards you with such massive slow insistence that you experience sheer terror. I would have loved the kind of sharp drumbeats which impact the solar plexus, like boots on pavement. (There exists, or at least used to exist, a digital Teldec CD of the London Philharmonic performing these pieces under the direction of Carlo Rizzi. I don’t know where one would go to find it, though. But Rizzi got every boot click just right.) That small caveat aside, JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic have brought us appealing Respighi performances which reward our sense of aesthetics as much as they spike our adrenalin.

LORTZING Opera Overtures● Jun Märkl, conductor; Malmö Opera Orchestra ● NAXOS  8.573824 (Streaming audio: 66:53) https://www.naxosmusiclibrary.com/catalogue/item.asp?cid=8.573824

Albert Lortzing

Albert Lortzing

Mention comic opera, and something Parisian by Offenbach frequently comes to mind. Frothiness can seem proprietarily French. Or perhaps one conjures up Franz von Suppé or Franz Lehár and the eye-winking sophistications of late era imperial Vienna. But Albert Lortzing got there ahead of them. For 150 years this composer, barely a name to us, was the third most performed artist on the German stage. Only Mozart and Verdi historically received more attention. Lortzing was a versatile writer/composer, author of his own librettos, and a public figure not afraid to call for political freedoms of the day in his choice of narratives. 

The works collected here are the overtures to Der Waffenschmied (“The Armourer”); Die Opernprobe (“The Opera Rehearsal”); Undine; Der Wildschütz (“The Poacher”); Hans Sachs; Der Weihnachtsabend (“Christmas Eve”); Zar und Zimmermann (“Tsar and Carpenter”); Andreas Hofer; and Regina. Lortzing died of a stroke at age 49, around the time of Regina’s 1851 premiere. It was his last work. Andreas Hofer, written in 1832, is the earliest overture.

Play any one of these pieces, and you find yourself immediately in the world of Carl Maria von Weber. Der Wildschutz even features a rifle shot, like the first scene of Der Freischütz. Lortzing’s melodies are not quite as memorable as Weber’s, but they have a pleasant romantic earnestness to them. And they are not arch and “ooh-la-la”, like Offenbach. No can-cans here. 

The Malmö Opera Orchestra, about sixty players strong, is a perfect venue for these overtures. Naxos has supplied a realistic theatrical acoustic, with lots of well-miked bass drum thumps (without which no opera overture of the day is worth its salt), and Jun Märkl conducts with just the requisite touch for light drama.

ANTHEIL Symphonies: No. 3, “American”; No. 6, “after Delacroix”. Spectre of the Rose Waltz. Archipelago. Hot-Time Dance ● John Storgårds, conductor; BBC Philharmonic Orchestra ● CHANDOS 10982 (Streaming audio: 66:52) https://www.naxosmusiclibrary.com/catalogue/item.asp?cid=CHAN10982

George Antheil

George Antheil

American music in the 1940s was a worldly stew of opposing influences, at once urban and rural, sophisticated and simple, jazzy and European. And with the coming of the war, musical flavor headed south in the unlikely company of Bob Hope to Latin America, the only part of the world still freely pursuing a good life. Depending on who was stirring the pot, a recognizable and convincing mid-century American style emerged. We tend to think of Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland as having owned it. But a composer like George Antheil reminds us that nearly everyone was really working on the same recipe, the attempt to define an American style, if not always with equally memorable success. Roy Harris brought us the big sky. Samuel Barber took us up in a bomber. Peter Mennin captured our relentless energy. Ned Rorem married American brashness with French delicacy. And George Antheil, like Copland, ended up transforming this mix into something approximating American Shostakovich. He started out as an enfant terrible, breaking pianos and including sirens in his music, but wound up going Hollywood and composing relatively tame film scores. The Third Symphony dates from 1941, revised in 1946. The Sixth was completed in 1948 and revised in 1950. The shorter works come from the late forties, as well, except for Archipelago, which Antheil composed in 1935.

It was Rorem who suggested that composition tends to include the mis-remembering of other people’s music, and I am struck by how much Antheil’s manner in the Third Symphony owes to Sibelius, particularly the last movement of Sibelius’s Fifth. In his third movement Antheil manages to juxtapose the oscillating string passagework characteristic of that movement with something approximating the slam bam of Bernstein’s Candide Overture, then not yet composed. (Bernstein, it would seem, cribbed this from Antheil.) I mention it, because I’m not sure it works. Antheil’s music seems to alternate between worlds too much. One moment we are Sibelius, the next—Virgil Thomson. Another eclectic example of this occurs in the Spectre of the Rose Waltz, where Antheil alternates between too obvious recollections of Ravel’s La Valse and Sibelius’s Valse Triste. The Hot-Time Dance sounds exactly like its title, but could have been written by Enescu. Archipelago is a satisfying rhumba, owing something to Milhaud. The Sixth Symphony, based on Delacroix’s painting, Liberty Leading the People, is portentous in intention, like Shostakovich’s Eighth, but emerges mostly an energetic romp in what we would come later to call the Bernstein manner. Enjoyable as it is to hear all these influences, I come back to the original point. Bernstein and Copland synthesized it all into something more stable. Antheil ends up like an American Poulenc, caught somewhere between slapstick and serious.

Both Antheil Symphonies are well organized and chock-a-block with ideas and rhythmic punch. But they buzz around so much and slam styles against each other, that I have trouble recalling what goes with what, and where. Nonetheless, this release is immensely pleasurable from moment to moment. Antheil took great pride in structure, and it is a virtue that his music keeps moving and sustains interest. The BBC Philharmonic receives a flawless sound perspective, and Antheil’s busily purring trombones and active percussion are heard to fine effect. John Storgårds conducts with warmth. The BBC Philharmonic, surely Britain’s most versatile orchestra when it comes to repertory, delivers an American level of energy. I doubt you will find better performances. This is Volume 2 of Chandos’s Antheil series.

In Remembrance of Richard Wagner by Rudolf Cronau

In Remembrance of Richard Wagner by Rudolf Cronau

WAGNER Tristan and Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod. TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No. 4¹● Dmitry Liss,conductor; South Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra ● FUGA LIBERA FUG754 (Streaming audio: 59:55) ¹Live: Eindhoven 12/22/2017 https://www.naxosmusiclibrary.com/catalogue/item.asp?cid=FUG754

This release is a pleasant surprise. The South Netherlands Philharmonic is an orchestra most collectors of mainstream repertory would not likely know. The group is young and ambitious, a regional ensemble founded as recently as 2013, with a dual base in Maastricht and Eindhoven. Russian conductor Dmitry Liss, normally stationed out of Western view in the Urals (if not exactly exiled there), is Music Director with a contract running through 2021. Liss proves to be a subtle, energetic conductor, with a fine sense of texture and movement, and the orchestra, itself, fully professional and polished. The group sounds almost French to me, fractionally lighter in texture than its mainstream competitors in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, but every phrase beautifully shaded. The brass do not quite command the sort of weight one would get in Tchaikovsky from orchestras in Berlin or Vienna, but a lack of bombast in this composer is not a flaw.

Liss takes a swift approach to the first movement of the Tchaikovsky Fourth, not as hell bent for leather as Pierre Monteux with the Boston Symphony in the early stereo era, but definitely propulsive. In recent decades, slow tempos have often turned this movement into a set of awkwardly heaving moments, where timpani grace notes sound like ratchets playing off the brass and you scratch your head wondering how anyone could have intended music to sound so lurching. Liss gets the piece moving more naturally. Everyone has favorite moments in this symphony, of course, so I won’t try too hard to be persuasive, but a white hot timpani thwack violently taking us into the development section is one of mine, and it’s wonderfully done here. The exciting moments are all good in this performance, climaxes appropriately frenzied. In Tchaikovsky’s finale, the bass drum player does not quickly dampen his explosive hits, so the effect of his cannonade is all the more vividly felt. Fuga Libera has supplied an excellent mid-hall sound perspective, with the brasses far enough away to blend nicely and a spacious environment for the strings. I am happy to welcome this performance as one of my favorites.

Although I listened to the Tchaikovsky selection first, it is easy for me to understand now why this release leads off with the Wagner Prelude and Liebestod. This is a marvelous performance. I liked it so much, I was puzzled.  I went and listened to Thielemann, Karajan and the swift (yes) Klemperer version I grew up with. In each case I liked Dmitry Liss and the South Netherlands Philharmonic better. Why? Was it the perfect balances? Was it the English horn peeking through with its leitmotif in just the right way? Was it the fairly swift sense of tempo flow? All of those things. But the answer, I decided, is that Liss lets the music float effortlessly. And everybody else seems to be involved in heavy lifting. So we have here, you might say, an affectionate graceful death at the hands of love. Make of that metaphysically what one will. 

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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