A Crop of Recordings XXVI: Shostakovich, Weingartner, Ibert, and Elgar

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SHOSTAKOVICH Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7. Festive Overture. King Lear Suite● Andris Nelsons, conductor; Boston Symphony Orchestra ● Deutsche Grammophon 00028947952121 (Streaming audio: 132:03)  

Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony are in fine form here, satisfying guides, as always, in their approach to the ironies and tragedies of the Shostakovich symphonies. Indeed, now that we know him well in Boston, it has become clear Nelsons is consistent there in the way he approaches music of this kind. But he illustrates, you might say, along with special romantic insights, the sins of his virtues. Nelsons is what Sir Thomas Beecham would have called a “ritardando” conductor. One notices this not so much in tempo variance as in the tendency to prepare for and draw out a cadence. Nelsons is not slow. But one is nearly always aware of a certain smoothness in transitions from phrase to phrase and a roundedness in the brass sonority he encourages from the BSO. In major climaxes, this can sometimes result in mushiness of attack. Combined, however, with Symphony Hall’s limitless bass and 2.2 second reverberation time, Nelsons’s Shostakovich emerges as surely some of the most velvety, gleaming and beautiful you will ever hear. But it is slightly atypical precisely because of this.

“Beautiful” and “velvety” aren’t usually a dispositive notion when we think of Shostakovich. Typically, Shostakovich rams trumpets down our throats and beats us over the head with snare drum sticks. Sometimes the distinction between his music and a public address system can be lost. But there is a special rasp we seek from Shostakovich’s low brass and an apocalyptic flavor we search for in being hit so hard and overwhelmed with the tragedy this composer felt compelled to explore.

A few years ago, Andris Nelsons recorded the Shostakovich Seventh Symphony for Orfeo with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. It’s a white-hot reading, the most exciting I have ever heard. But it’s not aiming to be pretty. It punches you in the chest and nearly breaks your ribs in the first movement’s relentless march. The air-raid sirens revving up and down really sound like sirens. The “invasion” is definitely on. The CBSO is a lean machine, and it apparently likes to snarl and punch. That sort of performance we don’t have here with the BSO. The Boston Symphony, instead, impresses most through its deep bass sonorities. There are moments throughout this release where the floorboards of my listening room can be seen to vibrate visibly. Deutsche Grammophon has captured perfectly the sonority of Symphony Hall, from tizzy/floaty brass to the sheer satin of what happens below. But it takes a little getting used-to to think of Shostakovich as a sensualist. The result of all this smooth beauty, though, is that the Seventh Symphony, for once, is almost as interesting in its subsequent movements as in the first. The Bach-like lament of the slow movement receives the most moving performance I know.

Not unexpectedly, then, the Sixth Symphony’s opening Largo is glorious, golden and sad. Listeners are often puzzled in this work by the seeming imbalance of experiencing such an in-depth movement followed by two much slighter ones. But I interpret Shostakovich’s purpose as historical; you experience tragedy. You consolidate what is left behind. You get happy again–or try to. I’m sometimes uncomfortable when Shostakovich goes manic this way. You wonder how much is mockery. But Nelsons is a reliable guide to all of it, despite his own sometimes exaggerated childlike sense of wonder. The King Lear music is brief but punchy in the right way.  And the Festive Overture sounds genuinely happy. It might as well be a celebration of Stalin’s death. Shostakovich tossed it off quickly, as soon as the dictator was gone. The striding theme in the middle of it is so uninhibited and giddy with fresh energy, it might as well be American. For once the whirling dervish in Shostakovich’s music is you, yourself, bustling along in your day, rather than something malevolent coming at you. There is a lot to love in this release. 

Felix Weingartner

WEINGARTNER Symphony No. 3. Lustige Overture?● Marko Letonja, conductor; Basel Symphony Orchestra ● CPO 777100-2 (Streaming audio: 75:47) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DFGDKZBSSGg

I was raised to be angry with Felix Weingartner. He chopped off the introduction to the last movement of Beethoven’s First Symphony when he conducted it in concert (though not on his recording), or so I was told. It presumably started out in the wrong key, so he lobbed it. How surprising, then, to find that Felix Weingartner, the composer, was a nimble chromatic tone-painter on the grand scale, a beautiful orchestrator and one of the lovely melodic heirs of Schubert. The symphony and overture here belong to the accomplished Straussian world of 1910. 

The gestures we hear in Weingartner are the ones we all recognize from this era in works by Korngold, Zemlinsky, Schmidt, Suk, Reger, Shreker and even Scriabin and Respighi, who was writing a symphony at this time. Each composer had his special way of stirring this Wagnerian chromatic stew, of course, and seasoning to taste with Brahms and Schubert. I am just surprised that Weingartner’s is such a delicate stew, transparent in texture and subtle in flavor.

Weingartner’s Third Symphony has a lovely, swiftly moving bucolic quality, no matter how much it stirs itself up along the way. It’s essentially happy music, light on its feet, fluid, constantly moving, leaping and never oppressive when it roils itself up. I’m an impatient listener, and this is a symphony with a fair amount of repetition. It lasts 65 minutes, but no individual moment lasts too long, though the scherzo does try one’s patience a bit. What kept me interested, in fact, was the constant springlike forward motion of its phrase sequences and even a persistent tendency of the music to start waltzing. The performance and sound are beyond criticism, both the very definition of transparent. Strings and winds perk along with real lift. Harmonies constantly shift. Tremolos are going at high speed even in slow passages. Weingartner never lets any stasis grow under your feet. Gorgeous brass passages are everywhere, especially in the mysterious and hypnotic Brucknerian slow movement. Clarity, it must be said, was a Weingartner conducting ideal which seems to have translated well into his composing. Where drama is concerned, and there is plenty along the way,  I’d describe Weingartner’s style as “easy/ominous.” It gives you pleasant shivers, without making you wonder who died. You could listen to it for dinner music and then go watch a horror film.

What we might not expect from so sober a conducting reputation would be Felix Weingartner’s five marriages. I only mention this, because the Weingartner Third Symphony comes to a frothy conclusion with a recap of music from the wedding scene of Die Fledermaus. Weingartner was busily wooing wife number three, mezzo-soprano Lucille Marcel, at the time and eager to complete this work for his own nuptials. He appears to have succeeded.

The Lustige Overture, (this translates as “funny,” though “jolly” is closer to what happens in music), represents a daunting notion coming from a Teutonic composer, but is nonetheless a good piece with catchy refrains, if no belly laughs. To its credit, it doesn’t try too hard. Conducting, playing and sound are all first rate. And now we have another late romantic composer with an E-minor symphony worth thinking about more than perhaps we have. 

Jacques Ibert
Jacques Ibert

IBERT Les Amours de Jupiter. MASSENET Hérodiade, Act IV: Ballet. SAUGUET Les Forains?● Neeme Järvi, conductor; Estonian National Orchestra ● CHANDOS 20132 (Streaming audio: 68:19) 

This is a splendid release in every way. We have here three French ballets not often recorded, one of them, Jacques Ibert’s The Amours of Jupiter, a genuinely neglected masterpiece. We have the reliable Neeme Järvi at the helm. (I can think of no other conductor who has revived so many good pieces.) And we have the Estonian National Orchestra, suavely recorded by Chandos, sounding as silky these days as L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. It’s an ideal recipe for immersing oneself in symphonic dance.

Chandos lists this program as “French Music for Ballet”, but I’ve taken the liberty of cataloging it for Fanfare under “Ibert” and changing slightly the order of works for review. I confess to doing so out of special admiration for this composer and in recognition of the special joys I have experienced in listening to this release. 

Jacques Ibert didn’t write a lot of symphonic music. But if we listen to his Ouverture de fête (which Neeme Järvi has recorded on another CD) and to the 33 minutes of ballet music included here, we realize he was France’s William Walton. Walton ended up a cross between Elgar and Stravinsky, with a touch of Italian sumptuousness thrown in. Ibert, albeit composing with a French accent, seems to have done the same thing. The best of his music reveals noble, brassy, sweeping melody sprung over rolling basses. If France still had a royal family, Ibert would surely have been the composer to come up with a martial French version of Orb and Sceptre.

As it is, Ibert surely outdid Walton as a ballet composer. Within three minutes of its beginning, Les Amours de Jupiter has you in the world of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. The ballet dates from 1945, around the time Walton composed his film music for Henry V, and one has the intuitive sense Ibert was familiar with it. But Ibert’s melodies are original. The velvet tune for Europa is as elegant and luxurious as any ever composed. The music for Léda comes across beautifully sad in just the right way. The “Entry of Danae and Dance of the Jailers” is surely something Stravinsky would have envied for its rhythmic thrust. And the main melodies for Jupiter and Juno are memorable, with just the right kind of serene elegance and triumph about them to send you home thinking all’s well in the world.

Järvi’s program includes another ballet work from 1945, Henri Sauguet’s Les Forains, which translates as “The Fair Entertainers”. Not surprisingly, this music starts out with a bit of circus oompah–elephantine tuba notes and the like–but happily settles down into fairly straightforward dance. I would have liked it less if it had veered into Poulenc’s “ooh la la” manner of professional French naughtiness. As it is, the music conveys a nearly louche sense of relaxation and carefree relief. This was recently liberated Paris, after all. Sauguet’s ultimate claim to fame for the piece would come in the form of a waltzing 1955 song by Édith Piaf named Le Chemin des forains. Overall, Sauguet’s is decent ballet music, but not so inspired as Ibert’s.

The four short selections from Massenet’s ballet last only 9 minutes and are in the attractive manner we would recognize from Chabrier, Lalo and Saint-Saëns. One easily finds oneself wishing there were more of them.

In the event, though, this is a lovely release, silky in the best sense of the word: sonorous, elegant and a stimulation to the imagination. And I hope it makes the world listen to Jacques Ibert just a little bit more than before.

ELGAR In the South. Serenade for String Orchestra in e. Enigma Variations ●Vasily Petrenko, conductor; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra ●ONYX 4205 (Streaming audio: 66:00)

I’ve had the good fortune of attending a number of electrifying Vasily Petrenko concerts here in San Francisco, including a performance of Elgar’s First Symphony not too many years ago. From where I sit above the stage, one looks out directly upon a conductor. I’ve always found Petrenko’s reactive demeanor a fascinating reflection of every spark and shadow in the music he so energetically conducts. But I’ve also noticed his eyes don’t seem to light up at the arrival of a ravishing texture. Oh, he becomes rapt and amorous, as the music may demand. Petrenko’s way with tempo is flexible. And he likes to elicit mood. But he seems unmoved by the beauties of sonority, itself. He is not a sensual conductor. Much of what he conducts sounds textured like Shostakovich, more inclined to alarm and cut than to woo. 

That’s what I hear in this otherwise fine release: a bit of lean athleticism in place of sheer ravishment. Elgar’s Enigma Variations has been the great British musical ambassador, of course, for 120 years now, and has acquired along the way perhaps too stately a demeanor because of it. Nimrod is performed at public funerals, which is probably not the fate Sir Edward intended for it. It was conceived of as love music, if the quiet rumors about Elgar’s ambiguous sexuality are correct. Petrenko’s performance takes us back to the way these variations used to be delivered. 

The two most famous Enigma LPs, those Pierre Monteux and Sir John Barbirolli recorded in the 1950s and 60s, both lasted about 29 minutes. Petrenko comes in here at 30 minutes, and though his Nimrod is not as swift as Barbirolli’s, this is a demystified performance in a similar vein. Petrenko has always been a good conductor with percussion, so one appreciates here his violent way with William Meath Baker’s frenetic personality, Troyte Griffith’s bounding dog and George Robertson Sinclair’s rude doorslam. Elgar’s organ is well integrated into the finale, as well. But the Royal Liverpool strings do not have a midrange glow in this acoustic. There is little sense of a cushion of sound, beautiful for its own sake. Instead, Petrenko’s textures would not be out of place in Stravinsky.

I do not know how much the hall or the Onyx recording team is to blame for my dry eyes, but this release is an astringent undertaking. Much of the time it seems as if there is little bass, yet organ and bass drum come through. Listeners looking for a similarly swift performance, but with a greater sense of an orchestra’s plush beauty of tone, need turn no further than to nearby Birmingham and Simon Rattle’s satiny EMI reading from 1994.

There are other approaches entirely to the Enigma Variations, of course. YouTube carries a Warsaw Philharmonic performance of sheer gorgeousness led by Jacek Kapsyzk (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vLNLvcBmoqo&t=435s) almost as slow as the notorious 38 minute failed Bernstein BBC Symphony CD, but more happily engaged and with the most luxurious sound I have ever heard in this piece. Each note is played for Brucknerian beauty. You wouldn’t want them to pass by any faster.

Elgar’s In The South is a less controversial work to perform. I’ve always enjoyed its Straussian sweep and the Sisyphus-like rolling climaxes it comes up with, as if lifting crates on a flight of stairs. And its five minute poetic interlude in the middle amounts to a nearly Respighi-like experience fifteen years before its time. Neville Marriner’s performance has always struck me as about right. Petrenko takes a few more minutes. He’s looking for Shostakovich in the sparer moments, you might say. And he does make the music seem inwardly lonely, which is, of course, the key to Elgar.

The early Serenade here is quite light and lovely, but always with that hint of something icy which I detect in Petrenko’s textures. No one could probably surpass Sir John Barbirolli in such heartfelt music, in any case. Meanwhile, this release fascinates, for all that I have criticized it. Here is Elgar without cobwebs.

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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