A Crop of Recordings XXVII: Vaughan Williams, Holbrooke, Saint-Saëns, Poulenc, Alfvén, Joseph Marx

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Ralph Vaughan Williams
Ralph Vaughan Williams

 VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Symphonies Nos. 7, “Sinfonia Antartica” and 9● Rowan Pierce, soprano; Timothy West, narrator; Andrew Manze, conductor; Ladies of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra Choir; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra ● ONYX 4190 (Streaming audio: 83:00) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Me_Cxmp1hKk

Both works here are gorgeously conceived and transparently recorded from top to bottom (and the Seventh Symphony features a convincing velvet-deep organ presence to boot). They make for a wonderful release together and a fitting conclusion to the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s well-received Vaughan Williams cycle on Onyx. Spectacular as the Antartica is in Manze’s hands (and it is) it’s his performance of the Ninth Symphony which stands out for me as an even more remarkable accomplishment beyond normal praise. 

I’ve lived with this symphony ever since Adrian Boult first recorded it for Everest the day Vaughan Williams died in 1958, an LP which hit the record bins in 1961, when I was thirteen. I mention this, because youthful enthusiasms in music sometimes fade out with repetition and experience. But the Vaughan Williams Ninth has only grown on me, its tectonic plate construction and eerie harmonic progressions as fascinating today as the moment I first experienced them. Rubato, they say, does not work with Vaughan Williams. I tend to agree. You can’t pull the music about. But nobody ever tried to play this work reverentially before, and guess what, it works! The brass lines are as long as Sibelius here and the tremolos alternately as menacing and as beautiful as in Bruckner.

Andrew Manze takes the outer movements more slowly than other conductors, but with a soaring long line which seems to grow in intensity and carry ever increasing depth of emotion and yearning. Conductors have a tendency to punch through Vaughan Williams’s later works, with their spicy orchestrations and band-like sonorities, as if they were meant to be clever and somehow less personal than the composer’s early music. So, in my experience, performances of the Ninth Symphony tend to underplay the beauty of its melodies and get stuck in a certain jitteriness. It is quite a revelation to have the symphony imagined and brought off as a vast lyrical entity, like the composer’s A Sea Symphony. Done this way, you realize the work contains a trove of melodic meaning we never hear. The symphony was after all, originally imagined as a musical homage to Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

Normally, there is a downside to a slow tempo, but Manze never plods, and my discovery from this recording is just how interesting moving parts in late Vaughan Williams can be made to sound. Onyx’s miked sound is clear enough to read the score by, vast enough to lose oneself in dreams. In the Ninth, Vaughan Williams colors the orchestration with three saxophones, usually “well-behaved”, sometimes not (the scherzo) and a flugelhorn. But all the brass timbres here are satisfyingly mysterious. Midway through the last movement, a french horn seems to occupy a moonlit hill and howl like a wolf lonely for its mate. A distant trumpet answers. I have never experienced shivers from it so powerfully as here. Manze isn’t afraid to let a phrase breathe.

One of the appealing features of the release is the sheer realism of what we experience timbrally. As a result, not suprisingly, Manze’s way with the Sinfonia Antartica is shattering. It’s certainly the best version I have ever heard, once again benefitting from long-limbed, explosive crescendos spanned longer than you imagine possible. Every drip of an icicle seems to register. The wind blows killingly. The wordless soprano howls eerily. And Timothy West narrates in a simple stage manner, minus the usual bombast. Underneath your chair, you fear the floor will give way. And that is as it should be.

Joseph Holbrooke

Joseph Holbrooke


HOLBROOKE The Birds of Rhiannon. The Girl I Left Behind Me. Symphony No. 3, “Ships”● Howard Griffiths, conductor; German Radio Philarmonic Orchestra Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern ●

CPO 555041-2 (Streaming audio: 69:50)  

Joseph Holbrooke (1878-1958), was a British composer, now half-forgotten, who made something of a mark in the first part of the twentieth century with a trilogy of Welsh-based operas and a number of evocative, perky tone poems and variation sets. I’m familiar with his Variations on Three Blind Mice, which Sir Henry Wood frequently used to perform and Howard Griffiths has recently recorded for CPO. (This is Volume 3, in fact, of a Griffiths Holbrooke retrospective for CPO.) The Girl I Left Behind Me is a set of companion variations to the mice. and dates from 1905. The Birds of Rhiannon is Holbrooke’s most popular tone poem, evoking a magical female figure from Welsh myth who could console the suffering and wake the dead. Like his Third Symphony, “Ships”, which celebrates the British Navy, it dates from the mid 1920s. 

Holbrooke was known in his time, rather unfairly, as the “Cockney Wagner”, since he was not a Cockney and his music does not sound like Wagner. It more closely approximates the style of Arnold Bax, minus Bax’s endless digression, and clearly derives from Debussy in a good mood. It also tends to sound slightly naughty, as Bax does not, since Holbrooke had the habit of recycling ancient louche songs and sea chanteys the public would easily recognize. Holbrooke’s father had at times been a music hall pianist, and there is frequently a manic, thumpy lightness to the music which seems to reflect the cockney spirit. But his music is beautifully constructed, has appealing melodies, and flows better than Bax. The Third Symphony emerges a better piece the more I listen to it.

If you are expecting a dry run for Victory at Sea, though, I think the Third Symphony, sometimes called “Our Navy”, might disappoint. It’s neither mystical and metaphysical, like Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony, nor ominous and thundering like Richard Rodgers’s dramatic take on maritime war. It seems to reflect instead a happier, less complicated notion of Britannia ruling the waves. Guns are only fired for practice. The main, recurring melody throughout its three movements is surprisingly serene, more like something a film composer might have imagined for wooing a girl on deck in the moonlight. The dreamy introspective slow movement is called “Hospital Ships”, but one intuits the shifting seas even here as balmy and healing. Nobody dies. This is the sort of impressionism you let wash over you and gradually lift your mood. It manages to evoke the waves, the speed of ships, the froth of a wake at night—and make you wish you were there on deck. The music ranges from pleasantly boisterous to amorous and calming. It even features the alto saxophone, at times. Indeed, the last movement is based on an old sea-shanty named The Maid of Amsterdam, who, it seems from the history of its lyrics, is no better than she has to be! Howard Griffiths and his German orchestra are perfect for this music, and CPO has supplied lovely sound.

It helps to be an optimist to enjoy Holbrooke. But this is the sort of music which tells us all is well in the world. Listen, and you will believe that, too.

Camille Saint-Saëns

Camille Saint-Saëns

SAINT-SAËNS Symphony No. 3. POULENC Concerto for Organ, Strings, and Timpani ● Christopher Jacobson (org), Kazuki Yamada, conductor; Orchestre de La Suisse Romande ● PENTATONE PTC 5186 638 (Streaming audio: 65:31) https://youtu.be/-MV7wsu5Ds8

Camille Saint-Saëns’s “Organ” Symphony has been a bankable success with audiences since the day it was written 135 years ago, a fact at times held against it. But its greatness is no longer in question. Despite the grand effect this music can produce, the symphony is subtle, intricately based on the “Dies Irae” plainsong and impressively held together—organically, you might say. The organ part, itself, is actually used with restraint, appearing only in the slow movement, quietly at that, and then grandly in the finale. Performances can be successful stressing the work’s lyricism and beauty, as this new one does (and as Ernest Ansermet’s LP with the Suisse Romande did in the early stereo era), or they can go hell-for-leather, like Charles Munch’s famous 1959 Boston Symphony LP with Berj Zamkochian. For many listeners, that white-hot performance, the sonic spectacular of its day, still wows the most. 

I plead guilty to loving that record. But there is lots of excitement here. I may like these performances better in the end. If I have a prejudice, it’s in favor of big spaces for organ sonority, which Symphony Hall, Boston delivers in abundance. (Coat-closet organ acoustics can be a claustrophobic prescription for a sinus headache). Happily, Victoria Hall in Geneva is nearly as open and floaty as Symphony Hall, and Christopher Jacobson, moreover, achieves a lovely French sonority, which is to say transparent and slightly nasal in tone, the only instance I know of in music where that adjective isn’t pejorative. Victoria Hall’s original instrument was destroyed by fire in 1984. It’s replacement has been reconstructed along the lines of France’s most famous 19th century organ builder, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, and that iconic sound remains prototypically Francophone here. Its freshness and sparkle helps eliminate any sense of bombast in the music.

Kazuki Yamada’s performance is powerful without being needlessly aggressive, featuring lovely textures in the quiet moments. It doesn’t hit you over the head with piano in the Scherzo or convulse manically with timpani at the top of the first movement development section, the way Munch does. And it comes to a close with a satisfying ritardando for drums and brass, rather than Munch’s frantic accelerando. Yamada’s final chord is beautifully voiced. (Conductors have often been flummoxed by its lack of heft. Eugene Ormandy used to add timpani). But Yamada achieves a gleaming rightness with it, and ultimately a great deal of power.

Francis Poulenc

Francis Poulenc

Francis Poulenc’s Organ Concerto exhibits the same virtues here. It is easy to overdo Poulenc. At the best of times, this composer seems to undermine himself with Maurice Chevalier-style “ooh la la” Frenchness, like a bad tourist guide to the culture, but underneath all of that a good performer will find a lovely Brahmsian take on melody. Fortunately, one is unlikely to chase down Leslie Caron in the street with an organ concerto, so the audience is mostly spared that side of Poulenc in this piece. It emerges here as a creation of surging beauty and considerable subtlety.

The taping sessions in Geneva went well, it seems, so there was time for Christopher Jacobson to add an encore, the well known toccata from Charles-Marie Widor’s Fifth Organ Symphony. You won’t find a better version of it, I suspect.

Pentatone has delivered its usual deep sonic results, which approach perfection. Kazuki Yamada is definitely someone to watch for in French repertory. His Roussel CD with the Suisse Romande has become a favorite. Let’s have more.

Hugo Alfvén

Hugo Alfvén

ALFVEN Uppsala Rhapsody. The Mountain King Suite. Symphony No. 3● Lukasz Borowicz, conductor; Deutsches Symphony Orchestra Berlin ● CPO 555 237-2 (Streaming audio: 65:24) 

Cheerful Hugo Alfvén (1872-1960) isn’t the sort of composer who’d normally bring one to tears, but just a few moments into this new performance of his Uppsala Rhapsody, and I nearly lost it! Also known as “Swedish Rhapsody No. 2”, this ten minute early work from 1907 is really Sweden’s Academic Festival Overture, outfitted even more than Brahms with solemnity, national song, fugal accomplishment, student snark and boozy celebration. (Near the end, a drunken horn challenge is followed by brandied clarinets going down the hatch.) It’s a wonderful piece, and the world knows it. There are quite a few recordings, but it tends to be conducted in “taken for granted” manner. I didn’t expect to be so moved by its rapt nobility and loving melodic nostalgia. 

Uppsala Rhapsody opens with a glowing horn quartet reminiscent of Wagner’s Prelude to Act 3 of Die Meistersinger. That’s how Lukasz Borowicz clearly hears it, and he delivers golden solemnity and heart-stopping harmonic suspensions to match, perfectly turned. The Deutsches SO’s prayerful brass simply outclasses competition from Petri Sakari in Iceland or Neeme Järvi in Stockholm, to mention just two performances. And Berlin’s Lukaskirche acoustic supplies all the string velvet one could hope for in the warm melodies which follow. So, caveat emptor. This isn’t just “Rah, Rah, today we graduate!” It’s a gentle goodbye to youth. You may even shed a tear at the departure of innocence. But take a pew. This is a patrician performance, the best I have ever heard.

Lukasz Borowicz is currently recording Alfvén’s major symphonic works for CPO. Our release represents the second of the series. There is much to look forward to. Hugo Alfvén composed his popular ballet, The Mountain King, between 1916 and 1925, taking his cue from a Swedish fairy tale collection titled “Among Gnomes and Trolls”. That is exactly what the music sounds like. The word “goblinesque” keeps springing to mind. The Mountain King is a rich, cleverly orchestrated score in four movements, simultaneously dancelike and evocative of summer night magic. Alfvén never really changed his melodic 19th century style, but like Albert Roussel, he learned to use the fascinations of modern harmony and orchestration in the service of zest and warmth for ballet.

The most conventional work here is the earliest, Alfvén’s Third Symphony, written in 1905. Like so many symphonic works by Nordics in a happy mood, it was composed in Italy, where you might say every night is a “Swedish summer night”. Alfvén had just met his future wife, Marie, and the score was composed in Sori and Capri, but it radiates joy throughout in a recognizably Swedish way. There’s no Respighi in it. I don’t know the Alfvén symphonies well. Lukasz Borowicz’s performance here ebbs and flows in a lovely manner, but I came away, after sampling other recordings, with an impression that 39 minutes is a lot for the essentially happy thematic material to support. It sounds a bit too much like Joachim Raff here—too German. Other performances are considerably faster, lighter, and sparkier. The slow movement is gorgeous, yet overly earnest in this performance. Nils Grevillius and the Stockholm PO on Swedish Society, for instance, capture a livelier, more Svendsen-like quality in the symphony and come in nearly five minutes faster. (The composer’s own recording times out four minutes faster than that, so Borowicz may well be off base in his concept.) He misses the work’s elfin nature. But I celebrate this Alfvén release, nevertheless, and especially Lukasz Borowicz’s subtle and warm-hearted way with The Mountain King and the Uppsala Rhapsody.

Joseph Marx

Joseph Marx

MARX Eine Herbstsymphonie?● Johannes Wildner, conductor; Graz Philharmonic Orchestra?● CPO 555262-2 (Streaming audio: 66:55) 

There is a helpless fascination to be found in listening to this rare release, a 66 minute rolling chromatic tour de force from 1921 which never comes up for air. Unusual it certainly is. This is in fact the work’s first unabridged recording. Joseph Marx (1882-1964) was once “Mr. Music” in Austria, the most popular song composer since Hugo Wolf, and a renowned teacher, but his expressed hostility to dodecaphonic experiments ultimately would marginalize his own compositions, which remained tonal throughout his life at a highly sophisticated level. Happily, a revival of numerous bypassed figures of the era is currently underway and extends to Marx. He takes his place now alongside Franz Schreker and Erich Wolfgang Korngold as a purveyor of post Wagnerian atmosphere and cinematic-style psychological drama, romantic ardor and inner turmoil. 

An Autumn Symphony, as the work’s title translates, is actually more like four rhapsodies pulled together into an enormous misty take on nature. Imagine letting Max Reger have a go at expanding Schumann melodies to unheard-of proportions. Then give the result to Scriabin for him to tinker with the harmony. That’s what this symphony sounds like. It’s beautifully and seductively orchestrated, all burbling woodwinds, tintinnabulating flowing streams, golden leaves, fall breezes, aching strings. It’s vaguely hallucinatory and mesmeric when it turns to dance, and without bombast when it aims to be grand. These are all good qualities in post-romantic expression. But the music has a flaw.

It won’t stop moving. It flows and flows and flows….And almost all 66 minutes seem to be at the same tempo, nearly without pause, and always with the same cushion of texture. It has no dry spots, no contrast. It’s like being immersed in a hot tub. After awhile you stop noticing what the jets of water are doing or taking note of individual wavelets and bits of spray. Although Marx’s movements are each subsequently longer than the one before, they are well-balanced structurally, but part of a listener’s problem is that the themes, despite their considerable beauty, are hard to recall and harder still to distinguish from their development. They push the notion of seamless melody to an extreme Wagner never did. If only Marx had penned-in occasional lonely woodwinds, all by themselves for contrast, or a full stop of some sort in the brass, more solo riffs, or a change in patterns and sequences, short phrases instead of another wave, it would be a better piece. But the work simply has tardive dyskinesia.

Joseph Marx lived near Graz, so it seems fitting that our recording should come from the Graz Philharmonic. It plays beautifully, with CPO’s customary transparent sound, and with Johannes Wildner as a warm hearted and effective interpreter. If one is at times frustrated, I blame the composer.  But as I suggested at the outset, there is something fascinating about this gentle giant of a work.

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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