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A Crop of Recordings XXVIII: Elgar, Holst, Tchaikovsky, Debussy…and Karl Weigl

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Gustav Holst

Gustav Holst

ELGAR Enigma Variations. HOLST The Planets● Andrew Litton, conductor; Edvard Grieg Kor; Bergen Philharmonic Choir & Orchestra ● BIS-2068 (Streaming audio: 82:42) 

The feature I applaud most in this fine new release from BIS is its pairing of Great Britain’s two most internationally popular orchestral showpieces under one baton. You would think it natural to record them together, but a quick look at Amazon reveals only Sir Adrian Boult’s recordings available that way, and these were originally sold separately, supplemented with other music. You can also find Herbert von Karajan’s The Planets accompanied by Pierre Monteux’s Enigma Variations, both performances many decades old. Even these new Andrew Litton versions were actually laid down in studio four years apart (the Elgar in 2013, Holst in 2017) but were clearly intended for this release by BIS, and both were miked in Bergen’s Grieg Hall.

Litton is nothing if not consistent. His way with nearly everything here and everywhere is straightforward, normal in tempo, rounded, blended, and delivered with satisfying ritards at major cadences. That’s sometimes a criticism and sometimes not. The Enigma Variations is essentially a straightforward piece, like Brahms’s Haydn Variations, so you don’t want to pull it around too much. It’s mostly about the balance of winds and percussion. The Bergen Philharmonic clarinets are delicious, the strings feature lovely fillips of portamento, and Litton gives the orchestra’s excellent timpanist plenty of time to hit hard and wind up a phrase. It’s quite an exciting performance. The fourth variation, “W.M.B,” only lasts 32 seconds, but has the best-performed final cadence I have yet heard. “Nimrod” is beautiful, with plenty of subtle quiet and a nice build to it. 

If I seem to hesitate a bit, it’s because some of the other variations seem to amble along gorgeously without quite the level of sadness I would want from them. That’s a subjective notion. Maybe I should say the performance seems a bit uniform and creamy. The “Romanza,” Elgar’s last variation before the finale, should give us more of a sense of ship’s engines mysteriously reciprocating in the night. That’s where Litton’s tendency to blend textures gets in the way of meaning and veers toward the bland. One wonders, too, at the bass drum balance, not quite encouraged to shake the floor. The organ in the finale might seem at first slightly under-recorded, as well. One supposes this is the conductor’s wish, since the sonority fills out perfectly as I increase volume. This is a release meant to be heard at full concert volume. (A recent YouTube performance by the Warsaw Philharmonic in Warsaw’s National Philharmonic Hall, led by Jacek Kaspszyk, has the most effective bass drum punch I have ever heard in this piece. I keep returning to it like an addiction). Critique notwithstanding, though, Litton’s Enigma is very fine, with BIS’s usual soundstage and a velvety lower reaches. No one hearing it will be disappointed.

Litton conducts The Planets similarly and beautifully, but again a bit rich in texture to hit as cuttingly as some. It conveys, instead, swoopiness combined with tremendous weight. “Mars” is fast, frantic and exciting, with powerfully effective ritardando tension towards the end. Its famous moment three minutes in, where the orchestra seems to drop Mars like a crate on the warehouse floor, is overwhelming without chopping the listener to pieces. A little more edge would not hurt the performance elsewhere. (Listeners would do well to try Edward Gardner’s version on Chandos with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. It’s hard to argue with 164 teenagers onstage when it comes to horror, and The Planets is essentially a horror film for the ears.) “Venus” is richly romantic with portamento, a Litton specialty. “Jupiter’s” hymn is exceptionally noble here, with lovely swooping in the horns, an inspired intuitive hush in volume the second time the hymn comes around, and the right sense of flow. English listeners know the melody as “I Vow to Thee, My Country”and feel quite sentimental about it. But when it comes to an apocalyptic quality, “Saturn” feels underplayed, appealing as it is. It’s central climax should represent old age as a metaphysical catastrophe, inspiring shock, like suddenly discovering the picture of Dorian Gray. It doesn’t come across like someone just having trouble with a cane, to be fair, but the screaming trumpets are a little reticent in the texture for sheer horror. In “Uranus,” timpani hit powerfully, as they do throughout, and generally the bass is just right. A huge ritard delivers a magnificent organ glissando. The piece ends well, with a subtle blend of the ethereal wordless chorus. Play this version at full volume and its power is as impressive as you would hope. It could easily be a favorite. Just be warned. Outer space is icy. This performance is lush. Maybe Eugene Ormandy is floating around out there somewhere. 

Dima Slobodeniouk leads this Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood, 2019. Photo Hilary Scott.

Dima Slobodeniouk leads this Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood, 2019. Photo Hilary Scott.

TCHAIKOVSKY Piano Concerto No. 1. PROKOFIEV Piano Concerto No. 2● Haochen Zhang (piano); Dima Slobodeniouk, conductor; Lahti Symphony Orchestra ● BIS-2381 (Streaming audio: 66:29)

This enjoyable and addictive release fascinates from a number of perspectives. Haochen Zhang, now twenty-nine years old, is a Chinese piano prodigy currently based in Philadelphia. He gave his first recital at age five, performed Mozart concertos in Shanghai when he was six, and won the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2009, at the age of nineteen. This is his first orchestral recording, and it has definitely been worth the wait. 

Dima Slobodeniouk is a Russo/Finnish conductor who has been an interesting find for me on YouTube, leading mainstream repertory as Music Director of the Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia. He has recorded a number of contemporary and lesser-known works on compact disc, but this is Slobodeniouk’s first release of major repertory with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, where he succeeded Okko Kamu in 2016 as Music Director. Another point of interest is that the Lahti Symphony is neither a chamber orchestra nor a full-sized ensemble, splitting the difference, so to speak, with 60 players onstage. So how does all this come together?

Beautifully, is the answer! I worried at first that a smaller ensemble might sound anemic, but one is only aware of its size in the first moments of the Tchaikovsky concerto, where the famous sweeping string melody makes its iconic appearance, followed by a permanent disappearing act. Immediately after, one forgets bombastic expectation. The concerto is mostly a dialog for piano and winds, with subtle support from the lower part of the orchestra. So size doesn’t matter, except to insure beautiful balances achieved this way without engineering artifice. And Slobodeniouk gets wonderful bite and intensity from the group, without there being a hint of the vulgarity for which the piece is sometimes disparaged.

None of this would matter, if Zhang were not an interesting pianist. Zhang’s sonority is both bright and rich down below. His technique, not unexpectedly, is effortless. The Prokofiev, in particular, features remarkably fleet runs. The listener is stunned. And Zhang knows how to bang with the best. What young pianist could resist? Prokofiev aims to shock in this concerto with Russian “pseudo-barbarism” at its most hair-raising. He would be pleased. (To Sviatoslav Richter the work suggested “a dragon devouring its young”). But this is not a pianist who merely relies on speed or power for effect. There is adult judgement in his approach. The Tchaikovsky’s first movement coda, for example, is played for appropriate drama, not speed. And Zhang’s way with the slow movement is delicate and woos the heart. 

Even the Prokofiev has its serene moments between bouts of enjoyable aggression. It’s an early work, but the manuscript was burned to cook an omelet by new tenants in his Petrograd apartment during the near starvation which followed the toppling of the Czar. Prokofiev recomposed it after already having finished his better known Third Concerto. It benefits from his mature way with orchestration.

BIS has supplied, as it always does, satisfying bass for everyone. Both piano and orchestra exhibit a rich lower palate. This matters throughout, but most importantly in the Prokofiev, where the composer goes to town with his iconic bass drum thumps. I love this recording. It shakes the floor, satisfies the mind, and races the pulse.

 Karl Weigl (1881–1949) in 1930 © Atelier Ingret (Josefine Bárányi & Margarethe Weißenstein)

Karl Weigl (1881–1949) in 1930 © Atelier Ingret (Josefine Bárányi & Margarethe Weißenstein)

WEIGL Symphony No. 1. Pictures and Tales ● Jürgen Bruns, conductor; Rheinland-Pfalz State Philharmonic Orchestra ● CAPRICCIO C5365 (Streaming audio: 59:43) https://youtu.be/rdV9X4rnes0

Here’s an unexpectedly lovely release from Ludwigshafen, home of the Rheinland-Pfalz State Philharmonic. It reminds us how often we ignore romantic German symphonies, if they are not by Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler or Strauss. We think of Joachim Raff, perhaps and cringe slightly at his obvious effects, borrowed from Liszt and Wagner. But that’s about it, until we get to Korngold and Schmidt. The Teutonic, turn-of-the-century traditional symphony is something of a black hole in our minds. This is gradually changing, as we open our ears to the unpretentious serenity of Zemlinsky’s Second and the beauties of Schmidt. Karl Weigl (1881-1949) was an Austrian composer of Mendelssohnian inclination, a pupil of Zemlinsky, who ultimately emigrated to the United States in 1938 and did better than most refugees, winding up at the Boston Conservatory and the Philadelphia Academy of Music, before bone marrow cancer ended his life prematurely. Weigl wrote six symphonies. But they span out over the decades. This first one dates from 1908 and follows in what one might call the expanded Mendelssohn tradition, with touches of early Dvořák.

The appealing feature of this work is its total absence of vulgarity and obvious effect. It’s a serene, whispery piece with beautiful melodies lightly delivered and delicately orchestrated. It grows on one quickly. The music chugs along on happy triplets without any of the obvious horseback references this mode of propulsion seems to bring out in other composers of the era. The slow movement, in particular, is rapt and deep in a fluttering leafy way, sprung on subtle tremolos, high strings and gorgeously light and evanescent clarinet melody. It made me dream of forests and meadows in ways Joachim Raff cannot. This is probably what Mendelssohn would have sounded like in 1908 in one of his Fair Melusina moods. The finale springs along lightly in the same way, sensibly shorter than the preceding movements, and keeps its charms intact. (The usual curse of symphonies from this era is elephantiasis of the finale, where attempts at baking every prior motif into a ponderous agglomeration usually results in a collapsing soufflé.) It just skips along happily and ends the way it should, without any obvious heaving and struggling.

Pictures and Tales is a similarly delicious five movement suite, just a few minutes long, celebrating everything nice from Sleeping Beauty to the stork and elves in the moonlight. It dates from 1922, but you would never know it. It’s as pretty and nostalgic as anything in Elgar’s Wand of Youth. Jürgen Bruns seems ideal for this music, and Capriccio has captured wonderfully floaty sound from the orchestra. As I suggested at the top, this is a lovely release, doubly so for being so innocently beautiful–and so unexpected. 

Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy

DEBUSSY Printemps. Nocturnes. Rapsodie. Danses sacrée et profane. 

Marche écossaise. Berceuse héroïque ● Lan Shui,conductor; Singapore Symphony Orchestra ● BIS-2232 (Streaming audio: 75:37)  

I’ve been eager to hear these new performances from Lan Shui and the Singapore Symphony (the third release in his Debussy series) and am happy to report I am not disappointed. Shui has been Music Director in Singapore since 1997 and has recognizably shaped this orchestra along the lines of a particular sonority. I’d call it “heavy cream.” It’s an unusually rich sound from top to bottom, well and consistently captured by the BIS engineers, and ideal for the sensual side of Debussy, which is to say pretty convincing in most of the composer’s works. Without making invidious comparisons, I find myself calling to mind Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Ormandy never recorded Printemps, so far as I know, but this is the Debussy work I first fell in love with. It was inspired by Botticelli’s Primavera and first saw light for women’s choir and piano in 1887, though the world knows it as arranged for orchestra by Henri Büsser in 1912. Printemps combines the sensuality of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun with an almost unexpected youthful energy which sets the pulse running in a more extroverted manner than anything Debussy subsequently wrote. It charges one up at the end with all the energy of an Elgar march. Charles Munch’s feverish Boston Symphony performance came out in 1962, and I have never fallen out of love with the piece since. That recording still sounds wonderful on CD, and its fiery vitality remains iconic. But Lan Shui is now the conductor I turn to for the piece. This new performance combines all the tenderness Munch found in the first movement with a wonderful ritardando approach to the final climaxes which makes the work even more exciting. And BIS’s recorded sound is velvety and gorgeous.

Velvet informs all the performances here. Debussy interpretation is difficult to describe, and this may be because, like Ravel, Debussy’s music seems largely immune to misjudged interpretation. Most conductors sound quite similar in the Nocturnes, for instance, give or take a bit of sonority. Nuages is a vivid evocation of the lowering clouds which scud over Northern Europe. You’d never mistake them for the “big sky” cumulous puffery of our American West. You can lie on your back in a French meadow and see them moving closely overhead in just the manner Debussy’s music suggests. So it’s pretty much up to you to decide how thick and how grey they should look to you, and how creepy their effect. Enough said that they seem richly formed and ominous here.

The other works recorded for this release fall attractively into place in a similar manner. Shui’s saxophone player is appealing in Rapsodie. The choir in Sirènes is seductive enough to crash Ulysses’s ship on the rocks. And I found myself dancing with no special grace around the room to the Danse profane. I can only suppose that’s what the music is supposed to make one want to do (and that’s why they invented window shades). I don’t think Debussy recordings get any better than this.

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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