A Crop of Recordings XXXIII: Schmitt, Grainger, Delibes, Ben-Haim, Novák

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Florent Schmitt, 1913.

Florent Schmitt, 1913.

≈ SCHMITT La Tragédie de Salomé¹.²Musique sur l’eau² (version for voice and orchestra). Oriane et le Prince d’Amour Suite. Légende³ (version for violin and orchestra) ● JoAnn Falletta, conductor; ²Susan Platts (mezzo-soprano); ³Nikki Chooi (violin); ¹Women’s Choir of Buffalo; Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra ●  NAXOS 8.574138 (Streaming audio: 60:39 🕮) 

Let it never be said that French musical culture is reluctant when it comes to matters of the heart. Speaking in caricature, we incline to think of England as prudish and of Italy as choked-up and glottal-stopped with amorous emotion. The French, though, seem to be the official “culture of love,” and–let’s be clear—French musical “impressionism” is largely about sex. All those satiny string breezes and quivering woodwind dewdrops mean little if we don’t imagine languid lovers at center stage. That’s what Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is all about, of course, as is Daphnis and Chloe. But there is a reserve in both Debussy and Ravel which keeps the listener at an artistic remove. No one would accuse Debussy’s Jeux or Ravel’s Mother Goose of louche sensuality. Florent Schmitt, on the other hand, like the film noir composer he could have been, is happy to confront sensual moments in real time. Schmitt’s constantly shifting rhythms mirror the quick intensity of actual emotions and thoughts, the changeable “eclectic” quality of human happenings and the physical process of sex itself. There are moments in La Tragédie de Salomé where you might as well be listening to the headboard banging against the wall.

Although Florent Schmitt lived until 1958 and took an interest in musical trends of the day, his fundamental style never really changed. It tightened up a bit under the influence of Stravinsky but remained essentially late romantic. It has taken a while, but Schmitt’s music has been making its slow and steady way into the repertoire. JoAnn Falletta has been an unfailingly successful advocate on CD. There are quite a few versions of La Tragédie de Salomé available, but none more refined and silky than this one. The Buffalo Philharmonic is a polished orchestra and has a wonderful satin feel for French music. The smooth acoustic of Kleinhans Hall and Naxos’s customary transparency do the rest.

A special treat here is Oriane et le Prince d’Amour, a similar ballet score filled with erotic intensity. (I attended the concerts in Buffalo which led to the recording session). It may never have been performed before in the US, but its menacing opening for muted brass and convulsive sensual quality throughout should assure it a future. Similarly, the short dreamy song, Musique sur l’eau, to a symbolist text by Albert Samain, beautifully rendered here by Susan Platts without artifice or exaggerated vibrato, can take its worthy place next to Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer, in loveliness if not in length. It’s a world premiere recording, as is Nikki Chooi’s version of Légende, which manages to convince us his violin is as knowing and as wooing as the saxophone for which the music was originally written. Chooi is the current concertmaster in Buffalo (and formerly held that position with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra).

All told, this is a winning release. In the vanishing wake of dodecaphonic music, where process was everything, we seem to be rediscovering beauty and meaning in composers who were, so to speak, left behind.

Percy Granger in an Outfit he Designed and Made from Towels.

Percy Granger in an Outfit he Designed and Made from Towels.

≈ GRAINGER The Warriors. Irish Tune from County Derry. Danish Folk-Music Suite. Hill Songs Nos. 1 and 2. Beautiful Fresh Flower. Colleen Dhas ● Geoffrey Simon, conductor; Melbourne Symphony Orchestra ● SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD2164 (Streaming audio: 66:46) 

Percy Grainger, Australian born, spent most of his life abroad, an unheeded musical prophet down under, known mostly as a folk-music arranger and better appreciated in England and the US, where he wound up in White Plains and died an American citizen in 1961. Attempting to make more of an impact in his home country, Grainger dedicated a museum to himself in Melbourne in 1938, but was thought merely eccentric and egotistical for doing so until the 1970s, when composers began to move away from Schoenbergian theory and explore different forms of tonality again. The museum, not originally open to the public, ultimately revealed not only Grainger’s originality as a composer, but an eccentric whips-and-chains sort of love life. Unlike Sir Eugene Goossens, who destroyed his career trying to get past Australian customs officials with a suitcase full of Wiccan paraphernalia, Grainger had the good sense to keep the artifacts of his romantic life under lock and key until ten years after his death.

There was an Ivesian quality to Grainger’s desire for experimentation with sound which earned him a hearing in our country, though he was primarily known as a pianist in the Grieg Concerto and as an advocate for Nordic music, which he somewhat oddly considered superior to Beethoven and Mozart, but Grainger judged himself ultimately a failed composer for never creating a great work incorporating his theories about “free music” liberated from traditional harmony. Along the way, he composed for unusual combinations of percussion instruments, designed a sixth-tone butterfly piano, made band music seriously respectable, created various electronic machines he hoped would take the interpretive element out of performance, and left us some of the most beautiful, subtle folk tune arrangements ever, famous for their luminous textures. The Warriors, completed in 1916 and dedicated to Delius, is the lengthiest piece he ever wrote. It lasts eighteen minutes.

The Warriors is a daring work for its era, an imaginary ballet scored for three pianos and orchestra, as impudent in its use of brass and percussion as anything by Satie. It reminds me of a faster and more energetic version of Satie’s Parade, and it’s even more enjoyable. If you look for a one-word description of the piece, I’d call it “spangly”. It rolls along with lots of bells, cymbals and triangles and blasts its way to a manic end. I am familiar with three recorded versions of The Warriors, all of them excellent: John Eliot Gardiner’s, Richard Hickox’s, and this one by Geoffrey Simon. The current release is actually the earliest, recorded in 1989 and released in 1990, but presented on the Signum label here as a reissue. The program was never reviewed by Fanfare. The sound is wide ranging and spacious. If anything, brass sonority is better here than in the slightly fuzzy miking Chandos gave Richard Hickox in Manchester. 

Simon is equally idiomatic in the smaller works, all genuinely charming. Band musicians will know the Hill Songs, and everyone will be familiar with Danny Boy, the Irish Tune from county Derry. Here it’s worth noting that Leopold Stokowski commissioned in 1946 the rich throbbing version we commonly hear. This is the version Hickox recorded, and so did Leonard Slatkin for a compilation CD on the former Telarc label. Simon, though, uses Grainger’s 1920 arrangement of Danny Boy. It’s a harmonically interesting take on the tune, more eerie than sentimental. It reminds me of Ives’s way of tweaking hymn tunes with ghostly harmonies in his Third Symphony.

When all is said and done, this release is a joy. It both dazzles the ear and tugs at the heart. Like so many innovative composers, Percy Grainger, long gone himself, now seems a part of our world. More power to him!

Léo Delibes, 1875.

Léo Delibes, 1875.

 ≈ DELIBES Ballet Suites: Sylvia. La source, ou Naïla. Coppélia ● Neeme Järvi, conductor, Scottish National Orchestra  ●  CHANDOS 5257 (Streaming audio: 82:55)

Here is a most welcome release. Short tuneful excerpts from Léo Delibes’s ballets used to be a staple of urbane lunchtime radio more than half a century ago, but then, as now, mid-19th century ballet scores, though increasingly lengthy and complex, tended to have only one foot in the concert hall. It would not be until Glazunov’s The Seasons premiered in 1900 that ballet scores would adopt the unified thematic logic of tone poems and make their way into the symphonic repertory without requiring cuts and adaptation. For nearly as long as I can remember, Richard Bonynge’s LPs of Delibes have been the gold standard in this somewhat neglected music, but of course, they begin to show their age sonically. I’m only surprised it has taken this long for a major conductor to arrange manageable, palatable suites from the many inspired selections Delibes composed and record them digitally with a front rank orchestra.

Listeners may be surprised to learn that Tchaikovsky admired Delibes more than any French composer of his day. In 1877 Tchaikovsky wrote: “ I also heard in Vienna the ballet Sylvia by Léo Delibes – yes, I mean heard because this is the first ballet in which the music constitutes not just the principal, but also the sole interest. What charm, what gracefulness, what melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic richness! I was ashamed of myself. If I had known this music before, I wouldn’t have written Swan Lake.” 

Delibes died of a heart attack at 54 in 1891, but appears to have had an influence on Tchaikovsky. Though Tchaikovsky himself probably had no hand in the Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty suites (both published after his death), Delibes’s concert arrangement of Sylvia may well have given Tchaikovsky the idea for his suite from The Nutcracker.

Neeme Järvi, in the event, has pulled together nearly an hour and a half of the most appealing and galvanizing numbers in Delibes’s three major ballets. He’s in good form, and the Scottish National Orchestra plays with elan and spark. Chandos supplies its usual fine sound. I expect this release will be the go-to standard now.  I just hope it doesn’t take fifty years for another recording. Meanwhile, this is a delight and worth a pirouette or two when nobody is looking!


Paul Ben-Haim.

Paul Ben-Haim.

≈ BEN-HAIM Symphony No. 1. Pastorale Variée¹. Pan² ● Omer Meir Wellber, conductor; ²Claudia Barainsky (soprano); ¹John Bradbury (clarinet); BBC Philharmonic Orchestra ●CHANDOS 20169 (Streaming audio:  60:45) 

If Paul Hindemith had ever emigrated to Palestine, instead of Turkey, Switzerland and ultimately the United States, he might have wound up composing a symphony like this one. Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984), born Paul Frankenburger in Munich, was already a promising composer in Germany when he moved to Tel Aviv in 1933, largely for economic reasons, but surely sensing his future in Germany would be uncertain. It was not long before Ben-Haim became the dean of composers in his new country, and his Symphony No. 1 would be the first major orchestral work written there. Its 1941 premiere by the Palestine Symphony Orchestra assured Ben-Haim’s future. He would remain in Tel Aviv for the rest of a long, successful life.

Ben-Haim’s First Symphony is an astonishingly fine work, structurally coherent in three movements, gorgeously orchestrated, accessible, and sounding considerably like Hindemith in its memorable tightness of expression and controlled energy. It blossoms tonally in places in an almost cinematic way and transcends Hindemith’s style in conveying a touch of Middle Eastern exoticism along the way. (Michael Wolpe’s program notes for this release are excellent in helping listeners understand where Jewish folk elements subtly dovetail with its between-the-wars international style.) In a general way, this work shares its manner with symphonists of the day as diverse as Eduard Tubin, Walter Piston and Richard Yardumian.

At the time of his emigration, Ben-Haim had already achieved some success with his early work, Pan, a symphonic poem for soprano and orchestra in three parts. The piece has a romantic dream-like quality, wonderfully lush, and features a rapt soprano part. It reminds me in places of Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony, where a quietly enthralled and spellbound manner takes one inward. It would be hard to imagine it better sung. Claudia Barainsky has just the creamy voice this music begs for.

The 1948 Pastorale variée for clarinet and string orchestra with harp, could easily be mistaken for something from Respighi’s Church Windows. It’s an eighteen minute suite in six short, quiet movements. Here we sense Ben-Haim openly composes in what we have come to know as the Mediterranean style. Once again, a gentle dreamlike quality takes the listener into contemplation, this time in some hard to determine way evocative of desert sands and still sunsets. John Bradbury’s clarinet captures just the right degree of fruity benison.

This is a wonderful release, part of Chandos’s “Music from Israel” series. It only mystifies me that just one other digital recording of the symphony is easily available. This is really one of the best works of its kind–easily as interesting as most of the symphonies we know from its era. Israel Yinon’s version from Hannover on CPO, good in its way, seems less characterful and more like a sight-reading. Omer Meir Wellber’s interpretation is the more assured, epic and heroic, and I hope it will succeed in tempting conductors to follow in his footsteps. The BBC Philharmonic, as so often, plays beautifully and is recorded in sound hard to improve upon.

Vítězslav Novák.

Vítězslav Novák.

≈ NOVÁK South Bohemian Suite. Toman and the Wood Nymph ● Marek Štilec, conductor; Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra ● NAXOS 8.574226 (Streaming audio: 56:11)

Vítězslav Novák (1870–1949) was a Czech composer best known for subtle evocative tone poems influenced by Richard Strauss, Debussy and Delius. Although fascinated with Moravian folk melodies, Novák never composed in the foot-stomping peasant manner Dvořák adopted so successfully, nor did he lean in the abrupt declamatory “patriotic” direction familiar to us from Smetana. Novák’s music shares with French impressionism a wonderful ability to sustain a mood through delicate orchestration and evolutionary transformation of its thematic material. A gauzy and swirling Delian manner weaves an unbroken spell of fantasy, if you are so disposed and in a receptive state of mind..

I’m especially taken with the beauty of the South Bohemian Suite, a late work from 1936-37 based on an understated melody which hints at the theme of Dvořák’s Symphonic Variations. The piece is in four movements, but it rolls along so smoothly that you hardly notice any seams. The expansive subtitles, “Horizons,” “Reverie–Forests and Ponds,” “Once Upon a Time–March of the Hussites,” and “Epilog–To my Homeland” tell you most of what you need to know. I find the music lovely and mesmerizing. It’s a trick to maintain a sense of slightly dazed introspection without boring the listener, and Novák manages it easily. The “march of the Hussites” comes to us out of a misty dream, then closes within a dream, like something from Ernest Dowson’s lines about days of wine and roses, along the way reminding us of Respighi’s Pines of Rome, but without Respighi’s crude directness. This music evokes more than it portrays. It reaches us through haze and licks of flame. And the short last movement tugs at our patriotic hearts without tub-thumping or belligerence. This is a piece worth falling in love with.

Novák’s Toman and the Wood Nymph is a much earlier work, dating from 1906-07, and clearly influenced by the harmonies of Strauss’s Salomé, though without nearly the violence Strauss brought to the task. This, too, is evocative music, though slightly more dramatic than the South Bohemian Suite. It’s based on one of the many unhappy imagined events which seem to be associated with forests in late romantic music. (If one believed everything that happened in the woods as brought to us by Franck, Wagner, d’Indy, Mahler and Schoenberg, one would want to stay away from trees!) In this instance, the jilted hero dies in the arms of a wood nymph. No surprise. But the music, itself, is wonderful and cinematic, if not quite as dreamy and uplifting as the South Bohemian Suite.

I can’t imagine better performances than we encounter here from Marek Štilec. The Moravian Philharmonic musicians play beautifully, and the soundstage Naxos supplies could scarcely be improved upon for atmosphere. This is a genuinely seductive release.

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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