A Crop of Recordings XXXV: Bernstein, Barber, Crawford, Schuman, Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, Scriabin

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Ruth Crawford Seeger chopping wood with Carl Sandburg.

Ruth Crawford Seeger chopping wood with Carl Sandburg.

AMERICANS ● James Gaffigan, conductor; Paul Jacobs, (organ); Lucerne Symphony Orchestra ● HARMONIA MUNDI 902611DI (Streaming audio: 70:59) https://youtu.be/7vy6z91n1go

BERNSTEIN Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. IVES Symphony No. 3. BARBER Overture to “The School for Scandal.” Toccata Festiva. CRAWFORD Andante for Strings 

I’m always intrigued when European orchestras take up the cause of American music, a simple enough notion to understand semantically but difficult at the stylistic level for continentals to adopt idiomatically. Our music’s frequent combination of seemingly naive musical prayerfulness with ungoverned explosive energy has typically left European musicians a bit puzzled, and the Teutonic world at times more than a little stiff and earnest. So I wondered about this release. Could the Swiss sashay down Broadway with that long-legged swagger and impudence implicit in so much of American life? Could Lucerne really let go?

The answer is yes–well almost! In my bookcase still sits a no longer available CD  of Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances recorded by the Minnesota Orchestra under Edo de Waart for Reference Recordings. Part of it has a second life on YouTube: https://youtu.be/FkAT0YD1_KM.  The way de Waart’s Minnesota brass and percussion take off in the “cool/fugue” is the very essence of what Americans mean by “sass” and “letting go.” James Gaffigan is a born New Yorker and understands perfectly the way the music moves. By and large his Lucerne players get the ease and simple sentiment of the music perfectly, and Harmonia Mundi’s engineers have supplied wonderful sound. But when it comes to the “cool” fugue, everyone gets louder and faster without quite getting looser and “soft shoe.” The flutes don’t slither. Something tells me they didn’t grow up dancing to Lester Lanin, watching The Pink Panther or listening to Henry Mancini!

This is the only criticism I can bring to bear on an otherwise beautifully led program. The Ives Third Symphony, gentle and reverential and sincere, comes across as just that here. Gaffigan doesn’t try to make of it more than it can support. Limpid sound does the rest. One of these days RCA will release Ormandy’s version from the late sixties, which featured a perfect combination of lovely string tone and utter simplicity, an LP which has never made it to CD. Until then, this release is surely the one to have.

Ruth Crawford (Seeger)’s Andante is the third movement of her 1931 string quartet expanded for string orchestra. She described this slow movement as a study in dissonant dynamics, with the overlapping of crescendos and diminuendos alone creating a sense of melody out of single pitches in each instrument. The listener experiences the sense of a single chord being maintained while timbre shifts. It’s an appealing composition and doesn’t wear out its welcome. At one point the music literally screeches to a halt, as if it had to burn rubber to stop. Something’s very American about that!

I’m especially happy to listen to such a fine version of Barber’s Toccata Festiva for organ and orchestra. Although the piece was composed to celebrate the Philadelphia Orchestra’s new organ in 1960, it is in every way a serious work transcending any ceremonial purpose. It features one of Barber’s best melodies about a minute in, softly shifting, satiny, somehow knowing about life. Paul Jacobs captures its spirit well. The Lucerne Symphony’s take on the other Barber work, the overture to “The School for Scandal,” is energetic and fun, perhaps only lacking that ultimate jazzy devil-may-care snap which seems to feature in our American DNA. 

Samuel Barber

Samuel Barber

≈ BARBER Symphony No. 1. SIBELIUS Symphony No. 7. SCRIABIN The Poem of Ecstasy ● Michael Stern, conductor; Kansas City Symphony Orchestra ● REFERENCE RECORDINGS 149 (Streaming audio: 62:46)  https://youtu.be/d2FeKw_hNMU

This is a beautiful recording, and the Kansas City Symphony is a supple, polished ensemble, but Michael Stern has a puzzling tendency to record pieces generally known as “blockbusters” in the tamest possible manner. Perfectly nice recordings of Saint-Saëns’s “Organ” Symphony and Holst’s The Planets slip by with little sense of urgency or tension. Now, I wouldn’t call the Barber or Sibelius symphonies blockbusters in any obvious sense, though Scriabin’s sexscape surely qualifies, with one of the loudest orchestral pile-ups in all of music. But Sibelius and Barber are both cut from the same cloth in composing from the bottom up. These two symphonies are founded on powerful vertical harmonies. What happens in the bass really matters. They are solid, almost like buildings. But Michael Stern conducts them as if they were on casters. Barber and Sibelius emerge sounding like Eugene Ormandy leading the Philadelphia strings in Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia.

Barber’s First Symphony is insufficiently craggy here. The strings slide along at a slightly too fast tempo at first, beautifully supple but more or less hiding anything going on in the music. The timpanist is too reticent. The brass do not dig in and lift the way they should. This is not a terrible performance, but it’s insufficiently emphatic and harmonically deep, though it improves in the slow movement. Neeme Järvi’s Detroit Symphony version for Chandos has wonderful sound and gets the underlying power right, including Barber’s jarring New York brownstone doorbell in the coda, underplayed here. (That’s a proprietary jangling sound every Manhattanite will recognize.)

My complaint is the same in Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony. The music moves along gleamingly and smoothly, but with little sense of the growling power and majesty Colin Davis achieves in his Boston Symphony recording for Phillips. That CD is still unrivalled in its monolithic weight, with 1975 sound which holds up well. In fairness, I should say I prefer that version to everyone else’s. Stern has a lot of company in not conceiving of the work as massively as Davis did, and what Stern does is not so different from what you encounter in most well-regarded Sevenths, but I think of the symphony as a big piece and tend to hold out for any new performance which might agree.

Stern is nothing if not consistent, in any case. Rounding out the program on this release, Scriabin’s cold-hearted ecstatic encounter is a little less obvious than usual, a touch less metallic than we normally experience it, a bit more appealing actually–but also not quite so overpowering when it concludes as we would like it to be. To their credit, the Reference engineers have managed to balance the organ superbly at the end. But unsurprisingly, that last unimaginably sustained chord just ends–a bit too abruptly. Guess it was a forgettable first date….

William Schuman

William Schuman

≈ SCHUMAN Symphony No. 3 ● Eugene Ormandy, cond; Philadelphia Orchestra ● SONY CLASSICAL 886448901198 (Streaming audio: 30:20) https://youtu.be/d7l-7dG7TG0

I confess I come to this release mostly by way of reminiscence. Here, as collectors first heard it, is one of the great American symphonies evoking our nation’s striding confidence at mid-century. Close your eyes, and you are once again in a black-and-white Life Magazine world of streamlined locomotives hurtling across the plains, gleaming aircraft engines spinning their propellers to win a war, and the alabaster majesty of Hoover Dam. Sony and RCA are both in process of releasing for CD much of their former catalog featuring original LP covers, the mere sight of which frequently suffices to evoke powerful memories in the likes of us. In the event, here is the first time one encounters on CD Eugene Ormandy’s 1951 Columbia monaural premiere recording of the William Schuman Third Symphony with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Fanfare has not reviewed it before.

One of the first things to notice, when thinking about American composers, is that hypertrophic American symphonies from the era of late romantic grandiosity simply don’t exist. Yes, we point to the Ives Fourth Symphony from 1916. It’s a big piece, but typically lean and energetic and brash. It may use hymn tunes, but to get things done in the American way, not to dwell on misery or irony or wallow in neurotic sensuality. What our composers never turned out was something like Respighi’s 1914 Symphony, a massive work so thick and lumbering and weighed down with accretions from before, that its first chord stumbles into existence like an obese man loosing his footing on the curb. 

More typically, 20th century American music of the period gives us a sense of “big sky” and of soaring majesty and, when turned to old forms like fugue and counterpoint, of sashaying long-stepped energy and heel-kicking jazz ebullience. When America engages in nostalgia, it’s not Freudian or aiming for decadence. More likely it reflects sentiment directed at a simpler rural past, the sort of thing evoked by Virgil Thomson via simple folk melody.

William Schuman’s Third Symphony, written in 1941, is a sleek, chrome-plated piece of prototypical American energy, featuring stratospheric long string lines and bold arching, almost machine-like declamatory somersaults and chorales in the brass. We are in the Hindemith era, after all. The first movement develops fugally, much like Roy Harris’s one movement Third Symphony from a few years before. 

Both works, indeed, undergo a similar progression from bardlike beginnings to a triumphantly punched-out conclusion, but the Schuman is in three movements and behaves more like a regular symphony. Schuman was not as warm a composer as Harris or Barber. He didn’t convey affection in his music, but he does capture urban mood. This is music for a dusty New York summer Sunday. The streets shimmer like mirages, and newspapers lying in the gutter rise in the wind like mini-tornadoes. The slow movement here evokes an aching urban loneliness. You can almost see the trumpeter on his fire escape. And what could be more American than the syncopated rim-shots on the snare drum which punctuate the finale, or the sheer convulsive drive of its traffic-pileup coda?

Most listeners know this work through Leonard Bernstein’s 1961 stereo recording, miked in Manhattan Center. The LP was majestic from the beginning, its spaciousness catalysing the imagination, and Bernstein’s sweeping way with brass and his ability to sashay in the loping spirit of Jazz was incomparable. I’ve never been fond of Bernstein’s less sonically evocative digital remake, and Gerard Schwarz’s CD with the Seattle Symphony, the only other modern choice, though decent on its own merits, has none of Bernstein’s sense of swing or ability to arch a long line. Ormandy is a little more supple than Schwarz. He catches my attention here–not surprisingly–for the richness of his string phrasing at the beginning. It’s astonishing how well the engineers managed to capture the essential sonority of Ormandy’s Philadelphia strings, given that the sound is fairly dry and the technology so early and boxy. I’m happy to note that there is no audible distortion in the brass at all, something extremely rare in a recording from 1951. This is a listenable release, and Ormandy always gets American music right, even if he doesn’t let go quite as much as Bernstein. I had to laugh, when I came to the timpani duel in the first movement here. Bernstein fires away, and Ormandy tries to. But I can recall many Ormandy concerts I attended live, where he would invariably shush the kettledrums just when you wished he wouldn’t. Ormandy clearly didn’t like hard sounds, so the timpani sound as if they are wearing gloves.

Sony is currently releasing 120 monaural Ormandy recordings in a big box. You might say that this Schuman Third is one of the teasers. In the box, it finds itself oddly paired with Debussy’s Iberia. No matter. This is a definitely a trip down memory lane, but it is a good one! 

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Sergei Rachmaninoff

≈ RACHMANINOFF Symphony No. 3. Vocalise ● Eugene Ormandy, conductor; Philadelphia Orchestra ● SONY 886448912378 (Streaming Audio: 42:52) https://youtu.be/6Z9Rqg2bglQ

I had forgotten how good this was! Sony’s release-in-progress of Eugene Ormandy’s monaural Philadelphia Orchestra LPs, featuring original album covers, is not just an exercise in nostalgia, though it is surely that. It is a lesson in how a great orchestra can please the public with motives no more arcane than to set before them the music they love and want to experience. I look back with a certain longing at the days when hearing a piece like Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise was normal fare at a symphony concert, and when the introduction of a new symphony to the subscribers meant their exposure to music that was as voluptuous and accessible as the Rachmaninoff Third Symphony. Doing just that was an Ormandy specialty. Say what one will about Eugene Ormandy as an interpreter. His audiences liked the new music he played and came away happy, without ever feeling they had been in school having their knuckles rapped by someone with a ruler.

The performance here was recorded in 1954 in sound still remarkably well-balanced and spacious enough to be true to the velvet timbres and unembarrassed portamento of Ormandy’s orchestra. You hear everything. Although Rachmaninoff himself recorded his Third Symphony in 1940 shortly before an untimely death from melanoma, it is fair to say that Ormandy’s LP made it popular, or perhaps it is better to say gave popularity its original push. This symphony, written in three movements like the Symphonic Dances, reflects Rachmaninoff’s later, terse style, with shorter melodies and a punchier, more nervous harmonic wind-focused manner and all sorts of fascinating intrusions from trumpets and percussion. 

Popularity took some doing. The music features, nonetheless, a heartbreakingly beautiful yearning melody in the first movement, a jumpy scherzo tucked into the Adagio with one of the weirdest climaxes Rachmanainoff ever wrote, where the bass drum and timpani seem to jump out of nowhere and make the orchestra collapse in a cascade. The finale starts in a dither until it manages to soar beautifully, which it them proceeds to do. The work is even more thematically integrated than the Second Symphony is, held together by a sliver of an opening motif and a slow treading walk in the bass which in fact concludes the first two movements with a gloomy throb. (The last grim chord of that first movement here, in fact, is better balanced than in Ormandy’s stereo recording from the 1960s. It can give you shivers). And in some hard to define way, this is a younger man’s performance, fractionally faster and tighter than Ormandy’s later way with the work. The musicians seem excited to be playing the piece. I had the good fortune to hear Ormandy perform the symphony twice live a decade apart in New York, and as the 1960s progressed to the 1970s he gradually became more ruminative and ultimately delivered one of those slow-burn beautiful performances old conductors give which could use a bit of  taser in the rhythm department.

In the years since, many major conductors and orchestras have recorded the Rachmaninoff Third Symphony, but I’ve never encountered a performance as simply right as this one. For one thing, most orchestras cannot even appear to match the sheer lushness of Ormandy’s Philadelphians, captured surprisingly beautifully by the CBS engineers.  It always amuses me to read that Herbert von Karajan’s Berlin Philharmonic was supposedly “all about string sound.” This was true, if what one meant was satin refinement and depth of tone. But Ormandy’s Philadelphians had an unembarrassed sensuality of string weight which Berlin would never dare, and perhaps, knowing Karajan’s dislike of Rachmaninoff, did not want to. (Ormandy, taking his own tendencies too far, got himself in trouble with record critics around 1960 for a Tchaikovsky Fifth featuring such vulgar treatment of the first movement’s secondary melody in waltz tempo, that they never forgave him.) Fortunately, though, it was always acknowledged that Rachmaninoff and Ormandy were perfect for each other’s talents. The composer held Ormandy’s artistry in high esteem, as I expect our listeners will upon hearing this release. Ormandy’s swoopy way with Vocalise in this recording would be hard to improve upon. There is more here than nostalgia. This performance is the gold standard.

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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