≈ MOZART Symphonies Nos. 25 and 29 ● Riccardo Muti, conductor; New Philharmonia Orchestra ● Warner 9029667959 (Streaming audio: 45:59)
Welcome to the world of unselfconscious Mozart as it once was. When this LP first arrived in record bins in 1977, there was nothing stylistically unusual about romantically phrased performances of the composer’s music, delivered by large orchestras with substantial masses of strings. Herbert von Karajan, Bruno Walter, Karl Böhm, George Szell, all recorded “big” Mozart. Towards the end of the decade Josef Krips would turn out some nicely crisp late symphonies with the Concertgebouw for Phillips, a bit reduced in scale, but we were still a long way from the aggressive small dog Mozart which bites at our ankles today and answers to the word “Authenticity.”
I feel somewhat vindicated falling in love twice with these performances. The LP was a favorite. They are sheer plum velvet, from beginning to end, conducted with Italianate grace and remarkable elision. The sound is soft and glowing. You want to bathe in it. But it isn’t a guilty pleasure. As Jan Swafford’s detailed Mozart biography makes clear, Mozart quite frequently had massive festival orchestras at his disposal, much more often than early music enthusiasts might have us believe, and of course, the majority of those musicians would have been string players. During this period Mozart was orchestrating without trumpets or clarinets or percussion, yet Swafford suggests that Symphonies Nos. 25, 29, and 33 were repeatedly performed by large orchestras, and there appears to be evidence of No. 40 being played by an ensemble of 80. One can only suppose, under the circumstances, that Mozart himself, performing and listening to his own music, probably heard something stylistically closer to Riccardo Muti than to Roger Norrington.
This release is not a physical CD, but a digital sample from an enormous Muti box. It’s also available on YouTube at long last. I missed it. The claim to fame of this release, if you were to ask me “Why not Karajan? Why not Böhm?”is simply the fact that all the elements come together perfectly with Muti to make the music warm and flowing. It’s a one-off triumph. These performances are even nicer than the ones Muti later recorded in Vienna. He achieves here a sort of silky, serene, jauntiness. It floats the listener. Have a swim.
≈ GERSHWIN An American in Paris ● Artur Rodziński, conductor; New York Philharmonic Orchestra ● SONY 886449196630 (Streaming audio: 16:12)
Sony has been playing needle and groove historian lately, bringing back on CD old Columbia monaural 78s and early LPs, most recorded by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Those releases feature original cover art, a powerful memory lane blandishment for anyone old enough to have been vaguely contemporary — even if on all fours at the time. Sony is now issuing a similar slew of Artur Rodziński shellacs from his short tenure with the New York Philharmonic (1943-1947). I, for one, am grateful. Recordings like these were ubiquitous on classical radio in the 1950s. Somewhere in the blur of childhood memory I recall how Rodziński’s Gershwin sounded.
For listeners far younger, there is much to be learned from the directness with which the music was then approached. This is a fascinating American in Paris, almost as fast as Gershwin’s piano roll, and stripped of the exaggerations and brashness we know today from Leonard Bernstein’s stereo LP recorded fifteen years later. Once stereo arrived, Bernstein largely dominated how musicians tended to play Gershwin in the years following, though Arthur Fiedler did compete with a tighter approach in his famous Boston Pops stereo LP. Rodziński’s take is even closer still to the music’s dance band roots. It’s more than two minutes faster than Bernstein’s.
Rodziński was an important figure during his years at the New York Philharmonic, credited with a Szell-like technical improvement in the quality of orchestral playing, its precision audible here. When he resigned from the orchestra in 1947, Time put Rodziński on the cover. It had been a controversial tenure, marked by tension with Arthur Judson, the king of orchestra management at the time. The Polish conductor was, like George Szell in Cleveland, a prickly, rigid disciplinary personality. He was, moreover, given to paranoia. It was said Rodziński conducted with a revolver in one pocket and a rabbit’s foot in the other. You wouldn’t suppose soft-shoe Gershwin to be the best repertory choice for Rodziński under the circumstances, but this is actually a lovely, high energy take on the music, and benefits from its lack of self-conscious rubato. The central trumpet melody here would make for a nice slow foxtrot. He’s not trying to stretch it into a metaphysical statement! And the New York Philharmonic, of course, sounds all-American. That’s in the players’ DNA.
The Rodziński recording of An American in Paris dates from 1945. This would have been the only performance you ran into on the radio for about five years. Eugene Ormandy recorded it in 1948, but his LP was released later. Despite its age, monaural sound oddly seems to help the music here. The sound is nicely sprung, with minimal distortion on anything but cymbals, but–no surprise–it has its boxy, jukebox moments. One doesn’t mind. One just heads for the dance floor all that more vividly in one’s imagination.
≈ PROKOFIEV Symphony No. 6. MIASKOVSKY Symphony No. 27 ● Vasily Petrenko, conductor; Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra ● LAWO 1215 (Streaming audio: 76:24) https://youtu.be/0MtjWZxZY7Q
Somewhere out there in LP purgatory, awaiting release on CD with infinite metaphysical patience, lies Eugene Ormandy’s 1963 stereo recording of Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony. It’s a massively rich, gleaming interpretation, recorded in stunningly deep sound, my original benchmark for the symphony, but a phantom to anyone not my age. Ormandy dares the first movement to be heavy and meets it on those terms. No surprise, of course, but it works.
Many conductors are more likely to sharpen Prokofiev’s metallic clipped edges than Ormandy was, thereby lightening the piece, but most lose courage when it comes to varying tempo effectively. Typical performances reveal an oddly barking, panting, first movement soundscape, which moves too slowly.
Vasily Petrenko, I’m intrigued to report, takes the piece on thrustingly, then slows down for powerfully hammered drama in the central part of the movement, as needed. That seems to do the trick for excitement and for making good sense of the music, which can otherwise seem sluggish and lopsided with gloom–and occasionally stylistically at odds with itself. There are no boring moments here or unnecessary silences. There is, in fact, a kind of George Szell precision to the Oslo string passagework, and real dazzle to Petrenko’s brisk phrasing throughout. Despite crushing irony hidden at its emotional core, the symphony’s last movement necessarily takes part in insipid melodic content rendered necessary by Soviet authorities. Instead of playing up these populist moments, though, Petrenko manages to purge them of stage drunkenness and street vulgarity and make them intriguingly swift and structural, interesting as integrated sonorities. This is finely balanced Prokofiev, but it is not “sound effect” Prokofiev. The recording is front row and detailed, if not massively spacious, but it grips you with bass power and excitement. No complaints.
Nikolay Miaskovsky, generally thought of as “father of the Soviet symphony,” managed to keep his head down musically until 1947, when he was swept up in the Stalinist rebuke of “formalism,” along with his friend Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich. Miaskovsky’s last symphony, performed here, is something of a reply to his critics, just as Prokofiev’s Seventh, written with simplicity for students, may have been. It’s music so conservative it could have been written in 1900 instead of 1950. One can see, though, how this composer managed to walk the musical tightrope for as long as he did. Miaskovsky’s music suggests normality, a quality rare in Soviet life, and that makes it personal at a time when other Russian composers were busy rattling the cages of history.
Miaskovsky sounds like the kinder side of Prokofiev at times, or Glazunov minus the bombast, in the same way that Edmund Rubbra resembles a more Brahmsian version of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Symphony No. 27 is ruminative without being tragic. The tunes are beautiful and affectionate, almost like something John Ireland would compose for film. Its Finale features a cheerful ceremonial march, once again totally without irony or hidden meaning. This is music worth getting to know, if history hasn’t led one to expect too much from it–or too little.
Petrenko leads a tight, effective, performance here. Valéry Polyansky and the Russian State Symphony have recorded the Miaskovsky for Chandos, also an excellent choice, but it’s deferential to navel-gazing. I find myself swept along by Petrenko’s urgency and unerring sense of musical interest. And I doubt one will find a better Prokofiev Sixth anywhere, even if Eugene Ormandy’s vanished stereo LP, (said to be in Japanese CD limbo), does someday return from the dead.
≈ BRAHMS Symphony No. 3. Serenade No. 2 ● Iván Fischer, conductor; Budapest Festival Orchestra ● CHANNEL 43821 (Streaming audio: 1:07:47) https://youtu.be/IXLm_W16g0o
Whenever a conductor starts to philosophize in print about the new release of a Brahms CD, I find myself getting nervous. It’s almost as if the impulse to analyze the composer’s opaque psyche and find a life metaphor in each note gets in the way of the music itself. Iván Fischer does not hesitate to wax metaphysical. His program notes for the Brahms Third Symphony speak of “….a victorious emanation of energy, full of life and light. Each bar of this outburst takes us to a new experience: to happiness in F major, sadness in F minor, wandering into the distantly related D flat major, with a confusing dead end of the diminished 7th as if we would almost lose our way. But then a magic solution takes us on a lyrical journey reaching first to fulfillment and finally to a peaceful decline. This is how we should live.”
All well and good. But that’s a lot of speculative weight and earnestness for music to absorb. I ask a simple question: What ever happened to Allegro con brio? Where did victory go? As recently as mid-century one heard the Brahms Third Symphony described as the composer’s “Eroica.” There wasn’t so much speculation and micro-analysis about it. Old radio broadcasts tended to reveal conductors tearing into the music and whipping it up as much as possible. Even Bruno Walter, known for his supple phrases, led the piece on disc with genuine thrust, indeed near violence. If only Iván Fischer did that here.
Instead, we have a pretty normal performance when it comes to tempo, even a decently swift one for the finale, but a low level of heft and power. Fischer’s opening “outburst” is pretty tepid. Indeed, most fortissimos in this performance seem to back away from themselves to avoid their own weight. And curiously, for a conductor who purports to think of the music emotionally, Fischer tends to micromanage textures for clarity rather than beauty. I find the result clinical and lacking in sweep. As a result, even portamento used in the Poco Allegretto sounds static and applied. I confess to being a bit puzzled at the accolades the Budapest Festival Orchestra keeps receiving, at least on disc. The playing seems fine but exhibits no special character. Nicely open sound does not seem to supply the sense of color and luxury missing here. I was fortunate to hear Karajan perform this symphony live in Carnegie Hall, an evening which stays with me, because it was not only fiery but svelte. The first movement development section swept you along with velvet hands. Nothing so beautiful or involving happens here.
There is less at stake in the halls of critical academe when we come to the Brahms Second Serenade, and Fischer would be silly to make too much of it, which he does not. Trouble is, he doesn’t make enough of it. The performance is perfectly respectful, but exhibits little of the sheer zest and abandon one gets from Jaime Martin’s very special release of Brahms Serenades for Ondine with the Gävle Symphony. Fischer is an interesting study–a conductor determined to be calm. But this seems to demand our noticing that at some point phlegmatic turns to dull.
≈ HANDEL Organ Concertos Op. 4¹ and Op. 7¹,²●¹Martin Haselböck (organ), conductor; ²Jeremy Joseph (organ); Vienna Academy Orchestra ● ALPHA 742 (164:20)
George Frideric Handel was nothing if not entrepreneurial. Nearly bankrupted in what might be called the theater wars of the 1720s, where Italian and English opera vied for an audience, and having to close the Royal Academy of Music (which he had founded in 1728 as a home for Italian opera), Handel pivoted to the organ in search of a new audience–and in so doing bequeathed to the world the secular organ concerto. Always an important instrument of singular power, the organ had nevertheless been the historical handmaiden of faith, secondary to words sermonized and sung, its console hidden away behind pulpits. Handel put it front and center. At great expense Handel had a stage console constructed which allowed him to play and lead from the podium with his back to the audience, giving the organ virtuoso status and, moreover, supplying the organist greater control over complex cues in the music. The organ concertos marked an almost inadvertent advance in the art of conducting. Between 1735 and 1751 Handel composed the twelve concertos known as op. 4 and op. 7, with the most famous one, “The Cuckoo and the Nightingale” included as a thirteenth in op. 4. They became the most popular music Handel ever wrote.
It’s always hard to say exactly why, but Handel’s music reflects the textures and sentiments of daily life so much more than Bach’s. Handel evokes a special kind of human immediacy that Bach lacks. It’s not just that Bach’s compositions are inherently more religious and earnest. Even where lively and dancelike, Bach is never impish, or sexy, or childishly playful, or virtuosic for sound effect without import. Listening to Handel, one can easily imagine him writing for the many emotions and pregnant pauses occurring in film, or in a later time turning out light-hearted piano concertos, like Saint-Saëns. But one would be hard put to think of Bach composing a score for Gone with the Wind.
Organist/conductor Martin Haselböck, in the event, brings us here very human and seductive performances, ceding the organ part to Jeremy Joseph in the second set of concertos. The acoustic of the Musikverein is beautifully captured, the organ timbre bright but smooth, and when Handel sets his recorders up to burr like bagpipes and soar, the long arching lines are unsurpassed. The Vienna Academy purrs and wheezes with the best of them! I’ve been humming for days the hearty tune in “A tempo ordinario” from the last concerto. It’s as good as anything in Water Music.
I’m happy to note, as well, that the cultural overreaction to plush Victorian performances of Handel seems to have played itself out. Early HIP versions of these concertos led by Jeremy Rifkin or Nikolaus Harnoncourt are a bit on the choppy and dry side. More recent accounts (Richard Egarr and the Academy of Ancient Music, for instance), and this one under the direction of Martin Haselböck, seem less in the throes of ideology–and more interested in beauty for its own sake. You won’t do better than to listen to these.