A Crop of Recordings XIX: Dvořák, Strauss, Brahms, Holst, Schmidt and Elgar

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Krzysztof Urbański
Krzysztof Urbański

DVOŘÁK Symphony No. 9. A Hero’s SongKrzysztof Urbański, conductor; North German Radio Elbphilharmonie Orchestra ALPHA 269 (Streaming audio: 61:30).

Here is really lovely Dvořák: fresh and natural, gorgeously recorded—and with something new to say. That’s rare for the symphony, which has been captured for presumed immortality by every orchestra on earth—and dutifully miked from nearly every row in every concert house. There’s a New World for every taste in approach and sonic perspective.

This is a gleaming, sleek, satiny reading of the symphony, sensitive and appealingly refined, set midway back with none of the “E-Minor rasp” that can make brass chords overbearing and the music blatty. It also features light-as-a-feather winds and some of the most breath-stopping quiet string playing you will ever encounter. Krzysztof Urbański achieves a haunting effect at the end of the slow movement, where the music barely breathes. He has the strings move away from each other as they play, until they are at opposite ends of the stage, evanescing into the distance along with the notes they play.

Urbański is the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor. His players are pictured here standing in their fascinating new snakeskin-wall venue, but these 2015 and 2016 studio performances were actually laid down in the Laeiszhalle, the orchestra’s former home. Free of an audience, it still makes for a fine recording venue, as Urbański’s recent Lutoslawski CD for Alpha also demonstrated. One looks forward, nonetheless, to a more interesting future for this largely unheralded German orchestra. The new hall is so spectacular, the ensemble’s reputation will benefit from it.

Hints of the future aren’t what’s new here, though. Urbański studied the composer’s original orchestral parts for this performance of the New World Symphony and came up with some intriguing differences. In the first movement you notice a greater unity of tempo, everything moving along nicely. But the Scherzo is the stunner. The first four bars are omitted at the repeat, which is to say the movement opens with a jangle followed by chugging, and then just chugs the next time. The music makes much more sense this way. Indeed, I find the whole performance so seductive, I’ve become sort of addicted to it. It goes down smoothly.

A Hero’s Song gets equally fine delivery here. I prefer it to Antoni Wit’s version with the Polish National Orchestra, which seems mostly about drums and cymbals and meanders too much. Urbański’s quite a bit faster—all good. This is a conductor who unifies a performance instinctively. My amused reaction to the tone poem, though, is that personality always will out. This is a pretty modest “hero” compared to the titanic grandiosity found in Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, written just a year later. You don’t imagine how either composer would have been much of an influence on the other. Strauss docks his ego portentously like an ocean liner. Dvořák modestly winds down his hero’s life with a jaunty march down the gangplank. It sounds for all the world like Lieutenant Commander Fred MacMurray briskly trotting off The Caine, carrying a briefcase.

Edward Gardner
Edward Gardner

STRAUSS Also Sprach Zarathustra. HOLST The PlanetsEdward Gardner, conductor; National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain CHANDOS CHSA 5179 (Streaming audio: 79:53)

I can well understand why Chandos would consider these performances a major release. We have here a perfect storm of 164 teenage virtuosos, stunningly recorded in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, performing in adult unison before a front rank conductor. The results need no apology whatsoever. The National Youth Orchestra of Britain has long been considered one of the world’s greatest youth orchestras, and it only confirms that reputation here. This may well be the best-sounding recorded version of either piece currently available, effortlessly smooth and deep, with a whisper-quiet dynamic floor that will mislead when the music grows louder. Organ pedal tone is flawlessly supportive and floaty, and the orchestra at all times smooth, balanced, ideally transparent.

If I were to draw a distinction between the NYO of GB and the world’s professional orchestras, it would revolve mostly around the greater weight of brass and string sonority an established ensemble can muster—plus that hard-to-define sense of being a single organism moving and phrasing in a nearly biochemical way. But this sets a standard few ensembles of any sort can meet—professional or not. The NYO plays better than many a festival orchestra. It has the advantage of huge forces onstage to compensate for any lightness of sonority. Brass and string textures sound quite normal.

Considering the two works interpreted here, I like best Gardner’s way with The Planets. But I think the reason is simply that the musicians—teens though they may be—know intuitively how to “sound English.” Holst brings us a very English universe, and these “planets” definitely “belong.” Mars usually sets the stage for general audience impact, and successful performances range from Steinberg’s BSO blitzkrieg on DGG to Neville Marriner’s “phony war” with the Concertgebouw on Philips. In between lie the rest.

Gardner is generally fast and smooth—not biting—but with plenty of youthful snap, nonetheless, and a fine meditative quality in Venus and Neptune that won’t bore. And of course, there is no trouble “sounding English” for the great hymn tune of Jupiter. That’s second nature. The performance comes off flawlessly, with fine horn solos in Venus and feather-light winds in Mercury. Saturn really does chime like the grandfather clock of stillness and empty time. The organ glissando at the conclusion of Uranus gets its most floor-shaking recording yet, and Holst’s choral fade-away seems more comfortably timeless than ever, as if outer space had been brought up to room temperature for improved meditation.

Needless to say, such atmospheric attributes come to bear on Also sprach Zarathustra similarly and yield an impressive experience. Strauss’s fanfare opening is done exactly as one would hope, without the embarrassing attempt so many conductors make to have it sound “different.” This usually involves speeding up the timpani in strange ways or making long brass chords too short. Gardner gives it just the right amount of push-me-pull-you and moves on nicely from there. It’s once again a fairly swift performance—and at 31 minutes topped yet again by Steinberg’s 29 with the BSO in a similar CD pairing.

You have no sense at all of listening to a fast run-through, though. Everything is lovely, romantic, full of give, sway and even mystery. (Try the Wissenschaft section). But the strings don’t sound Viennese! This is the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, of course, not Austria. As a result, we seem to be missing the heavy cream of Viennese sentiment. Nietzsche comes off sounding a bit like Bertrand Russell. But if you don’t mind your music “in translation”, I’d say this is the way to go.

Jaime Martin. Photo Alexander Lindström.
Jaime Martin. Photo Alexander Lindström.

BRAHMS Serenades Nos. 1 and 2 • Jaime Martin, conductor; Gävle Symphony Orchestra ONDINE ODE1291-2 (Streaming audio: 72:33)

I don’t know if I’m alone in finding the Brahms serenades problematic: beautiful music composed slightly outside a comfort zone. Perhaps it’s hard today to approach anything by Brahms without weighing it down with portent and making it elephantine, but it seems the serenades have always confused performers. The notion of a “serenade” suggests light-hearted emotion, conviviality and perhaps the ability to cut a rug. But the only place in Brahms we find him as unbuttoned as that is the Hungarian Dances. These are wild—and as spontaneous as anything in Dvořák. The serenades, though, seem weighed down at odd moments by portent—or in the case of the Second Serenade—a deliberate dulling of orchestration (no violins.) One does wonder if Brahms lumbered on the dance-floor….As early as 1872, a British critic wrote of the First Serenade: in spite, therefore, of the undoubted merit of many of the movements […] the last note of the work was unanimously hailed as a relief. I always feel guilty, because that’s the reaction I tend to have, myself.

But I can’t quite stay away, either. There is something wonderfully equestrian about the first movement, with its horns. Indeed, throw in the Scherzo, and you could easily subtitle this work “The Hunt.” I hear horses everywhere. The other side of the equation is a slow movement featuring a galumphing secondary melody and a general quality of serious meandering that can dull the mind. I still have a fondness for Bernard Haitink’s gorgeously recorded Concertgebouw performance. But it is definitely beyond huge in sonority and leaves the listener scratching his head at the puffery, wondering what on earth Brahms thought he was doing.

This new version of the serenades by Spanish conductor Jaime Martin and his 52-member-strong Gävle Symphony avoids all the elephantine pitfalls and delivers both pieces with a lovely sense of lift, grace and serenity. Martin’s tempos are the usual ones, but his sense of texture is unerring. It makes one wonder what the First Serenade’s long lost version for small orchestra and horns would have sounded like. And Martin’s version of the Second Serenade is as natural and appealing as it can be made. The Scherzo, which attacks itself enjoyably with hemiolas, is bewitching. Ondine, as always, supplies effortless sound.

Among recent releases, Riccardo Chailly’s CD on Decca with the Leipzig Gewandhaus makes for interesting competition. Chailly has consciously sped up his Brahms in recent years, paring it down and stressing sinew. That can rob the symphonies of some of their atmosphere and sentiment, but in the serenades, it’s all to the good. Listeners seeking the perfect porridge can decide if they prefer that rather punchy approach—or the graceful one so nicely laid out in Gävle.

SCHMIDT Symphony No. 2. STRAUSS Intermezzo: TraumereiSemyon Bychkov, cond; VPO SONY CLASSICAL 886445976199 (Streaming Audio: 55:11)

I still recall nearly with shivers listening to Franz Schmidt for the first time. It was 1970, and the Vienna Philharmonic had just released for Decca/London Zubin Mehta’s dark, eerie performance of the Fourth Symphony. The LP cover featured Gustav Klimt’s ubiquitous “The Kiss.” (I wonder how many of us have been lured in by that one.) I had barely heard of the composer, but the Vienna Philharmonic found so many tendrils of texture in the music, which is romantic, chromatic, deeply sad, but not neurotic or egotistical, that I sensed ever since this orchestra must surely own Schmidt.

That’s certainly true, historically, of course. Schmidt played cello in the orchestra, occupying various chairs in the section, depending on whether Mahler was conducting. (At first a favorite, Schmidt soon became an object of Mahler’s jealousy as a rival composer.) But except for that 1970 LP, you’d think the Vienna Philharmonic had never heard of him. Recordings of Schmidt’s symphonies indeed, seem to come from everywhere in Europe but Vienna, plus Chicago and Detroit!

One hopes that’s changing. The Second Symphony has been lucky on CD all along, with gorgeous brass playing from the 1996 Chicago Symphony reading for Järvi on Chandos, and recently an exciting, lucid version from Sinaisky in Malmö for Naxos (my favorite). But Vienna is the home orchestra. The Schmidt idiom is second nature. And it shows.

This has little to do with the conductor—though Bychkov is always at least close to splendid. He takes mainstream tempos—the work is not structurally hard to comprehend and doesn’t invite “transitionitis” from performers the way Mahler does.

Composer Franz Schmidt
Composer Franz Schmidt

The first movement features a first-rate Straussian horn melody and brass-punches in an unusual register. This is a largely upbeat work, with an elaborate, almost Bachian/Brahmsian finale, at least before Schmidt lets himself loose with brass. And the second of three movements combines chorale-like nobility with hidden-scherzo bounce that’s almost Czech. Schmidt never quite turns towards Mahler harmonically (though the Second Symphony was written in 1911, the year of Mahler’s death). What’s distinctive about the piece is the sheer originality of its brass fanfares—and more of that nearly Vaughan Williams-type noble string writing we’ve come to know from the Notre Dame prelude. Schmidt achieves a genuine personal style. His music ultimately wheels along on syncopations, as easily recognizable as Schumann’s use of dotted rhythms. It stands apart from Strauss as less sensual and more religious in feeling, but equally beautiful at times, lit from within. And that’s all we need ask of a composer, especially one with so memorable a capacity for melodic invention. The Schmidt Second Symphony is not as probing as his Fourth, but it’s a genuine audience pleaser. You come away refreshed from it. Even the nearly obligatory grand finale of the era seems less of a struggle with Schmidt. His brass fanfares do not oppress. This is a great work by any standard.

There’s nothing unusual about the new performance we are considering here, in fact, except for how right it sounds and how comfortable the players seem to be—burbling away on winds, bouncing along on trombones, swirling on the strings like cartwheels and making noble throaty noises from burnished horns. This was recorded in the Musikverein and has all the virtues and defects you’ve come to expect from the VPO miked in the hall: slightly recessed horns and trumpets (less equestrian sounding than Järvi’s), lots of air around the sound, marginally wooly timpani, and unbelievably rich strings.

Lightning doesn’t always strike twice, of course. Strauss’s fireplace scene from Intermezzo is a dreamy and evocative float down memory lane, done vividly here with a clarinet who keeps calling attention to himself. I wish he wouldn’t. Neeme Järvi’s Detroit Symphony version is dreamier and floatier still. But if Franz Schmidt is your magic carpet, you could do worse than let Semyon Bychkov and the Vienna Philharmonic take you aloft.

Edward Elgar
Edward Elgar

ELGAR Symphony No. 1. Introduction and Allegro • Doric Qrt; Edward Gardner, conductor; BBC Symphony Orchestra CHANDOS CHSA 5181 (Streaming audio: 65:20)

A new Elgar First from Edward Gardner turns out to be more seductive than I expected. It’s the easy listening version. Now that I have your full attention, let me explain even more oddly—I mean this as a compliment.

It wasn’t so long ago we would have been grateful for any LP of Elgar’s symphony at all. It was unknown in America, until Sir John Barbirolli and the Philharmonia hit record bins around 1966. We were fortunate in that performance. It established Elgar’s greatness here. Barbirolli’s LP remains today a monument: stately, confident, gentle….Soon to follow was Sir Georg Solti, finding in the composer’s own early recording an edgy neurotic tension, wired and jumpy. Over the years, numerous conductors filled in the gaps between those interpretive extremes—and even established new dimensions beyond them. Most recently, Sakari Oramo and his Royal Stockholm Philharmonic on BIS seem to have mined a sweet spot between dignified uplift and darkest struggle. But Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Staatskapelle have gone further, bringing us the work as a black hole—beyond mere darkness. There is now an Elgar First Symphony CD for every taste, it would seem, including Roger Norrington’s. He leads it like a concerto grosso by Handel-of-the-undead. You’d think that would cover all bases.

But what’s this about seduction? Very simple. Edward Gardner brings us the missing approach, the one we didn’t know was missing. He conducts the symphony with affection and simple beauty—but entirely without tragedy. There is no menace in Gardner’s Elgar, whatsoever. This is exceptionally easy to listen to. And it doesn’t sound lightweight. It’s actually a swift performance with plenty of excitement, lots of easy refinement and lovely quiet playing—but little sadness—and certainly no neurosis or depression. It doesn’t shriek at you. Given Chandos’s luscious sound, I’m struck by how well it works to pretend the piece lies somewhere between Mendelssohn and Vincent d’Indy. A tremolo is just a diaphanous breath of wind, a woodwind over strings the pleasant sighting of a bird.

Gardner sets out at a finely judged pace and marches off cheerfully. It’s a golden, propulsive beginning, followed by a swift, but not-overstrained Allegro. Gardner’s timpanist has just the right amount of suppressed violence to keep things interesting. The scherzo comes across deft and almost Mendelssohnian. Like many performances of this movement, it’s a touch too swift at the climaxes, blurring the timpani and turning cymbal crashes into sneezes. But there’s a sweetness in it that’s gentle and natural, “down by the river”, the way Elgar said he wanted. The BBC Symphony, I should stress, play flawlessly and easily throughout, nowhere more subtly than in the slow movement, where a breathless quiet counts for a lot. Listeners who like consoling moments will love what Gardner does at the end of the last movement development: this is the passage which transforms the motto theme over harps into lapping waves of sighs. Here, it’s a lover leaning quietly against your ear.

I don’t mean, by the way, to ignore fine work by the Doric Quartet in Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, the second piece included on the CD. In these hands, it begins with slashing energy but soon settles down to romance. There is no contrarian view of this music, so far as I know. This performance is a lovely as any you will find.

Edward Gardner is a hard conductor to pin down, sometimes—he’s so normal, you wonder if he has a point of view. But there’s something to be said for performing a score for simple diatonic beauty—even one so laden with chromatic torment and national portent as the Elgar First.

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