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A Crop of Recordings XXIX: Magnard, Bruckner, Korngold, and Vaughan Williams

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Albéric Magnard
Albéric Magnard

MAGNARD Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4 ● Fabrice Bollon, conductor; Freiburg Philharmonic Orchestra ● NAXOS 8.574082 (Streaming audio: 74:23) https://youtu.be/MDeDVnX8Oe8

Delving into the music of Alberic Magnard is to reach deep into the heart of French culture. Magnard was a subtle, aristocratic composer, trading in understatement. If you enjoy the delicate chromaticism of Gabriel Fauré, or Albert Roussel’s early works, such as his First Symphony, Poème de la forêt, you will love Magnard. If you are looking for the more obvious charms of Berlioz, Dukas, Franck or Saint-Saëns, you may be disappointed. Magnard is like Franck, but turned inward and away from Franck’s saccharine religiosity. Despite all the forte moments one could want, this is music best heard with the lights low and a log in the fireplace.

Until 1968, no one outside of France would likely have known Magnard’s name. It was a labor of love and respect for Ernest Ansermet which moved Decca to record the Third Symphony as the conductor’s swan song LP. This was a gorgeous, velvety performance of remarkable refinement, especially in the high strings. (Those results took dedication. I was in Switzerland the summer it came out and can report those were still the days when the Suisse Romande Orchestra, heard live on radio, would often sound unsteady and barely manage the notes.) I still love that reading, but unfortunately its transfer to CD has been edgy and shrill, without revealing anything close to the sheen of the original LP. Decca should redo it.

In the digital era, Magnard has not quite received Ansermet’s understated elegance from conductors, but is decently represented by Thomas Sanderling and the Malmö Symphony for BIS and even better by Jean-Yves Ossonce’s sparkling approach with the BBC Scottish Symphony for Hyperion. That’s completely first rate from the standpoint of orchestral playing. Fabrice Bollon’s approach in this new one is eager, romantic and more spontaneous. The Freiburg Symphony’s freewheeling way with climaxes manages to sound even more “French”, verging on slightly unbuttoned.

None of this prevents me from being delighted with it. It’s voluptuously recorded, with enough space to float Magnard’s string writing, and Magnard responds well to Bollon’s spontaneous  tempo shifts and ferocious energy. The daring rhapsodic spirit here is wonderfully involving. If you don’t know the music, get to know the Third first. It dates from 1896. The Fourth Symphony was written in 1913, very much in the same style and with equal inspiration, but yielding a slightly more complicated result. The scherzo even has a slightly Arabic countertheme. My only regret is that Magnard died the following year, shooting at the invading Germans from his bedroom window. Fortunately, his gorgeous music lives on. These are the most exciting versions yet recorded.

Anton Bruckner later in life
Anton Bruckner later in life

BRUCKNER Symphony No. 9 ● Manfred Honeck, conductor: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra ● REFERENCE RECORDINGS FR-733SACD (Streaming audio: 63:10) https://youtu.be/VJEPUxNNDaU

Taking in a new Manfred Honeck release is always a multi-layered, illuminating experience. This conductor not only guides us musically but writes program notes of equal conviction, supplying timed examples from his performance along the way to illustrate. Nearly every CD today, of course, sports a dignified text booklet, a warm-up act for the band. It’s part of our listening experience to read how profound, how biographical, how magical a great work is. But a conductor’s verbal flight of fancy can sometimes be accompanied by a baton of lead and an aural experience which never takes off. We are not only aware of Honeck’s intentions here, but our ears happily tell us he produces the beautiful results he writes about.

It would be a rare conductor who didn’t approach the Bruckner Ninth Symphony with something like reverence. But it’s difficult to find one who humanizes the work as effectively as Honeck does, bringing us a palpable sense of tremulous mystery and drama. Honeck’s tempos are thoroughly normal, but his sense of timbre, forward motion, ebb and flow, tension and release, of when to pause and when to move on, of where to place a climax and how long to give us to recover from it, is what makes him a good musician and this performance exceptionally dramatic and colorful. That he views the symphony and Bruckner’s emotions through a Christian prism is clear from the program notes. When something in the score stems from a mystical moment in Bruckner’s life, Honeck will surely have found it and will tell us of it. Fortunately, this level of understanding spurs him on to vivid, even sensual, conducting. This is not an ascetic, scholarly reading based on theories.

There’s not a dry, parchment moment anywhere in the performance. Reference Recordings fortunately assists with spacious, tellingly detailed sound. Honeck has a way of getting into Bruckner’s “machinery”, and the inner details he comes up with are fascinating in their own right. The Pittsburgh Symphony basses produce a thrilling purr and throb from the outset, and the orchestra’s rich brass ensure that the music glows. I doubt any American orchestra sports smoother, more seductively fluid horns interacting with the strings. The first movement’s secondary theme group, taken faster than usual at first, blossoms out like love music as a result. The scherzo is so vicious with its angry clock ostinato that it nearly frightens, featuring a violent stiletto thrust at the end of each pounding phrase. Honeck knows how to use timpani as a weapon. The Adagio is beautifully paced, an arc of drama leading to a shattering crisis and coming away from it to a convincing serenity and resignation. If there exists a more vivid performance of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, I have certainly never heard it.

Luzi and Erich Korngold en route to Europe, 1954, two years after the completion of the Symphony in F#.
Luzi and Erich Korngold en route to Europe, 1954, two years after the completion of the Symphony in F#.

 KORNGOLD Symphony in F-Sharp Major. Theme and Variations. Straussiana ● John Wilson, conductor; Sinfonia of London ● CHANDOS CHSA5220 (Streaming audio: 59:17) https://youtu.be/8juOCrBQnaY

I celebrate this release for several reasons. Not only does John Wilson conduct the most successful recording to date of Korngold’s Symphony in F Sharp, but Wilson’s swift, incisive manner gives one new grounds for respecting the work. It comes across here with all the sleekness, purpose and telegraphic energy of Sir William Walton. Most performances misunderstand the music’s intent and wind up bogging down in rotund pseudo-Bruckner.

Korngold did not live to see his symphony achieve popularity, as many know. It premiered in serial-minded Vienna in 1954, poorly rehearsed, and immediately sank into oblivion as a holdover from the past. Korngold himself died just a few years later of heart disease. Nearly twenty years then passed before Rudolf Kempe discovered orchestral parts in the Munich Philharmonic’s score library and revived the work for a new era. This awareness wasn’t totally Kempe’s doing. A generation of college students had grown up in the meantime watching late-night swashbucklers featuring Korngold’s Hollywood scores. These audiences fell in love with the spirit of his music. It was Errol Flynn, you might say, who got young people interested in Korngold, and film score conductors like Charles Gerhardt who then followed apace with the music on LP. Today, John Wilson occupies a similar space in British musical culture, bringing to life for concert audiences music originating in film and television.

The essence of a good film score is emotional evocation–expressed quickly. That seems to be the important lesson John Wilson learned from delving into Hollywood and Broadway. Movie and theater audiences bore easily. Pace matters. And even though Korngold’s Symphony is not a movie score, it can sound static in the wrong hands. A typical conductor perusing the slow movement, which begins with a gravelly three-note throb sounding like the Bruckner Seventh, is easily misled into supposing metaphysical gravitas will be the name of the game throughout. When the movement fails to soar in a Brucknerian way, however, and long-limbed secondary Brucknerian melodies fail to appear, a cautious tempo will hang fire and lead the listener to suspect the music dithers aimlessly on the celesta. It’s just played too slowly. Bruckner, after all, is a composer of mystical tremolos and expansive chorales geared for a slow metaphysical journey. Korngold is a composer of brisk fanfares and quivering orchestral trills, engines of the pregnant psychological moment. The two could not be more different. One leads you to God. The other takes you to Olivia de Haviland’s eyebrow.

A desire to make more of the symphony than it really expresses will lead to a limp first movement whose energy gets overlooked. The piece begins with a few noncommittal grunts and a dry clarinet motif, almost a tease in the direction of the serialists. But it’s written “Moderato, ma energico”. It should move along. Most conductors, bemused with gravitas, bring the movement and the symphony in at a lengthy timing and miss the point. John Storgårds for Ondine takes nearly 54 minutes, and Edward Downes’s well-known, beautifully recorded version nearly 52 minutes for Chandos. Franz Welser-Möst is somewhat faster, but receives dry sound from EMI and his performance lacks sensual appeal, even though he has the Philadelphia Orchestra to work with. Meanwhile, Wilson whizzes through the piece in 44 minutes—and nothing is lost by it except unnecessary pauses. It comes across just as lush and noble as you could wish, with gorgeous expansive sound from Chandos and a sweepingly noble fanfare tune in the jittery scherzo. But it keeps moving. Wilson takes that movement forward with chattering, whiplash Waltonian energy and a real touch of Stravinsky. And in the Straussian finale, he goes to town as if he were Till Eulenspiegel. I come away feeling this is the first recorded version which gets the pace right.

Filling out this fine release is Korngold’s Theme and Variations, a short set of riffs on a beautiful, open hearted melody the composer describes as sounding Irish, but which the listener notices most for how American it seems. Wilson does a lovely job with it, as he does with the brief, entirely Viennese homage of Straussiana. The Sinfonia of London is an ad hoc ensemble, but it’s first rate in caliber, and the church acoustic of S. Augustine, Kilburn gives the music here an ideal soundstage. 

This is a wonderful addition to the catalog and a genuine corrective to the gloom-ridden priestly way with which conductors have approached the symphony. Bruckner might be unhappy. But I’m sure Errol Flynn would approve!

Ralph Vaughan Williams
Ralph Vaughan Williams

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Serenade to Music. 5 Variants of Dives and Lazarus. The Lark Ascending¹. Fantasia on Greensleeves. English Folk Song Suite. Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis ● ¹James Ehnes (vn); Andrew Manze, cond; Royal Liverpool PO ● ONYX ONYX4212 (Streaming audio: 69:23) https://youtu.be/RXVqW5eHQPA

Ralph Vaughan Williams occupies a special place in the history of twentieth century music. As early as 1910, when Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis premiered in Gloucester Cathedral, critics noticed the essential quality of his style: “One is never quite sure whether one is listening to something very old or very new.” Vaughan Williams is the rare modern composer we think of as “timeless”, and he accomplished this without seeming in any way conservative or, at the other end of the spectrum, conflicted about extreme modernity. Ideologies  are absent in his harmonic scheme. In their place we encounter a seductive amalgam of modal church music, folk tunes and Ravelian impressionistic coloration uniquely Vaughan Williams’s own, expressed with the structural directness and thrust of Beethoven.

The works included in this fine new release from Andrew Manze are Vaughan Williams’s most popular occasional pieces–glowing with warmth and minimizing grit. The music contained here explains why we love him. Its melodic, soothing quality has been a staple of lunchtime and drive-time radio for as long as one can remember. Yet the emotional depth to be found in the experience belies the music’s easygoing surface.

We fans have our favorite performers in Vaughan Williams: I have fond memories of Sir Adrian Boult, Sir John  Barbirolli and Bryden Thomson in the Tallis Fantasia, of Sir David Willcocks and the Jacques Orchestra in Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, and of Frederick Fennell’s and Timothy Reynish’s band versions of the English Folk Song Suite. Now add Andrew Manze to the mix, with the orchestral arrangement of that suite and the purely instrumental version of Serenade to Music.

Manze has been recording a cycle of the Vaughan Williams symphonies in Liverpool with deep reserved insight. That quality persists. Without being in any way stiff, the performances here seem sculpted in marble, gleamingly laid out by the Onyx engineers, and performed with dedication by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. The slow movement of the English Folk Song Suite is played a little fast for my taste, but that is my only real criticism. James Ehnes is appropriate and affecting in The Lark Ascending. This 1920 piece, with its free violin phrasing, dreamlike soft chording, and lack of tonic and dominant cadencing, may have influenced Respighi’s The Birds, if not begun an avian idiom. Vaughan Williams’s studies with Ravel bear fruit in the impressionistic central section, where the orchestra, led by delicate taps on the triangle, suggests a distant buzz of the town, while the lark soars above and the listener takes in the scene from his hillside.

Vaughan Williams has been a personal enthusiasm since my teens, so it is extremely gratifying to witness the judgment of history, which increasingly places him among the great composers. This gentle release will only add to that reputation.


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