A Crop of Recordings XXXI: Piston, Gould, Hanson, Roussel, Dukas, Strauss, Liszt. Beethoven…and Knecht!

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Howard Hanson (1896-1981)
Howard Hanson (1896-1981)

PISTON Symphony No. 7. GOULD Stringmusic¹. HANSON Symphony No. 4

Carlos Kalmar, conductor; Oregon Symphony Orchestra ● PENTATONE PTC5186763 (Streaming audio: 71:08) Live: Portland ¹2017/2018. 

This appealing orchestral collection advances a series of American music releases from Carlos Kalmar and the Oregon Symphony. An earlier PentaTone CD was titled Spirit of the American Range. This one is named Aspects of America: Pulitzer Edition.

Pulitzer prizes, like Hollywood’s Oscars, tend to correct errors of judgment after the fact, rewarding recipients for their “life work” rather than for their greatest ones. Prize committees have political dimensions or sometimes lack imagination to foresee which new artistic creation will be most substantive and lasting. They don’t always get history right. One senses the syndrome at work here.

Walter Piston’s Seventh Symphony, for instance, was composed in 1960 and celebrated with the 1961 Pulitzer Prize. It’s a solid work in Piston’s standard “American Hindemith” manner, but it doesn’t radiate memorable tunes and rhythmic sashay the way Piston’s 1943 Second Symphony does. In 1943, though, the Pulitzer was given to Howard Hanson’s Fourth Symphony. It’s a deserving award, but from our perspective Hanson surely deserved his prize in 1930 for the “Romantic” Symphony. Morton Gould, similarly, was a ubiquitous figure in American music for decades, a “Mr. Americana,” almost a Bob Hope of music during the Latin America-obsessed war years, but his Pulitzer was awarded in 1995 for Stringmusic, composed just two years earlier. Good as it is, this piece will surely not be Gould’s most lasting legacy. As it happens the music was a hommage to Mstislav Rostropovich upon his retirement at the National Symphony, and the prize seems to have partaken of the international political symbolism surrounding Rostropovich as much as anything to do with Gould himself. So it goes. Pulitzer Prizes seem to be about playing catch-up.

None of this alters our enjoyment of the music at hand. PentaTone has given Carlos Kalmar and Oregon Symphony rich gleaming sound with a satisfying bass register, where much of this music spends its time. One can argue that Walter Piston’s Seventh Symphony is a bit formulaic, but it’s a tried and true formula. It growls into being with rich lower strings and moves with Bach-like earnestness, every so often pausing to punch the listener with brass and bass drum, before proceeding on its contrapuntal way. Though written in 1960, it radiates a kind of grim, poker-faced purposefulness one associates with music of the World War II era. The slow movement, one suspects, tries to “modernize” a bit. Its climax consists of twelve repeated notes punched out with additive rhythm until they reaches a vaguely 12 tone “atom bomb” apotheosis. The finale is one of Piston’s typical rat-tat-tat exercises in perpetual motion, whipping along like Hindemith and repeatedly slamming the listener with satisfying snare drum, cymbal and bass drum. 

Morton Gould’s Stringmusic makes for a happy surprise. Though written in 1993, it’s a beautifully turned traditional suite in five movements, filled with divided strings tugging at the heart, walking basses, catchy tunes and every effective trick of the trade. I didn’t expect quite so enjoyable a piece. If you admire the Britten Simple Symphony, Vaughan Williams’s Concerto Grosso or Partita for Double String Orchestra, Gould’s Stringmusic should fit right in and bring a lot of pleasure.

From my own perspective as a lover of Howard Hanson’s music, the best here comes last. His Fourth Symphony (1943) is subtitled “The Requiem” and was composed as a memorial to Hanson’s father. Its four movements correspond to sections of the traditional Latin mass. It was Hanson’s favorite among his symphonies, and while the melodies may not be as immediately committed to memory as those of the “Nordic” and “Romantic,” the glowing consecrational quality of the work, its beautiful flow and reverential beauty, full of life and never morose, is hard to surpass in American music. The piece fades away in lovely nostalgia. Clearly Hanson knew the Vaughan Williams Fifth Symphony. Like Vaughan Williams, Hanson’s music has the ability to make sadness cozy and comforting. To his credit, Kalmar turns out here a performance finer than Gerard Schwarz’s heavy-handed take with the Seattle Symphony. It’s as good as the composer’s own, and in far better sound. I vote this release a prize of my own!

Paul Dukas (1865-1935)
Paul Dukas (1865-1935)

≈ ROUSSEL Le festin de l’araignée. DUKAS Polyeucte. L’apprenti sorcier ● Pascal Rophé, conductor; National Orchestra of Pays de la Loire ● BIS-2432 (Streaming audio: 59:46) 

In the annals of French music we are accustomed to measuring everything in terms of whether its aesthetic is “pre” or “post” Stravinsky, an assessment which can be a little hard on the originality of composers who followed Stravinsky, and, I’m thinking as well, a bit unfair to Stravinsky’s contemporaries. You could listen here to the off-kilter “Dance of the Spider” from Roussel’s garden ballet Le festin de l’araignée (The Spider’s Feast) and think “Aha! Rite of Spring!,” except for the fact that Roussel’s score premiered in Paris a few months before Stravinsky’s. Clearly, something was going on with rhythm in 1913, and composers would take this and run with it in parallel ways.

Stravinsky brought rhythm into the realm of sheer relentless brutality. Hence, the appropriateness of Disney’s later imagining dinosaurs roaming the planet in Rite of Spring. Albert Roussel’s foray was into the strange quivering insect world at our feet, where ants seem to stutter along like World War I soldiers in a newsreel. The ballet’s message is ant farm allegory. The spider thinks she has it made, but gets murdered by the praying mantis. The mayfly is born as new life yet ultimately dies and is dragged away to funeral music. 

Roussel manages this ever-shifting, subtle world lightly and nimbly. His music can stop and start on a dime. Indeed, the emphatic short phrase is one of ballet’s most effective devices and, I would suggest, something of a French legacy. Berlioz had a tendency to declaim orchestrally in short bursts, and by the time of Debussy’s Jeux, Florent Schmitt’s La Tragédie de Salomé, which also came along in 1913 and Pierné’s Cydalise et le Chèvre-pied a year later, this new way of punctuating dance was firmly established and Glazunov’s twirly way with ballet a permanent thing of the past.

Although fine versions of Le festin de l’araignée are currently available from Yan Pascal Tortelier and Stéphane Denève, Pascal Rophé’s interpretation conveys here a lightness of touch which makes him a most effective gardner. The magnified portentousness and pomposity I hear in other performances is gone, replaced by a lovely delicacy. French orchestras are justly admired for deft woodwind touches and sylphlike insinuations, and Rophé’s approach is not only graceful, but warm.

The three works on this release share a common influence in Vincent d’Indy, which has a lot to do with the the affectionate “impressionism lite” we hear in all this music. Paul Dukas’s Polyeucte overture, the earliest, dates from 1893. It’s a beautiful arch of a piece, more of a tone poem than an overture, which may explain its neglect. Most overtures subordinate romance to action. Here, long opening and closing paragraphs of rich melody seem more important than such fast-charging energies as occur, so one probably wouldn’t program it for an “opener.”

I enjoy Rophé’s touch in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice just as much. The special “nip” he gets from his brasses makes the music pleasantly scurrilous, and BIS’s airy, open microphone perspective ensures transparency. It’s as good a performance as I’ve yet heard. This is a nice release, an example, if you will, of a highly bearable “lightness of being.” 

Richard Strauss, 1886
Richard Strauss, 1886

≈ STRAUSS Symphony No. 2. Concert Overture ● Hermann Bäumer, conductor; German Radio Philharmonic Saarbrücken-Kaiserslautern ● CPO 555290-2 (Streaming audio: 56:18)

A sure saving grace in listening to forgotten early works by famous composers is to dig through the inevitable influences from others until one spots seedlings of future greatness and originality. That’s certainly the case here. Richard Strauss composed both pieces in this release back to back, the overture in 1883, the symphony completed in 1884. Strauss’s mentor, Hans von Bülow, never did accept the overture for performance, sensing that it owed too much to Beethoven’s Coriolan. Bülow may have felt Strauss copied Beethoven’s opening slasher mood while ultimately proceeding to ignore a number of the expected rigors of form. The most noticeable feature of its construction is Strauss’s choice to truncate normal development midstream and set out instead with a fugue. To modern ears, this works just fine, but at the time could have been perceived as both wrong-headed and disrespectful to Beethoven’s memory. Listening to the piece today, one spots in the orchestration and its whooping ending a touch of the warmth which would later infuse Aus Italien. But you can hear the handcuffs of sonata form rattling loose.

Strauss would ultimately write Bülow an explanation—nearly a manifesto—to the effect that he could no longer function within the boundaries of strict musical logic at the expense of programmatic depiction. And indeed, the Symphony in F-Minor, as Strauss preferred to call the new work (having already composed a “First” Symphony he now wished to ignore) shows considerable releasing of the structural ties in favor of a more spontaneous evocation of mood. 

Intriguing to the ear is that the work begins with the same descending figure which would unify the Alpine Symphony, Strauss’s final symphony more than thirty years later. Here, there is just a hint of what one could do with it, a brief gentle introduction, rather than the perfect mysterious and moody evocation of dawn and dusk which would come later and fascinate listeners with shivers to this day.

As with many early symphonies by late romantic composers, one might argue its melodies surpass its rhetoric, but the symphony doesn’t overdo it. It was received rapturously at the premiere in 1884, which actually occurred in New York under the baton of Theodore Thomas, who bracketed it with the Schumann Rhenish and, amusingly, with Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture. The gem in the symphony is its feather-light impishly syncopated scherzo, as perfectly turned as anything by Mendelssohn, with an unforgettable tune one comes away humming, and a hard-to-pin-down off-kilter rhythmic manner anything but derivative. It scampers to a close like a scene from Der Rosenkavalier. If you listen carefully to Strauss’s orchestration, you might even pick up a sense of his growling way with low texture which would ultimately become the convulsive eruptions of Death and Transfiguration.

The slow movement is not too long and radiates lovely warmth, with a touch of the bewitching sensuality which would later characterize nearly everything Strauss wrote. And the finale lets go at the end like Stanford’s Irish Symphony (not yet composed) proving along the way that Stanford cribbed a lot. Both works conclude with a chord in F sounding like a cross between the Beethoven Eighth and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth. 

Hermann Bäumer gets dedicated playing from his Saarbrücken musicians and fine sound from CPO. The Chandos version led by Neeme Järvi is the most recent competition for this release, but I prefer Bäumer, if only because his German orchestra sounds a touch less generic than the Scottish National Orchestra—and his conducting never on automatic pilot.

Franz Liszt at the Piano, black chalk and ink on paper, ca. 1904, Sir Hubert von Herkomer.
Franz Liszt at the Piano, black chalk and ink on paper, ca. 1904, Sir Hubert von Herkomer.

≈ LISZT Dante Symphony. Tasso. Künstlerfestzug ● Kirill Karabits, cond; Jena Philharmonic Boys Choir; Weimar German National Theater Opera Chorus; Weimar Staatskapelle ● AUDITE 97.760 (Streaming audio: 79:02)

Franz Liszt’s purely symphonic works, viewed in hindsight, have been more historically instructive than popular with the public. Only A Faust Symphony and Les préludes ever entered the general repertoire, and the latter is currently on life support, though, in fairness, this is probably due to overfamiliarity from film, television and Muzak at the supermarket. Although Liszt sowed the seeds of modern development in concert music, from tone poems to tone rows, his orchestral pieces sound melodramatically pianistic to most ears, constantly declaiming in octaves to stir up excitement and—kiss of death—rarely featuring inspired melodies. An exception is the “Gretchen” movement from his Faust Symphony, which Liszt realized was destined for popularity and published separately in various permutations. Liszt also had trouble with orchestration. Indeed, much of what we encounter was actually scored by Joachim Raff, though musicologists today easily demonstrate that Raff took too much credit as a collaborator, when in fact he simply orchestrated Liszt’s direct intentions.

Scholars of the day twisted themselves into pretzels worrying whether Liszt’s 1857 Dante Symphony, omitting “Paradiso,” correctly represented Dante Alighieri’s fourteenth century epic poem, Divine Comedy. Wagner, horrified at Liszt’s original decision to conclude the piece with a depiction—presumably loud and bombastic—of paradise, urged him to keep the music ethereal. Liszt took Wagner’s critique to heart, and the symphony finishes with a women’s chorus singing Mary’s hymn of praise from the Gospel according to St Luke: “Magnificat anima mea Dominum—My soul doth magnify the Lord.” More important for modern listeners, though, has been how well or badly the symphony works as music. Just in case the piece would be accused of lamely petering out, Liszt supplied a loud alternative ending, not played here, nor in Daniel Barenboim’s benchmark version with the Berlin Philharmonic. It may not make much difference to today’s ears.

The Dante Symphony is ultimately boxed-in by the necessary progression from hell to heaven implicit in Dante’s poem. Liszt, to be frank, is much better at the “hell” part. His slow movement, “Purgatorio,” does feature a haunting horn refrain, but it isn’t otherwise that memorable, and listeners tend to experience the symphony, ending quietly and fading away, as a gradual letdown. 

It’s fully appropriate that this release should come to us from Weimar, Goethe’s and Schiller’s home and Liszt’s home base in later life. The Weimar Court Orchestra was a major ensemble in its day, and its successor plays well here, recorded in flawless sound. Kirill Karabits is a high energy sort of conductor, and the devilish slashing and dashing he achieves is certainly exciting. But it lacks the rich dreamlike mystery Barenboim elicits from the Berlin Philharmonic. Liszt never achieved, or perhaps even sought, the “seamless melody” of Wagnerian ideal, but Barenboim seems to find it in the music anyway, and in his hands it glows, intrigues and frightens us with metaphysical things which go bump in the night. This is no criticism of Karabits’ effort. It’s satisfying in its way, but Barenboim surpasses the music itself and makes it better than it is.

The two other works on this release represent Liszt at roughly the same time in history. The Künstlerfestzug listed first translates as “Artists Pageant,” and was composed to introduce a Schiller festival in Weimar. It’s an eleven minute overture/tone poem and like so many of the era, it seeks to capture one’s attention with a variant of Beethoven’s whiplash opening to the Coriolan Overture, followed by a fair share of marchlike academic pomp, a pretty horn tune and a good bit of melodic sweep. Its diffuse manner and low brass and percussion proclamations seem to foreshadow Edward Elgar’s early efforts. It manages to include a minuet and actually works rather well. 

Tasso, which follows, is Liszt’s second tone poem. Its second version is performed here, orchestrated by Joachim Raff. The full title is Tasso, Lament and Triumph and traces the descent into madness and eventual success of Torquato Tasso, sixteenth century Venetian poet. A shorter version of Liszt’s music was originally used to introduce Goethe’s play of that name and was later expanded to the 1854 version we encounter here. As one can well imagine, Liszt does very well by the madness part! The romance and triumphal rehabilitation portions of the music are enjoyable and well performed without being quite memorable for today’s ears. But that’s a judgment call one leaves to the listener. I doubt one would hear it better performed than by Karabits and the Weimar Staatskapelle. Chorus and orchestra are perfectly balanced and above reproach. If you enjoy the vivid tortures of hell, this may be the set of performances for you. If you aspire ascending to a more atmospheric heavenly perch, perhaps Barenboim’s performance of the symphony would be the better ladder.

Justin Heinrich Knecht (), miniature, ca. 1807, Johann-Baptist Pflug von Biberach.
Justin Heinrich Knecht (1752-1817), miniature, ca. 1807, Johann-Baptist Pflug von Biberach, ca. 1807.

 ≈ BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 6. KNECHT Le portrait musical de la nature ● Bernhard Forck, conductor; Berlin Akademie für Alte Musik ● Harmonia Mundi HMM902425DI (Streaming audio: 66:09)

I’m not ready to stick a fork in Beethoven’s reputation, so to speak, but this fascinating release by Bernhard Forck confirms some suspicions I’ve had about Beethoven as a tone painting symphonist. Beethoven’s Pastorale has always struck me as atypical in its level of sensory description. We can listen far and wide in the Beethoven symphonic canon and not encounter anywhere else the twittering birds, the fluttering breezes, the thunder and lightning he built so effectively into this one symphony. We listen for structural inevitability in Beethoven, for Promethean power, for nobility of impulse, but almost never for description (unless we include the gunfire in Wellington’s Victory) or for sheer sensuality. Beethoven, safe to say, is not a precursor of Claude Debussy or Hector Berlioz in the “scene au champs.” Moreover, we tend to think of Beethoven as an immovable mover, to use Aristotle’s term. We grant him the influence of Haydn, but generally speaking view other composers as deriving from him and to be measured against him. 

I had never heard of Justin Heinrich Knecht (1752-1817) before listening to his Musical Portrait of Nature, but the moment I did, I found myself asking, lèse-majesté, “Was Beethoven a copycat?” And the more I listen, the more I think so. Knecht and Beethoven shared the same publisher, and Knecht’s “grande symphony,” written in 1784, is composed in five movements with essentially the same titles as the Beethoven Pastorale: Beautiful country where the sun shines; The sky suddenly begins to darken; The storm, accompanied by wind; The storm lessens bit by bit; Nature transported with joy (translation mine).

More surprising than any program similarity between the two works is an almost shocking similarity in the music itself. If you ever wondered where Beethoven got the delicate violin filigree and burbling woodwinds suggestive of birds and breezes and soft waters lapping and dappled sunlight, there it is, staring us in the ears, orchestrated the same way. He never did anything like that again. If you ever wondered where the peasant dance in Beethoven’s third movement came from, there is a hint of something briefly similar to be found halfway through Knecht’s first movement. When it comes to the weather, Knecht’s thunderstorm is longer than Beethoven’s but explodes with percussion in the same way. Beethoven, to be sure, does better by the lightning strikes than Knecht does, and his finale is more lyrical, but Knecht’s finale floats along at times in a similar way and ends gently at medium volume. The only conclusion I can draw from this is that Beethoven liked the idea of a descriptive nature piece, found someone who had done it twenty-four years earlier with limpid orchestrational insights he lacked, and improved upon the music structurally using the slightly longer-limbed romantic melodies coming into prominence in his own time. It is hard to judge from here whether deafness prevented Beethoven from writing more music in this sensual vein, but I have always thought the Pastorale slightly unnatural in terms of Beethoven’s otherwise astringent, rigorous, and economical temperament. Now I think I know why….

Cribbed ideas or not, the Beethoven Sixth Symphony remains a beauty and a masterpiece, irrespective of its provenance, and I’m happy to report that Bernhard Forck’s Berlin Academy, thirty-six players strong and appealingly recorded, gives us a truly lovely reading of it, supple and sensitive. I keep coming back to it for pleasure. So pick up a Forck and dive in!

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