HHA / Recordings

A Crop of Recordings XXXVII: Schmitt/Honegger, Furtwangler, Sibelius, Ondine

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Florent Schmitt

≈ FLORENT SCHMITT La Fête de la lumière. HONEGGER Les Mille et une nuits ● Eugene Bigot, Gustave Cloëz, conductors; Marie-Louise Deniau-Blanc (soprano); Irina Kedroff (alto); Germaine Cernay (alto); Edouard Kriff (tenor); Lamoureux Orchestra; (unidentified) Orchestra ● FORGOTTEN RECORDS 1849 (54:47)


Here is one of the strangest living bits of ceremonial history you will ever encounter, along with some fine, nearly forgotten music ever since. The year 1937 witnessed Paris’s International Exposition, the last continental world’s fair to take place before the Second World War, and something of a nervous set piece for political tensions of the day. Festivities were spread out on both sides of the Seine near the Eiffel Tower, with massive Soviet and Nazi pavilions facing across from each other, threatening the air with heroic muscular statuary. The French idea as host of the festival was to bring the exposition alive at night with a modernistic Festivals of Lights over a period of five months, a series of colorful high tech illuminated displays, combined with fireworks, and featuring music specially composed to accompany glowing fountains and the play of searchlights. The authorities commissioned musical works from eighteen well-known French and Francophile composers, an inclusive list that ran from Jacques Ibert and Darius Milhaud to the young Olivier Messiaen, with Florent Schmitt and Arthur Honegger among the most prominent since the deaths of Ravel and Roussel. 

The idea was to have recordings accompany the light shows from loudspeakers strategically placed throughout the exposition, some on barges, and even attached to the Eiffel Tower. There was something delusional in the idea that amplified music could be heard over the background noise of a city, not to mention having it drown out fireworks and crowds numbering in the hundreds of thousands, but this did not stop the French, who were nothing if not sure of themselves technologically at the time. (Three years later France would be overrun in total confusion by Hitler’s forces, while overconfident generals in charge of defending the country headquartered themselves in castles that had no telephones.)

Schmitt’s La Fête de la lumière, in any event, emerges as a highly cinematic-sounding score lasting half an hour, and not the most cheerful and innocent-sounding music one could imagine for a light festival. It begins with a sort of film noir grimness in the depths of the orchestra, features a fair share of scary tremolos, and moves on to steamy hotbox sensual romance with the alto saxophone amid recurring menace from the ondes Martenot. Along the way the music periodically seems to chase after the listener in heavy boots, as if pursuing someone down an alley in fear. A feature of Schmitt’s later style is the notion of sudden climaxes appearing like the eruptions of a fountain, and there are many such emphatic explosions here, no doubt appropriate under the circumstances. 

The music is actually better than this sounds. Schmitt has a hypnotic quality, and his style of melodic invention stays with one. La Fête de la lumière is a little bit too long and includes a wordless chorus and Baudelairean declamations from soloists which would probably have been lost to the lightshow crowds. The composer later shortened the work and eliminated the choral contributions, but we hear the piece here as it was originally composed. The recording quality is actually good for its day, and the performances are excellent, but one wonders at the overreach of combining scratchy shellacs of that era with harsh public address loudspeakers in hopes of bringing song to the night.

Arthur Honegger’s Les Mille et une nuits is a similar piece in some ways. It also features the ondes Martenot and marches at the listener menacingly, but it seems more tethered to its text than the Schmitt, and one wonders how much of a somewhat pompous delivery of The Thousand and One Nights would ever have gotten through to the public.

The more I think of it, the more I find Florent Schmitt to be one of the most intuitively psychological film composers there ever was, though he only once wrote for film: Salammbô (1925). Melodrama of the moment suited his style. It is revealing that he intuitively chose Baudelaire for a literary soul-mate. “Who among us has not dreamt… of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical….supple and staccato enough to adapt to the lyrical stirrings of the soul, the undulations of dreams, and sudden leaps of consciousness?” This dedication on the flyleaf of Baudelaire’s Le Spleen de Paris could almost be a description of what we hear in Schmitt’s mesmeric and evocative score.

Wilhelm Furtwangler

≈ FURTWÄNGLER Symphony No. 1 ● Fawzi Haimor, conductor; Württembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen ● CPO 555 377-2 (Streaming audio: 88:14)

Shortly before an unexpected death from pneumonia in 1954, Wilhelm Furtwängler was scheduled to deliver a lecture at the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts. It’s contents were soon published, though, despite never being delivered, and reveal the composer/conductor’s impassioned opposition to dodecaphony, then seriously ascendant in Germany. “What is characteristic of today’s music life is the immense increase in theories and a corresponding decrease in music-making”, he lamented. Furtwängler clearly saw himself as a bastion, engaged in a holding action to preserve the emotional, indeed metaphysical, tradition in music, and its appeal to listeners. 

Theories, as he pointed out, could be dangerous. Dodecaphony, indeed, came along, was unloved by the public, and ultimately went. That’s a bit of cultural good news which Furtwängler did not live to experience. Unfortunately, as I listen to this Symphony in B minor, written between 1938 and 1941, I become aware that Furtwängler had a lofty and apparently dogmatic theory of his own: to plug the holes in Bruckner (his term).

What Furtwängler meant by this is not easily discernible from the ponderous and almost comically Teutonic program notes written by Eckhardt van den Hoogen, which accompany this release. Van den Hoogen could give Hegel a run for his money where it comes to clarity, but experienced listeners surely sense what is meant by “holes in Bruckner”, to wit the composer’s tendency to follow imposing declarations with nearly silent noodling, the tendency to “start-and stop”. Furtwängler’s attempt seems to be to dispense with most of the pauses. As a result, the music just rolls on and on and on, sequence after insufficiently varying sequence. 

Unlike Bruckner, Furtwängler doesn’t play with his textures much, which remain throughout warmly rich, but ultimately come across as clotted and do not give the ear a necessary sense of event. In Bruckner, one moment you are Mozart, suffused with delicate emotion, the next you are ablaze. Tremulous mystery comes and goes. Missing in Furtwängler’s symphony are the glorious chorales Bruckner comes up with. The instrumentation varies little through four interminable chromatically pumping movements. Also tending to defeat one’s concentration is the fact that Furtwängler has not managed to come up with any really catchy motifs, as he does in his Second Symphony. I honestly challenge anyone listening to this music to tell me, without looking, which movement is playing. The curse of this symphony is that it fails to do anything we don’t predict– long before it should. Furtwängler withdrew the work after one rehearsal, hopelessly depressed.  

This is not to say that one should not listen. The music has its moments, especially in the slow movement, and much of the beginning is recycled from a stand alone raptly emotional Largo written in 1909. Many of the romantic gestures in the symphony are grand and beautiful. The performance here by the Württembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen under American conductor Fawzi Haimor, their MD, is accomplished and quite wonderfully recorded, with a deep juicy bass line and just the right amount of space around the instruments. This should supplant the Alfred Walter CD on Marco Polo, which only managed to be recorded on one disc by skipping a first movement repeat. Württemberg also seems to have a better orchestra. Almost any moment taken at random is appealing and nicely phrased. But unless you have the DNA for supreme Hegelian expansiveness, your mind will probably wander.

Eugene Ormandy

≈ SIBELIUS Lemminkäinen Suite ● Eugene Ormandy, conductor; Philadelphia Orchestra ● SONY 886448901549 (Streaming audio: 44:27) https://youtu.be/9_q-xMU2hgg

Eugene Ormandy was sometimes a more impassioned conductor than he received credit for being, especially in the later years of his career, when the musical middlebrow zeitgeist he so effectively represented seemed to be shifting beneath his feet, and it had become fashionable in the critical press to afflict the comfortable. Some of Ormandy’s Columbia LPs from the 1950s are certainly testament to the fact of his intensity, and none more so than this stunningly feverish and beautiful recording of Sibelius’s full Lemminkäinen Suite taped in 1953 and housed beneath its original record cover. Ormandy knew how to make an LP that people wanted to buy, and this was one of them. The release derives from Sony’s monumental 120-CD set of Ormandy’s monaural LPs. The Swan of Tuonela everyone knows, but the other three movements, Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of the Island, Lemminkäinen in Tuonela, and Lemminkäinen’s Return make for something of a quite satisfying symphony in effect, if not in formal structure.

We are so used to expecting sonic grit from something miked back then, that it is astonishing to listen to this performance and encounter a perfectly balanced, uncolored recording featuring rich strings, audible bass drums, plenty of space around the orchestra, and trumpets and cymbals exhibiting no distortion at all in climaxes. There doesn’t even seem to be any noticeable dynamic compression. Although I would have been six years old at the time, I can easily imagine how this would have been a demonstration LP on some of the early Fisher audio equipment, not to mention sounding rich and deep on the imposing radio/phonograph consoles more typical of the day. Ormandy’s penchant for velvet strings and Sibelius’s inclination towards building sonority from the bottom up were always a perfect match.

It’s worth remembering that Sibelius was still alive when this release came out, even though the music dates from 1895 and represents Sibelius’s early “bardic” period, filled with bird calls and a dreamy sense of legend as it is. Sibelius was a “contemporary composer” to the Ormandy audiences, as Rachmaninoff had been a few years earlier, and the Lemminkäinen Suite was exactly the sort of work to benefit from the seductions of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s rounded winds and soft harps and horns. Ormandy manages all of this without ever losing the pulse of the music. Even where it delves into murky gloom, there is hard hitting forward motion and a film noir sense of tension and drama. The finale is fast and swirling. Ormandy’s sense of darkness is actually white hot. There is a good reason why his Sibelius was always on the radio.

I am grateful for this release. Of course, I come from the era in question. Hearing an LP like this is a bit like watching Rear Window and feeling at home again in a comfortable postwar culture which seemed to know where it was going. But this performance is so good, and its sound is so good, that one comes away uplifted by Sibelius more than anything else, and Sibelius, of course, is timeless.

Robert Trevino

≈ AMERICASCAPES ● Robert Trevino, conductor; ¹Delphine Dupuy (viola d’amore); Basque National Orchestra ● ONDINE 1396-2 (Streaming audio: 63:28) https://youtu.be/XkvYF3tXfvY
LOEFFLER La Mort de Tintagiles¹. RUGGLES Evocations. HANSON Before the Dawn. COWELL Variations for Orchestra

There is no better recommendation from a reviewer than a confession of addiction, so I am happy to admit I can’t stop playing this new release of Americana performed by the Basque National Orchestra under their Texas-born conductor, Robert Trevino. The program springs to life in a wonderfully idiomatic manner, delivered in ideal spacious sound, but that’s not the half of it. It’s the program itself that is a winner, in particular Charles Martin Loeffler’s The Death of Tintagiles, a masterful and totally forgotten half-hour tone poem dating from 1897. Trevino’s other selections include the recorded premiere of Howard Hanson’s short orchestral piece Before the Dawn, ten minutes of obscure Carl Ruggles, and a set of variations by Henry Cowell from late in his life.

Loeffler, like so many turn-of-the-century Romantics, selected a grisly subject for what turns out to be memorably gorgeous music. The Death of Tintagiles revolves around a murderous queen who disposes of her whole family, one by one. It concludes with rescuers pounding on a door in the vain attempt to prevent the dispatch of the lead character. Along the way, Tintagiles’s sisters supply sympathy and would-be comfort on the viola d’amore. The plot comes from a very odd play by Maeterlinck staged for marionettes, but fortunately one can simply ignore it and concentrate on the beautifully orchestrated and balanced music. Loeffler’s colorful style encompasses the full range of late-Romantic expression, leaning very much in the direction of Richard Strauss when it comes to cadences. Although Loeffler insisted he was “Alsation”, he was actually born in Berlin and spent most of his professional life in Boston as a member of the Boston Symphony and as a generally important figure in the musical life of Massachusetts.

Indeed, there is something American-sounding behind all the moments that might otherwise remind one of Saint-Saëns or Strauss. It’s in the brass writing, which seems to hint at that particularly buoyant sort of American razzmatazz, that we recognize the music as our own. I am struck by the forward motion in this music and by the drama with which it is worked out. It occurs to me, although the program notes do not say so, that Loeffler was probably influenced by Strauss’s Macbeth, which was written about ten years before. The Death of Tintagiles has the same thrusting quality which ultimately turns wild, as Strauss’s equally murderous tone poem does. Along the way, in its more consolatory and nostalgic moments, the piece features passages on the viola d’amore captivatingly worked into the general texture. For all its period influences, the sonorities are Loeffler’s own. The structure works. The melodies are beautiful, the orchestration subtle and winning. It’s a neglected masterpiece.

When it comes to Ruggles, my familiarity with his orchestral music largely revolves around Suntreader, and the four short movements he called Evocations are cut from the same orchestral cloth. Ruggles’s style is immediately recognizable for its expressionistic screeching brass lines engaged in a perpetual harmonic tug-of-war into the abyss, and for the way he punctuates this with pounding timpani and cymbal crashes. It’s powerfully and effectively played here.

Hanson’s short piece Before the Dawn won the Prix de Rome in 1921, but the composer never performed or recorded it. I think I understand why. Much of it is a dry run for passages encountered in the first-movement development section of his “Nordic” Symphony No. 1, but the full warm-hearted and evocative Hanson style is present nonetheless, very much worth being set down on its own in this premiere recording.

The last work on this eclectic program is Henry Cowell’s Variations for Orchestra, a quite accessible and sometimes eerie piece written when the composer was long past his fist-crushing tone cluster phase, and indeed suggestive in places of the simple hymn modalities that captivated Ives before him. But the score is orchestrated in a more exotic manner than anything Ives attempted. It was actually written while Cowell was in Iran in 1956 and features the sort of timbral use of percussion that Vaughan Williams and film composers of the day found intriguing. The music declaimes in mid-century aggressive style like William Schuman, but bustles along in places like late Walton. Somehow it all works.

This is a stunning release on all counts, and it performs a genuine historical service. There are many “A” pieces out there still to be discovered and revived, written by composers who somehow faded out of the repertoire. Trevino’s program is a fine contribution to what being “American” in music actually means.

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