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.
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.”
Raymond Tuttle of Fanfare raised some seldom addressed questions recently about the subjectivity of music criticism. Those questions lead to even greater mysteries, I find. It isn’t often asked, for instance, why music exists at all, but that’s surely where one has to begin, if it is to matter what we say about it.
I’m always intrigued when European orchestras take up the cause of American music, a simple enough notion to understand semantically but difficult at the stylistic level for continentals to adopt idiomatically. Our music’s frequent combination of seemingly naive musical prayerfulness with ungoverned explosive energy has typically left European musicians a bit puzzled, and the Teutonic world at times more than a little stiff and earnest. So I wondered about this release. Could the Swiss sashay down Broadway with that long-legged swagger and impudence implicit in so much of American life? Could Lucerne really let go?
It’s rare that a recording for strings alone wows listeners as a sonic blockbuster, but I celebrate this one from its first plucked, throbbing, filigree-laced chords. John Wilson has effectively reconstituted the Sinfonia of London, known to many in fond memory for Sir John Barbirolli’s unsurpassed 1962 LP of Vaughan Williams and Elgar. Wilson has set himself up for recording purposes in St. Augustine’s Church, Kilburn with stunning results. I don’t think I have ever heard an acoustic more flattering to strings. He also exercises tact in not trying to reproduce the magic of Barbirolli’s program, bringing us instead string works by four of the major “B’s” of twentieth century English music. Only Bax is missing.
It gladdens my heart to confirm that Alexander Zemlinsky’s The Mermaid is no longer a “rescue” known only to early twentieth century enthusiasts panning for neglected musical gold. It’s too good for a fate like that. There are 11 modern versions of this work now on Naxos’s streaming site, not to mention live performances on YouTube, most of them, like this one, quite fine. The piece has arrived. It’s a fitting outcome for music which premiered in 1905 on the same program as Arnold Schoenberg’s Pelleas and Melisande and was actually preferred by the audience.
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!
There’s something about Buffalo that is forever and wonderfully 1940. The city admittedly went through a difficult patch in the last decades of the century, before emerging today prosperous and half the size it was. From an artistic perspective, though, this may not be all bad. Buffalo escaped most of the Pizza Hut architecture and cereal box skyscrapers which typically afflict American cities. Today, great colonnaded turn-of-the-century hotels, banks and office buildings still reflect iconic dignity and Dreiserian business energy upon a downtown more formal and stylistically unified than most. When it comes to its resident orchestra, the Buffalo Philharmonic similarly avoided an onslaught of concrete, continuing to perform in Kleinhans Music Hall, designed by the Saarinens (father Eliel and son Eero) in 1940 and declared a national landmark in 1989.