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.”
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.
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!
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.
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.
Reinhold Glière was fortunate to thrive under Soviet Communism. A long-limbed bardic style, featuring haunting melodies evoking the Russian ecclesiastical past, ruffled no political feathers. Nor did velvety explorations of Scriabin-influenced chromaticism. He was never purged. But Glière paid a price for fame in the world of democracy and commerce, it would seem. His greatest work, the 1912 Mahler-length Symphony No. 3, “Il’ya Muromets”, was deemed “too long” for the concert hall in America. To ensure its presentation, Leopold Stokowski persuaded the composer to pare it down drastically, and it was in this incomplete condition that the work took root in Philadelphia and in American ears.