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.
“Let me please introduce myself. I am a gentleman of wealth and taste. And I laid traps for troubadours….” So goes the Rolling Stones song, Sympathy for the Devil. Danish audiences never quite knew what to make of Rued Langgaard, at once romantic composer and obsessive throwback to apocalyptic Christianity. His Sixth Symphony, officially termed “The Heaven-Rending,” later came to be known as “The Antichrist.” The Danes, hearing the struggle in his music and perhaps a bit fundamentalist at the time, were never sure on which side Langgaard stood! Langgaard was passionately convinced Satan operated in modern life as power behind the scenes, devilishly pulling the strings of music, culture and government—and was ultimately responsible for the First World War. A special culprit and convert to this evil, in Langgaard’s eyes, was Carl Nielsen, the celebrated Danish composer of his day, whose modernism and humanism Langgaard alternately copied and excoriated. These views and other personal eccentricities, plus music which over time gradually became episodic and minimalistic, ensured Langgaard would remain unpopular in his home country.
If I tell you here is the side of Brahms which kept a score of Parsifal open on his piano, I think we are more than halfway to understanding what Daniel Barenboim has tried to do with this composer and now achieves more fully and authentically than in his Chicago Symphony cycle recorded for Erato several decades ago. The Staatskapelle Berlin has always been a Brahms orchestra of the old school, as Otmar Suitner’s 1984 digital cycle for Berlin Classics, recorded in the Lukaskirche, wonderfully demonstrated, but Barenboim has maintained and encouraged its nutty/creamy sonority to new levels of evocative lushness and subtle woodwind tone coloration. He doesn’t aim to compete for brilliance with the Berlin Philharmonic. Indeed, the sound here boasts a theatrical darkness and elision, first, foremost and nearly always. I imagine this still resembles the burnished sonority my German father heard in Berlin before the First World War.
Otakar Ostrčil was a prominent Czech composer who has fallen into obscurity. His dates, 1879-1935, span a key moment in the history of Central Europe, for it was in 1918 that the Czech lands became part of the new country of Czechoslovakia, independent of Austrian rule. In the preceding decades, Czech writers and artists had often attempted to define a national identity for themselves, as can be heard in many works of Smetana and Dvořák.