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Michael Greenhalg
MusicWeb International, November 2008

This is a neat format and good value. For the super-budget price of 2 CDs you get these with symphony tracks from Naxos recordings and a 158 page book in a slipcase taking up no more shelf space than 2 standard CDs. I think you’re expected to read the book, pause where the CD tracks are cued in the text and listen to them as a reward. I prefer to go straight to the music performances and then use the book to find out more about what I like. Luckily, even without index, access in this book is easy.

You discover the symphony chronologically. First Sammartini’s Symphony in D, succinct, highly varied and entertaining, a good example of the early type. The opening movement struts amiably. The slow movement is both elegant and eloquent as it’s expressive within the discipline of form. The repeated melody for violins is varied by solo violin presentation with tasteful additional ornamentation in this stylish performance by the Aradia Ensemble/Kevin Mallon though in the opening movement the small scale ensemble is rather aggrandized by the glowing recording acoustic. A snappy, fast throwaway finale completes this carefully crafted piece.

Stamitz’s Symphony in E flat is more modern in attitude. This piece seems to be worked out before your ears and Stamitz wants to engage you in this experience. So the music develops from shorter melodic cells more gradually and there’s excitement as well as charm, for example with the Mannheim crescendo in the opening movement (tr. 4 0:14) and drama in the slow movement, now disciplined, now more melting. The Northern Chamber Orchestra/Nicholas Ward fully honour the demands of this music, though perhaps their approach is a little over solemn in density of tone. In Haydn’s Symphony 22, The Philosopher, Ward gives us a jovial Minuet of fair bounce if a smidgen heavy in tone and a sunny Trio which favours the horns overmuch at the expense of the cors anglais. In the finale it’s the shimmeringly sprightly strings which those instruments have to and do match in echo. Haydn blends Sammartini’s elegance and Stamitz’s intellectual rigour.

The rest of CD1 is standard symphonic repertoire. Capella Istropolitana/Barry Wordsworth bring the finale of Mozart’s Haffner Symphony played with litheness and panache. But their closer miked recording of the slow movement of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony is heavier in tone which for me gives it too much romantic warmth and blunts dynamic contrast. Yet the gauzy effect of the muted violins and the angst in the firmly articulated accents, for instance in the second theme (tr. 9 1:25) come across.

Three opening movements close CD1. In Haydn’s London Symphony Wordsworth and Capella Istropolitana display a grandly rhetorical introduction with breadth and power but also soft melting elements, especially in the first violins before a relaxed Allegro that soon becomes vivacious. Wordsworth’s fine momentum gives it joie de vivre while he’s still scrupulous about vertical clarity. In Beethoven’s Symphony 7 introduction the Nicolaus Esterhazy Sinfonia/Bela Drahos display imposing, if rather ponderously massive, tutti chords offset by beguiling woodwind solos and there’s a sense of heroic effort in the rising scales spread across all the strings. The Vivace’s first theme on flute (tr. 11 3:42) is cheery, the crucial horns shine bright and clear in the following tutti and the second theme (4:49) has a courageous glint. The strength of the performance comes from its clear dynamic contrasts.

The Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra/Michael Halasz give Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony a measured, solemn opening but agitated subsidiary theme on oboe and clarinet (tr. 12 0:24) with rustling strings beneath. The famous second theme is warmly presented on cellos (1:19) but also has a restless accompaniment and soon fragments into stormy outbursts. Halasz’s approach is deliberate, arguably overmuch so, but Schubert’s construction is so taut the effect is more powerful than stilted. In this CD’s context you hear Stamitz’s legacy used to more searingly dramatic effect.

CD2 has a growingly nationalist feel. First up is the most overtly programmatic symphony, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. Its second movement Ball should sweep you off your feet but the San Diego Symphony Orchestra/Yoav Talmi, while clear in texture, offer for me a too delicate waltz with a touch self-conscious momentary slowing of tempo (tr. 1 0:50). The fourth movement, March to the Scaffold, is somewhat deliberate too but Talmi does convey its hovering between the grand formality of ritual and the garish grotesqueness of nightmare.

The question with the slow movement of Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 (tr. 3) is how slow and melancholy is it. Brahms marking is ‘Slow but not too much’ and I feel in the London Philharmonic Orchestra/Marin Alsop account here the second element of the marking is underplayed. So while the cellos’ opening theme has a spaciously sombre dignity there’s also a rather withdrawn inwardness which develops into a tiptoeing hesitancy. The sunnier second phase (2:59) has a more winsome delicacy and fragility while the third phase (4:03) is warm and homely, then turbulent before the gentle insistence, beautifully realized, of the sober wistfulness of the calm mix of first and third phase material.

The first movement of Borodin’s Symphony No. 2 is ever dramatic though without a programme, its rugged power in brass and lower strings vividly revealed by the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Stephen Gunzenhauser. The brief opening fanfare like motif is much repeated and varied. The second theme (tr. 4 1:40) begins more relaxed and folksy but at 4:02 in the wind, is presented urgently like the first motif. But that is more smoothly presented at 3:16 and 5:44, so you begin to feel it as the same character in different moods. In the latter case the first theme in the upper woodwind is flowingly though also animatedly layered over a second theme now uneasy in the lower strings. Technically clever but musically stimulating.

We get just part of a symphony movement, bars 178 to 246, or 6:51 of 25:48, of the opening movement of Mahler Symphony No. 10, itself only left in draft at Mahler’s death. But it’s well chosen at the return of the opening Adagio material in richly writhing texture of first and second violins with low brass backing followed by the contrast of the more isolated, probing string line of material which actually starts the work. At this point comes the movement’s crisis, a massive panoply of full orchestra, crashing chords and shrieking trumpet, a layering of raw sound rather than melody but that returns in a violins’ procession, consolation even in straitened circumstances which attains calm. Huth’s commentary characterizes this as the end of romanticism but it’s equally the beginning of 20th century stark juxtapositions. With the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra/Antoni Wit life’s beauties and horrors are lived to the full, intently displayed with unflinching gaze.

Whereas Mahler lives spontaneously in the moment, with Sibelius themes germinate and sweep irresistibly forward, even though unconventionally in his Third Symphony (tr. 6) where in place of a recapitulation a new theme sneaks in on the violas at 4:03 at the end of the development and flowers when the cellos join them at 4:22. The remainder of this finale is of mounting fulfilment and conviction, resolutely delivered in dark burnished colours by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra/Petri Sakari.

The rondo from Elgar Symphony No. 2 (tr. 7) is both jocular and disturbed from the outset and its second theme (0:49) at once bouncy and morbid. The pastoral woodwind headed centre (2:45) offers a carefree interlude with the violins dreamy response but the drumbeats, as of a man in high fever Elgar once suggested, begin in earnest from 4:44. The BBC Philharmonic/Edward Downes present this all with a sure sense of idiom so the mastery of  Elgar’s orchestration is fully revealed.

The scherzo from Shostakovich Symphony No. 10 with its abrasive strings, screeching woodwind and mighty brass is technically impressive from the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Ladislav Slovak. It has great clarity of texture and agitation, with the lacerating chords in the central section memorable, but in comparison with the Philadelphia Orchestra/Mariss Jansons (EMI 3653002) it lacks manic edge, at once a fascination with and fear of instability. Their maelstrom is more brutal.

There could be no greater contrast than the calm, free flowing, quiet and patient unfolding of the opening of Copland’s Symphony No. 3 (tr. 9). It has benign, intrinsic warmth, opening out to a positive affirmation, not about melody so much as units of growth and the conveying of mood. Woodwind solos in particular are heard as individual contributions to a unified whole community of witness which culminates in an exultant climax, followed by a return to the opening theme presented with expansive sureness. Here indeed are wide open spaces. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/James Judd give a finely detailed account of this heartening music.

The spell is broken by the finale of Lutoslawski’s Symphony No. 1 in a wonderfully bracing performance from the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra/Antoni Wit. This is a Haydn finale in 20th century dress, toying with melody which never quite arrives, glorying in its clownish raucousness yet with an almost continually contrasting lightness. I sought out the rest of the work: it’s fascinatingly variegated.

And then it’s back to Haydn, the close of his Farewell Symphony (tr. 11). To point out to Prince Esterhazy that his musicians were overdue a holiday the Presto finale breaks off into an Adagio in which the orchestra is gradually depleted to 2 violins. The Presto seems more tetchy edited 2:15 in, already with a head of steam, making a greater contrast with the Adagio (0:49) looking forward to happier days in an alert, pleasingly rounded glowing performance by Capella Istropolitana/Barry Wordsworth.

Andrew Huth’s very accessible 95 page essay provides an excellent digest of the development of the symphony, charting what makes its key composers distinctive and why others are less so. A template emerges of the musical characteristics of an effective symphony irrespective of period but there’s also attention to the cultural, social and political conditions which affect its success and thereby influence. The strengths and weaknesses of the 20th century English symphony are tersely revealed, though I feel Bliss’s A Colour Symphony is worth a mention. Huth also accounts for embarrassment at not including any female composers. Well, British Alice Mary Smith’s Victorian symphonies (Chandos CHAN 10283) are little known yet their Mendelssohnian grasp of the dramatic impulse within a strong formal framework is attractive. As the most prolific female symphonist ever, the present day American Gloria Coates might surely have been mentioned (eg. Naxos 8.559289).

In the CD examples more discipline, having just one movement per composer apart from the short complete Sammartini symphony, would have allowed space for at least 3 more composers. I’d opt for Schumann, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky. A 41 page timeline from 1730 to 2007 parallels the development of the symphony with history, science and technology, art and architecture and literature. This is thought provoking but for later than the discovery stage. I’d like to have seen assistance to the explorer where to go next, for instance if you like the Lutoslawski. There are no suggestions for further listening nor reading. A section charting the growth of the orchestra could have been better matched with examples of works actually featured on the CDs. But there is a helpful 6 page glossary. This, then, is a recommendable overview but a little fine tuning would have further enhanced its educational value.

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