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April 17th, 2016

Hendrik Andriessen – Great But Neglected Composer

This is the third release in CPO’s series of the symphonic works of Hendrik Andriessen (1892–1981), who was better known in his lifetime as a musicologist and church organist.

In 1942 the Nazis held Andriessen hostage for five months, and upon his release he began composing his Symphony No. 3, the premiere of which he conducted with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1946. The symphony is a tonal work, certainly in comparison with his previous two symphonies — tuneful and lyrical, at once involving, with an airy, open quality, more a showpiece than his usual contemplative work. Still, this is music that broods on every page. Sadly, this is one of those neglected treasures that collectors enjoy unearthing from time to time. I know I did.

In structure, the Overture serves as a lengthy introduction to the second movement, Sonata. The following Saraband evokes Renaissance dance themes and is the emotional center of the work. The final movement, Fuga, sums up themes from the preceding movements, its main subject full of dervish energy and gnarled thematic material. It’s in this movement that Andriessen shows genuine compositional chops with his deft use of counterpoint, broad orchestral coloring, and multiple themes and variations. Dutch conductor David Porcelijn turns in a very detailed and penetrating reading of this symphony.

Andriessen composed his Symphonic Concertante in 1962 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Noord-Hollands Philharmonisch Orkest. The title of the piece describes the composer’s way of playing one instrumental group against another, deliberately contrasting tonalities and overlaying groups of themes. In keeping with Andriessen’s usual style, the outer first (Andante – Allegro) and third (Andante – Allegro energico) movements are in the composer’s Neoclassical manner. Genuine experimentation takes place in the central slow movement (Tema con variazione), which is a series of Baroque dance variations on a theme by Adrianus Valerius, an early 17-century Dutch poet and composer. The variations are spins on separate dance forms: gavotte, sarabande, bourée, pavane, aria, menuetto, perspired, and polonaise. Each variation is presented with almost no modernization; and unlike at least one reviewer, I find that as a whole the variations mesh quite well. They could have been somewhat detached and academic, but these variations are served well by Andriessen’s laconic approach — with the result that the movement is delightful from beginning to end. The first and third movements are akin to 18-cnetury symphonic movements, where the theme and variations are in the middle, especially the third movement with its robust dance themes rising to a rollicking finale. The addition of “Concertante” to the title is well earned: the woodwinds and the brass have prominent roles, as do the solo violin and harp in the enticing aria.

The program ends with Chantecler Overture, which is based on a once-popular theater play of the same name by the 19th-century French playwright Edmond Rostand, about a humanlike rooster who dislikes the pretensions of city life and prefers the simple life of the country. He particularly delights in the idea of awakening people at dawn. The piece begins with a tonally edgy depiction of night. The appearance of Chantecler is announced with the addition of a short horn motif. The chickens are heard in the pecking pizzicato strings. For me, this piece is a disappointment and left little impression. Perhaps Porcelijn could have been less placid in his approach and amped the pace up a bit.

This disc is a pleasant surprise from a composer whose work deserves to be more often heard. For listeners unfamiliar with Andriessen’s work, the Third Symphony is the best introduction to his symphonic world, while the Symphonic Concertante gives a good sense of his typical icy, Nordic style.

November 9th, 2015

Beethoven Piano Concertos: Nos. 1–5 • Richard Goode, Iván Fischer

Iván Fischer’s Budapest Festival Orchestra plays with all the energy and power necessary to turn in spectacular performances of these Beethoven concertos. Richard Goode’s playing suits Fischer’s approach, and these two gifted musicians give us one of the most lyrical and powerful interpretations of the five piano concertos in the current catalogue. What separates the artistry of these recordings from that of other interpretations I admire (Rudolf Serkin’s clarity and precision; Murray Perahia’s thoughtful probity) is their unadulterated brio.

It’s surprising that this is Richard Goode’s first recording of the Beethoven piano concertos, all the more so when one recalls that in 1993 Goode released a complete set of Beethoven sonatas. It was this set that established the pianist as one of the great Beethoven interpreters of our time. Because the concertos are public display works and not so technically or intellectually challenging as the sonatas, most pianists come to the concertos first, reserving for later the trilogy of late sonatas. There’s no doubt that Goode’s delay in recording these works led to the refined and nuanced readings by him and Fischer.

Goode’s keyboard technique and the clarity and balanced richness he draws from his instrument are astonishing. But these renditions are not simply about technique; they are about brilliant playing in service to Fischer’s vision of the music. Artistic vision guides the pianist, not the other way around as Goode demonstrates that he can shape a phrase as well or better than Arrau, Brendel, or Pollini, all of whose recordings of these concertos offer their own rewards.

Conductor Fischer doesn’t force the music but lets it move along at its own pace, allowing us to hear the detailed inner-part writing. Fischer’s stock-in-trade as a conductor lies in matters of orchestral detail, a trait on full display throughout these recordings, which are beautifully captured in spacious sound, the mics perfectly placed.

These remarkable performances are neither underpowered nor underplayed, but relaxed throughout. As a soloist, Goode is adept at engaging the orchestra rather than fighting it; as a conductor, Fischer has a knack for finding the beauty of the music and transforming these warhorses from rollicking, heavy-handed showpieces to music more lighthearted and genteel.

At least one reviewer states that the tempos of the first four slow movements are too fast. I disagree. Pianists have been playing these movements too slowly for too many years. Fischer’s tempos are refreshing.

These are essential recordings that won’t so much fill out a CD collection as stand as a cornerstone. This three-CD set will go a long way toward completing your understanding of the Beethoven concertos. Highly recommended.

November 7th, 2015

Bruckner Symphony No. 5 – Günter Wand

My initial and continuing assessment of this twenty-five-year-old recording is that Günter Wand’s Bruckner Fifth for RCA Victor Red Seal belongs to the upper echelons of Bruckner Fifths.

The first measures stretch with emotion, almost like a dirge or church hymn. Particularly appealing are the string tremolos that anticipate the main theme and are fraught with emotion. And it’s this emotion that unlocks the measure of the riddle of this symphony, for the greatest moments in Bruckner’s music are private and internal — the mindscape of a deeply spiritual man medieval by nature and out of step with his times.

Wand has a wicked way of playing under the notes, using loose tempos and accented rhythms to create the right effect while maintaining an impressive clarity throughout, especially in the instrumental details, which never bog the conductor down and which propel the music forward.

The adagio is unutterably beautiful. Listening to it, I can’t help but think I am being invited to participate in one of the most moving spiritual journeys in Western music outside that of Arvo Pärt. From the start, the oboe flows with an assured beauty. Something in the meter compels and beckons. The spacious second theme builds to a natural and satisfying climax, the brass never overpowering and thus allowing the string figures to be heard.

The pace of the scherzo is quick and fully realizes Bruckner’s shifting and bewitching rhythms. Wand’s attention to detail brings the truth and beauty of this music into focus.

The finale is a great challenge for any conductor. Most recordings of this work strain to keep the contrapuntal threads clear, often with the result of rigid tempos and an overall bland sound. The brass can often sound out of tune, something Wand is careful to avoid. A result of Wand’s alchemy is that this movement smiles on the audience, with bounce and more than a little swagger. A pitfall for the unwary conductor is difficult to evade: this movement can be grim. But Wand finds the emotional range hiding beneath the notes, uncovering shades and contrasts where many conductors are only concerned with keeping the lines from becoming a tangled mess. Wand’s rendition of the finale is not surprising, for he is at his best in the outer movements, demonstrating a masterly grasp of this symphony’s immense architecture. He never relaxes the intensity, and thus the structure doesn’t fall apart as is often the case in a bad Bruckner performance.

This stellar recording is rich and finely detailed with a huge dynamic range. The NDR-Sinfonieorchester shines with brilliance. Used copies of this disc are available from Amazon for about $6. This CD is now my favorite Bruckner Fifth, surpassing Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic on DG. Karajan’s recording is all about gravitas. Wand’s is about thoughtful articulation and, in my opinion, is the right approach. My highest recommendation.