Signs of Spring

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Spring quickens one’s sense of delight and lifts one’s spirits as the world awakens. Many puzzle over how the world began; I am still in wonder at how spring happens. With a child’s appetite for repetition, I am always ready to say: Do it again! This is my inspiration for focusing mostly on delightful music this month.

I will first remind you of two quintessential works for welcoming in spring. The first is Benjamin Britten’s magnificent Spring Symphony, with choral sections based on excerpts of English poetry from the 16th to the 20th centuries. I cannot imagine a more exuberant exclamation on behalf of this season. Try André Previn‘s great performance with the London Symphony Orchestra on EMI at budget price. The other indispensable work is Frank Bridge’s Enter Spring. This is one of the great orchestral rhapsodies, or tone poems, which captures both the beauty and power of spring. I treasure the performance led by Sir Charles Groves with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, also on EMI, which captures the diaphanous magic, displays the influence of French impressionism on Bridge’s work, and also generates overwhelming force.

 

The massive and dazzling forces of nature spring to mind in the new Uuno Klami CD released by Ondine (ODE 1143-2), with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, under John Storgards.  I am a huge fan of 20th-century Scandinavian music, but this Danish composer’s works are somewhat unfamiliar to me. What a revelation! Northern Lights, Cheremissian Fantasy, and the Kalevala Suite are strikingly impressive pieces. Klami (1900-1961) escaped from under the giant shadow of Sibelius by turning from Romantic nationalism and toward Russia (Stravinsky and Shostakovich) and France (Ravel), where he studied. Listen to the Bolero-like ostinato he uses to build tension in the Kalevala Suite. The Cheremissian Fantasy is a gorgeous cello concerto. He does not entirely escape Sibelius’s influence, as can be heard in the last part of the Kalevala Suite. Regardless, these are highly imaginative, orchestrally brilliant works that Ondine has captured in one of the finest recordings I have heard this year.

I thought I was getting symphonies by Abbe Georg Joseph Vogler, whose Requiem I greatly admire, when I ordered a copy of Johann Christoph Vogel’s Three Symphonies. What a difference a consonant makes! Nevertheless, Vogel’s works are a surprising delight and confirm for me the very high standards of music in the second half of the 18th century. Some 20,000 symphonies were produced in this period of Haydn and Mozart, and I doubt if there is a time in music history that can compare in quality. These première recordings of Vogel’s works by the Bavarian Chamber Philharmonic, under Reinhard Goebel, are a major treat (on OEHMS Classics OC 735). Anyone who cares for this era should not hesitate. The only sad note is that Vogel drank himself to death at age 32, depriving the world of further enchantment.

When Paris was agog with opera, George Onslow (1784-1853) almost single-handedly upheld the chamber music genre by composing 34 quartets and 36 quintets. (He was independently wealthy and so could afford to indulge himself.) As more and more of Onslow’s works are recorded, it is becoming clearer that he is in the first rank of second-string composers, along with Ferdinand Reis, Ludwig Spohr, and Johann Nepomuk Hummel. His String Quartets Nos. 28, 29, and 30 have now been recorded by the Diotima Quartet on the Naïve label (V 5200). Only number 30 has been previously recorded. Onslow composed these marvelously inventive, intriguing works after he had encountered Beethoven’s late string quartets. Some of the strangeness in these quartets may be due to a slight case of indigestion as Onslow tried to comprehend, if not assimilate, Beethoven’s achievement. Nonetheless, they reveal Onslow as a minor master in this genre. The Diotima pays Onslow the compliment of playing these works as it would Beethoven’s. The performances are highly energetic, extraordinarily alert, and very finely nuanced. This is playing of real character. I cannot imagine anyone making a better case for Onslow. This is a must-have release for connoisseurs of chamber music.

 

April 29 was Harold Shapero’s 90th birthday, and I wanted to wish him the best on this great occasion.  I happened to meet his daughter, Hannah, also an artist, at my local grocery store, so I have some hope that he may actually see these birthday greetings. Every single work I have heard by Shapero has been notable. But one has to go well beyond the word “notable” to describe his brilliant, scintillating Symphony for Classical Orchestra (you simply must hear this work on either Bernstein’s mono Sony recording or Previn’s stereo one New World Records 80373). The only problem is that I have not heard enough Shapero works — for the insupportable reason that they are not available on recordings. Why not? My own guess is that his music was neglected because he was too much against the grain of 20th-century angst and the doctrine of “dissonance alone” that it spawned.

Shapero is a composer of real spirit and verve, writing in ways that would bring a smile to Haydn’s face if he were alive today. I can only image that his nerve in writing works like the Symphony or his wonderful Serenade in D for String Orchestra infuriated the serial killers (dodecaphonists). But this 20th-century malady in music is well behind us now, and it is way overdue to celebrate this man and his music. There should be music festivals and new recordings for the nonagenarian, who is still composing.

For now, run out and get the Symphony and another New World Records release of Shapero’s chamber works (80569) that entrance in every way. The longest work, the Serenade for String Quintet (a chamber reduction of Shapero’s Serenade for Strings), is 35 minutes of sheer delight. I defy you not to be charmed by this neo-classical confection. I cannot recall a modern chamber work in which there is a greater sense of play, something sorely missing from most 20th-century music. This is a work of wit, gorgeous lyricism, and spiky rhythms. The Lydian String Quartet plays it with élan, as it does the two other works on this CD: a lovely String Quartet from 1941 and a precocious 1937 String Trio, which shows that Shapero flirted with atonality as a teenager but grew out of it, much to the detriment of his reputation. Do not miss these treats. Many happy returns, Maestro!

In 2007, British composer John Joubert turned 80. This occasion drew much needed attention to his music, which at that time was new to me. I was astounded by the quality of what I heard and puzzled that works of this quality could have been overlooked for so long. I lauded the recordings of his song cycles on Toccata Records and of the Symphony No. 1 on Lyrita. Now add to this the British Music Society’s release of Joubert’s work for string orchestra, Temps Perdu, the Sinfonietta, and the song cycle The Instant Moment (BMS 419CD).

The string work and the Sinfonietta immediately leap to the very front order of such works in 20th-century Great Britain — a highly competitive field with the likes of pieces by Holst, Finzi, Vaughan Williams, Bridge, Britten, Tippett, and more. They are simply exquisite. As one might imagine from the Proustian title, Temps Perdu: Variations for String Orchestra is drenched in a marvelous sense of expectancy, yearning, and nostalgia. It is written with great refinement, and I have fallen in love with it. The Sinfonietta is another gem, with echoes of Sibelius floating through the first of its three movements. Having heard the Toccata disk, the superlative quality of Joubert’s settings of five D. H. Lawrence poems in The Instant Moment was no surprise. Committed performances by the English String Orchestra and baritone Henry Herford, under conductor William Boughton, make this disk indispensable to any collection of British music. (If you cannot find it locally, buy it online here.)

The Profil label (PH06047) has issued a recording of the Bruckner Symphony No. 6 (original version), with the Munich Philharmonic, under Gunter Wand, made only two years before his death at age 90 in 2001. This recording is not the work of a frail man but of a person possessed. Through Bruckner, Wand connects to the elemental force of heaven’s tread. It is thrilling, exalted, and majestic. I wonder about many composers and their gifts, but nothing has made me wonder more than this peasant-genius, Bruckner, who would embarrass chamber maids at inns by proposing to them during his infrequent travels, and who had to be taken away for extended quiet time when he was found trying to count all the leaves on a tree. Yet in him burned a divine fire that leaped further into the empyrean than any other composer had dared reach. Wand knows this and communicates it as have few conductors.

I was tempted to include Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, Resurrection, in last month’s meditation on Easter music. I do so now because of the release by the LPO label (LPO 0044) of a live reading from 1989 at London’s Royal Festival Hall, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, under Klaus Tennstedt. Tennstedt (1926-1998), a legendary Mahler conductor, had to relinquish his position as the permanent conductor of this orchestra because of illness, but he returned on this occasion to give an interpretation of extraordinary breadth. One is tempted to call the performance valedictory because it is so clearly the retrospective product of deep reflection. Even the big moments are stretched, as if being held in a farewell embrace. Every single note here is meant to express something, and Tennstedt is going to take the time to express it. There are “freeze-frame” moments of stillness in which inner voices emerge with amazing clarity. Tennstedt achieves a breathtaking sense of suspension. If the music is distended, it never deflates. Only a master could pull off something like this — turning the Resurrection into a giant, moving meditation. The Philharmonic is with him every step of the way, and the recording is stunningly good. This may not be the way a newcomer should first hear this symphony, but for anyone who already knows and loves it, this autumnal interpretation will provide an unforgettable experience of spiritual richness.

Robert R. Reilly

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Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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