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 youíre 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 Sammartiniís 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 itís 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.
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 thereís 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 Haydnís
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 itís the shimmeringly sprightly
strings which those instruments have to and do match in echo.
Haydn blends Sammartiniís elegance and Stamitzís intellectual
The rest of CD1
is standard symphonic repertoire. Capella Istropolitana/Barry
Wordsworth bring the finale of Mozartís Haffner symphony
played with litheness and panache. But their closer miked recording
of the slow movement of Mozartís 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 Haydnís 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. Wordsworthís fine momentum gives it joie
de vivre while heís still scrupulous about vertical clarity.
In Beethovenís Symphony 7 introduction the Nicolaus Esterhazy
Sinfonia/Bela Drahos display imposing, if rather ponderously
massive, tutti chords offset by beguiling woodwind solos
and thereís a sense of heroic effort in the rising scales spread
across all the strings. The Vivaceís 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 Schubertís 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. Halaszís approach is deliberate, arguably
overmuch so, but Schubertís construction is so taut the effect
is more powerful than stilted. In this CDís context you hear
Stamitzís legacy used to more searingly dramatic effect.
CD2 has a growingly
nationalist feel. First up is the most overtly programmatic
symphony, Berliozís 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 Brahmsí Symphony 2 (tr. 3) is how slow
and melancholy is it. Brahms marking is ĎSlow but not too muchí
and I feel in the London Philharmonic Orchestra/Marin Alsop
account here the second element of the marking is underplayed.
So while the cellosí opening theme has a spaciously sombre dignity
thereís 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 Borodinís Symphony 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
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 10, itself only left
in draft at Mahlerís death. But itís 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 movementís 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 violinsí procession,
consolation even in straitened circumstances which attains calm.
Huthís commentary characterizes this as the end of romanticism
but itís equally the beginning of 20th century stark
juxtapositions. With the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra/Antoni
Wit lifeís 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 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† Elgarís orchestration is fully
The scherzo from
Shostakovich Symphony 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 Coplandís Symphony 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 Lutoslawskiís Symphony 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: itís fascinatingly
And then itís 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 Huthís 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 thereís 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
Blissís A Colour Symphony is worth a mention. Huth also
accounts for embarrassment at not including any female composers.
Well, British Alice Mary Smithís 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. Iíd 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. Iíd 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.