Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879–1936) Belkis, Queen of Sheba (The Dream of Solomon [8.45]; War Dance [2.57]; The Dance of Belkis at Dawn [7.41]; Orgiastic Dance [5.35]) (1932)
Paul HINDEMITH (1895–1963) Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber (Allegro 4.29; Turandot: Scherzo [7.59]; Andantino [4.28]; Marsch [4.55]) (1943)
Florent SCHMITT (1870–1958) The Tragedy of Salome (Prelude [9.25]; Dance of the Pearls [4.27]; The Enchantments of the Sea [7.07]; Dance of Lightning [3.39]; Dance of Fear (I) [3.30]; Dance of Fear (II) [2.29]) (1907-1910)
Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra/Sascha Goetzel
rec. Borusan Osto, Istinye, Istanbul, 24-29 May 2009. DDD
Choices, choices. Determined upon expressing the brilliance of the BIPO their young Austrian Chief Conductor, Sascha Goetzel and the Onyx label opted for variety. The selection of repertoire has been made across the range of composers and includes one eruptive choral and orchestral work. This may well draw in new listeners with a taste for mysterious eastern fragrances. It may be of more limited interest to those already devotees of Respighi and Schmitt.
Probably the best known piece here is the Hindemith with its raucous and wistful qualities strongly emphasised. The Turandot movement intensely aided by a recording of towering presence. The two outer movements cannot cast off their Germanic cheerfulness complete with Mahlerian trills and shrills in the Marsch finale. Goetzel and Onyx also reached out to the French exotic Schmitt and the luscious Belkis extravaganza by Respighi. In the background, especially with these last two one can sense the presence of Rimsky-Korsakov. The short War Dance in Belkis speaks of savagery as indeed does the whirling and stomping Orgiastic Dance. Clearly Respighi felt other influences and we can hear Ravel in unblushing Bolero mode in The Dance of Belkis at Dawn. The Schmitt is in six movements and is dedicated to Stravinsky. It’s certainly something you need to hear if you are already avid for Rimsky’s Antar and Scheherazade, Stravinsky’s Firebird, Ravel’s Daphnis, Bax’s Spring Fire, Biarent’s Contes d’Orient. The episode titles faithfully lead you to expect something akin to Antar and that is what you get. The bejewelled Prelude leads on to the suavely strolling Dance of the Pearls. The Enchantments of the Sea recall both Debussy and Gaubert. The horn calls remind me of the similar calls in Delius’s magical music for Flecker’s Hassan. The Dances of Lightning and Fear (trs. 12-14) start rather contentedly with full capital made of the cavernous presence of the BIPO acoustic and then develop a splenetic elemental stamping fury.
The balance is cinematic spectacular and the notes by Carenza Hugh-Jones are good.
I do hope that Onyx will continue the series and will resist the temptation to return the BIPO and Mr Goetzel to familiar waters. Why not an all-Schmitt disc including Selamlik, Kermesse, Danse d’Abisaig, Cancunik and from the other end of Schmitt’s life his cello concerto in all but name the superb 1952 Introit, récit et congé for cello and orchestra. I find it inexplicable that cellists and the companies are ignoring this commandingly imaginative piece.
Imaginative choice of repertoire, spectacular recording and the promise, I hope, of more to come.
Nick Barnard also listened to this disc but without being told anything about it.
This is quite an unusual disc. It arrived as a ‘double-blind’ disc with neither repertoire or performers listed. There are three works on this disc – two of which I was able to identify straight away. The third tickled away in my mind for a couple of days until by a process of elimination and digging out some of my own discs I was able to nail that down too. The three works make for a slightly unusual programme – 20th Century Showpieces for orchestra would fit the bill and there is an underlying link of pseudo-easternism in the narrative of two of the works at least (which is more or less reflected in some of the orchestral effects). All the works have been recorded before but this would seem to be a unique coupling.
The disc opens with the four movement suite Respighi drew from his Ballet Belkis, Queen of Sheba that he wrote in 1930-31 for La Scala. Respighi clearly had quite a penchant for the overwhelmingly spectacular and extreme but even by his own Festivals of Rome standards this is a pretty over the top work. It always sounds to me as though it was written for one of those Hollywood Biblical Epics – if Respighi have lived in Hollywood twenty years later Miklos Rozsa and Alfred Newman would have been out of a job. Subtle it is not. There have been two previous recordings that I know of both of which have emphasised the sonic spectacular element. Indeed the debut recording on Chandos won the 1986 Gramophone award for engineering and featured Geoffrey Simon conducting the Philharmonia. From memory I have an inkling that was one of Chandos’ first recordings in All Saints Tooting (London) and it ushered in a new era of ‘hi-fi’ resonant recordings. The fact it is still available today some 25 years at effectively full price proves its longevity. The other competing performance came out only 3 or so years back on Prof Johnson Reference Recordings from the excellent Minnesota Orchestra. In turn that was nominated for an engineering Grammy. So how does this new recording measure up? Well as far as the Respighi is concerned pretty well. The engineering is not a patch on either of the above but this almost helps the performance – it reminds me of a latter day Decca Phase 2 recording – very spread on the sound stage left to right but relatively shallow front to back set in a big acoustic. The sound is big bold, very unsubtle, with odd highlighting of instruments but then that’s how the music is too. No way do the strings of this orchestra have the tonal refinement of the Philharmonia but conversely the wild solo clarinet in the 2nd movement War Dance is far more idiomatic here – the British clarinettist sounding positively polite in such company. Likewise the ‘ethnic’ percussion instruments here – I’ve no idea exactly what Respighi has called for in the score – have a far more authentic timbre and indeed style of playing on the current disc. What I do enjoy throughout the programme is the orchestra’s total commitment. This doesn’t sound like an ‘expensive’ orchestra and I’d put money on it not being a famous one but as so often it proves there is quality to be found in unlikely places. In the past I’ve always enjoyed returning to the Chandos disc as a rather guilty hedonistic pleasure but this performance runs it very close for spirit and verve. Ultimately the sheer collective power of the Philharmonia and the skill of the engineering pushes me towards that earlier version.
With the second work we are entering a far more crowded and competitive field. This is the Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes by Weber by Hindemith. This is probably that composer’s most popular work and the one which most definitely ridicules the perception of him as some arid academic composer. I’ve never understood that charge – his music bristles with wit and energy and life. Apparently, the initial stimulus for the work was a suggestion by Leonid Massine for a ballet based on Weber’s music. Hindemith decided he liked Weber’s music but not Massine’s choreography hence the orchestral work we got. Many of the themes Hindemith used are from Weber’s incidental music to Turandot so perhaps we are getting close to 2 possible threads for this disc’s programme; ballet and near/far eastern narratives? Unfortunately, the combination of brash recording and unsubtle playing which benefitted the Respighi works against the Hindemith. This is a very hard work to play well. Nothing here is poor – far from it but the spirit of the music is not caught well. After all this is Weber’s music metamorphosised through Hindemith’s 20th Century vision. It does need to retain the essential elegance and bonhomie of the original even when the percussion and brass are running riot. On this disc those sections are rather unleashed. Its here that the internal balance within the orchestra as well as the engineered balance lets things down. The strings have to work too hard, or at least they sound as if they are working too hard, trying to toss off Hindemith’s knotty little figurations. Certainly compared to any of the classic recordings this sounds provincial. My own particular favourite is the Szell/Cleveland recording on Sony which can still be found (intelligently coupled with the Walton/Hindemith Variations) with a bit of hunting around but that highlights what an extraordinary instrument the Cleveland orchestra was in Szell’s hands. Not to everyone’s taste for sure but it make’s this work a the archetypal orchestral showpiece.
So, coming into the home straight honours are pretty much even with this disc. The third work is another ‘exotic’ ballet and although it has been recorded before (more times than the Respighi I think) it is in many ways the rarest work here. Mainly because it’s composer – Florent Schmitt – never wrote any works that have entered any kind of popular consciousness. If one work was going to fulfil that role it would be this one; La Tragédie de Salomé, Op.50 premiered in November 1907. Given that this is barely 2 years after the cause célèbre Richard Strauss’ Salome it is not really that surprising that this work should have fallen into the other’s shadow. Schmitt’s work was conceived as a ballet (written for a chamber orchestra of 22 players) and runs for about an hour. It has been recorded in this form on Marco Polo. Schmitt returned to the score two or so years later, cut about half of the material and rescored for a large full orchestra and it became a kind of choreographic poem. The original ballet was deemed a great success after the premiere receiving over fifty performances and being described by Stravinsky as “..one of the greatest masterpieces of modern music”. Loath as I am to play the ‘sounds-like’ card; in this fully orchestral version it does sound like an opulent Straussian tone poem with a distinctly Gallic twist. – a kind of Also Sprach Daphnis perhaps! Flippancy apart it interesting to note that Ravel began work on his great ballet at exactly the same time Schmidt was transforming his score.
I’ve commended readers before to the IMSLP site – there it is possible to view for free Schmitt’s score: imslp.org/wiki/La_Tragédie_de_Salomé,_Op.50_(Schmitt,_Florent). This is the most successful piece overall on the disc. The highly charged sensual nature of the music is performed to the hilt and the work benefits from this kind of committed playing without requiring the clockwork precision of the Hindemith. As a piece it is much more substantial than the Respighi which for all its spectacle is ultimately rather a display of empty bombast. This work provides the orchestra with a much more impressive musical calling-card. I have in my collection both the previously mentioned Marco Polo original complete ballet and a recording of this full orchestral version from Marek Janowksi and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France which is now available on bargain price Apex . There is also a version on Hyperion which I have not heard. This version I prefer to Janowski because it does abandon itself to the sensual sound world of both the composer and the narrative. However, it should be pointed out that the couplings on both Apex and Hyperion are more Schmidt as opposed to the potential for repertoire doubling this disc risks. The engineering seems to have become a little subtler and indeed so has the interpretation. The Respighi is a fairly unsubtle beast so best just to unleash the players as is done here. The Hindemith is performed at fairly standard tempi but in a too perfunctory manner with little wit or grace. However, in the Schmidt, the conductor seems more attuned to the hyper-romantic style and follows the indicated ebbs and flows of the score well. Although better I still find the recording to be somewhat brash – slightly in the style of early digital recordings where the dynamic range was undoubtedly impressive but lacked nuance. Track 10 is the section of the score called Danse de Perles and it is a good example of the style of performance throughout this work. This movement is a swiftly moving 3/8 swirling dance. When the dynamics expand the orchestra do so with alacrity, although I do wonder if a little too eagerly. I suspect something more lithe and sinuous in the playing might be closer to the original intent – this feels more athletic than erotic. But I should stress it is exciting all the same. I do feel the synthetic instrumental balance undermines the quieter reflective passages. Good though it is that the inner parts are so audible their level in the mix is unrealistically high and thereby destroys much of the atmosphere. As the musical temperature rises so the string ensemble suffers. There are passages where the beat flows around barlines in a deliberately disruptive manner, it feels as if some of the players are not completely comfortable with this idiom and the playing becomes effortful rather than energised. The recording uses the instrumental option of solo oboe or flute when the score asks for off-stage female voices. Its an understandable choice no doubt made on economic grounds but a pity all the same. The wordless female voice there is by definition more sensual and provocative than any instrumental counterpart and does add to the drama of the moment considerably (particularly when marked ‘avec lassitude’). However, the following Danse des Éclairs is viscerally exciting and what it lacks in absolute precise ensemble it makes up for in excitement and total engagement by the players. I mentioned before this version is scored for large orchestra amongst which Schmitt asks for a sarusophone as opposed to the more usual contra-bassoon (Bax does the same in his early symphonies). Certainly the instrument here is full of character – I’m not sure if it is a contra or not. Generally woodwind solos are well taken without having the last drop of personality (the clarinet mentioned before is an honourable exception). The work is brought to a suitably dramatic close by a return of the powerful uneven meters of the Danse de l'effroi and it proves to be an exciting conclusion to the disc.
Following a score of any work can be something of a revelation and often not to the benefit of a recording – you often notice things covered by the mix or fudged in performance. I have to say that is something of the case here. This is a complex and by definition unfamiliar work. I’m guessing this must be some kind of ‘debut’ disc by this orchestra – it has the feel of being a demonstration/presentation disc. The choice of unusual virtuosic repertoire would suggest an attempt to make an impact on the musical stage. Overall, it’s a pretty good effort and one that listeners who enjoy spectacle in their music will have fun with. In the tough world of classical music you would have to say each piece is available elsewhere – I see the Hyperion disc does use the female voices (on reflection a serious omission here) and given their track record you would have assume it will be an impressive disc – so we are left with a disc for the curious but not a compulsory purchase.