On record: Buffalo PO / Falletta – Kodály: Orchestral Works (Naxos)

Kodály Orchestral Works Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra / JoAnn Falletta

Kodály
Dances of Galánta (1933)
Concerto for Orchestra (1939-40)
Variations on a Hungarian Folksong, ‘The Peacock’ (1938-39)
Dances of Marosszek (1930)

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

An exploration of the Hungarian composer’s colourful orchestral works from the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and JoAnn Falletta, this disc includes established favourites (the Dances of Galánta and Peacock Variations), the underrated Dances of Marosszek and a relative rarity in the Concerto for Orchestra, completed for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1940.

What’s the music like?

Richly scored and full to bursting with good tunes. The Dances of Galánta, the composer’s home for seven years in his youth, are a brilliant curtain raiser. As Edward Yadzinski says in the booklet note they are ‘a travelogue of gipsy spirit’. The tunes are rich with melodic ornaments and move between quick, energetic dances and slow, seductive ones.

The Dances of Marosszek (a region of northern Romania) should be better known. Originally written for piano, they begin with a surging theme in the cellos that casts a spell on the piece, heavy on allure but with some lovely softer contrasts.

The Peacock Variations are great fun, Kodály taking a legendary folk song and casting it in different speeds, harmonies and instrumentation to demonstrate its versatility. At times he reduces the orchestration, and brings solo instruments to the fore – notably in Variation XI, where cor anglais and woodwind are set against soft strings.

The Concerto for Orchestra is much more than a virtuoso showpiece, bringing in different sections of the orchestra into the Hungarian folk world. Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra may be better known and more adventurous in its approach, but this is a fascinating alternative.

Does it all work?

Yes. This is extremely well performed, and the Buffalo string and winds are full of the flavour, if understandably not always getting to the heart of the folksy melodies. An interpretation from a ‘home’ orchestra almost always brings a higher level of authenticity when folk melodies are to the fore, but the Buffalo do still revel in the colour and tuneful abandon of these scores.

Is it recommended?

Yes. These may not be outright recommendations for each piece, perhaps, but they offer alternatives that show how well Kodály wrote for orchestra and how, in the Concerto for Orchestra, he could turn a potentially dutiful work commission into 20 minutes of fun.

You can head to the Naxos website for a podcast from conductor JoAnn Falletta on Kodály’s orchestral works ear this disc on Spotify here:

Under The Surface – Havergal Brian: Symphonies 8, 21 & 26 (Naxos)

Havergal Brian: Symphonies Nos. 8, 21 & 26 – New Russia State Symphony Orchestra / Alexander Walker

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Naxos’s Havergal Brian cycle, begun a quarter-century ago on the Marco Polo label, reaches an important milestone with a disc that features the composer’s only previously unrecorded symphony, alongside notable such works from his middle- and late- periods.

What’s the music like?

The premiere recording is that of the Twenty-Sixth Symphony, written as Brian approached his 90th birthday and among his most concentrated – for all that the overall mood is one of relative good humour. Of its three allegros, the first is a boisterous sonata design that cannily elides development and reprise, while its successor is a lively intermezzo with unexpectedly aggressive trios then a pointedly understated ending which leads directly into the finale – an off-kilter rondo whose more ambivalent episodes make possible a coda whose decisiveness is more than a little fractious. Unheard since two performances in its composer’s centenary year, the piece yields unexpected subtleties – Alexander Walker drawing a tensile response from his New Russia State Orchestra forces in this lesser while not unappealing addition to the Brian canon.

The significance of the Eighth Symphony has never been in doubt. If not the first of Brian’s one-movement such works, it is the first in which this composer grappled with the potential of symphonic continuity in earnest. Compared to Sir Charles Groves’s 1977 recording (EMI/ Warner), Walker opts for less strongly characterized individual sections in favour of greater underlying cohesion – the piece thus emerging as more than the sum of its already fascinating parts. A further plus is the definition accorded harp and piano, their contribution being crucial to the motivic evolution of music whose mystical qualities are offset by elements of sardonic humour and fraught eloquence. Nor are the enigmatic final bars undersold, though the quiet concluding dissonance as horn and trombones collide might have evinced greater presence.

By comparison, the Twenty-First Symphony tended to be heard as Brian’s marking time prior to embarking on a new and more challenging phase. This, at least, was always the feeling of Eric Pinkett’s pioneering 1972 account with the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra (Unicorn/Heritage), though such equable classicism has little place in Walker’s conception – the charged opening Allegro, its gawky introduction transformed into a surging coda, being a case in point. The Adagio emerges as one of its composer’s most searching, its increasingly wracked expression barely held in check, then the Vivace’s nimble scherzo with two livelier trios makes way for a finale whose muscular variations build inexorably toward an apotheosis the more powerful for its relative succinctness in what is an unequivocal statement of intent.

Does it all work?

Indeed. This is a major appraisal of three contrasting Brian symphonies, grippingly conveyed by an orchestra which now sounds audibly at ease with this composer’s recalcitrant idiom.

Is it recommended?

Yes, not least when the recorded sound is arguably the best yet secured from this source, and John Pickard’s booklet notes offer a wealth of informed observation. Incidentally, the Eighth Symphony has not been performed since a 1971 broadcast and never given in concert. Maybe Alexander Walker would like to take the plunge as this piece approaches its 70th anniversary?

For more information on this release, you can visit the Naxos website. For more information on the New Russia State Symphony Orchestra click here, and for the conductor Alexander Walker’s website click here

On record: Leif Segerstam conducts Sibelius – Works for the stage (Naxos)

leif_segerstam

Leif Segerstam, conductor of an intriguing series of Sibelius works for the stage on Naxos, where he directs the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra.

In recognition of 150 years since the birth of Finland’s greatest composer, Jean Sibelius, his countryman Leif Segerstam has been illuminating his music for the stage. In a year where the composer’s seven symphonies have been ubiquitous in orchestral concerts, it is really gratifying to have these new versions of relatively rare works made available – even more so since they are given here in complete rather than abridged versions.

What’s the music like?

Sibelius is a fascinating composer in this field, and is able to set a scene with little to no preparation. His economical treatment of melodies can come across as brusque, but he is never less than interesting and writes music that is occasionally puzzling but frequently moving.

segerstam-pelleas

Listeners will more than likely know the first number of Pelléas et Mélisande, At The Castle Gate, for the grand way it has provided the soundtrack to the BBC TV programme The Sky At Night.

Yet there is much else to discover in this music. Segerstam may not be as high powered as some conductors in his interpretation but the music is still deeply felt from the Turku Philharmonic strings, while there is a nice reedy woodwind sound.

The Adagio from Act 1 is notable for the sharp woodwind intervention and coarse strings, providing a chilling outlook, while there are some lovely colours in the opening to Act 3, where the influence of Tchaikovksy still evident.

segerstam-kuolema

One of the numbers for Kuolema (Death) is one of the composer’s most popular encore pieces. Valse triste, as we know it, begins six scenes of music for a drama by Sibelius’ brother in law Arvid Järnefelt. Segerstam takes it slowly, but is poised and graceful throughout, as he is in the brooding Scene with Cranes, another Sibelius favourite.

Then he is joined by the fulsome baritone of Waltteri Torikka, who gives Paavali’s Song a convincing presence, while Pia Pajala is clear and crisp in Elsa’s Song. The last scene is strangely chilling, with the fateful tolling of bells.

The seven numbers Sibelius composed for the relatively early King Christian II, a Scandinavian historical play by his friend Adolf Paul, begin with a majestic Elegy, conclude with a tempestuous Ballade and include a substantial central Nocturne that proves surprisingly lively for the night time, building to a really impressive climax that reminds us how much sway Tchaikovsky holds over Sibelius’ early output. The whole score is beautifully performed, Segerstam clearly holding great affection for the romantic score.

segerstam-belshazzar

It was satisfying to see Sibelius’s music for Belshazzar’s Feast making a comeback at the BBC Proms this year, and in Segerstam’s hands we enjoy a colourful opening procession and a penetrating flute solo in the NocturnoPia Pajala deserves special credit for a fulsome soprano solo in The Song of the Jewish Girl.

The two discs where the corners of Sibelius’s output are really deeply explored are those devoted to music for Jedermann (Everyman) and Scaramouche.

segerstam-jedermann

The former carries a chilling picture of a sabre-wielding Death on the cover and it is certainly very dark to start with, with some strikingly beautiful writing for strings that Segerstam is keen to bring out, especially when heard in a solo capacity in the Largo. There is more choral music in this score, sung with commendable spirit by the Cathedralis Aboensis Choir, and there is a memorable main tune that makes regular reappearances throughout. The sonorities become appreciably sweeter when the organ gets mixed in for the second part of the Adagio, but this is music that never really settles, and in the section marked ‘Con grande dolore’ there are some disarming sweeps from the strings.

segerstam-scaramouche

Scaramouche caused Sibelius a lot of problems in its composition, causing him to break a telephone on one occasion, but it still has some striking qualities. The bolero in Act 1 is a very curious stop-start dance where what sounds like a bandoneon is used, while in Scene 6 of Act 2 (again untitled) there is extreme uncertainty, both here and in the start of the successive number in the harmonies and wind colouring. Scene 9 conjures up a favourite Sibelius tactic, the bouncing of bows on the strings. So while a bitty score, Scaramouche still generates a good amount of interest and mystery.

segerstam-swanwhite

 Swanwhite is quite an elusive piece but once again is revealed to have a mixture of charm and mystery. The former quality can be found in the third number of Act 2, where there is a poised and rather lovely dialogue between flute and strings, but by contrast the fifth number wears a stern expression, especially through its clarinet part. There are however some moments of pure serenity in Swanwhite, and while at times its music seems to have a short attention span it nonetheless leaves a lasting impression.

The Lizard, far from a makeweight, is a fascinating piece that shows all the composer’s hallmarks in their early stages – though when hearing the music it sounds a lot later than its publication number, Op.8, might suggest. The sweeping violas, the cold and often eerie unison string lines, and the shivers from tremolo strings around 17 minutes in – all are hallmarks of the mature composer and mark him out as an orchestral colourist of the highest quality.

One of the appealing qualities of Segerstam’s discs is the programming, as alongside the stage works he takes the opportunity to include rarely-heard items such as two songs from Twelfth Night, the Overture in A minor, and many more. These help put the Sibelius output in context, and while they might not be classed as masterpieces the works do still contain moments of inspiration and originality. While the Overture in E major may be an obvious early work, Scene de Ballet gets out the castanets to good effect, before finishing in typically abrupt manner. There is a glint in the eye of the waltz Musik zu einer Szene, and a graceful Valse lyrique. The Overture in A minor could only be by Sibelius, and offsets its stern brass with increasingly active strings before suddenly cutting to a brighter, energetic outlook. The Cortège is a piece of grand ceremony though still has its subtleties, while the Processional is a solemn piece. Meanwhile the short Menuetto has Sibelius’ own stamp on it, richly coloured and quite grounded, before once again stopping suddenly.

These are then extremely valuable additions to the Sibelius discography, and are highly recommended to those looking to progress beyond the ubiquitous symphonies. Though the symphonies make one of the twentieth century’s finest collections in the form, Sibelius was a much deeper composer than that – and in these recordings Segerstam proves that beyond doubt.

Does it all work?

Frequently. These are fascinating pieces, though listeners are advised to read the booklet notes either during or before hearing so that Sibelius’ acute scene setting can be fully appreciated.

Is it recommended?

Yes – especially to those who have gotten to know Sibelius through his symphonies. The stage works reveal the composer in a different light, and provide a substantial complement. They also show his remarkable powers of musical concentration and orchestral colouring.

Listen on Spotify

Pelleas https://open.spotify.com/album/2Hd0S5a6jiOzDziBVJ3uNR
Kuolema https://open.spotify.com/album/5NfQh1uva2xxerW8yNbqlr