SIBELIUS: COMPLETE SYMPHONIES; TONE POEMS; VIOLIN CONCERTO
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis, conductor
Salvatore Accardo, violin
Here’s a welcome reissue: Colin Davis’s cycle of the seven Sibelius symphonies and a generous selection of tone poems, recorded in the 1970s during his tenure as principal guest conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The resulting set must rank as one of the most successful recorded ventures for both conductor and orchestra.
Davis’s way with Sibelius is lean and propulsive, distilling the power of the composer’s granitic sound. The energetic approach pays particular dividends in the less popular symphonies (the First, Third, Fourth, and Sixth), but the others are never less than impressive. Played this way, even a piece as over-performed as “Finlandia” sounds fresh, and the late “Tapiola” is almost terrifying. Davis has made two subsequent Sibelius cycles, but neither is as successful as this one.
This was also a golden era for the BSO. They sound superb almost throughout, the one exception being some rough brass playing in the Seventh Symphony. The string sound is sweet and full, and there are numerous wonderful solos, especially from the flute, clarinet, and timpani (presumably Doriot Anthony Dwyer, Harold Wright, and Vic Firth). Capping off the set is a powerful account of the Violin Concerto with Salvatore Accardo as soloist and Davis leading the London Symphony Orchestra, equally deserving of your attention.
BACH: THE WELL-TEMPERED CLAVIER
András Schiff, piano
András Schiff recorded much of Bach’s piano music for Decca in the 1980s, including both books of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Those versions were sonically exquisite but oddly inert; Schiff made the piano sound beautiful but there was little dramatic intensity to the playing, and his habit of spotlighting particular voices in the textures seemed precious rather than musically enlightening.
More than a quarter-century later, Schiff has returned to Bach’s 48 preludes and fugues for ECM, and the differences are startling. His tone has become earthier, less glossy. According to the liner notes, he uses no pedal at all on the new recording, yet the piano timbre has more resonance than Glenn Gould’s ultra-dry sound. More important, each individual piece has a clear narrative shape, and the tonal beauty and contrapuntal precision are now at the service of the form. This gives each part of Bach’s mosaic a forward momentum and spontaneity that was lacking in the earlier version.
Picking highlights seems somewhat silly in a project this vast, but the entries in C-sharp minor, E major, and B minor in both books show the power of Schiff’s new conception: Tempos are perfectly chosen, the counterpoint is sharply defined, and with the entry of each voice, the music seems to strive for some greater, mysterious power.
According to ECM, Schiff will perform Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” at Jordan Hall in November 2013.
TCHAIKOVSKY: SYMPHONIES 1-3
London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev, conductor
(LSO Live: two CDs)
Tchaikovsky’s first three symphonies have always been Cinderellas to the last three; they may be less anguished, but they’re no less accomplished. The First, “Winter Dreams,” is a meditative sleigh (or train) ride through a snowy landscape; the Second, “Little Russian,” draws on Ukrainian folk tunes. The Third, “Polish,” got its nickname from its final movement, which, unusually for a symphony, is a polonaise. George Balanchine used the last four of the Third’s five movements for one of his greatest ballets, “Diamonds.”
And balletic is the word for this new set from Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra issued on the LSO Live label. Everything is full-bodied, as if accompanying bodies in motion. Movement introductions are slow and attention-getting; main tempos tend to be leisurely (though not the First’s Allegro maestoso finale); scherzos are delicate, folk rhythms lilting. It all sounds fresh and rethought, with individual instruments afforded plenty of space, especially the ripe, pungent winds.
A few quibbles: The fanfare that opens the Second’s finale is oddly precipitous, some climactic lines are muffled, and some of the slowish tempos expose seams in the writing. I was also surprised by Gergiev’s sprint through the closing pages of the Third’s finale, but Tchaikovsky did mark it “Presto.” Throughout, in fact, Gergiev is scrupulous about doing things the composer’s way. And in these symphonies, that puts him right up there with Lorin Maazel, Mstislav Rostropovich, Evgeny Svetlanov, and my longtime benchmark, Igor Markevitch.
DEBUSSY: PIANO WORKS
Angela Hewitt, piano
Debussy is almost synonymous with Impressionism, and performances of his compositions often conjure Monet, Pissarro, and Renoir. Yet Debussy himself rejected the Impressionism label. So does British pianist Angela Hewitt, whose generous — 80 minutes — new recording of his “Children’s Corner,” “Suite bergamasque,” “Pour le piano,” and five shorter works dispels the usual mists with steady sunlight. She makes Debussy sound like Bach, a composer in whom she has already excelled. The disc takes some getting used to, but I suspect Debussy would be pleased.
Debussy wrote “Children’s Corner” for his beloved daughter Chouchou, and her toys and dolls are in evidence throughout. Hewitt’s “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum,” Debussy’s parody of Clementi keyboard exercises, seems short on parody and long on exercise, but by the second piece, “Jimbo’s Lullaby,” I had adjusted to her forthright tone and cogent shaping, and I could picture Chouchou’s stuffed elephant refusing to go to sleep. Individual snowflakes emerge out of “The Snow Is Dancing”; in “Golliwog’s Cake-Walk,” Chouchou’s golliwog doll not only cakewalks but also sways humorously to the opening notes of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” another parody.
In the famous “Clair de lune” from “Suite bergamasque,” Hewitt lets the moonlight play freely without allowing it to dissolve. The rest of “Suite bergamasque” reflects the piece’s commedia dell’arte inspiration; here Hewitt seems to allude to the staccato dancing of the “Pantalon et Columbine” section from Schumann’s “Carnaval.” You might prefer Ivan Moravec’s more mysterious way with Debussy, but his “Children’s Corner” and “Clair de lune” have long been out of print. Hewitt writes her own intelligent liner notes, and they’re a valuable accompaniment to the disc.