The symphony is the pinnacle of musical achievement. I particularly enjoy a good symphony (except for Mahler’s self-indulgences – tone poems, not symphonies): I have unsurprising favourites amongst the traditional popular repertoire (odd numbered Beethoven, Mozart’s ‘Jupiter’, all Brahms etc) but I enjoy novelty too.
One way to diversify is by listening to different versions of a favourite work. In recent months, for example, I have encountered ‘extreme’ versions of the Brahms symphonies, and found great pleasure in both. On the one hand, there is the lush, quite broad, yet dramatic approach of Rattle and the BPO (recordings issued as an EMI box set late last year)– in terms of sound this is perhaps the most luxurious recording I have in my collection, very much a showcase for the orchestra’s opulence. Not as astringent as you might expect, John Eliot Gardiner with the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique (on his own Monteverdi Productions label) presents an interesting ‘period’ version, with exaggerated portamenti (especially in the first movement of the First.) These have come out one at a time and I am hoping that the Fourth symphony, the final instalment, comes out soon! No sign of it yet on advance purchase websites. Much as I have enjoyed these, I will always hang on to my Sanderling versions with the Dresden orchestra (RCA): not the best sound but so exciting!
A different way to branch out is to look for ‘lost’ or less well known masterpieces. I would like to share some special discoveries. One is, unexpectedly, Haydn. A handful of his works, especially from the Paris symphonies onwards are regularly heard, but the other 81+ contain great melodies, humour and drama. An economical way to hear fine performances, if you have the appropriate technology, is to buy the Nimbus set with Fischer and the Austro-Hungarian Orchestra on mp3 – all 104 symphonies plus extras currently £21.95 at Crotchet! Super sound and vigorous, polished and intelligent playing: I have been bedridden following an accident and thought I might listen to them all chronologically but I can’t resist going back to listen again to the early works: numbers 40 to 80 haven’t had an airing yet!
Chandos have just released a box of 5 CDs at bargain price reissuing symphonies from their ‘Contemporaries of Mozart’ series. I’ve dipped in – Wranitsky and Krommer so far. Well worth it in terms of the outlay: not perhaps great masterpieces but lots of dignified melody in excellent performances by the London Mozart Players under Matthias Bamert. The composers might have been overshadowed by Mozart and Beethoven, but they were friends, colleagues and rivals of these greats and their music stands up well in its own right and yet puts the others’ achievements in perspective. No half-heartedness in recommending three other contemporary symphonies, all of them magnificent. Beethoven and many others with good taste rated Cherubini very highly: his one symphony, recorded on Naxos by the San Remo Symphony Orchestra, is a superb, tuneful piece. If you remember that Cherubini excelled as an operatic and choral composer in his day, this ‘vocal’ symphony, with pre-echoes of Rossini and matching the dramatic ebb and flow of Beethoven’s overtures, will be up your street. It comes with three overtures of equal interest.
For many years I have been an advocate of the (sole) symphonies of the Spanish prodigy Arriaga and the Czech Vorisek: my Hyperion CD is of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Sir Charles Mackerras – superb playing. These are memorable and distinctive symphonies – serious in intention and varied and attractive in melody etc., and had there been a ‘Top of the Pops’ in classical Vienna these would have been vying for the number one spot with the early Beethoven. They have a distinctive character and deserve more exposure.
Scandinavian detective writers do enjoy much exposure on these blog pages: I am still in shock from reading a Nesbo recently, but I would also like to recommend some ‘alternative’ Scandinavian symphonists. Sibelius (albeit a speaker of Swedish) has put the Finnish symphony on the map, and Nielsen the Danish. Their work is universally acclaimed but two Swedes well worth trying are Stenhammar, 1871-1927, and Berwald , 1796-1868. (I will look at Norwegian and Icelandic symphonists some other time!) Berwald (like Borodin) made a living outside music but his four symphonies, especially the third, the Singuliere, are very innovative and atmospheric: he has something of Berlioz in his fragmentation of melodies and creation of atmosphere. I’m not sure which recording to recommend – it’s important that the special magic of the introduction to the Singuliere is not blown away by too brisk an execution – my favourite conductor would be Sixten Ehrling, on BIS. Probably not Neeme Jarvi (see below), but perhaps also Kamu on Naxos. Goodman on Hyperion is generally excellent but a bit too quick in the intro.
Stenhammar is perhaps less well known: he is not a box office draw (I know from experience) but his Second Symphony should belong with Nielsen and Sibelius in the ‘international’ repertoire. As a performer he shared the platform with Mahler, Strauss etc. The first movement is sensationally good: get what recording you can! My CD is a Naxos version, bought in Sweden, but available here, played by the Scottish National Orchestra – super playing but dead sound. There is a Neeme Jarvi version but it did not excite me – an overexposed conductor, I think – too many ‘Complete Works Of’… (They are not symphonies, but as a Stenhammar enthusiast I cannot resist recommending the recent recording of his two piano concertos – Seta Tanyel on Hyperion – and Sir Andrew Davis’s version of his Serenade on Apex: try his piano music on youtube too – some delightful short pieces.)
I will bow out by mentioning two of my favourite symphonic recordings. Both were made by conductors with consciously limited repertoire, who made recordings of individuality and distinction. Predictably, one is Carlos Kleiber; his DG CD of Beethoven’s 5th and 7th is perhaps the best recording of anything ever! My other would be by Carlo Maria Giulini: I have two versions of his Bruckner’s 9th – the account with the Vienna Philharmonic was my first encounter with this noble symphony, on DG LP, and although I do not possess the CD it is the version I hear in my head. There is a fascinating DVD performance too, with a rehearsal sequence. It is interesting to see how little he had to say!