Conductor Marek Janowski’s Hindemith is all vigor and athleticism; Tenebrae’s Symphonic Psalms & Prayers is captivating.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
Marek Janowski isn’t a conductor to waste a moment. His new recording (for Pentatone) of Paul Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphoses with the WDR Symphony Orchestra is a case-in-point: brisk, no-nonsense, all vigor and athleticism.
The orchestra’s playing is, indeed, brilliant. It’s rhythmically exact and expressively taut, but not at all lacking in nuance. Actually, there are lots of wonderful details that jump out at you, from the burbling bass clarinet and contrabassoon writing in the first two movements to the lush horn and flute solos in the third.
What’s missing is some of the thrill hearing this music when it can breathe just a bit: Janowski’s speedy tempos (they tend to be a hair or two above the score’s metronome markings) rob Hindemith’s brilliant orchestration of some of its punch.
Lively tempos don’t hurt the disc’s other pieces, starting with the Nobilissima Visione Suite; rather, they tend to help that one along. Janowski’s interpretation here has all of the qualities and none of the (few) drawbacks of the Symphonic Metamorphoses. The opening movement is broad and lyrical, the march and triple-meter dance in the second pack plenty of schwung (plus more than a few allusions to the style of Hindemith’s contemporary, Erich Wolfgang Korngold). The concluding passacaglia is particularly light on its feet (the form is, after all, originally a dance), stern and measured, to be sure, but played with warmth and tender feeling (especially the woodwind solos around the middle), all the same.
A similar fluency is evident in Janowski’s performance of Hindemith’s brilliant Konzertmusik. Yes, there might be greater differentiation of dynamic extremes (fortissimos, for instance, don’t sound much different from fortes in the first movement) and some articulations might have been etched more strongly. But this reading is defined by an uncommonly strong sense of the musical line and a fervency of tone that’s compelling.
Throughout the disc, Janowski and the WDR Symphony make Hindemith’s music sing – boldly and lustily – so that the formal details that most often jump out (the music’s chromaticism, its embrace of archaic forms, etc.) all are of secondary importance, if you notice them at all. What’s left are stirring, emotionally persuasive performances, exactly of the kind Hindemith’s music needs if it’s ever to come back into the repertoire’s mainstream. This album more than makes its case: at the end, you’re left wondering why it ever fell out of favor in the first place.
There are more recordings of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms (including interpretations led by the respective composers) than anyone likely wants to count. Is there really need for another one?
In this instance, at least, the answer is a resounding yes. The choral ensemble Tenebrae’s new disc (for Signum Classics), Symphonic Psalms & Prayers, makes both pieces – which are paired with Arnold Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden and Alexander von Zemlinsky’s setting of Psalm 23 – sound fresh and bracingly new.
The main reason why has to do with the ensemble’s tone: it’s cool and clear, like a mountain stream. Its sound is also, at about thirty voices, not overwhelmingly large. But it’s plenty robust and secure, precisely in tune, and highly sensitive to the meaning and context of the texts being sung.
As a result, we are given a Symphony of Psalms here that, more than most, matches the restrained, expressively ambiguous Classicism of Stravinsky’s writing in sound as much as in style. The opening “Exaudi orationem meam” unfolds like an austere, modern chant. “Expectans expectavi Dominum”’s serene dissonances, so clearly heard and scrupulously rendered, enhance the text’s anguished references. And the concluding setting of Psalm 150 – noble, exhilarating, devotional – functions as a true release, emotionally and spiritually.
Chichester Psalms fares similarly well. The tense dissonances of its opening phrases speak with exceptional immediacy and, while the lilting adaptation of Psalm 100 that follows might drive forward with a bit more emphasis, it’s a reading that’s full of joy. Countertenor David Allsopp’s solos in the second movement are sung with strength and color, and the finale manages to be warm, familiar, and touching all while avoiding sentimental excess.
And Tenebrae’s mighty adept at stouter textures, too. They navigate the rhythmic and harmonic thickets of Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden with notable dexterity: its opaque inner workings unfold with clarity and energy while the registral extremes (the high Bs and B-flats that sometimes appear out of nowhere) are always warm and halcyon, never shrill.
Their performance of Zemlinsky’s dense setting of Psalm 23 is likewise captivating. This is music that is Mahlerian in concept and execution, episodes of sweet simplicity (like the evocations of nature at beginning and end) alternating with fearsome complexity (the transition to and setting of the “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” verses are particularly well done). As in the Schoenberg, Tenebrae sings with warmth and energy, the ensemble’s middle voices (especially tenors) often ensuring that Zemlinsky’s busy choral writing never becomes tedious.
In all the pieces save the (a cappella) Friede auf Erden, Tenebrae is joined by the excellent BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Nigel Short. Of the many highlights to be had, the fugato introduction to the second movement of the Stravinsky stands out with its austere, aching beauty, as does the restrained majesty of the finale to Chichester Psalms. The Zemlinsky allows the full ensemble to shine and they take to its colorful instrumentation with plush tone and palpable enthusiasm.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.