Classical CD Review: Andrew Manze and Vaughan Williams, Andris Nelsons and Anton Bruckner

Andrew Manze and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra have turned in one of the year’s great albums: potent, lyrical, haunting, and timely.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Aaron Copland may not have held a high opinion of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony (he likened listening to it to staring at a cow for forty-five minutes) but, suffice it to say, Copland clearly never heard a performance of the piece like the one Andrew Manze and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (RLPO) turn in on the latest installment of their complete Vaughan Williams symphonies cycle. With the Fifth sharing a bill on this Onyx disc with the nihilistic Sixth Symphony, Manze and the RLPO have turned in one of the year’s great albums: potent, lyrical, haunting, and timely.

Manze’s take on the Fifth Symphony is compelling. In his hands, its outer movements are at once epic in rhetoric and deeply personal – familiar even – thanks to the RLPO’s ability to tease out the score’s strongly songful voice. Indeed, this is a Symphony that’s almost constantly melodic and Vaughan Williams’ busy contrapuntal textures are here rendered with exquisite clarity and warmth. Structurally, Manze knows what he’s after, not overdoing the reprise of the first movement’s main theme just before the end of the finale, but letting that moment play out almost subtly before winding the Symphony down with a truly cathartic account of the movement’s closing bars.

The RLPO’s playing in the mysterious second-movement Scherzo is nimble-footed, the string hand-offs of their eighth-note flourishes impeccably precise and the brass’s noble central theme sounding a burnished contrast. And Manze draws a radiant performance of the “Romance” from the RLPO, smartly paced and well-shaped. There’s some particularly fine woodwind playing to be heard (the English horn/oboe duet around the movement’s midpoint is particularly impressive), while the closing bars are ravishing.

In the Sixth, Manze draws playing of ferocious energy over the first movement’s opening measures; the central second theme, with its duple-against-triple rhythms, is terrifically woozy and unsettling. So are the Shostakovich-channeling middle movements: the Moderato, with its menacing tattoos and chant-like interludes, and the hyper-contrapuntal Scherzo-third. Then comes the final “Epilogue,” played spare and soft as possible, and it’s downright chilling.

As in the Fifth, textures in the Sixth are almost classically pure: beautifully layered but never lacking in energy or passion. And the score’s many ear-catching colors (like the English horn and tenor saxophone writing) shine. In all, then, these are interpretations (and a recording) that ranks with the best in the catalogue: don’t pass this one up.

A cynical critic might say something along the lines of, “What a nice set of Wagner orchestral music we’re getting from Andris Nelsons’ new Bruckner symphony cycle.” They’d be right, too – at least up to a point.

The third volume, out now, follows hot on the heels of the second: April’s release of the Romantic Symphony (no. 4) paired with the Act 1 Prelude from Lohengrin. This one opens with a performance of Siegfried’s Funeral March that is both sumptuous and scorching. The piece’s opening tattoos are weighted and solemn, sure, but always blazing with color. The opening march theme itself sings with dolorous nobility, its turn from major to minor predictable as ever but thrilling all the same. Nelsons draws playing of such lustrous tone and dramatic heat from the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig in this ten-minute-long score that you simply can’t wait for him to tackle the whole of Götterdämmerung (not something one says of every conductor in their late-30s).

Then there’s his account of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony.

How a conductor with such a natural affinity for pacing Wagnerian drama can be so frustratingly inconsistent when it comes to Wagner-influenced symphonies is one of those perplexing mysteries that makes life so interesting. (Then again, Wagner, who was such a fine creator of large-scale dramas, was thrown for a loop by the symphonic form. Go figure.)

Suffice it to say, Nelsons’ Bruckner Seven isn’t as dull as last year’s Bruckner Three. It’s more akin to his Bruckner Four, full of striking moments but not exactly a world-beating interpretation.

It is, throughout though, very well-played. The Leipzigers sound like they’re proud of the sumptuous sonorities they make, and they should be: they’re gloriously rich and smooth. And there are moments – the delicate exchanges of voices in the first movement’s development are a striking one – where the ensemble imbues the music with a winning, almost bumptious, character that belies Bruckner’s reputation as a dour contrapuntist.

But swathes of this reading also lack tension and/or mystery. Part of this is a matter of tempo, part Nelsons’ interpretive take on Bruckner. His isn’t a particularly slow Seventh; neither is it a notably urgent one. The first movement, for instance, too often seems to get lost in its own immensity and its big paragraphs regularly become static and grind to a halt. Sections of the finale (the double-dotted theme, in particular) are ponderous.

That said, the outer parts of the third movement are lean and athletic, and much of the brisker writing in the finale comes across well.

But it’s only in the Seventh’s great second movement that Nelsons’ Bruckner fully rises to the level of his Wagner. Here, he finds a dramatic purpose in the music that he rides to a powerful, moving apotheosis (replete with cymbal crash). What’s most telling in it are the smaller moments: the first appearance of the second theme, for example, is played with a mix of gossamer delicacy and a lightness of touch that’s simply captivating. And Nelsons’ building of the phrases that lead to the movement’s big climax is carefully thought through but executed with impressive fluency. If only such attention to detail had been apparent in his readings of the other three movements.

So what we’ve got here is (as in Nelsons’ Bruckner Three) a young man’s Bruckner Seven. If you’re going for a great, coherent, consistent reading of this piece, Karajan, Klemperer, Szell, Blomstedt (with this same orchestra a decade ago), et al. remain the top choices. Once Nelsons figures out how to channel whatever it is that makes his Wagner so compelling into his conducting of Bruckner, then he might really compete with those Olympian forebears. But as this release demonstrates, that day hasn’t yet arrived.

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.

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