Classical CD Reviews: Bartók Ballets, Saint-Saëns Complete Symphonies vol. 2, and Korngold’s Symphony in F-sharp

By Jonathan Blumhofer

A can’t-miss album of Bartók Ballets, Thierry Fischer continues to do right by the symphonies of Saint-Saëns, and a spirited recording of the “last great symphony in the German Romantic tradition.”

Susanna Mälkki’s first recording as music director of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra (HPO) focuses on the music of one of her specialties – Belá Bartók – by showcasing his two ballets, The Wooden Prince and The Miraculous Mandarin.

The latter, heard here in its 1927 concert suite version, is the more familiar of the pair. Mälkki’s reading is, when need be, plenty savage: the introduction is furiously driven, as is the concluding chase. But the exposed, tender moments – the swirling clarinet solos, the deliciously erotic waltzes – are of another kind, singing with woozy, hypnotic color and brimming with ominous mystery.

Prince, on the other hand, is an earlier work (completed in 1917) and a bit long-winded by comparison: minus staging, it’s longueurs can get the better of it. Yet, in Mälkki’s hands, the opposite happens here. By dint of unimpeachable command of the music’s structure and thanks to playing of stupendous vitality from the HPO, this Wooden Prince is captivating from start to finish.

Certainly, Bartók’s fabulously radiant writing in it  – think The Firebird moved to Hungary – comes across. Indeed, Mälkki’s reading abounds in glinting colors. The “Opening” and “First Dance” want nothing for atmosphere and later episodes (“Towards the Castle of the Prince” and “The Prince has an idea,” for example) marry playing of strongly delineated character with a powerful sense of direction and rhythmic clarity.

Appropriately, Mälkki’s reading is one that never leaves the musics’ dancing impetus behind. The rustic swagger of Prince’s folk elements are always front-and-center and, partly as a result, this is a particularly ingratiating performance. Also, the performance is exquisitely balanced and cleanly engineered.

Indeed, this is a performance of Prince that might cause you to reevaluate Bartók’s place in the canon as a hard-edged, dyed-in-the-wool Modernist (despite all the intimations in it of what was to come: Mandarin, the Concerto for Orchestra, the middle string quartets, etc.). He was that, for sure – but more. Kudos to Mälkki and her forces for showcasing his 20th-century Romanticism in the best light.

In all, the HPO’s is as engrossing and vigorous account of Prince as you’ll find. Taken together with the excellent Mandarin Suite, it’s a can’t-miss album.

Thierry Fischer’s survey of the complete Saint-Saëns symphonies with the Utah Symphony continues apace with the Symphony no. 2 in A minor and Symphony in F “Urbs Roma.”

The former, an absolutely charming and lively piece, receives a deservedly ingratiating reading. Fischer’s account is similar, in tempo and dramatic emphasis, to Marc Soustrot’s recent one with the Malmo Symphony (on Naxos). The outer movements are driven and spirited, while the short Adagio sings warmly and the rambunctious Scherzo is plenty punchy.

Fischer also draws a suitably grand and noble account of “Urbs Roma” from his forces. Dating from 1856 (when Saint-Saëns was just twenty), it’s an expansive score, clocking in at nearly forty minutes.

The Utahans ensure the big first movement doesn’t overstay its welcome, though, carefully shaping its contours and allowing Saint-Saëns’ sometimes-thick orchestration space to breathe. The rollicking second dances forcefully while the weighty third provides the Symphony its expressive anchor. A fresh and direct traversal of the concluding variations rounds out this thoroughly-pleasing “Urbs Roma.”

In between the symphonies comes a taut Danse macabre (featuring concertmaster Madeline Adkins’ sultry violin solos) – but the symphonies are why you’d want this disc: Fischer’s is turning into (after Soustrot’s) the second great Saint-Saëns symphony cycle of the last couple of years. Can’t wait for the last installment (due later this year).

“My whole life I have searched for the perfect modern work,” conductor Dmitri Mitropoulous said of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Symphony in F-sharp in 1959. “I have found it in this Symphony.”

Though Korngold’s association with film music was, at that time (two years after his death) held against the composer, Mitropoulous’s view has, in the end, won out. Korngold’s score, which incorporates themes (much transformed) from several of his Hollywood scores into a potent symphonic argument is, in the words of New Yorker critic Alex Ross, perhaps the “last great symphony in the German Romantic tradition.”

John Sinclair’s new recording of the piece with the Sinfonia of London certainly captures much of its sweep. His tempos are swift – considerably more so than in the first three movements of Andre Previn’s 1997 performance with the London Symphony – but his reading generally doesn’t feel too rushed.

It’s spirited and grand where it needs to be, if not quite as epic as one might want, especially at points in the first and third movements where an emphasis on the long view might have proved more satisfying. Still, the clarity of the playing and expressive intensity Sinclair draws from the Sinfonia is impressive, and the whole performance comes off strongly.

Filling out the album are a frolicking rendition of Korngold’s Theme and Variations and a lively account of his Straussiana, the last an arrangement (mostly) of themes from Johann Strauss’s opera Ritter Pazman. The Sinfonia play both with vim: an exuberant celebration of a great, too easily overlooked, 20th-century giant.

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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