By Jonathan Blumhofer
This San Francisco Symphony release proves to be a fitting send-off for music director Michael Tilson Thomas; there’s much to admire in the Seattle Symphony’s playing of Carl Nielsen’s first two symphonies; fiery energy from both violinist Arabella Steinbacher and the excellent Münchener Kammerorchester make their new disk a gem.
It may be a bit surprising – but it’s also fitting – that the final release of Michael Tilson Thomas’s epochal, 25-year tenure as music director of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) be devoted to his own music. While MTT’s reputation as a conductor is second-to-none, his efforts as a composer haven’t always been acknowledged. Yet they’re considerable and largely affecting, as this new, two-disc set featuring From the Diary of Anne Frank and Meditations on Rilke attest.
The 2019 Rilke settings are most striking. Setting six of the German poet’s texts, MTT weaves a sometimes-surprising, often moving tapestry for mezzo-soprano, baritone, and orchestra.
The first song, “Herbsttag,” opens with a honky-tonk piano riff (an homage to MTT’s father, Ted) before dissolving into an atmospheric, reflective setting of the verse that seems to channel, in equal measure, Mahler, Copland, and Berg. The shadows of Mahler and Berg crop up again later on in “Das Lied des Trinkers” while there seems to be a hint of John Adams in the coda to the finale (“Herbst”).
If, accordingly, some passages in those songs don’t quite break free from their reference points, much of the rest of the piece does. MTT’s setting of “Ich lebe mein Leben in wachsenden Ringen” is a wonder: pure, simple, naïve, and accompanied by a transparent, radiant orchestration. “Imaginärer Lebenslauf” is set as a vigorous duet. And “Immer wieder,” with its sumptuous orchestral introduction, beautifully flowing melodic line, and utterly natural scoring, soars.
Sasha Cooke and Ryan McKinny are the respective soloists and they bring a matchless warmth and authority to their performances (MTT wrote the Meditations for them). The SFS, too, plays with terrific responsiveness and color: while, structurally, the piece feels at times a bit verbose, one can hardly fault MTT for writing so much for his orchestra to play – they more than do him justice.
From the Diary of Anne Frank dates from 1990; it was commissioned by UNICEF and includes a narration originally delivered by Audrey Hepburn. The present recording features Isabel Leonard in the speakers’ role, which she delivers clearly and effectively.
MTT’s writing in the forty-minute score is, throughout, flexible, engaging, and colorful. Perhaps unsurprisingly, From the Diary of Anne Frank recalls Copland’s Lincoln Portrait at bit, moving fluently between dramatic settings and scenes. This recording brings out the striking orchestral gestures – like the low piccolo writing at the beginning of Part 2 and the big trombone solo during the instrumental interlude – with warmth and clarity. Overall, then, it’s a fine piece, well-constructed and smartly organized, that’s played and read beautifully.
While the final months of MTT’s San Francisco tenure fell victim to the coronavirus pandemic, this release that proves a fitting, substitutionary send-off: one that both celebrates the conductor in his familiar role and presents him in a fresh light, even after all these years.
Thomas Dausgaard’s Carl Nielsen symphony cycle with the Seattle Symphony continues with new recordings of the composer’s first two symphonies on the orchestra’s in-house label. Like their Grammy-nominated taping of the Third and Fourth Symphonies, this one offers plenty of character, good tempos, a strong sense of musical architecture, and some fine instrumental playing (the Seattle ensemble’s brass section is conspicuously resplendent throughout).
Indeed, the first two movements of the Symphony no. 1 come across quite strongly: the former is rhythmically energetic and warm-toned, the lyricism of the latter soars. Textural clarity (particularly between conflicting triple and duple rhythms) and radiant brass playing marks the third. In the finale, though, Dausgaard’s interpretation feels sluggish. Bold contrasts between the movement’s main subjects and a mighty buildup before the end notwithstanding, the music’s articulations needed to be more sharply etched.
No such problems mar the Second Symphony (“The Four Temperaments”). Its first movement proves plenty turbulent. The second is droll and flowing. Melting oboe and English horn solos, soaring climaxes, good balances, and resonant brasses carry the third. And the jaunty, boisterous opening of the finale is matched by an ecstatic account of its rousing coda.
While Alan Gilbert’s recent-ish Nielsen set with the New York Philharmonic offers a bit more virtuosic bang for your buck, there’s much to admire in the Seattle Symphony’s playing and Dausgaard provides some enlightening liner notes discussing his views on both scores.
There’s hardly anything not to love in Four Seasons, violinist Arabella Steinbacher’s stylish, colorful pairing of Astor Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires with Antonio Vivaldi’s popular The Four Seasons. Featuring playing of fiery energy from both Steinbacher and the excellent Münchener Kammerorchester, the disc is a gem.
The Piazzolla tetralogy, whose individual movements are interspersed among the Vivaldi concerti, is brilliantly done. Played with a mix of fire and passion – but also (as in the moody “Winter” movement) nostalgia and reflection – they dance, sing, weep, and assert themselves potently. Steinbacher’s playing blends terrific technique (the solo line is always clean and directed) with terrific rhythmic sensibilities and a soulfulness that can’t be beat.
Her account of the Vivaldi set are likewise snappy and colorful, full of contrasts of texture and mood. The outer movements of “Spring,” for instance, are graceful and flowing, while “Summer” draws forth a reading of rhythmic and dynamic vitality. In “Fall” and “Winter” there’s, likewise, a compelling fluency to the solo playing.
In both sets of pieces, the Kammerorchester’s accompaniments are bracing. The Vivaldi concerti brim with color and character – “Summer” and “Fall” prove particularly stylish. And, while the Piazzolla’s rhythms always snap, the orchestral textures never want for lushness or passion.
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.