Classical CD Reviews: Delibes Ballet Suites, John Williams in Vienna, and John Harbison Concertos

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Terrific performances, blazing with color, character, and wonderful technique from Neeme Järvi and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra; John Williams and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra offer considerable pleasure with some missteps; another triumphant release from Gil Rose and the BMOP.

2020 hasn’t got much going for it, but at least there’s this: Neeme Järvi’s new recording of ballet music by Léo Delibes with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO) shows the now-83-year-old maestro in prime form. In fact, this is a disc that conjures up memories of some of the high points of the conductor’s considerable discography, particularly his late-1980s recordings of the Shostakovich ballet suites with the same orchestra.

Here, the fare consists of selections from the decidedly Romantic trio of Delibes ballets: La source, ou Naïla (1866), Coppélia (1870), and Sylvia (1876). Throughout, Järvi’s feel for the music is never in question – its tempos, shape, style: all come across freshly and with utter naturalness.

Of course, the playing of the RSNO (of which Järvi is conductor laureate) has much to do with this. Their performances in excerpts from Sylvia, for instance, are poised and refined. The woodwind episodes and soaring violin solos in the “Divertissement’s” Andante speak beautifully, while the famous “Cortège” receives a majestic, driving reading.

The music from La Source consists entirely of the Act 2 “Divertissement.” As before, the woodwind playing is pliant and warm: there are winsome flute and oboe solos to be had in the “Scéne et pas d’action,” for one. Throughout, there’s an elegance to the RSNO’s performance that’s striking, from their soulful account of the “Danse Circassienne’s” lyrical moments to the Straussian charm of the Scherzo-Polka and the orchestra’s limber take on the Mazurka.

Their Coppélia is marked by more of the same. Josef Pacewicz turns in a gorgeous account of the clarinet solo in the “Thème slave varié.” If the opening bit of the “Czardas” lacks some Bohemian authenticity – it’s too fast and not quite earthy enough – the remainder burns hot. The RSNO turns in quintessentially graceful accounts of both waltzes, and the excerpts from the “Fête de la cloches” that close things out mix gentle devotion (in “La Prière”), jaunty spirit (“Danse de fête”), and sheer exuberance (“Galop final”).

In all, then, these are terrific performances, blazing with color, character, and wonderful technique. What’s more, there’s a palpable sense of joy to the proceedings: if nothing else, that’s what the moment demands – and this recording delivers.

Perhaps it was only a matter of time, but it seems appropriate that John Williams – arguably the world’s best-known symphonic composer – and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (VPO) – arguably the world’s finest orchestra – should cross paths. So they did, in prepandemic Vienna this past February; the resulting album, John Williams in Vienna, out a few weeks ago, is the recorded result.

How did it all go? Well, there’s much here to enjoy – even if certain of Williams’s greatest hits have been better recorded over the years.

For instance, it’s hard to top the VPO’s lush ensemble tone, especially the orchestra’s burnished brass playing: to be sure, you’ll probably never hear “The Flight to Neverland” from Hook played better than it is here. Or, for that matter, the theme from Jurassic Park and “Marion’s Theme” from Raiders of the Lost Ark. The “Imperial March” from The Empire Strikes Back – added to the program, apparently, at the request of the VPO – snaps with menace. And Anne-Sophie Mutter gets in on the fun with a full-blooded performance of the “Devil’s Dance” from The Witches of Eastwick (surely the album’s most obscure track).

True, some of the favorites don’t come off as cleanly as one might like. There are occasional ensemble issues in “Adventures on Earth” from E.T., the “Suite from Jaws” lacks the intensity one finds in Williams’s previous recording of the piece with the Boston Pops, and the “Raiders March” is something of a rhythmic slog.

Still, the pleasure of hearing the Vienna Philharmonic in music that owes such a strong debt to composers from its direct past – like Korngold, Mahler, and Wagner – is hard to deny. To look at pictures of the event in the booklet, the ensemble appeared thrilled to have Williams in their midst. Much of that excitement comes across on the album.

John Harbison. Photo: Donna Coveney.

Composer John Harbison. Photo: Donna Coveney.

Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) have championed local composers regularly. But there’s something conspicuously captivating about this new release of John Harbison concertos for string instruments and orchestra.

Part of that owes to the sheer excellence of the solo performances.

Marcus Thompson, for instance, proves a flawless advocate for Harbison’s Concerto for Viola. A four-movement work from 1988, it maintains the essentially brooding character of earlier 20th-century viola concertos (like Walton’s and Bartók’s), the writing spanning from expansive (in the opening movement) to wistful (in the third), off-balance (the second) to lively (the finale).

Throughout, Thompson’s account of the solo line is delivered with a terrific sense of feeling and songfulness. He ably scales the first movement’s huge expressive range, gives an astonishingly-precise account of the second’s fiery gestures, dialogues beautifully with the orchestra in the third, and fully digs into the gigue-like abandon of the finale.

Rose and BMOP offer a lean-textured account of Harbison’s highly contrapuntal orchestral writing, its rhythmic dissonances cleanly glossed.

They offer much the same in the Double Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra. Written in 2009, its three movements each offer up a distinctive musical personality: the first, juxtaposes the unit of soloists versus orchestra; the second features echoes of lines; and the finale brims with fiddle-like (and sometimes slightly jazzy) moments.

Violinist Emily Bruskin and cellist Julia Bruskin bring Harbison’s writing here to life, drawing out the first movement’s melancholy strains to touching effect, ably emphasizing the contrasts of the central movement, and cutting loose (as much as possible, at least) in the plucky finale.

Rounding out the album is Harbison’s 2005 Concerto for Bass Viol and Orchestra. Its three movements manage a bewildering variety of reference points, from shifting, Renaissance music–like phrases to jazz and 20th-century chromaticism, yet the whole thing holds together strongly.

Edwin Barker provides a robust account of the solo part, embracing its wild mix of mournful and boisterous gestures. There’s a particularly fine sense of shape to the slow central movement and a thoroughgoing feeling of abandon in the jovial finale.

Rose and BMOP are with Barker each step of the way, their feel for the style and nuances of Harbison’s writing drawing out its latent soulful character. In other words: another triumphant release.

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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