Notes and Editorial Reviews
RUSSIAN COMPOSERS AROUND 1900
Stefan Blunier, cond; Beethoven O Bonn
MDG 937 1761-6 (SACD: 57:44) Live: Bonn 11/10-11/2011
Poem of Ecstasy. Rêverie.
class="ARIAL12b">Symphony No. 21
The Swiss-born conductor Stefan Blunier, principal conductor of the Bonn Beethoven Orchestra (previously known as the Beethovenhalle Orchestra) since 2008, here offers a potentially interesting program of Russian and Ukrainian music written during a 50-year period from 1890 to 1940. The title that MDG has given to this collection is not completely accurate, however, since Mykola Lysenko (1842-1912) was Ukrainian, not Russian, and while Nikolai Miaskovsky was in fact composing “around 1900,” his Symphony No. 21 dates from 1940, closer to the middle of the century, and belongs to the Soviet era rather than to the twilight years of the Romanov monarchy.
Taras Bulba, the title character of Nikolai Gogol’s novella, became a powerful symbol to Ukrainian nationalists by virtue of his resistance to Polish domination and was later immortalized for music lovers by Janá?ek’s familiar orchestral work. Lysenko’s opera on this subject, the last of several by this composer, is said to have been admired by Tchaikovsky, who wanted to have it performed in Moscow, but Lysenko’s refusal to allow the text to be rendered in a Russian translation rather than in Ukrainian put an end to this project, and the opera was not premiered until 1924, 12 years after the composer’s death. The brief overture offered here is vividly orchestrated and has some stirring, folk-derived melody but lacks coherence and would benefit from a lengthier elaboration of its abundant material. This overture does, however, arouse my interest in hearing the rest of the opera, although that work is said to have been heavily and repeatedly revised during the Soviet era, long after the composer’s death. A single disc with 73 minutes of excerpts is available on Melodiya. The composer, ardent Ukrainian nationalist that he was, would be annoyed to learn that the Russian label has identified him as Nikolai Lysenko, using the Russian equivalent of his first name.
Poem of Ecstasy
, Blunier offers a straightforward, relatively restrained rendition. The playing of the Bonn orchestra is technically excellent, although tonally a bit spare and lightweight for the task, especially in comparison to the opulence of Riccardo Muti’s Philadelphia Orchestra (EMI). Nor does Blunier match Muti’s thrust and momentum or his orgiastic climaxes. On the other hand, Blunier’s comparatively strict approach to tempo has its benefits even in such an ultra-romantic piece as this, imposing a measure of structure and logic, although underplaying the languorous sensuality of the score. The diaphanous texture of much of Scriabin’s writing is well served by the clarity and transparency of the Bonn performance, abetted by the spaciousness and depth of the MDG recording. On its own terms, the Blunier performance holds up well in comparison to larger-scaled interpretations such as Muti’s, as well as those of Pierre Boulez, Mikhail Pletnev, and Giuseppe Sinopoli (all on DG).
, a much earlier and shorter Scriabin piece, was unfamiliar to me until I reviewed a 1956 recording of it by Eugene Goossens for 36:3. Blunier’s performance is only slightly longer in overall timing but seems a good deal more deliberate, emphasizing the dreaminess of the piece. Goossens, more urgent and fervent, with greater tension and a stronger sense of line, makes a better case for the work, despite dated mono sound. On the other hand, Blunier’s rendition of the Glazunov
is flowing and graceful and is the most effective of the three in my possession (which include Anatole Fistoulari’s mid-1950s recording, reviewed elsewhere in this issue, and Igor Golovchin’s interpretation for Naxos), as well as being the best recorded.
Nikolai Miaskovsky’s Symphony No. 21, op. 51, is in a single movement but with three distinct sections. Like much of this composer’s output, it is a rather dark-colored, brooding, pessimistic work. Unlike Shostakovich in his Fifth and Sixth symphonies, Miaskovsky did not find it necessary to close the work in a mode of triumph or forced gaiety, opting instead to conclude in hushed and chilling desolation, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique.” Notwithstanding his obvious failure here to embrace the positive, optimistic outlook mandated by Socialist Realism, Miaskovsky collected a Stalin Prize for this symphony. Blunier’s steady, precise treatment lacks the passion and intensity of Evgeny Svetlanov (Warner or Alto) but conveys a sense of remoteness and monumentality that suits the piece well. The closing pages fade to near inaudibility in Blunier’s reading, underlining the alienation and desolation expressed in this music.
The SACD stereo sound of the MDG release outclasses all of the alternatives mentioned above in terms of definition, transparency, spaciousness, and depth, offering a natural, concert-hall perspective in which detail is revealed without undue highlighting. In addition to 5.1 surround, the recording offers “2+2+2” sound, a compatible multichannel system developed by MDG that, it is claimed, “not only allows three-dimensional sound reproduction but provides ‘sweet spots’ all over the listening area.” In place of a center speaker, this technique requires two additional auxiliary speakers mounted above the main speakers. Unfortunately, I am not in a position to evaluate any kind of multichannel sound, since I do not have and never will have a surround system. All wall space in my listening room is already occupied, mostly by shelves containing CDs, LPs, tapes, and videos, and there is no space for additional speakers.
On the evidence of this release, Stefan Blunier is a straightforward, meticulous sort of musician, not given to taking liberties with tempo or to other idiosyncrasies of interpretation. The performances offered here are not strikingly individual, but they are generally effective, well played, and well recorded, and the disc therefore merits a recommendation.
FANFARE: Daniel Morrison
Works on This Recording
Taras Bulba: Overture by Nikolay Lysenko
Beethoven Orchestra Bonn
Venue: Live Bonn
Length: 4 Minutes 46 Secs.
Rêverie, Op. 24 by Alexander Scriabin
Written: 1898; Russia
Venue: Live Bonn
Length: 5 Minutes 40 Secs.
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