BLUMENFELD Symphony in c, Op. 39. CATOIRE Symphony in c, Op. 7 • Martin Yates, cond; Royal Scottish Natl O • DUTTON 7298 (74: 16)
Felix Blumenfeld and Georgy Catoire were hardly unknown as composers in their own time. Both were respected pedagogues and moved in exalted musical circles. The disappearance of their music says less about quality than it does about changing public tastes,Read more publishing house priorities, and the usual way well-known figures tend to absorb the light of all others when viewed from a distance in time. Blumenthal and Catoire were also-rans; and who has time to listen to the music of also-rans, when the 300th recording of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique is clambering for an audience?
The two symphonies aren’t similar—or rather, the influences working upon them aren’t. Blumenfeld was a student and friend of Rimsky-Korsakov, who referred to him in his memoirs as “a bountifully endowed musical temperament.” He joined the staff of the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1885; and it is several mature symphonies of the Conservatory’s later director, Glazunov—the Fifth (1895), Sixth (1896), and Seventh (1902)—whose influence is pervasive in Blumenfeld’s Symphony in C Minor, premiered in 1907. If its first movement molds its development to theatrical ends in a manner that recalls Tchaikovsky, the harmonic progressions, thematic shapes, and general expressive quality of all four movements owe much to Glazunov. Blumenfeld shows himself very capable of thinking symphonically, developing short, memorable themes tersely before opening them up into long spans of glorious melody (another Glazunov trait). The poetic slow movement and stormy scherzo—with its eerie, harmonically evasive trio—are the most striking things in the work. But the fourth movement, a slow, lengthy finale that recalls the introduction to the first movement, is both original and evocative.
By way of contrast, Catoire met briefly with Rimsky-Korsakov, who thought he needed more of the close training Liadov could provide. Catoire disagreed, and left for the Moscow Conservatory, where he maintained a largely cordial but at times acrimonious relationship with those unstable personalities, Tchaikovsky and Arensky. He also studied with Karl Klindworth, a Liszt pupil and friend of Wagner’s, but the influences at work on this, his only Symphony, are entirely Russian.
In fact, more than one Russian. The first movement begins with a theme that’s cousin to the one leading off Glazunov’s Second Symphony. It’s method of constantly varying the harmonic underpinnings of its thematic content is also a Glazunov trait. If the bridge to the second theme dissipates the energy he’s built for no apparent reason, the theme itself is yet more Glazunov. The development is poor, a series of gestures without coherency, but the scherzo that follows is far better. It switches to Borodin for inspiration, with piquant orchestration and a game of competing meters for the outer sections, encasing a wistful trio that recalls the composer’s romanticized treatment of Caucasian thematic material. The slow movement follows one section that again could have come from a Glazunov symphony, with another beholden to Tchaikovsky. It meanders, and doesn’t sustain itself well. The finale again owes much to Glazunov—indeed, the theme in its introduction is a close variant on one that occurs in the finale to Glazunov’s Symphony No. 5. It also fails to maintain momentum, and ends rather abruptly, with a few rousing chords tacked onto a repeat of its slow introduction. Catoire’s symphony is definitely worth hearing, and the scherzo is a delight, but the rest comes nowhere near the quality of the Blumenfeld work.
Not surprisingly, Martin Yates and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra find ravishing colors in all this; and a wealth of long-limbed, expressive phrasing. But while they provide a sumptuous performance of the Blumenfeld, the Catoire proves more problematic. I suspect the intensity of a Serebrier or Bátiz would be needed to make it work, with momentum lost in both the slow movement’s trio, and the finale.
That aside, the sound is up to Dutton’s usual exacting standard, and really: when is the last time you’ve had the opportunity to listen to a pair of Russian nationalist symphonies that you haven’t heard before? Strongly recommended for the Blumenfeld.
Symphony in C minor, Op. 39 "À la mémoire des chers défunts"by Felix Blumenfeld
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Period: 20th Century Written: circa 1905-1906
Symphony in C minor, Op. 7by Georgy Catoire
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Little-known Russian symphonies deserve hearingFebruary 16, 2013By Mark DeVoto (Medford, MA)See All My Reviews"Felix Blumenfeld is known historically as a Russian piano teacher whose students included Horowitz, and as a conductor who directed the public premiere of Stravinsky's Symphony in E flat op. 1 in 1908. Georgy Catoire is a somewhat better known as a composer; Marc-Andre Hamelin's CD of Catoire's piano music a few years ago is a significant find, revealing a well-crafted style somewhat between Tchaikovsky and Scriabin. Blumenfeld's symphony seems to point down the historical road to Rachmaninoff; Catoire's shows influence of Wagner and Tchaikovsky, but above all a good original style, with emotional depth, solid craft, and a fine sense of orchestral sound. Both of these works share a certain C-minor feeling with Tchaikovsky's Symphony no. 2 in the same key, but are more contemplative where Tchaikovsky's is splashy. Catoire's Symphony, for reasons I can't explain, concludes with a finale solifly in E-flat major, but no less handsome for all that. Above all, these symphonies, like those of Borodin and Balakirev, offer a fresh challenge to the heavy Germanic symphonic tradition of their time. Compare them, in this regard, to the French symphonists of the 1890s, whom in every other respect they don't resemble at all. The performances on this CD are excellent. I hope someday to see the scores."Report Abuse