Notes and Editorial Reviews
GOLDMARK Symphony No. 1, “Rustic Wedding.” Symphony No. 2 in E?, op. 35 • Lan Shui, cond; Singapore SO • BIS 1842 (SACD: 76: 22)
Some stars end their lives in spectacular explosions seen clear across galaxies; others just kind of fade away. Karl Goldmark (1830–1915) was probably never more than an M-class star to begin with, and his light continues to dim as time passes. Of Hungarian birth, Goldmark trained as a violinist, first at the
academy in Sopron (Ödenburg in German), and later at the conservatory in Vienna, but as a composer he was largely self-taught. To make ends meet, he accepted work as a music journalist, a vocation for which he seemed eminently well-suited, for he managed successfully to navigate the musical politics of the day by treating the feuding factions—namely the Wagner and Brahms camps—evenhandedly and by refusing to take sides. But in the end, Goldmark’s diplomacy didn’t win him any lasting friends, for as the wise man says, “he who sits on fence gets only splinters up his butt.” Wagner, after all, couldn’t very well be caught consorting with a Jewish composer, and Brahms, for other reasons, parted ways with Goldmark as well, after the two had hit it off and Brahms had been complimentary towards Goldmark’s music.
Only two of Goldmark’s works out of a catalog of about 70 seem to have kept his name from sinking into oblivion altogether. One of them, his Violin Concerto in A Minor, was championed by Nathan Milstein and subsequently taken up by a handful of other “name” violinists, including, but not limited to, Itzhak Perlman, Sarah Chang, and Joshua Bell. The other work that still clings to life is the “Rustic Wedding” Symphony, given a new lease on life by the current disc, and proving once again my contention that works with nicknames or subtitles have a leg up in the survival game.
Prior to the appearance of this new BIS SACD, the recorded field for the Symphony was pretty much dominated by Yondani Butt and the Royal Philharmonic on a 1992 ASV CD, a disc I have in front of me for comparison. To be sure, there have been other noteworthy recordings—by Jésus López-Cobos with the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Decca, Stephen Gunzenhauser with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland on Naxos, André Previn with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra on EMI, a 1968 performance by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic on Sony, and a 1950 recording by Beecham and the Royal Philharmonic, digitized for CD by Sony—so it can’t be said that the work has been neglected, but Butt’s recording has long been a favorite, making George Chien’s 1992 Want List.
This is the first recording of the “Rustic Wedding” I’m aware of in SACD, and for some, that, in itself, may be what tips the balance in favor of this release. Beyond that, though, I can say that the performance is a very fine one. Will it spark a sudden Goldmark revival? Probably not, for, as far as I know, the work is not on anyone’s list of all-time “Great Romantic Symphonies.” There are even some critics who choose not to acknowledge the piece as an actual symphony, claiming that its unusual form—its first movement is cast as a set of variations—makes it more of a suite or a work along the lines of Dvo?ák’s Symphonic Variations. And though its five-movement layout, each movement with a descriptive title, has precedents in Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony and Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, the music’s lightweight, folksy, dance-like character suggests a score that would not be out of place as a ballet or pantomime.
Shui’s reading is faster than Butt’s in every one of the movements, most tellingly in the fourth (Andante), titled “Im Garten”:
Rather than sounding rushed, however, Shui’s performance paints Goldmark’s peasants having the time of their lives, imbibing a bit too much of the bubbly as they slur their way through another round of toasts and stumble all over each other. Shui does a particularly good job of portraying the tipsy, ruddy-cheeked wedding guests in the way he articulates Goldmark’s syncopated and off-beat rhythms. Listen, for example, to the giddy third movement (Serenade), marked Moderato scherzando, and to the finale (Tanz), marked Allegro molto, by which time everyone is three sheets to the wind. Shui has much more fun with the score than Butt does, and it translates into a thoroughly delightful performance, enhanced by BIS’s superior recording.
Also favoring this new release is a much more substantial second work, Goldmark’s Symphony No. 2, as opposed to the Sakuntala Overture offered by Butt. With this work there is no argument that it’s not a symphony, as it conforms to conventional formal standards and layout. There is, however, once again, another of those pesky discrepancies that crop up in some allegedly reliable sources and then get promulgated in cyberspace without anyone bothering to check its validity. Such is the case here regarding the Second Symphony’s key, and, unfortunately, it’s an error that has even crept into prior Fanfare reviews.
Yondani Butt recorded a companion disc to the “Rustic Wedding,” containing Goldmark’s Symphony No. 2 (ASV 934). The headnotes to two reviews of that CD in 19:3, one by Peter Rabinowitz, the other by Martin Anderson, both give the key of the Symphony as E, while right next to it in the Archive, the headnote to a review by David Johnson of Michael Halász’s Marco Polo recording, gives the key as E?. I’m looking at the score, and the key signature contains three flats, so the key has to be E?, not E. How does this sort of error occur? Well, in this case, we can attribute it to ASV, which misidentified the key on its own recording of the piece. But that raises the question of whether we should take at face value any CD labeling or trust the album notes contained therein. The Internet, great boon to information sharing that it is, has also, unfortunately, led to cavalier attitudes and practices when it comes to basic fact checking. I’m not criticizing Rabinowitz or Anderson for the mistaken key; their reviews date back to a time before scores were accessible online, but one thing it does prove is that neither of them has perfect pitch, and neither do I.
Goldmark composed his Second Symphony in 1885, 12 years after the “Rustic Wedding.” It, too, is somewhat folksy in character, but it goes through the well-behaved motions of sonata-allegro form and development of its thematic material. There are also some flashes of real drama and attempts on Goldmark’s part to craft something more serious. The music is quite attractive and, in my opinion, better-fashioned as a symphonic experience than is the “Rustic Wedding.” Alas, if only it had a nickname. Perhaps “Chazzan” would be fitting, as the Jewish-tinged second movement, according to the album note, seems to be a remembrance of Goldmark’s father, who was a synagogue cantor.
This is now my top choice for the “Rustic Wedding” Symphony, but even if it weren’t, I’d still give this release a strong recommendation for the very beautiful Second Symphony, which has very few currently listed alternatives to choose from. The Singapore Symphony Orchestra sounds just like, and the equal of, any top-rated Western ensemble, which is to say excellent, and BIS’s SACD recording, once again, provides state-of-the-art sound.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
What a pleasant surprise this disc is. Goldmark’s Rustic Wedding Symphony, more properly a suite in five movements, is a charming romantic masterpiece that used to be quite popular, but seems to have vanished from the repertoire. Bernstein and Abravanel both recorded it, as did Previn. In the early digital era Lopez-Cobos, and of course Naxos, released it, but few others have taken it out for a spin in recent decades. Happily this is a very good performance, with a characterful treatment of the opening variations, a heartfelt garden scene, and a delightfully bouncy final dance. The piece really is extremely well crafted and it deserves to be popular once again.
The even more rarely heard Second Symphony post-dates the Rustic Wedding, but as an “abstract” work in traditional form it sounds markedly more conservative. Still, it has appealing ideas, and unlike so many of its contemporary works its thirty minutes pass the time quickly. Once again Lan Shui and the Singapore Symphony play very well, and BIS’ engineers provide top-notch SACD sonics. If you’re curious about the Rustic Wedding Symphony, you have to own Bernstein’s Sony recording, but this one features superior sound and a more interesting coupling (Bernstein offers Dvorák and Smetana dances), making it well worth consideration also.
-- David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com
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