Photo, Chris Christodoulou
Friday, August 5, 2022
Royal Albert Hall, London
Ah, the keen anticipation of a world premiere, especially a potential major work such as a Symphony. It might be a dud, or a masterpiece, or something in between. Julian Anderson’s Second Symphony (‘Prague Panoramas’) is terrific. Anderson (born 1967, and not related to your correspondent) was inspired by a book of black-and-white panoramic photographs of Prague by Josef Sudek (1896-1976) published in 1959. Conversely, ‘Prague Panoramas’ the Symphony is colourful (scored for a large orchestra including woodwinds from piccolo to contrabassoon, two harps and a piano) and is co-commissioned by the BBC, Cleveland Orchestra and Munich Philharmonic. The first two movements were played in Munich in January, and then by the Czech Philharmonic in April, Semyon Bychkov conducting each time. Now, with the BBCSO, he led the premiere of the complete three-movement work, a punchy opener of energy and incident, boldly striding, somewhat Stravinskian, before more-lyrical material enters, and the ear is attracted to glinting sonorities, expressive asides and then brass-led, gong-capped tumult; the slow movement is shadowy yet luminous, a pair of cors anglais highlighted, a church bell strikes, the textures complex and fluxing (a few Tippettian moments), the atmosphere tense and with gnarled climaxes; and the Finale is of rhythmic snaps, powerful endeavour and, seemingly, a focus on arrival, which turns out not to be the expected celebration, but rather an ambiguous stopping chord following thirty-two minutes of symphonic largesse, time spent very rewardingly, with a need to listen again; there is much to unravel, especially the ending.
This thoughtfully planned Prom also included music by composers residing in America – Martinů’s Concerto for Two Pianos (1943) and Rachmaninov’s swansong Symphonic Dances (1940), the latter written for Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The former featured Katia & Marielle Labèque, in top form, for an exuberant, rhythmically demanding first movement, with unmistakeable Martinů chorale-like characteristics; a slow movement of gravitas; and a Finale that jollies along with composer-typical patterns to an unequivocal emphatic ending. Plenty of notes to negotiate for all concerned, successfully mastered, and a very enjoyable piece … unlike the laborious, for-god’s-sake-stop, Philip Glass encore. Ormandy’s 1960 CBS recording of Symphonic Dances is the one to judge all other recordings and concert performances of this great work (although I rate the few-years-earlier Third Symphony as even finer; Philadelphia again, Stokowski this time) and Bychkov did it well – impassioned emotions, well-chosen tempos, certainly Non allegro for the first movement, with its saxophone-led middle section, here avoiding lush, and look-back to the First Symphony; the haunted waltz of the second movement, with some especially en pointe playing; and the fire and desperation of the Finale – the abyss in view as the composer’s Vespers and his trademark use of the ‘Dies irae’ add to the electrifying yet raw culmination. Bychkov made no attempt to prettify this music at any point, to advantage (perhaps its title is a misnomer); he held on to the end’s gong-stroke for a short time – Ormandy does an abrupt cut-off, preferable – and it’s dying embers went straight into applause.
I think you mean Philadelphia and Rachmaninoff himself for the Third Symphony recording.
Ah, Bob, you beat me to it in correcting the normally unimpeachable Colin in such matters! What would one not give for a Stokowski Rachmaninov Symphony 3 on record…er, except there is one of course. If only the great man had indeed recorded the piece in his Philadelphia days. The one that we have, a 1975 affair with the National Philharmonic (such a put-together band of top-notch players doth not necessarily a homogeneous orchestra make!) is a sorry affair. Overblown textures where Philadelphia would have provided opulence and refinement; many instrumental fluffs and much approximate ensemble (winds and strings come badly adrift for several bars in the Allegro vivace section of the middle movement). I can only feel for the unfortunate, skilful producer of these sessions. Heresy, maybe, but this was surely too late in the great Stokey’s career. You want his great Rachmaninov recordings? Listen to Concerto no. 2 and the Paganini Rhapsody with the Philadelphians and the composer at the piano, and give thanks!
Gentlemen, I meant Stokowski conducted the premiere of Rach 3 (in 1936?), didn’t he (crisis of confidence here!)? And of course, Bob, the composer recorded it in Philadelphia a couple of years later. Andrew, I totally agree about Stokowski’s poor Nat Phil version: especially those not-together bars.
Stokowski told me a wonderful story about the Paganini Rhapsody recording: it was done on Christmas Eve (I think – or maybe New Year’s Eve) 1934, produced by the appalling Charles O’Connell (head of RCA Classics at the time; a noted drunk who disliked Rachmaninoff and his music). Earlier that same day, Heifetz recorded the Sibelius Concerto with Stokey and the Philadelphians (a recording that was never issued at the time – actually, it finally saw the light of day just a few years ago on Guild). All the while the Sibelius was being recorded, Rachmaninoff sat patiently until it was ‘his’ turn, and delivered the great performance we all know, most of the issued discs were of the first takes; but Rachmaninoff was unhappy with the very last solo bars of the work – he wanted to play them again, more quietly. O’Connell refused, saying ‘they’re good enough, and anyway I have a party to go to’. So Rachmaninoff never remade that side with the quieter ending he wanted. Rachmaninoff was under contract to RCA during the whole of the 1930s but only made that one recording between early 1930 and late 1939 – O’Connell turned down Rachmaninoff’s suggestions of recording the Schumann Concerto and Liszt Totentanz with Ormandy (in Minneapolis, I think), the Beethoven First Concerto with Toscanini, and the Second Suite for Two Pianos with Horowitz – this last O’Connell turned down because he had promised to record the Suite with Vronsky and Brabin – which he did, to Rachmaninoff’s great chagrin. Only the great success of the Rachmaninoff Festival in Philadelphia at the very end of 1939 caused O’Connell to change his mind – hence the Third Symphony and Third Piano Concerto recordings – but trouble between Rachmaninoff and O’Connell during this last recording almost caused Rachmaninoff to walk out of the sessions (Ormandy smoothed the spats over) – but O’Connell also turned down Rachmaninoff conducting The Bells with Mack Harrell (father of cellist Lynn) – so we should be grateful for what we have, although O’Connell’s extreme unpleasantness led to so may lost opportunities for the gramophone. Ah well – c’est la vie.
Actually Bob, a small point but the Heifetz/Stokowski Sibelius was first issued by the Philadelphia Orchestra themselves in a biggish box but the Guild version you refer to has the advantage of improved sound. Best, Rob.
Reviewer’s postscript: I have listened again to Julian Anderson’s Symphony, not only even more impressive but the end now makes greater sense. Colin
Yes indeed the Sibelius was first issued on the Philadelphia box set but with a destructive scratch from the opening due to the original 78’s. Somehow Guild managed to get rid of the scratch thank goodness. Heifetz simply refused to allow the recording to be issued as he disagreed with Stokey’s tempi in the first movement. Today it is very much a collector’s item.
While writing may I say this concert typifies the vast improvement in the Proms repertoire this season. After the lame, insipid, headline seeking efforts of the early years of Pickard he has hit gold dust now and we can, hopefully, breath a sigh of relief that he continues to offer a similar mixture of glorious works, old and new in the future. Personally I did not think he had it in him but it just goes to show the need to be patient and hope for the best.