STRAUSS: Symphonia Domestica, Op. 53. Oboe Concerto in D. An Alpine Symphony, Op. 64. Duett-Concertino.
Nicholas Cox, clarinet; Alan Pendlebury, bassoon; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orch/Gerard Schwarz, cond.
AVIE 2071 (2CDs) TT: 69:35 & 61:50

BERNSTEIN: Serenade for Solo Violin, Strings, Harp and Percussion. Facsimile - Choreographic Essay for Orchestra. Divertimento for Orchestra
Philippe Quint, violinist; Bournemouth Symphony Orch/Marin Alsop, cond.
NAXOS 8.559245 (B) (DDD) TT: 65:04

NIELSEN: Maskarade Overture. At the bier of a young artist. Helios Overture. Saga-dröm. Pan and Syrinx, Op. 49. An imaginary trip to the Faeroe Islands. Bohmisk-dansk folketone. Aladdin, Op. 34 (Suite).
Jutland Opera Chorus members; Aarhus Symphony Orch/Lance Friedel, cond.
MSR 1150 (M) (DDD)

All of the conductors on these releases are Americans, and two are music directors in Great Britain – although make that “will have been” when Gerard Schwarz leaves Liverpool after five seasons, where things got nasty in 2004 when half the players objected to his interpretation of the title “Music Director.” They were used to a degree of freedom (and laxity) under the Principal Conductor system prevalent in Great Britain, where Marin Alsop assumed that subordinate title in Bournemouth a year after Schwarz was selected by Liverpool to succeed Libor Pesek, an unhappy camper in the system where he was only primus amongst a slew of pares. Alsop will continue as PC in Bournemouth when she becomes MD next spring of the Baltimore Symphony. It seems to have helped that she was a maestra, given Leonard Slatkin’s stormy several years as PC of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which he left after last season, only to be engaged as principal guest conductor-elect of the London’s Royal Philharmonic. But Schwarz at least will continue as MD of the Seattle Symphony, a position he has filled for 20 years with plans for celebrating at least a 25th anniversary, whereas Slatkin is leaving the National Symphony after the ‘06-07 season – or is it ‘05-06? – with Walter Mitty hopes of succeeding Daniel Barenboim, who leaves Chicago when next the robins return. (Fat Chance is the general concensus.)

Whoever ends up where or when, Schwarz has recorded copiously with the Liverpuddlians since his arrival – there will be a complete Mahler cycle, of which Nos. 1, 4 (including a re-recorded finale with a new soprano soloist) and 5 have been released in Albion. He began his tenure there with the Alpine Symphony of Strauss, coupled in 2001 with the early B-flat Suite for 13 Wind Instruments, Op. 4, and followed by a marvelous Don Quixote (plus Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations with Lynn Harrell as soloist) [REVIEW]. Now the Alpine has been reissued as part of a two-disc Strauss package marketed for the first time by Avie, rather than the Royal Liverpool’s own Classico label. This time Strauss’ climb-and-descent is coupled with the Duett-Concertino of 1946, which Schwarz first recorded in his pre-Seattle days as MD of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Soloists in ‘02 were the RLPO’s principal clarinet and bassoon – respectively Nicholas Cox and Alan Pendlebury – whom I prefer listening to rather than Merseyside’s principal oboist, Jonathan Small (executive producer of the RLPO discs), who plays the late-period Oboe Concerto without the nasality – well, less anyway – that has made other RLPO discs occasionally offputtting. This follows an even more eloquent performance of the Symphonia Domestica than Schwarz’s of 1988 at Seattle for Delos. John de Lancie requested the concerto in 1942 , but Strauss gave Marcel Saillet and the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra the premiere when he finished it in 1945. The accompaniment here, in any event, is impeccable, as it is in the Duett-Concertino, a work whose garrulity is hardly noticeable for all that it is charmingly performed.

Schwarz’s Alpine is one of the fastest on discs, and there are (or have been) a remarkable number since Oskar Fried conducted the first version in 1925 with members of the Berlin Staatsoper Orchestra; he did it all in 40:21[REVIEW]. Kazimierz Kord beat Schwarz by 3 seconds in 1998 – the Liverpool timing is 43:18. Solti’s Bavarian RSO version of 1979 took 44:19, while Mitropoulos clocked in at 44:47 in 1956 at Salzburg. Strauss himself made two versions – in 1936 at Leipzig lasting 48:47 (pretty much the median tempo in a long list), and at Munich five years later in 44:01 as remastered on Dutton (although 45:35 and 45:50 on other transfers). Several conductors have exceeded 50 minutes – Maazel, Karajan, Böhm, Mehta (52:16 in his Berlin PO remake, although in Los Angeles he needed only 48:06), Zinman, and Thielemann – but the longest version was Mravinsky’s in 1962: 54:41, 10 seconds slower than Zdenek Kosler! Many years ago I gave Schwarz one of the miniature scores from Fritz Reiner’s collection that his widow told me to take (“Fritz never forgave Strauss for conducting the first performance in Berlin with my husband’s Dresden orchestra, leaving the local premiere to Reiner; he never conducted it again after that”). In the wake of a NY Philharmonic performance several years ago, Schwarz told me through gritted that he would never do the piece. Obviously he’d changed his mind by 2001, and if the recording sounds a tad thin (with offstage trumpets too prominent) it is a fascinating reading, full of subtleties that slow-gaited conductors drown in great washes of sound. He ascends the mountain briskly without lingering on the “Summit” – for me, Rudolf Kempe was the all-time master of that passage – but his descent through a teeth-chattering thunderstorm to “Sunset,” “Warning Tones,” and “Night” is mightily evocative. Besides which, you get a superlative performance of the Symphonia Domestica, recorded live (as all here were but the Oboe Concerto) in June 2003. What had been a 48:07 performance on Delos in 1988 became 44:39 in Liverpool 15 years later, to the music’s and the maestro’s advantage. The fastest on traceable discs was Ormandy’s in 1938 (39:48), while Strauss himself took 43:31 in his one surviving performance, Karajan 45:17, and Maazel in Munich 49:59, although I must add that he conducted an indelible performance with the Chicago SO sometime before 1975, which I used to have on a cassette and prefer to remember that way. Again, Liverpool’s concert hall does not yield the sumptuous sound that Delos used to capture in the Opera House at Seattle (ironically a poor site acoustically for concerts) before the construction of Benaroya Center, but by no means it is mediocre, much less feeble, and there’s the musicianly advantage of Schwarz’s divided violins – firsts on the left, seconds on the right as seen from the audience.

As for Marin Alsop and her Bournemouth SO, vividly recorded by Andrew Walton and Mike Clements (producer and engineer, respectively) in Lighthouse, Poole, she does commendably by her mentor Bernstein, although his own versions of Facsimile (1947) are all more theatrical in that singular Lenny way, whether with a NYC pick-up orchestra, the Philharmonic, or the Israel PO. I have always suspected that the triviality of Divertimento, his Boston SO centennial contribution of 1980, was in part a snide reminder that the trustees didn’t hire him when Koussevitzky was asked to step down in 1948 but chose instead Charles Munch. Alsop does it, however, with as much dignity as the music allows – not that she is straight-laced – and delivers a winner’s circle performance of the Serenade for Solo Violin, Strings Harp and Percussion (“after Plato’s Symposium”), LB’s only work in 1954 before he tackled Candide, then West Side Story. The soloist is Philippe Quint (who has added a “pe” pedant to his first name since recording William Schuman’s Violin Concerto for Naxos in its original form). His performance is elegantly sinuous and musically subtle – preferable on my CD player to Gidon Kremer or Zino Francescatti among numerous others who have recorded what remains, for me, Bernstein’s finest concert work, despite the pretentiousness of his source material. After all, it’s not that anyone has to read Plato to be moved by the music, or give a damn for that matter that the Serenade was “inspired” by a literary source. In other words, recommended straight, place and show.

Finally, the Nielsen disc from MSR is a prize, not only as recorded in the Fricksparken at Aarhus, where Denmark’s second best orchestra plays, but as conducted by young Lance Friedel in interpretations that quite surpass Thomas Dausgaard, current PC of the Danish State Radio Orchestra. It’s the most complete collection of Nielsen’s non-symphonic music for orchestra since the ‘60s, on a par almost with Herbert Blomstedt’s San Francisco recordings for Decca, and even more sonorously recorded. It’s been too long since we’ve heard An Imaginary Journey to the Faroë Islands or the quirkly little Bohemian-Danish Folk Tune, or performances of this caliber in Saga-Dröm, Pan and Syrinx, or for that matter the Helios Overture (having said which, I prefer a slightly slower tempo than the Presto Nielsen marked in the Sunburst middle-section; Jean Martinon got it just right!). But there is a vivacious Maskarade Overture, and the best Aladdin Suite – yes, with the essential chorus in fifth and final movements – since Blomstedt’s in SF, and at moments even more ebullient. Beside this accomplishment, the recent Naxos disc [REVIEW] is a virtual travesty, not just as conducted clumsily but played without bloom or panache. Bravo MSR Classics – more, more!

R.D. December 2005