Seiji Ozawa, Boston Symphony Orchestra. Hyperion CDA 66050.
By Karl W. Nehring
Sometimes it is interesting to consider perspectives when thinking about music and its enjoyment – or lack thereof. Most readers of Classical Candor visit the site because they have an interest in and appreciation for what is usually designated "classical music." That term covers quite a variety of performance types (e.g., symphonies, concertos, tone poems, chamber music (with its own set of performance types – quartets, trios, sonatas, etc.), operas, oratorios, and so forth. Then there are musical periods to consider, such as baroque, classical, romantic, modern, neoclassical, etc., along with styles associated with countries/regions of origin, tonality or lack thereof, serialism, minimalism, etc.
I would think that by now you see where I am going with this: as classical music lovers, we all have our preferences, prejudices, and perspectives when it comes to classical music. All of us like some of it, love some of it, hate some of it – but none of us has listened to all of it. There is just simply too much out there for us to hear it all. As a result, most of us tend to stay within our comfort zones. Not entirely, of course, but I hope that what I am saying resonates with most of us. Just within the genre of orchestral music, for example, we have our favorite composers, favorite orchestras, favorite conductors, favorite soloists, favorite recordings, along with a mental checklist of composers, performers, and musical styles that we at minimum tend to avoid and occasionally just outright despise.
During my initial audition, the two compositions on this Hyperion release struck me as clear examples of these two polarities. But as I listened more often, and more closely, the distinction between introvert and extrovert underwent a measure of change and refinement. Note that both pieces were characterized by their composers as "concertos for orchestra" even though only the Sessions piece was given that actual title. Note also that both pieces were completed in the same year for the same occasion for the same orchestra, the 1981 Centennial of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Although I do not have quite the level of disdain for live orchestral recordings that JJP has, I do share his preference for "studio" recordings. The liner notes explain that the first performance of Sinfonia Votiva "took place on January 28, 1982 in Boston's Symphony Hall and was repeated on the 29th and 30th, with the recording session taking place in the presence of the composer on the 30th, prior to the concert performance on that day." (It turns out that the work was revised in 1984; however, I was not able to track down the extent of that revision). The lack of audience noise that would have been present in a live recording session means that the quiet opening measures, scored for flute, celeste, then woodwinds, have the sound of a chamber piece taking place in a large hall. At one point there is a nice contribution by the bass clarinet (my old instrument!) and then later we finally hear some strings, especially cello, then harp. The engineers capture the sound of these instruments in the space and ambience of the hall, presenting the listener with an engaging sonic portrait that contributes to the "draw you in" aspect of the composition.
Not until about eight minutes have gone by do the brass enter, featuring the horn, as the music becomes more symphonic sounding, less like chamber music, but not until about the 11-minute mark does the music actually become loud. There is some more quiet, some more loud, and then it is on to the second movement, which starts much more exuberantly led off by brass and percussion. There is some agitated pawing by the strings, with the lower brass making their presence felt, especially the trombone. Woodwinds take over for a while, then the brass return, with the symphony building in expressive and sonic intensity toward its frenetic brass and percussion ending.
From the perspective of the two types of music, the first movement draws you in, the second reaches right out and grabs you. At first listen, it is a composition that struck me as quite introverted overall, largely because of that intriguing first movement. That characterization lasted throughout several more listening sessions, but then I began to appreciate the second movement more and more, making the piece as a whole harder to label. All in all, Sinfonia Votiva is a fascinating composition that has been recorded exceptionally well. It is a piece to which I plan to return, both for musical enjoyment and sonic stimulation. It may not be as "introverted" overall as I first believed, but it still really draws me in, something I would expect it to do for many listeners.
On first listen, two things were immediately apparent to me. First, this was a brash, in-your-face piece, clearly on the extrovert end of the spectrum. Second, it was, even to my hardly conservative ears, pretty much unlistenable. Pulitzer Prize or not, I really did not like it. In fact, I kind of hated it, and had no desire to ever listen to it again. Now what? I had found the Panufnik quite appealing, and wanted to review and recommend it, but what was I to do about its disc mate? Could I bring myself to recommend a CD containing two compositions when one of them was virtually unlistenable? Not sure of what to do or how to write such a bifurcated review, I put the CD aside and reviewed another release instead. In other words, I stalled.
Having bought myself some time, I hunkered down and listened a couple more times, the second time jotting down some new notes. In doing so, I began to realize that the piece was not entirely a lot of unpleasant noise. I was relieved to think that although I still did not really like the piece, at least I now had some notes that would allow me to say something other than it was loud, in-your-face, and pretty much something I would never really want to listen to again. I still did not feel quite settled about how I could frame such a review, so I did not start writing right away. I put off writing for a couple more days, then finally got started on my review of the CD, first laying out a couple of preliminary paragraphs and then some draft material on the Panufnik. Finally the time had arrived when I should be able to bang out some quick, mostly dismissive paragraphs about the Sessions and then the review would be done except for some final editing and proofing. Hooray!
At that juncture, just as I was finally ready to face up to the unpleasant task of writing commentary on a piece that I did not like, a miracle occurred. My notes on the Concerto for Orchestra had disappeared! I looked everywhere it seemed that they could possibly be, but to no avail. Now what?
Why do I consider losing my listening notes a miracle and not a disaster? Because it forced me to do what I had needed to do all along, to sit down and listen to the piece intently a few more times. As I did so, I found myself actually beginning to appreciate what Sessions had produced here, a true Concerto for Orchestra, a composition designed to let the players of the Boston Symphony Orchestra strut their stuff. The brash opening measures are followed by a meandering melody of sorts. Not Mozartean by any means, but not dissonant, not random. Plenty of engaged playing by the brass, winds, and percussion. From brash to beguiling, the music shifts into a quiet interlude, with a beautiful bit of playing by the clarinet. How had I missed that previously? My notes speak of a magical moment about four minutes in featuring woodwinds, another at around the 7:20 point, with winds and horn, then some appealing sounds from the lower strings, and another touch of magic featuring horn and flute at around 9:30. Near the ending there is a return to the brash brass and percussion sound of the opening, but at the very end, the sound just fades into silence. "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent." (Wittgentstein)
In the end, then, I found the Sessions Concerto for Orchestra to be a piece to which I can imagine returning to from time to time. No, I would not rank it as one of my favorites, but I certainly do not find it virtually unlistenable anymore. For me, an extroverted piece that at first pushed me away while trying to reach out to me wound up drawing me in. On the other hand, I can imagine many classical music lovers who truly would be pushed away, vowing never to return to such an unlistenable composition. Please note: I do not intend even the slightest disrespect or condescension toward such listeners. De gustibus non disputandum est.
Overall, then, I recommend this CD highly, but not to everyone. The musical content is stimulating, worthy of audition by a wider audience, and the disc is exceedingly well engineered. The recorded sound showcases the talents of a magnificent orchestra and conductor at a very special moment in their history. On the minus side, the more modern style of music will not appeal to a wide audience, and the CD contains less than 40 minutes of music, or about half the program that could have been presented. Should any music lovers reading this review have any experience with this recording (which, after all, has now been on the market for nearly 40 years), I would certainly love to read your comments, be they positive or negative.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: