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Desire. Hope. World Affairs - Brogli-Sacher

Desire. Hope. World Affairs - Brogli-Sacher

Musicaphon  M 56926

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Arthur Honegger: Symphony No. 2, Richard Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra Op. 30, Jacques Casterede: Trumpet Concerto

Philharmonisches Orchester der Hansestadt Lübeck
Roman Brogli-Sacher (conductor)

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Review by John Miller - February 18, 2013

"Desire, Hope, World Affairs" is the (translated) title for this recording of a 2009 live concert by the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Hanseatic town of Lübeck on the German Baltic coast. These words could apply to all of the works on this inventive programme. The Franco-Swiss composer Honegger's Second Symphony was commissioned in 1937 by Swiss impresario and conductor Paul Sacher, but the Second World War slowed progress down and its first performance was delayed until 1942. He lived and worked in Paris during the time when the city hosted many revolutions and revolutionaries in music, but obstinately pursued his own "middle" way, so his music is basically tonal and melodic. Most famous for his "reality" tone poems, such as Pacific 2.3.1 and Rugby, Honegger's musical voice was distinctive and strong. Scholars these days maintain that his four symphonies make him one of the greatest symphonists of the C20th, yet sadly the symphonies rarely appear at concerts or on records these days.

Reflecting the adverse state of "World Affairs" during its gestation, Honegger's Second Symphony is a "black and white" production, for strings only, except for a few bars near the end of the third (and last movement) where a solo trumpet appears optionally - "like pulling an organ stop", as the composer said. The string writing shows complete mastery, yet it never ostentatiously draws attention to itself. Karajan's recording with the BPO strings at their most sumptuous is rightly a classic, but I tend to prefer Charles Munch with the Orchestre de Paris; his reading is more spontaneous and has a fervent bite compared with Karajan's carefully controlled and well-rounded version. Brogli-Sacher is more expansive in the first movement than either of the two aforementioned conductors, but the internal detail is much clearer, with a more natural balance. In the second movement, Munch is faster than the very slow Karajan, and the intensity of his viola threnody over a gently rocking accompaniment reaches a more uneasy, desolate climax. At a speed between Munch and Karajan, Brogli-Sacher keeps the movement flowing, with beautiful phrasing and melodic grace. The rocking motif is more clearly dissonant, hauntingly building up tension as the movement progresses. His finale is busy and multi-faceted; appealingly less tense than previous movements. In the last few bars the solo trumpet rides above the strings with at least an attempt to finish on an optimistic note, however hollow. Karajan's trumpet is hardly audible, surely the opposite of Honegger's intention. Munch's trumpet soars above the strings, very effectively. All in all, Brogli-Sacher shows his considerable understanding of Honegger, and the players of his excellent orchestra are more than happy to play with great commitment for him.

There is no applause after the Honegger, but Jacques Castérède's Concertino for Trumpet, Trombone, String Orchestra, Piano and Percussion arrives a little too soon after the symphony: a longer gap would have allowed the mind to re-focus in preparation. Castérède (b. 1926) will not be a name familiar to most listeners. Another Parisian, he entered the Conservatoire and studied composition, piano and analysis, the latter under Olivier Messiaen. He won 5 first prizes (in piano, chamber music, analysis, composition, and harmony classes, and later became a teacher of these subjects, while at the same time writing a wide variety of compositions in a tonal, often modal, manner with inventive structures. His Concertino, dates from 1958 when Castérède was in Rome after being awarded the Prix de Rome. Debussy, Honegger and Milhaud influences come to mind, and, in this work one can hear Baroque styles as well as Jazz. The soloists, Guido Segers (Trumpet) and Dany Bonvin (Trombone) are members of the Lübeck Philharmonic, and being world-wide soloists in their own right, they sail through all the technical challenges which Castérède throws at them. The Concertino is most entertaining, and provides some colourful relief between the heavier bookend pieces of the concert programme. Its brash first movement recalls Milhaud's ebullient polyrhythms and some jazz figurations with doughty dialogues play between the soloists, while the slow movement has a beautiful soulful trombone solo, set unexpectedly into a lovely nocturne, with the trumpet floating in to enrich the climax. The finale brings in more percussion and piano, many touches of Gershwin and adds tangy flavours from jazz and ragtime.

A famous (or infamous) tone poem for large orchestra by Richard Strauss brings the concert to a brilliant conclusion. Immediately after the success of Till Eulenspiegl's Merry Pranks, Strauss's audience were not expecting that his next tone poem (1896) would be based on a deep philosophical treatise by the eminent philosopher, poet, composer and critic Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. 'Also sprach Zarathustra' was a long prose-poem of 1885 in which Nietzsche used the Persian mystic Zoroaster (c. 600BC) as a spokesman for his own philosophy and views on war, chastity, women, religion and science. It is clear that Strauss agreed with some, but not all, of Nietzsche's postulates. For example, he shared the philosopher's disgust with the Christian religion because of its alleged repression, particularly in sexual matters, which Nietzsche (and Strauss) regarded as purely Natural.

Although Strauss presents his tone poem carrying eight of Nietzsche's chapter headings from 'Also sprach', plus an introduction, he wisely makes no attempt to portray the literary philosophy itself, but sets Nietzsche's often dramatic allegories into a narrative musical fantasy, which begins and ends in near silence. After the final Frankfurt rehearsal, Strauss wrote to his wife that it was "glorious - by far the most important of all my pieces, the most perfect in form, the richest in content and the most individual in colour... The climaxes are immense and scored!!! Faultlessly scored..." This seems to be the excited response of a professional conductor rather than a smug composer. "Freely after Nietzsche", cautions Strauss's title on his score, distancing himself further. The work is Nietzschian only in its outlines, while its inner parts, details and its essential spirit is Straussian. The closest musical approximation is Delius's 'A Mass of Life', but Delius was far more involved with Nietzsche, and regarded Strauss's tone poem to be a failure.

Thanks to Stanley Kubrick, a whole generation thinks that 'Also sprach Zarathustra' is only 22 bars long. The appearance of its short introduction in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, and as the theme music of the Apollo program, seems in a way to have doomed the rest of the tone poem. It is generally thought that the 'Also sprach' introduction is labelled "Sunrise", but this is only partly true. Strauss's caption is "The sun rises. The individual enters the world or the world enters the individual". So the introduction depicts Man's first acknowledgement of Nature. Emerging from the primeval darkness of a low C from contra bassoon, bass drum roll with timpani sticks, organ pedal and divided string basses, a rising C,G,C motif from four trumpets signifying Nature is followed by dramatic major-minor alternations then a sequence of C-G quaver triplets on timpani.

Strauss uses an obbligato organ in several of his tone poems, but 'Also sprach' is the only one where the organ is essential, as it has a solo for just over half a bar. That simple fact gives conductors and orchestras major headaches. Few concert organs are tuned to the same pitch as the orchestra. If the discrepancy is large, tuning the organ takes anything from a day to a week. Otherwise, the orchestra have to take a new A from the organ (or if it is a recording, cheat by editing in a separately recorded organ from elsewhere). At the end of the introduction, the rest of the orchestra drop out of their big tutti, leaving the organ exposed. As Norman Del Mar tells us in his "Anatomy of the Orchestra", even the well-tuned organ inevitably sounds somewhat out of tune when the enveloping full, live instrumental playing stops. The organ sound alone is always quieter than that of the full orchestra, so there is often a double jolt for listeners. Out of a wide range of recorded jolts occurring in my 'Also sprach collection, I'm pleased to say that the Lübeckers come out very well, with a fine well-tuned concert organ and one of the loudest solo chords I've come across, which is held for its full allotted time, while the recordings featuring weak or woeful instruments are hastily fade them away.

The over-popular first 22 bars over, Brogli-Sacher continues with a firm handle on Strauss's tautly-argued fantasy, which primarily revolves around the C major/minor Nature Motif and a B major/minor Man-motif (which is heard pizzicato on the basses in the 'Backworldsmen' section following the introduction). The organ continues to play for the next two sections, but Strauss explicitly tells the player to play quietly, below the level of the strings. After this it is replaced by a pair of harps. Contentions between Nature and Man lead to the first ripe Straussian melody, with a string texture built up from solos from individual desks. Here the high definition recording comes into its own; this wonderful polyphonic texture really does sound enchantingly like chamber music. Later in the work, a similar texture is amplified by multiple divisions within the strings, and again the clarity and transparency of the recording (and fine tone from the players)make a considerable difference to one's appreciation of the piece.

I found this beautifully characterized and thrilling 'Also sprach' from the Lübeckers amongst the best in the dozen recordings which I auditioned. They may not be the BPO or the Chicago Symphony, but most of the German municipal orchestras have very high standards and attract excellent conductors, as is the case here. The programme works well, both of the major works are of a high standard and the recording, from the Lübeck Congress and Music Hall with its renowned acoustics, is exemplary. The dynamic range is large, the great climaxes in Strauss surge radiantly around the hall without distortion. A good front-back perspective and pinpoint location of instrumental groups is a further asset.

I suspect many will consider buying this disc mainly for its 'Also sprach' but the performance of Honegger's Second Symphony is also moving and idiomatic. The only caveats I would mention is that there is applause after 'Also sprach' (richly deserved in my view) following a short silent interval after the final ppp cello and bass notes die away. The good side to this is that if you are listening in multichannel, the applause is about the most convincing I've ever heard, so that I even turned to see who was clapping next to me.

Although the audience is almost uncannily silent for most of the time, there is an obvious quiet cough, you guessed it, in one of the quietest parts of 'Also sprach'! However, the performance is far too good for me to reject it on these grounds.

Well worth considering if you enjoy the extra performance energy of an excellent concert superbly well recorded; invites repeated trips of the disc to your player.

Copyright © 2013 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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