“Movie music!” is the exclamation of recognition that newcomers often make upon first hearing classical music. They seem as delighted with this discovery as was Moliere’s Middle-Class Gentleman when he realized he had been speaking prose all his life. One tries not to wince noticeably when explaining to a neophyte that William Tell rode long before the Lone Ranger galloped along to Rossini’s overture. However, there is a lot of “classical” music that could be suitably demoted to “movie music” status. The lesser tone poems, much program music, and a great deal of late-19th-century mush all have the same consistency as movie scores and hold one’s attention about as well. Ballet music sans ballet, except for the very greatest, can also easily escape concentrated appreciation.
This thought is brought to mind by the London digital release (LDR 71028) of a new recording of Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloe (1912) performed by Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Unlike a great number of listeners, I find the ballet unnervingly vapid. Wordless choirs singing away, harp glissandi, flute melodies twittering about–one might think even Hollywood would be embarrassed were it not for the fact that it has endlessly replicated this kind of music. I should add that its advocates describe this music as “shimmering,” and I am sure they would be pleased with this performance and recording.
Another orchestral favorite by which I am not swept away is Saint Saens’ Third Symphony, his famous organ symphony. Saint Saens at his most serious is not Saint Saens at his best. He took music to be a matter of “elegant lines, harmonious colours and a pleasing succession of harmonies,” and demonstrated that this was so in his delightful piano concerti and chamber music. But when Saint-Saens takes on the Germanic weightiness and romantic seriousness of making a major statement he cannot ultimately carry it off. The surface excitement is there but the undergirding substance isn’t. He comes close, though, through dint of his expert craft. This is very good second-echelon music, and it is performed to the hilt by Herbert Von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic in a new Deutsche Granunaphon digital recording (2532045) that conveys all the excitement and grand gestures.
Another enjoyable, if not overwhelming, second-echelon piece has received its world premier recording from London records (Digital LDR 71037). Edvard Grieg apparently did not feel that this, his one and only Symphony, was up to snuff, after several performances he withdrew the work and wrote on the cover of the score: “Must never be performed.” His wishes were honored for 113 years, until Karsten Andersen and the Bergen Symphony resurrected it for the temporal eternity of the phonograph record. Why Grieg chose to suppress this perfectly respectable work is a bit of a mystery. One is all the more surprised to learn this mature and confident-sounding symphony came from a 20-year-old as his first completed orchestral score. Grieg denigrated this 1864 composition as belonging to “a bygone Schumann period” of his life. Indeed, it would be hard to detect any personal stamp of Grieg’s later genius in this work, but those who enjoy middle-stream romanticism of the Schumann type should find modest enjoyment here. The recording sounds fine but now has competition from a highly praised BIS album of the same work.
A feat similar to Grieg’s, and in the same general stylistic vein, was performed by his contemporary Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame) who in 1863 at the age of 21 wrote his only symphony, the Symphony in E Minor (The Irish). This work provides mild pleasure and, though hardly a master piece, is more than a mere curiosity. As with Grieg, one wonders why, with such fine results, Sullivan did not pursue the symphonic form. The Musical Heritage Society has done what it does best, making available this out-of-the-way work in a good recording of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Charles Groves (MHS 4595). The record is filled out with Sullivan’s Overture “DiBalla.” It sounds quite operatic in the sprightly idiom of Rossini with a few dance steps from Strauss.
There is now available singly Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 from Leonard Bernstein’s highly acclaimed complete set of Beethoven’s symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic Deutsche Grammaphon (2531 313). Richard Wagner called this symphony “the very apotheosis of the dance,” possibly because each of its four movements is based on a different rhythmic pattern, but this is not the dancing of mortals, nor is it dainty. The power of rhythmic drive here is tremendous; this is a master work. This new DGG issue adds to the dilemma of selecting from well over 30 available recordings of this work. Fanfare magazine dispels the problem by declaring that this performance is “the finest Beethoven seventh of our time,” and even “a Beethoven seventh for the ages.” Well, de gustibus… , I do not find it to be that decisive a triumph over its predecessors, and in fact I prefer Von Karajan’s first DGG recording. His tighter pace keeps a greater sense of rhythmic excitement. Bernstein has excellent attention to detail, though, along with fine sound and a stunning finale. But then there is Kleiberth’s overwhelming performance–and Toscanini’s.