December 2021 Classical Record Reviews

Brahms: Symphony No.4
Macmillan: Larghetto for Orchestra
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck, cond.
Reference Recordings FR-744 (CD). 2021. Dirk Sobotka, prod.; Mark Donahue, eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

From the Brahms symphony's soft-edged yet clean and transparent opening, this issue sounds special. As the textures fill out, sonorities expand rather than merely getting louder. The woodwinds' fanfares are crisply placed, yet their soft playing still has presence. Two legato brass chorales in James MacMillan's Larghetto register with satisfying depth, and sustained bass tones are exceptionally focused. That the engineers should have achieved such outstanding results in concert constitutes a minor miracle.

The first three movements of the Brahms are flexible and unusually cogent despite Honeck's occasional tendency to push forward. The yielding second theme is perfectly gauged, providing contrast without disrupting the pulse. The Andante moderato goes at a dignified rather than funereal tread; the second theme, gently ruminative the first time, is intensely vibrant in the strings' recap. The scherzo, at once driving and exuberant, maintains momentum through the quieter passages.

Tempo fluctuations mar the finale's start and the first few variations. Later, he regains his taut, incisive form, guiding the music with assurance to an inexorably triumphant finish.

MacMillan's mesmerizing score builds from a Barber-like string chorale through those brass chorales and a yearning horn solo (with plaintive woodwind answers), to an uplifting final affirmation. It's resolutely tonal, and the sonorities consistently please the ear. Horns are bright and lean, bronzen in the symphony's Andante. Woodwind soloists are sensitive and assured; the ensemble tone is full-bodied and unified.—Stephen Francis Vasta


Florence Price: Symphonies Nos.1 & 3
The Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, cond.
Deutsche Grammophon e-release, 24/96 FLAC. Dmitriy Lipay, prod., Dmitriy and Alexander Lipay, engs.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****

After decades of neglect, the music of Florence Price is getting its due. This digital-only issue of Price's Symphonies 1 & 3 is the first in a series of Price recordings from Yannick Nézet-Séguin and The Philadelphia Orchestra.

Little Rock–born and New England Conservatory–trained, Price was the first female African American classical composer to have music premiered by a major American orchestra. Although Price composed many other works, including vocal music championed by contralto Marion Anderson, subsequent orchestral performances were few. Her famous letter to conductor Serge Koussevitzky, which included the passage, "My dear Dr. Koussevitzky, to begin with I have two handicaps—those of sex and race," was a classic case of understatement. Critics who dismissed her music as tonal and conservative failed to understand the coping mechanisms of a gifted Black composer whose mother urged her to pose as Mexican in order to get ahead.

It's a shame that so much of Price's music is lost, because in Symphonies Nos.1 & 3 we hear how she crafted her idiom from the "American" music of Antonin Dvorák, who found his inspiration in "Negro folk melodies," as well as from the juba dance of Africa, the spirituals of her enslaved ancestors, and popular forms. Amidst lush melodies and passages of jubilation, we also hear anger, sadness, and mourning that many overlooked.

Equally worth exploring is the Price series from Naxos, whose latest issue includes the world premiere recording of Ethiopia's Shadow in America.—Jason Victor Serinus


Schumann: Arabeske, Kreisleriana, Fantasie
Stephen Hough (piano).
Hyperion CDA68363 (CD). 2021. Rachel Smith, prod.; David Hinitt, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

The redoubtable Stephen Hough is at the top of his artistry and technical command in the Fantasie. The big chords at the start don't just ring out imposingly; the soloist shapes them for ebb and flow. Pearly articulations highlight the treble melody over brilliant running figures. The tricky rhythms of the central movement are light as well as assured, with terrific balances. The soloist projects the simpler textures of the final movement to inward, searching effect, with gentle pianos and pianissimos. Hough binds the episodic piece into a coherent arc.

The shorter pieces don't rise to quite that exalted level, but they offer perceptive details. The Arabeske's final episode is lovely and fragile; in Kreisleriana, the Sehr langsam chorale is anthemic rather than sentimental, and the fifth and eighth movements are playful ("spielend," indeed!). He colors thematic recaps for heightened effect, infusing that in the second Sehr langsam movement with fervor and Innigkeit. Hough—as in the Fantasie, free-form on a broader scale—convincingly pulls these irregular pieces together.

Hough's still-impressive playing doesn't fully realize his intentions. The faster passages, as at the start of the Arabeske, articulated with full tonal weight, constitute a dazzling display in themselves, but they never coalesce into chords you can "hear," though the rhythmic outlines come across quite well. And big chords, such as resonated so vividly in the Fantasie, come off the slightest bit restrained and percussive.

Hough's piano sound is unmediated and almost perfectly balanced. The forte bass octaves sound assertive yet natural; the upper registers suffer from no digital shallowing. The ambience is unobtrusive.—Stephen Francis Vasta


Shostakovich: 24 Preludes and Fugues Op.87
Ronald Stevenson: Passacaglia on DSCH
Igor Levit (piano)
Sony 714315 (3 CDs, auditioned in 24/96 MQA FLAC). 2021. Andreas Neubronner, prod. & eng.
Performance *****
Sonics ****½

Due to their supreme physical and technical demands, great performances of Shostakovich's 24 Preludes and Fugues and Stevenson's Passacaglia on DSCH, which was inspired by Shostakovich, are few. Both works require concentration and stamina: Shostakovich's for 2½ hours and Stevenson's for 75 minutes. Stevenson's, in particular, seems destined to make many a hand bleed.

Russian-German pianist Igor Levit, 33 when he made these recordings, has been playing both works for years. Political sympathies may have drawn him both to Shostakovich, who, like Levit, spoke out against antisemitism, even as Soviet officials condemned his music and limited its performances, and to Stevenson, whose championship of the cause of freedom inspired several of the themes in his Passacaglia on DSCH.

And yet, these works are very different. As much as Shostakovich may have tried to sublimate his emotions to safeguard his life, feelings surface throughout the 24 Preludes and Fugues. Take, for example, the 7-minute Fugue No.8, which seems the epitome of childlike innocence until darkness takes over and the exploration ends in sadness. Fugue No.12 is shockingly violent and adamant, while Prelude No.13 is filled with such sweetness that at one point the sound evokes images of dew on flower petals. The final Prelude is as grave as it gets.

Stevenson's work, on the other hand, is so eclectic, relentless, and phantasmagoric that it frequently takes one's breath away. For virtuosity, intensity, and mind-expanding music, On DSCH is a must.—Jason Victor Serinus

mtrot's picture

Do I hear shades of the Symphony from the New World in Price's No. 1? This is very nice and "listenable" classical music. Thanks for sharing.