AUBER: La Muette de Portici – Overture; BRITTEN: Variations on a Theme of
Frank Bridge, Op. 10; NIELSEN: Symphony No. 5, Op. 50 – Boston Symphony Orchestra/ Charles Munch – Pristine Audio PASC 572, 67:50 [www.pristineclassical.com] ****:
Musicologists ascribe to Auber’s La Muette de Portici a significance as the first grand opera. Premiered in Paris in 1828, Auber’s opera deals with a 17th-century Neapolitan uprising against Spanish rule, led by the fisherman Masaniello, whose mute sister, Fenella, has been seduced by Alphonse, son of the Spanish viceroy. Morally, the work offended the censors of the time. Conductor Charles Munch (26 November 1953), like many of his contemporaries – Albert Wolff, Jean Fournet, Jean Martinon – finds the Overture an exemplary showpiece for his “Aristocrat of Orchestras.” The opening dissonances soon resolve to suave series of wind and string effects that must still yield to the frenzy of the opening bars and their explosive incursions along the way. Wagner wrote of this opera: “The bold effects of instrumentation, particularly in the treatment of the strings, the dramatic grouping of the choral masses, which here for the first time take an important partyin the action, are no less original than the harmonies and happy strokes of characterization.”
Conductor and orchestral impresario Boyd Neel commissioned Benjamin Britten to compose the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (1937) for a premiere in Salzburg. Frank Bridge (1879-1941) first met Britten when the latter was thirteen years old. That Britten could meet Neel’s demand in a mere twenty days testifies to the total assimilation of his teacher’s character Britten had subsumed, letting each variation serve as a mood-sketch for Bridge’s traits, somewhat in the manner of the Elgar Enigma Variations. The divisi writing for string asks much of the BSO in terms of sheer coordination. The variety of musical styles no less exemplifies the cosmopolitan nature of Britten’s art, his having produced a truly “European” effect. The Romance variant especially shines in this performance (8 December 1956), and Andrew Rose informs us that the original tapes did not need much help. The Aria Italiana sparkles in the manner of heady Asti spumante. A pungent Bouree Classique injects a Herculean vigor into the mix. The Moto perpetuo spits pure Paganini en masse. The longest variant per se, the Funeral March, achieves a tragic, wrenching poignancy we do not often hear in string ensembles, exempting Barber’s Adagio. The incredible busy Variation 10 and Fugue proves colossal, a clever potpourri of Bridge tunes in which The Sea makes an epic appearance.
Simon Rattle employs the epithet “war symphony” to describe Carl Nielsen’s 1922 two-movement Fifth Symphony. Nielsen himself characterized the work in the most Manichean terms, a “division of dark and light, a battle between Good and Evil, an opposition of Dreams and Deeds.” The most salient feature of the score, a “rogue” snare drum, still has the power to shock and arrest a listener. Certainly, at the time of this Boston performance (6 November 1953), the music of Nielsen had not exported well, and this often contentious work must have posed some serious challenges to performers and audience members.
A kind of string “fate motif” haunts the Tempo – giusto first movement, colored by invasive snare drum, cymbals, and aggressive, martial tympani. The clarinet and flute parts prove no less manic. The bitonality of C and A in conflict wants to ascend to G Major, but the progression either becomes thwarted or simply dissolves. Yet an oboe midway in the movement does announce a consoling G Major for the Adagio non troppo, although the emotional landscape remains threatened or anxious, or severely compromised by that unruly snare. There are indeed rich, even romantic, gestures in the orchestra, polyphony in B Major, and a fading out into G. With the onslaught that serves to lead to the desolate coda – a solo clarinet wails in the desert before the snare intrudes – we might assume that Nielsen has reduced his sound world to rubble.
The Adagio – Presto – Andante poco tranquillo subdivides into four sections: an exposition, two contrasting fugues in terms of tempo, and a coda. The bitonal character of this “phoenix” urgency to rise from the ashes launches in B Major, desperately searching for some consolation, which a slow fugue provides. The movement erupts with sound clusters, especially a frenetic ostinato in the strings. The horns utter or stutter phrases, again with a hint of a “fate motif.” The faster fugue projects a delicate, transparent patina, almost playful. A tympani thud and woodwind curlicues disrupt the progress, and we feel once more launched into a sustained, emotional maelstrom. The utterances of confused flight and struggle more than justify those lines from Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” which proclaims a world where only the most personal forms of intimacy might guarantee a world that makes any sense.
We can hear – in splendid sonics for the period as restored by Pristine – the Boston audience’s trying to absorb and appreciate the chaos and controlled fury Charles Munch and the BSO has laid before them, and they do respond with nervous thanks.