A bit late for the holiday, this cross-section of Halloween symphonic poems features an excellent ensemble from Montreal.
SAINT-SAENS: Danse Macabre, Op. 40; DUKAS: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice; DVORAK: The Noonday Witch, Op. 108; MUSSORGSKY: A Night on the Bare Mountain; BALAKIREV: Tamara; IVES: Hallowe’en – Montreal Symphony Orchestra/ Kent Nagano – Decca 483 0396, 69:26 910/16/16 [Distr. by Universal] ***:
Ordinarily, I would ascribe a popular, “Halloween” program (rec. 29-30 October 2015) like the one here on Decca to Charles Dutoit, given the usually excellent standard of musical execution. And while the performances of the natural spectaculars – the Dukas and the Saint-Saens – do exhibit the Montreal Symphony’s capacity for grand color, the Kent Nagano (b. 1951) renditions remain relatively prosaic and undistinguished. I still revel in the Mitropoulos version of Danse Macabre and the Stokowski reading of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Besides the Dvorak opus – first made visceral to me by Vaclav Talich – the work that beckons us, Balakirev’s 1882 Tamara, does achieve some of the dramatic compulsion we recall from Sir Thomas Beecham’s riveting account. Based on a ballad by Lermontov, the symphonic poem bears much in common with Liszt’s formula for musical progression, with rippling-water effects, oriental harmonies, and an ominous affect in b minor that sets the tone for the murderous Caucasian princess, who bears a strong similarity to Smetana’s depiction of Sarka. English horn solo Pierre-Vincent Plante intones Tamara’s seductive love theme, and assisting bass clarinet Andre Moisan contributes to the murderous, orgiastic frenzy.
Nagano performs Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1886 revision of Mussorgsky’s 1867 symphonic poem A Night on the Bare Mountain, depicting demonic revels on St. John’s Eve, June 23. I find this version trombone and brass-heavy, and I have tended to favor my first impression, that by Stokowski, with his penchant for string effects. Commentators, too, tend to avoid elaborating upon the priapic content – via the goat-god Chernobog – of the “wicked prank” that the composer had conceived as a Lisztian fertility-rite in bold Russian colors. Again, the orchestral execution proves quite vivid, with some good work in the brass and lulling arpeggios later in the harp. Timothy Hutchins’ flute solo provides a soothing balm of restored daylight law and order after a mischievous night of Dionysiac frenzy.
The Charles Ives Hallowe’en (1907) from his Three Outdoor Scenes plays as a kind of polytonal joke – opening on the strings in four distinct keys – for string quartet, piano and bass drum. The jerky rhythms mean to captures the children’s frenetic romps at a Halloween party, concluding with a reference to an opera performance further down the street. Experimental and irreverent, the piece still manages to raise a collective eyebrow in the spirit of throwing rolls of toilet paper over our conservative, musical lawns. Until the applause broke out at the end of this disc, I had not been aware we were hearing a live concert performance. I found the realization of the Erben poem via Dvorak somewhat over-refined and lacking in the spite and edginess Talich (and even Ozawa) lends the work in performance. Sound engineering by Carl Talbot and Christopher Johns guarantees that this disc will retain its place on classical music airwaves.