GRIEG: Peer Gynt: Suites Nos. 1 and 2; SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 82; Symphony No. 7 in C Major, Op. 105 – Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra (Grieg)/ Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam (Op. 82)/ Hilversum Radio Philharmonic Orchestra (Op. 105)/ Paul van Kempen – Pristine PASC 514, 72:43 [www.pristineclasscal.com] ****:
Paul van Kempen delivers expertly crafted readings of Grieg staples and two Sibelius symphonies.
The recorded legacy of Paul van Kempen (1893-1955) has been restored sporadically, in part by the now-defunct Tahra label and by the Historic-Classic label in Great Britain. A small contribution came from Philips some time ago, when the company issued a fine Tchaikovsky CD of the Fifth Symphony and a stunning Capriccio Italien. Producer and recording engineer Mark Obert-Thorn has already addressed Kempen’s Beethoven—the Second and the Fifth—on Pristine (PASC 327) and on an album devoted to Mahler Rarities (PASC 466). A major contribution, Kempen’s 1955 Verdi Requiem with the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia di Roma (for Philips), found restoration through Preiser’s “Paperback Opera” series (20047).
The two long-familiar suites from Peer Gynt (May 1939 and April 1940) from Dresden receive finely honed but sober treatment from Kempen, with few surprises. The immediacy of Grieg’s melodies sells itself, with marvelous touches in the scoring. I prefer the vocal version of Solveig’s song, which Golovanov includes in his rendition of the second suite. Brief but stunning in its impact, Peer Gynt’s Homecoming by sea attests to a marvelous orchestral discipline. Does anyone recall that, prior to his untimely death, actor John Garfield took the lead in a production of the play—he had already been blacklisted by Hollywood—with co-star Karl Malden?
The Sibelius Symphony No. 5 (1915) celebrates an otherwise anxious time in the composer’s life—he had undergone a long series of surgeries to remove a cancerous throat tumor. A vision of swans in flight may have provided the impetus for this organic, three-movement work, arising out of a four-note motive. The whirring of wings—which reappear at the start of the “scherzo” section of the finale—and undercurrent of stormy Nature pervades much of the music, particularly the first movement, which builds a series of stretti that appear oppressive until the horns announce a kind of epiphany. The work may well construe an arch-form that culminates in the last movement, Allegro molto, in which the opening “swan tune” achieves a powerful, sustained glow in the manner of a pantheistic chorale. The middle movement—in truly rich sound, courtesy of Obert-Thorn—has its own attractions, an Andante mosso, quasi allegetto built as a string and woodwind pizzicato theme over a pedal that evolves through variations. The Concertgebouw Orchestra (May 1943) responds with glistening, eminently clear colors, in which the winds, tympani and brass converge in a direct line of athletic progression. We must not overlook the smooth lyricism of the Finale’s seamless development. For sheer drive and intensity, one would have to look to Bernstein for a similarly exhilarating experience, while for the monumental layering of the first movement has never had an exponent so thorough as Celibidache. The five hammer blows may correspond to the fateful end of the Mahler Sixth, though the notes derive here from the overtones of the opening horn part.
The Symphony No. 7 in C (1924) marks a miracle of compression (which evolved from a original multi-movement plan) that fuses elements of slow movement, scherzo, of sonata-form, of rondo, and of grand symphonic coda in the same span of music, and it does so while attempting to elide the transitions from one to the other so that the effect of the whole piece becomes seamless rather than episodic. The work stands as a kind of virtuoso in rhythmic motion, a single movement’s accelerating constantly but still managing an eerie melancholy and luxuriant songfulness. It will conclude—like the Strauss Zarathustra—with a tension between B and C, a kind of cosmic anguish. There have been fine recorded performances of this often elusive and compelling work: Beecham, Golschmann, Sanderling, and Mravinsky come to mind, but my greatest impression came to me In live concert performance by the Atlanta Symphony under James de Priest, who elicited in the middle section a transparency only attributable to chamber music. Kempen takes the quickest, most driven tempo I know. Obert-Thorn notes that this reading is one of only three documents Kempen left with this Hilversum ensemble. The fluency of approach and nuanced response of the orchestra, despite the speed of transitions, should bring us back to this interpretation many times hence.