Music for a Time of War
The Oregon Symphony
Sanford Sylvan, Baritone
Carlos Kalmar, Music Director, Conducting
PTC 5186 393
Charles Ives (1874-1954) – The Unanswered Question (1906, rev. c. 1930-1935)
Jeffrey Work, Trumpet
John Adams (b. 1947) – The Wound-Dresser (1989)
Sanford Sylvan, Baritone
Jun Iwasaki, Violin
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) – Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20 (1940)
Lacrymosa (Andante ben misurato)
Dies Irae (Allegro con fuoco)
Requiem Aeternam (Andante molto tranquillo)
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) – Symphony No. 4 in F minor (1931-1934)
Scherzo: Allegro molto
Finale con epilogo fugato: Allegro molto – con anima
The Review has quite a backlog of recordings piled up, and we hope to make our way through as many as we can. I especially wanted to make note of this full concert recording by the Oregon Symphony, not only because our own Steven Kruger wrote the perceptive and witty program notes, but because of its exceptional musical quality and its truly extraordinary recording. A multichannel recording from Pentatone Classics, which released the Berlin concert performance of Der fliegende Holländer under Marek Janowski reviewed a few months ago, it amazed me with its timbral and spatial naturalness. It most definitely belongs in the reference collection of any audiophile, whether they are inclined to multichannel playback or not. I listened to it in stereo on headphones, using an SACD-compatible player.
The Oregon Symphony, which, founded in 1896, is the oldest orchestra on the West Coast, took this concert, entitled “Music for a Time of War,” on tour to Carnegie Hall in New York, where both the programming, the playing, and the conducting aroused quite a lot of excitement among New York audiences and critics. It was such a success that the Symphony chose to make this recording, which should accomplish a great deal in making this fine orchestra’s work better known around the world. One can’t sufficiently praise the precision and sensitivity of the musicians’ playing or Maestro Kalmar’s lucid, straightforward, and, dare I say, virile approach to the music.
In creating this thematic program, Kalmar brought together four works: Ives’ “The Unanswered Question,” John Adams’ “The Wound-Dresser,” Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, Vaughan Williams, Symphony No. 4. In fact only one of these, the Britten, is entirely and explicitly about war. “The Wound Dresser,” while it is a setting of a poem Walt Whitman wrote about his experience as a nurse in the Civil War, is, according to the composer, more about caring for the sick and suffering and was directly inspired by his own mother’s caring for his terminally ill father. “The Unanswered Question” is a musical evocation of philosophical speculation and doubt with no direct reference to war, unless it is to the ongoing war of dissenting thinkers, and Vaughan Williams most emphatically stated that his Fourth Symphony had nothing to do with war, especially the war with Germany, which was to engulf his country several years after he completed the symphony. Musically, the program made for a richly satisfying concert of mutually sustaining sounds and moods, but the title “Music for a Time of War” showed an essayistic Tendenz, which could impose a misinterpreted program on a work composed in quite a different spirit. Many of the people who heard this concert, either in Portland or New York may well be familiar with the vagaries of reception, but imposing a context from without is more radical than what happens in the mind of an audience member who hears, for example, the Vaughan Williams Fourth with Bruckner floating around in his memory, and one may well question just how helpful it is, in the long run. But I say this as a caution, not as a complaint.
Of course it does no harm if a concert encourages audiences to think about war in a reflective and nuanced way, although, it seems that the power of any of the arts to curtail this ancient human industry has long evaporated, if it ever existed at all. Another, very welcome, subliminal message concerns English music. Conductors and administrators outside the UK often have difficulty fitting British music in with music from Germany, France, and Italy and the others. Britten is not quite as much of a rarity as Vaughan Williams on American symphonic programs, but on the infrequent occasions when British music is performed, it is often relegated to specialized British programs, conducted by a British visitor, most likely. Here is a program where two pre-war English classics, played by an American orchestra under an Austro-Uruguayan conductor, both highly regarded at home, live perfectly happy with American repertoire of a very different kind. While the Britten and Vaughan Williams, as symphonies, which were considered essential goals for a British composer during the entre-deux-guerres, and even later, are plats du jour, the American pieces, which are relatively brief single-movement works, “narrative” in structure, and concentrated on a single topic, function more as side-dishes, like succotash or a salad. (Heaven forbid a contemporary American composer should offer us a plate of fries!) In any case this variety of fusion should be taken up as a model for the future. Elgar goes well with Brahms, Wagner, and Schoenberg, you know.
The Oregon Symphony, 76 strong, is rather smaller than what we know as “the major orchestras,” and even in Carnegie Hall they cannot produce the sensual mass or dynamic range of, say, the American Symphony Orchestra, which I mention for comparison because of the fine work they did this past summer at the Bard Festival with Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony. In this recording, their clean and musical playing made this more of a virtue than a liability. The clarity of the string and wind textures in the direct, but pleasingly resonant acoustic of Arlene Schnitzer Hall, a renovated theater built in 1928, brought only good things to the ears, with no problems of intonation or ensemble. They reminded me very much of the splendid Mercury Living Presence recordings the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra made under Howard Hanson in the 1950s, which were state-of-the-art for their time.1 Of course present-day orchestral standards are even higher, and the Oregon Symphony more than lives up to it.
In the Ives, Kalmar achieved a fine balance between structural clarity and the mystery of Ives’ subject. Ives scored the work for small orchestra, and the Oregon Orchestra produced chamber music playing of a high order. Maestro Kalmar has a special sense of steady, regular meter, which served Ives well in this instance, as it did Britten in the ostinato writing of the first movement of the Sinfonia. This reading of “the Unanswered Question” can take a place with the best.
I’m afraid I haven’t had the best history with John Adams’ “The Wound Dresser.” I was introduced to it a few years ago at a New York Philharmonic concert under Alan Gilbert, with Thomas Hampson singing the baritone part. It struck me at the time as the sort of thoughtful, humanistic music American composers write when they are on very comfortable grants in the most pleasant of artist’s colonies. As I followed Adams’ surely placed effects for a few minutes, I noticed that a certain young gentleman of a eurotrashy appearance, who sat next to me, was guffawing unrestrainedly. As the gory details of Whitman’s poem accumulated, the more uproarious his laughter. Afterwards, I asked him what he was laughing at, and he replied, “Don’t you get it?” I had to admit that I had found his response infectious, and I had been grasping my ribs as if I were in a strait-jacket during the music. Something just doesn’t quite ring true to me in this work, any more than it did to the cosmopolitan gentleman in the next seat. But beware! Thanks to Steven Kruger’s note, I now know that “The Wound Dresser” was derived from the composer’s deep personal experiences mentioned above. Somehow personal feelings of an especially intimate sort often fail to communicate as cogently as more externally constructed attitudes, as I once learned to my chagrin, when a youthful work by a prominent playwright—based on his own family life—failed to convince in a similar way. For that matter not all of us can digest Whitman all the time.
Adams’ treatment of the poem is interesting, however. The accompaniment is a restrained ostinato and the vocal line is plain. Strong expresssion comes through Whitman’s graphic vocabulary, which most likely created the disconnect which stirred my neighbor’s mirth. Conceptually it is the precise antithesis of what Schubert created in Der Atlas or Wagner in the Dutchman’s Monologue. Kalmar’s steadiness in pace proved just right here. Sanford Sylvan sang impeccably, with a beautiful line and perfect diction, but I felt that his sweetish baritone with its prominent vibrato brought out a subtle strain of sentimentality in the music, which Hampson, with his more robust, darker voice, carefully avoided.
Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, one of his early masterpieces, on the other hand, conveys, at least to my sensibility, a gripping message about the horrors of modern warfare, although the composer, a pacifist, wrote it from the safety of New York, on commission for—ironically—the Japanese, for a festival celebrating the 2600th anniversary of their empire (at which the patrons refused to play it)! According to him, he wrote it “combining my ideas on war & a memorial for Mum & Pop.“ He wrote it in 1939 and 1940, during the “Phoney War,”mostly before the German bombing of England commenced. His composition fairly bristles with brilliant ideas, some of an allusive sort and others simply as excellent counterpoint, jolting harmonies, and startling sonorities—not least the violent explosion of percussion at the very beginning. It is a huge sound, and producer Blanton Alspaugh and the engineers, John Newton and Jesse Lewis, deserve raves for capturing both its sheer loudness, as well as its subtle nuances as it resounded in the hall and died away. This is enough to make this disc a must for any audiophile. Of course there are many excellent recordings of this work, including two by the composer himself, but the huge dynamic range, Kalmar’s clarity and focus, and the clean playing of his musicians in complex passages would place this performance very high among them. It’s safe to assume that you will hear more of the details of what Britten wrote—and they are important—in this recording than in any other…and for that matter, a full measure of brooding emotion and troubled energy.
Vaughan Williams’ Fourth, like the main body of his symphonies, is familiar as a large-scale symphonic piece, and he was a composer who especially rejoiced in great volumes of sound. It is perhaps here that the listener might be let down by the spare sonority of the Oregon strings, but once again, clarity wins the day. I was thrilled to hear so much detail throughout the work and such impressive dynamic range, always acheived with perfect naturalness. The sonic perspective never changes. There is no sign of any manipulation. Of all Vaughan Williams’ qualities, his wealth of invention is among the most enduring, and Kalman certainly supports that with great ability. The composer had written few, if any works as dissonant and challenging to date. The symphony is noted for its harsh oppositions and tendency towards violence, not least in the scherzo, which his wife Ursula, as Kruger notes, related to Vaughan Williams’ own outbursts of rage. However, Kalman looks to the brighter side of this, and in his performance the clouds clear almost suddenly, giving way to joyous exuberance, followed by a rapidly moving train of other emotions. It is greatly to his credit that he was sensitive to the composer’s full emotional range, and to the sympathy and agility of his players in their keeping up with it. In the great final movement there was no dearth of weight and mass, along with impeccable clarity in the fugal passages. This was an exhilarating climax to a memorable concert, and the recording is equally thrilling.
Buy it, no matter what other recordings of these works you have in your library.