Symphony No.5 op.177 Lenore and Dame
Kobold Overture op.154
Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana, Conductor: Nicholas Carthy
Dynamic CDS 283 2000 DDD 55:25
First of all the good news. Carthy and his Swiss orchestra give us a sparkling account of the delicious Overture to Raff's third opera Dame Kobold, the opening work on this CD. For all that it is only a few seconds shorter than Schneider's attempt (on Marco Polo 8.223638), there is nonetheless a fizz and snap to this interpretation which is largely lacking from the earlier recording, and in contrast the delicious melody with which the work starts is beautifully played. Overall, Carthy emphasises that this piece is the prelude to a comic evening - one is reminded of Giovanni Bria's effervescent performance of the Benedetto Marcello Overture in Lachen in 1999 - whereas under Schneider the work sounds more like a worthy concert overture from the Biedermeier era. The orchestral playing is enthusiastic, if hardly subtle, and they are clearly stretched by Carthy's fast pace towards the end.
The main work of the CD is the Symphony No.5 Lenore. As the second Lenore to be issued this year and the sixth currently on offer to the CD-buying public, one really has to ask the question: does the world need another one? Of course, if this new issue came anywhere near replacing Bernard Herrmann's venerable 1970 recording (Unicorn-Kanchana UKCD 2031) then the answer would be an emphatic yes. It is both a tribute to Herrmann, and a criticism of recording companies that none of his successors has managed to produce a Lenore which matches the beauty, power and excitement which he found in this wonderful score. Unfortunately, if the dismally lethargic Butt (ASV DCA 1000) represents one end of the interpretative spectrum, then Carthy has now provided us with the balancing extreme.
In the first of this year's competing issues, Stadlmair came close to Herrmann in the last three movements, but the breathless pace of his opening Allegro spoils the overall impression. Stadlmair is very sedate, however, by comparison with Carthy's madcap dash through this movement. Subtlety of phrasing and instrumental colour is lost in this rush - the tempo contrasts between succeeding sections are blurred and a listener new to Raff would be left with little idea of the nuances of texture, harmony and feeling which are actually there in this magnificent movement. The great brass tutti are perfunctory throughout and the closing bars are a headlong race to the finish between conductor and players. The "longing for love's happiness" which Raff describes seems, under Carthy's baton, to be a very modern, physical, rather brutish affair!
The slow movement fares better, but again Carthy finds little poetry in the opening material although things do improve as the movement progresses. This remains a very matter of fact run through which presents the music shorn of much of its beauty - Carthy never lingers over a lovely phrase, never bothers to bring out the warmth and sensuousness of Raff's music. He is on firmer ground in the March movement - but the crescendo-diminuendo structure and its supporting orchestration give less leeway to conductors than the other movements. Having said that, Carthy finds no tragedy in the central trio which describes the lovers' parting. The interlude serves only to break up the two march sections. The contrast with Herrmann in this short section is particularly telling.
The finale, that great symphonic poem which Raff contrived to make such a fitting end to the symphony, is again taken at exhilarating speed. This makes for an exciting 13 minutes or so - with Carthy as the jockey, Wilhelm's horse would win the Derby - but so many of the details are lost during the ride. To be fair, Carthy whips up the pace to make the final denouement quite thrilling. He then ruins the effect by reducing the climactic extended chord to almost nothing and compounds this by playing the serene apotheothis music with an absence of emotion which hardly seems possible.
Where Butt's lacklustre pace and unimaginative phrasing run the risk of sending a listener to sleep, Carthy's audience will be on the edge of its seat wondering whether his players can make it to the end. The sheer speed certainly grabs attention in the outer movements and is quite exciting in its way, but the lack of any attempt to portray the story of Lenore herself through the music makes this ultimately a hollow and unsatisfying experience. This is a programme symphony, but Carthy has excised the programme and all its attendant emotion from the music.
The playing of the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana is variable but, given the demands made on them by Carthy, generally acceptable. The brass in particular have a tendency to rasp when pushed - but their intonation is secure and this does give an interesting variation to the more usual Raff sound. Dynamic's recording is rather distant except in the climaxes, but need not be a major consideration in deciding whether this CD is worth the money.
Recommended for the Overture - avoid for Lenore.
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