20th-Century (and Later) Musical Treasures

In this column, it has been my special brief to pursue and attempt to resuscitate the reputation of great 20th century and contemporary classical music that I think has been neglected.  There is a lot of it, which is why I published a book 10 years ago, titled Surprised by Beauty: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music.  Over the past 10 years, I have, of course, made many new discoveries, which is why I am hard at work on a new edition of this book for Ignatius Press, which will roughly double it in size.

This month, I will cover new releases of 20th century and contemporary music, many of which will end up as recommendations in the new book.  Coincidentally, I received fine new recordings of the two symphonies that launched my fanatical listening career more than four decades ago—the Carl Nielsen Fourth Symphony and the Jan Sibelius Fifth Symphony.  I also made a new discovery of contemporary music from Ireland that I will place as exhibit A in my case of neglected treasures.

I begin by cheating a bit, because Danish composer C. F. E.  Horneman barely made it into the 20th century.  Born in 1840, he died in 1906.  The Dacapo label has issued CD of his dramatic orchestral works, which I found particularly striking because they strongly prefigure the music of perhaps the greatest Danish composer, Carl Nielsen (1865-1931), who acknowledged Horneman as “the bright flame and lambent fire of Danish music.”  Listen to the Gurre-Suite, and you will realize that Nielsen did not spring from a vacuum.  The music is also good enough on its own to merit attention, especially in the fine performances by the Danish national Symphony Orchestra, under Johannes Gustavsson.  (Dacapo 6.220564).

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And this brings us to Nielsen himself. Three years ago this month, at the Barbican in London, I heard Sir Colin Davis conduct the London Symphony Orchestra in Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony.  Davis is, of course, a legendary Sibelius conductor.  I think his first traversal of the Sibelius 7 symphonies with Boston Symphony Orchestras remains the finest of them all.  In the two subsequent Sibelius cycles, he grew progressively slower in his tempi—a hardly strange phenomenon as a conductor ages.  Though I had never heard him in Nielsen, I would not have been surprised from my experience with his Sibelius if Davis, at that time in his early 80s, delivered a performance on the mellow side.  Au contraire, he delivered an entirely gripping, fiery account of the Nielsen Fifth.

This work is, in certain respects, a reprise of Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony, the Inextinguishable.  Some of its themes are variations of what one hears in the Fourth, and the story line is familiar: the forces of life gently dawning; the forces of life getting tromped on by the anti-life forces; the forces of life fighting back and emerging triumphant.  Nielsen follows this scenario a couple of times in the two-part 5th.  The Inextinguishable is one of the greatest symphonic expressions of this theme, and the Fifth Symphony does not quite achieve the same stature.  Nonetheless, it is a very powerful and at times tumultuous work.  The London Symphony Orchestra showed how great an orchestra it is by fully meeting the demands that Nielsen makes.  The great fugal writing in the Presto and the gorgeous Andante in the second part of the symphony was staggeringly good, and the LSO strings excelled in playing it.  But then, so did the timpani and brass more than meet their parts.  It was a thrill to hear orchestral playing at this level.

Now, I get to relive this thrill, because Davis has been working his way through all 6 symphonies for the LSO Live label.  I now have the live recording made during my evening at the Barbican, and it is superb.  What makes it even more indispensable is that it is paired with a live recording of the Fourth Symphony.  The standard in this work was set by Jean Martinon and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a galvanizing performance that RCA set down back in 1966.  It can still be heard in all its glory on the RCA CD.  However, it now has a rival.  Martinon set a blazing pace in the Fourth by playing it in half an hour.  Davis is only seconds longer in his fierce, urgent account.  Of course, it is not all about speed.  It is about capturing the elemental force and passion that makes life Inextinguishable.  This Davis and his great orchestra have done, which makes this particular pairing of symphonies indispensable to any lover of Nielsen’s music (LSO Live SACD LS 00694).  It would also make a great introduction to the newcomer.  I can also heartily recommend the installment which contains Nielsen’s symphonies Nos. 1 and 6, which are performed at the same high level (LSO Live SACD LS00715).

I will never forget the experience of hearing Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony for the first time.  I played the reel-to-reel tape (that should date me) of the Leonard Bernstein recording with the New York Philharmonic almost by accident, as it had been given as a gift to my parents, not to me.  I was dumbfounded.  I did not know that this kind of artistic greatness existed in the world of sound.  It changed my life.  I’ve listened to many recordings of the Fifth Symphony since that time, and attended a number of live performances.  I still hold to the view that the Bernstein recording is the greatest, with Colin Davis’s interpretation with the Boston Symphony Orchestra coming in close behind.  Now there is another competitor.  Paavo Berglund, who died this year, knew Sibelius personally, and conducted cycles of his symphonies several times.  They were respectable efforts, but the ones I heard did not rise to the top.  However, Berglund had a reputation as a better conductor in live concerts than he was in the recording studio.  A new release from the London Philharmonic Orchestra label (LPO-0065) confirms this reputation in the recordings of live performances of the Sibelius Fifth and Sixth symphonies from 2003 and 2006 respectively.  Berglund captures the excitement and majesty of the Fifth with tempi that are similar to Bernstein’s, even a mite tighter.  Nothing sounds rushed, however; it is a magnificent unfolding.  By all means, get the Bernstein, but this is a worthy successor.

Moving on to music on a smaller scale, I have had a new Naxos CD of Ermanno Wolf Ferrari’s music close to me for the past month because it offers some of the most delightfully melodic, engagingly mellow works for winds and small orchestra that I have heard.  Wolf Ferrari (1876-1948) called them concertinos, and composed one for oboe, one for Cor anglais, and another for bassoon.  The soloists and the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma, under conductor Francesco La Vecchia, impart just the right golden glow to this very satisfying music.  The last of these works, the Concertino for Cor anglais, was written in 1947, just as the avant-garde was taking over the European musical world. Music as lovely as this was sent into internal exile, not to be heard again for many decades.  Don’t let these 20th-century beauties pass you by on Naxos (8.572921).

The Naxos label, partnered with Marco Polo, has been bringing us the music of Joly Braga Santos (1924-1988), perhaps the finest Portuguese composer of the 20th century.  His six symphonies, which are all available, attest to this.  Naxos’s most recent release of his music includes orchestral pieces, such as the Symphonic Overture No. 3, a ballet, titled Alfama, Three Symphonic Sketches, and other works, magnificently played by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, under Alvaro Cassuto.  The Overture, in particular, is gloriously melodic and has real sweep to it. It could almost pass for the kind of open-hearted, prairie-flavored music being written in the United States at the time.  In fact, the main theme of the overture is uncannily like the music of American composer Peter Schickele in its main melody.  This is not to say that Braga Santos’ music sounds derivative, but only that great minds think alike.

Speaking of open-hearted music, I must bring to your attention the new Naxos CD of Kenneth Fuchs’s orchestral works (8.559723), brilliantly played by the London Symphony Orchestra, under American conductor JoAnn Falletta.  Like Aaron Copland, Fuchs (b. 1956) has a way of capturing the stirrings of the human heart and the yearnings of the soul in highly spirited, soaring music.  His works carry within themselves an inimitably American sense of expectancy, of horizons glimpsed and striven for, and, finally, of boldly announced arrivals.  He achieves all this within the conventional means of tonality.  Orchestrally, he employs a sparkling kind of American Impressionism, though I heard a dash of Benjamin Britten’s Sea Interludes in Atlantic RibandAmerican Rhapsody is, according to Fuchs, a Romance for violin and orchestra.  It has a Samuel Barber-like melodic appeal and orchestral lushness to it.  If I wanted an English reference point for its soaring solo violin line, I would choose Vaughan Williams’ Lark Ascending. Violinist Michael Ludwig plays with both elegance and exquisite feeling.  So does violist Paul Silverthorne in the lovely Divinum Mysterium, a one movement concerto for viola and orchestra, inspired by a Protestant hymn tune.  This is unfailingly appealing and immediately accessible music.

On an even smaller scale are Charles Koechlin’s works for chamber ensembles, offered on a new Timpani CD (1C1193), which informs us that two of these pieces, the Sonata à 7 for Flute, Oboe, Harpsichord and Strings and the Two Sonatinas for Oboe d’Amore or Soprano Saxophone and Chamber Orchestra, are world premiere recordings. These little, quiet jewels are offered for your refreshment and contemplation by the Initium and Contraste ensembles in a recording that makes it sound as if they are playing in your living room.  Like the works mentioned above, the accompanying Septet for Winds and Paysages et marines for ensemble offer little soufflés in sound.  There is genuine delight in this modestly scaled music.  If you already know Ravel and Debussy, Koechlin (1867-1950) should be your next stop.

I close with a discovery of considerable magnitude.  British music critic and founder of Toccata Classics, Martin Anderson, directed my attention to a new release by the Irish label, RTÉ lyric fm, containing the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, along with two other orchestral works, of Irish composer John Kinsella (b. 1932).  I had only vaguely heard of him.  I saw a blurb by BBC Radio 3, proclaiming Kinsella “the most significant Irish symphonist since [Charles Villiers] Stanford.”  Since I had never been inspired to listen to a Stanford symphony more than once (though I found much to admire in his Requiem and Stabat Mater), this did not lead me to expect much.  What were the odds that Kinsella would turn out to be a major symphonist, even though he has 10 such works to his name?  Well, the praise turns out to have been a considerable understatement.  Here is a composer punching in the heavy-weight class (though there is nothing pugnacious about his music).  The works on this disc (CD 134) pack a wallop.  They immediately led me to obtain the only other available recording of his symphonic works, a Marco Polo CD containing Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4, made back in 1996.

The quality of these four works is such that the fact that all 10 symphonies are not available in recordings constitutes some kind of scandal.  There is no room here to give individual impressions of the four symphonies.  In general, I would say that Kinsella offers a potent combination of the influences of Bruckner and Sibelius, melded into his own distinctive voice, which bursts forth in volcanic eruptions of brass and timpani, deployed and layered in so effectively that they scale the heights of expression.  The acknowledgment of Sibelius is explicit in the Seventh, about which Kinsella wrote, “It would be true to say that this work was written with a keen awareness of Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony.”  This is in the way of homage rather than imitation.  The same is true of the Bruckner influence, evident in Kinsella’s ability to build symphonic moments of overpowering mass and uplift.  The brilliance of his highly imaginative, fantastical orchestration did not lead me to think of Stanford, but of Berlioz.  This is viscerally thrilling music, thoroughly engaging, rhythmically propulsive, and essentially lyrical.  By emphasizing the massive, electrifying deployments of brass and timpani, I do not mean to slight Kinsella’s equally effective evocations of stillness and joy.  The performances by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra must have warmed the composer’s heart.  By all means (and you can easily find it on the Internet), obtain a copy of this RTÉ lyric fm CD, so that you can hear what I am talking about.  Then see if you can track down a copy of the Marco Polo CD.  I am now personally in touch with this composer and will be reporting back in greater depth on his music and the prospects of hearing more of it.

This is only a tiny sliver of the evidence that music was, and is, alive and well in the 20th and 21st centuries.  It only suffers from neglect, which we can help remedy.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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