- 22 March, 2013
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Depictions of life and strife have been central to a number of our recent releases: Weinberg’s expansive Symphony No. 8 Polish Flowers (Naxos 8.572873) with its roots in World War II, for example, and Mohammed Fairouz’ chamber-scale commentary on a contemporary, troubled Egypt in Native Informant (Naxos 8.559744).
To redress the balance a little this week, we take comfort in those works that offset the repression of war with a sense of release when it’s over.
Almost a century ago, Heitor Villa-Lobos set his reactions to the conclusion of World War I in the second and third of his twelve symphonies, subtitled respectively War and Victory; the score of No. 4, Peace, was sadly lost. The pair features on one of this month’s new releases (Naxos 8.573151). It’s an all-Brazilian affair, with the São Paolo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Isaac Karabtchevsky; the works were commissioned by the Brazilian government following the end of the country’s involvement in the war.
The Victory symphony may be more reflective than triumphalist, but Villa-Lobos used a huge palette of instrumental sound to set down his thoughts and exercise his brilliant orchestration skills. Aside from unusual instrumental combinations (the opening of the third movement, for instance, has bass clarinet, contra-bassoon and bass saxophone supporting the melody on cor anglais and viola), you may need a dictionary to hand to become acquainted with instruments such as the saxhorn, clarone and bombardino (no relation to the Italian cocktail!).
Among the more rejoicing post-war works that have been longer established in the annals, several were inspired by Napoleon’s failed bid to subjugate all before him.
Written to celebrate the defeat of the French forces by the British at the Battle of Vittoria in 1813, Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory (Naxos 8.550230) is a jolly piece of frippery that was originally conceived for performance by a huge mechanical device, the panharmonicon. The machine was the brainchild of Johann Mälzel, who also invented the metronome.
Beethoven subsequently scored the piece for traditional orchestral forces, quoting English and French tunes rising above the artillery of timpani shots. The work was first performed in 1814 alongside Beethoven’s less well-known partner work, the choral fantasy Der glorreiche Augenblick (The Glorious Moment – Naxos 8.572783). Written in a similarly patriotic vein, the optimism of the times comes to life through the text, as when the city of Vienna is given human expression through the voice of a solo soprano:
Performed more frequently, and written in 1880, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (Naxos 8.550500) opens with more serious tones to depict Russia’s repelling of Napoleon, but ends with those unique sounds of triumphant canon fire, resounding bells and fusillades of brass that have become universally familiar. We shouldn’t let the truth spoil perception, but Tchaikovsky had his reservations about the piece, complaining to his patron, Nadezhda von Meck, that he was not a “concocter of festival pieces.” He confessed that his loud musical spectacle had little artistic merit “because I wrote it without warmth and without love.”
Looping back to those constructional challenges Mälzel must have experienced with his panharmonicon reminds us that the world’s largest mechanical device in existence before the Industrial Revolution was, in fact, the organ. One was even used as a demonstration of western ingenuity and a sweetener by the early Jesuit Matteo Ricci when trying to persuade the Emperor of China to tolerate his Catholic mission there around 1600. It was a bells and whistles affair, literally, with the capability of producing sounds of nature in addition to more musical tones, somewhat akin to the modern Wurlitzer.
The more conventional sounds of a modern organ, however, can be heard in another of this month’s new releases. It’s of music that was also seeded in the years of World War II, the time when Helmut Walcha began his set of chorale preludes that stands as a successor to the magnificent collection composed by JS Bach some two centuries earlier. In this third of four volumes (Naxos 8.572912), Delbert Disselhorst showcases the colours and sonorities that only an organ, two hands and a pair of feet can capture. While we’re on this subject, let’s give Beethoven the final word:
“If he is a master of his instrument, I rank an organist amongst the first of virtuosi. I, too, played the organ a great deal when I was young, but my nerves would not stand the power of the gigantic instrument.”