- Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard: “Mendelssohn Symphonies 1 & 3” (BIS)
- The Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin: “Florence Price: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 3” (Deutsche Grammophon)
- Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal, Yannick Nézet-Séguin: “Sibelius 3” (ATMA Classique)
- Yu Kosuge: “Four Elements: Water, Fire, Wind, and Earth” (Orchid Classics)
- Sarah Kirkland Snider, Gallicantus: “Mass for the Endangered” (New Amsterdam)
“In the deep twilight we went today to the palace where Queen Mary lived and loved,” Felix Mendelssohn wrote to his family in the summer of 1829. “The chapel below is now roofless. Grass and ivy thrive there and at the broken altar where Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. Everything is ruined, decayed, and the clear heavens pour in. I think I have found there the beginning of my ‘Scottish’ Symphony.”
Mendelssohn finished his Third Symphony 13 years later—an auspicious number for a work coated in both misty romanticism and mystical decay. Ultimately, he seemed to shy away from the “Scottish” nickname. Still, it remains fixed to the symphony like a watermark, and even without the moniker it’s hard not to picture a landscape where nature has run wild over abandoned chapels and altars.
For some critics, these same evocations make it a bit overstuffed. Skilled proponents, however, can fashion the right setting and space. Pablo Heras-Casado’s 2016 recording of the work with the Freiburger Barockorchester for Harmonia Mundi (paired with the composer’s “Italian” Fourth Symphony) is a champagne-hued corker of color and texture that plays on negative space and dynamics to create a vitally fresh interpretation. On the flip side of that coin sits Thomas Dausgaard’s new recording with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra. Paired with the composer’s less-heard First Symphony, it’s the winter to Heras-Casado and Freiburg’s summer, swapping fizzy vibrance for dark gravitas. Dausgaard and the SCO give a Gerhard Richter-esque read of the score; each brushstroke is a shade of grey, but those shades come together to create a photorealistic effect full of depth and expression.
The fourth movement with its much-maligned dramatics is a special standout here. While many critics of the Third cite this movement in particular as Victorian overkill, Dausgaard seems to read it as musicologist Peter Mercer-Taylor once did, in context with the era in which the Third gestated: Beethoven died in 1827, two years before Mendelssohn started his sketches for the symphony. His other artistic hero, Goethe, died five years later. According to Mercer-Taylor, Mendelssohn was one of many artists across genre and medium who “began to express an acute feeling of inadequacy in the face of past achievements.” They were staring into a void, wondering what would come next. This was a burden, one Mendelssohn seems to allude to in his Third with a concluding sense of renewal: the chance to forge something new. As much as it was the end of an era, it was also a beginning.
Like Mendelssohn, Florence Price came of age in a brave new musical world, where the artistically heady atmosphere of the Black Chicago Renaissance met the Second New England School and the foundations of a distinctly “American” classical sound. Price had studied in Boston with Second New England School composer George Whitefield Chadwick (who in turn had been mentored by Carl Reinecke, a student of Mendelssohn), and—as part of a wider community of not only Black composers, but Black female composers—she also became uniquely poised to help define a new era of sound.
The beginning of her First Symphony, much like the opening of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, thrusts the listener into a musical world as if entering mid-conversation. A propulsive rhythm underscores a bassoon melody, locked in a volley with other configurations of the orchestra, orbiting one another until they align in a resounding tutti. It’s the moodiness of Mendelssohn’s Scotland colliding with the rhythmic tension of Janáček’s overture to “The Makropulos Case.”
On their new recording of Price’s First and Third Symphonies, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra lean into each turn of Price’s score, from the beguiling alchemy of the opening movement to the full-throated exuberance of the third movement—which abandons Romantic territory for African-American Juba rhythms that make Copland’s “Hoe-Down” seem staid.
Price follows a similar structure in her Third Symphony, which owes its existence to a commission from the WPA’s Federal Music Project and premiered six years later. In that time, Price’s musical influences and reference points became more absorbed into her own distinct palette. There’s still an element of the otherworldly in the opening movement, but it resolves into a series of panoramas like something out of John Ford; vast landscapes of sandstone and sky that create stark moments of the sublime.
As a conductor, Nézet-Séguin is well-suited to a score like Price’s. He has an eye for both the wide establishing shots and fine-toothed details that come alive in subsequent listens; equal parts Ford and Hitchcock. It’s a level of sumptuousness that could easily become vulgar, but Nézet-Séguin’s superstardom has hinged in part on his ability to avoid self-indulgence, instead highlighting the natural luxury of the works he conducts.
This is equally apparent on Nézet-Séguin’s latest release with his other orchestra, the Orchestre Métropolitain, a standalone recording of Sibelius’s Third Symphony. Much like the shift between both Mendelssohn and Price’s First and Third Symphonies, Sibelius’s Third came at a turning point for the composer that mirrors what Alain Locke once wrote about Price: Her aim was to write music that was “neither racial nor national, but universal.” With his Third Symphony, Sibelius opts to do this more economically, with a clarity of theme and orchestration as crystalline as a winter morning.
As strong as the Mendelssohn and Sibelius recordings are, however, they become more interesting as bookends to Price. Listening to her works in this context isn’t so much an exercise in comparing them to pieces more standardly Canon™, however. It helps us more fully thread the needle of music history and symphonic development. Through Price’s teacher, she was not only the artistic great-granddaughter of Mendelssohn, but also a goddaughter of sorts to Sibelius (whom Chadwick knew and admired and whose influence can be heard in his own works). Much in the same way that Sibelius created a musical national identity for Finland, Price’s symphonies capture a similar genealogy of American music, one that more accurately and authentically captures a topography of American identity than many of her better-known compatriots.
With so many references and evocations of the natural world across Mendelssohn, Price, and Sibelius, it’s fitting that pianist Yu Kosuge’s quartet of recordings, “Four Elements,” concluded this month with “Earth.” Since 2018, Kosuge has steadily churned out nearly one solo album per year of whip-smart programming based on one of the four elements. It’s an exercise that owes much to Beethoven’s obsessive reading of classical theory, which in and of itself became a point of fascination for the Japanese pianist.
Kosuge builds on the foundation laid by Beethoven, working in compositions that stretch across temporal and physical geography and, in some cases, resonate differently at the end of her project than they must have at the beginning, given the last two years. 2021’s “Wind” is especially uncanny. Beginning with a series of fleet and breezy works from the French baroque era (Daquin, Couperin, Rameau), all rhythm and pedagogical productivity, “Wind” ends in a Price-ian stillness with “In the Mists” by Janáček—a composer especially well-suited to Kosuge’s melodic sensibilities and dynamic contrasts.
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Ending on earth was deliberate for Kosuge, who views it as the closest “to the human being itself and our own struggles in life.” There’s something appropriately alkaline in her opening gambit of Schubert’s “Wanderer Fantasy.” Alternating soft treads with hard rhythmic stomps, the titular nowhere man longs to know: “Where are you, my beloved land?” The final response comes as a ghostly whisper: “There, where you are not, lies your happiness.” Kosuge delivers this section with acerbic longing, a rueful acknowledgement of the last few years that also serves as a small act of consolation: We aren’t the first to experience such an aching winter of discontent, with satisfaction permanently just out of reach. In 2022, it’s familiar territory.
After listening to “The Four Elements,” I began to crave a more contemporary survey of our terrain. And, after re-listening to the first movements of Price, I realized the best pairing would be Sarah Kirkland Snider’s “Mass for the Endangered,” a recontextualizing of the Catholic mass in the context of the climate crisis. Snider’s artistic vision behind this work happens to be not too far off from Kosuge’s interpretation of earth. Both see it as the meeting ground between natural elements and human nature. “The origin of the Mass is rooted in humanity’s concern for itself, expressed through worship of the divine,” Snider writes. “Which, in the Catholic tradition, is a God in the image of man.” The key difference here being that Snider, along with librettist Nathaniel Bellows, apply that sense of concern and contemplation to non-human life, and direct their appeal at nature itself.
Always a bit otherworldly and ethereal, Snider’s music gives in to each of the four elements, both at different points throughout the Mass and, occasionally, within the same movement. The “Gloria” opens with a choral passage that ripples and reverberates like a lake receiving a stone, and is soon met with a male chorus far more tethered to earth, perhaps in the same zone of suffering as Schubert’s Wanderer. An ebb and flow of strings at the beginning of the subsequent “Alleluia” flickers like a candle struggling to hold onto its flame. Perhaps the liminal upper choral registers of the concluding “Agnus Dei” are providing the breeze.
The movement I’ve turned to over and again with “Mass for the Endangered” is the penultimate “Sanctus-Benedictus,” which hears Snider’s vocal textures vacillate most acutely between the ecumenical and the earthy. At certain points, it feels like a trail that has been tread for centuries—witness Britten’s choral writings, informed by the traditions from the era of Mary, Queen of Scots, or even Mendelssohn’s comparatively grander choral work in “Paulus.” But even more apparent on this relisten is the connective tissue between Snider and Price, who both work at times with the same American musical lexicon. It creates familiar ground and deep twilight; the ideal vantage point to find a moment of stillness, or perhaps a beginning. ¶
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