Music: Stocking Stuffers

The following are short reviews of new CDs featuring the music of composers covered in this column in the recent past. This is not meant as a best of the year list, but as a way for readers to follow up on composers whose music they have particularly enjoyed and wish to explore further. I would be happy to find any of these CDs in my Christmas stocking.

The chamber music CD I have enjoyed most over the past year is the Nimbus Records [NI 5467] release of Franz Schmidt’s two string quartets, lovingly played by the Franz Schubert Quartet. These are a must, not just for Schmidt fans, but for all lovers of chamber music. These works are marvelously rich, sweet, and lyrical, with a touch of sadness and even a whiff of decay from a kind of fin-de-siecle over-ripeness (though they were composed in the 1920s). Unlike Bruckner’s or Rubbra’s essays in the genre, Schmidt’s two masterpieces are not symphonies for string quartet. They are completely idiomatic and to-scale—the intimate kind of conversation that only four people sawing on catgut can have.

Schmidt regularly played cello in a string quartet for sheer pleasure. His love for and mastery of the form are evident here. So are his musical roots going back to Schubert. Schmidt is known as the last composer in the great lineage of the first Viennese School, supplanted in his own time by the second, led by Arnold Schoenberg. If music of this kind had to go, it could not have gone out with a more glorious autumnal glow than in these works, given truly beautiful recordings by Nimbus.

Another Schmidt treat is the premier recording of his Piano Concerto for the left hand (original version), commissioned by the famous pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in World War I. This is a big forty-five minute work with a long orchestral introduction replete with Schmidt’s signature enharmonic modulations. Schmidt knew the piano almost as well as the cello, and there are lovely lines of delicate tracery throughout the concerto, which shares many of the characteristics of his marvelous symphonies. This generous CD also includes the Chaconne for orchestra, an orchestrated version of Schmidt’s famous Chaconne for organ. One longs to hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or the Vienna Philharmonic in music this rich, but the Wiener Jeunesse Orchestra does well for a youth group under conductor Herbert Bock and with pianist Karl-Andreas Kolly [Pan Classics 510 081—distributed by Qualiton].

Speaking of the first Viennese School, Franz Schmidt was actually a student of Anton Bruckner for a short time before Bruckner’s infirmity prevented further teaching. As I mentioned in my article on Bruckner’s great Masses, his symphonies can be daunting— “symphonic boa constrictors,” Brahms called them. Usually one is told to make the approach through the Fourth, Seventh, or Ninth Symphonies. Yet a new recording of Symphony No. 2 by the Houston Symphony under Christoph Eschenbach on the Koch International Classics label [3-7391-2H1] is so thrilling that I unhesitatingly recommend it. It is a live recording that fully captures the excitement of the event. Eschenbach and the Houston Symphony deliver a performance of real breadth and tautness. These two seemingly contradictory qualities have to go together in successfully performing Bruckner. Miss the first and the grandeur is gone; miss the second and the listener is lost in an orchestral swamp. In this performance you will miss nothing under the spell of Eschenbach’s tremendous concentration. Also, someone must have mixed up the billing and told the Houston Symphony that it is the Berlin Philharmonic. That is how beautifully it plays.

Johann Nepomuk Hummel was the afterglow of the world of Mozart, who took Hummel as a child into his home for several years of free lessons, so impressed was Mozart by the child’s promise. The budget label Naxos has released a generous CD [8.553473] containing Hummel’s complete flute sonatas plus a Trio for Flute, Cello, and Piano. Here is elegance, balance, classical clarity, tranquility, and charm with a very high level of invention. What fun to have this pleasant entertainment available in such a delightful recording. The flute works may not be Hummel’s greatest, but they are not negligible either. They were meant to entertain before entertainment became a crime under the gravitas of the Romantics.

Franz Liszt warned Franz Berwald in the late 1850s that, “You are truly original, but you will not have success during your life.” How right he was, but Berwald’s time has arrived. When writing about Berwald, I raved about Hyperion’s first CD release of his chamber music performed by the Gaudier Ensemble. Now volume two [CDA66835] has arrived with Piano Quintet No. 1, the Duo for piano and violin, and Piano Trio No. 4. Anyone who has heard the Guardier’s playing in the first CD knows this is a sure bet. It should do more to convince listeners that Berwald is the greatest undiscovered treasure of the Romantic era.

Edmund Rubbra is the only composer about whom I have written two CRISIS articles. He deserves them. Chandos has now issued the next installment [CHAN 9538] in its noble endeavor to record all of Rub bra’s symphonies—in fact, it has provided the premier recording of Rubbra’s Symphony No. 1. In its toughness and high level of energy, this bold work reminds me of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ wartime Symphony No. 4. The work is a bit atypical for Rubbra but shows astounding mastery for a first effort; the highly-charged opening movement especially is a knockout. This CD includes yet another premier, the Sinfonia concertante for piano and orchestra. Except for its hauntingly beautiful and dreamy introduction, the Sinfonia is the most Romantically extroverted and rhythmically exaggerated work of Rubbra’s I have heard. This youthful experiment lacks the special quality of inwardness that his greatest works have. The CD also offers the short but exquisite A Tribute, which Rubbra wrote in honor of Vaughan Williams’ seventieth birthday. Richard Hickox and BBC National Orchestra of Wales continue with the highest standards of performance.

A release from BBC Radio Classics [15656 91932] shows how well Rubbra went on to write for piano and orchestra in his superb Piano Concerto in G, recorded live in 1976 by Malcom Binns with the London Symphony Orchestra under Vernon Handley. Here is that extraordinary raptness of utterance that Rubbra achieved at the height of his powers. What an exultant, rhapsodic, ecstatic work this is. It is accompanied by the heartfelt, broodingly beautiful Soliloquy for Cello and Orchestra and the great Symphony No. 4 (for which, however, Hickox has given a better account on an earlier Chandos release). The performance of the Piano Concerto makes this CD indispensible.

We are on the cusp of the 900th anniversary of the birth of mystic and visionary Hildegard von Bingen (10981179). In anticipation there are already several new releases of her music. A Harmonia Mundi CD [HMU 907200] featuring Anonymous Four presents portions of the Divine Office as they might have been sung at Hildegard’s convent on the feast of St. Ursula. Hildegard’s compositions are interspersed with contemporaneous musical texts. I love the fact that the four female singers have called themselves Anonymous Four (after the famous medieval musical manuscript), because anonymity indicates the true nature of medieval piety. Also, their performances do have a selfless quality about them. This is as pure as monophony gets—which means it’s better in small doses to avoid the danger of monotony.

More of Arvo Pärt’s mesmerizing musical asceticism comes from Harmonia Mundi [HMU 907182] with its release of De Profundis, Magnificat and a number of other works covering a span of nearly twenty years (1977-1996). If you are living life in the fast lane, listening to Pärt will be like hitting a brick wall. Everything suddenly stops and becomes very simple. Anyone puzzled by the starkness and seeming severity of his work should know that for Pärt the Word is the priceless jewel that his music sets. It is to the jewel he is calling attention, not its setting, and the necessary precondition for hearing the Word is silence.

This is the reason for Pärt’s profound respect for silence and its fullness as the Word emerges from it. Pärt’s is music for meditation; it is the sound of prayer. One can go from Hildegard von Bingen to Arvo Pärt as if the 900 intervening years did not exist. Some might call this a fetish for the archaic; others, a witness to perdurability of true faith. The choral works on this CD may not be the ideal introduction to Pärt (for that go to ECM’s Tabula Rosa or Arbos CDs), but those who know his music will want to have these beautiful performances by Paul Hillier and the Theatre of Voices.

One last note. In my interview with David Diamond he expressed regret that he, like Shostakovitch, would probably not live to see his string quartets recorded and would have to content himself with the hope that they would be rediscovered later. I am happy to report that the String Quartet No. 1 is now available in a collection with interesting works by other composers on Albany [TROY 229]. Let us hope that the other ten will soon follow.

Robert R. Reilly


Robert R. Reilly is the author of The Closing of the Muslim Mind (ISI Books) and Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Homosexual Behavior Is Changing Everything (Ignatius Press).