Last month I began a look at the flood of fantastic summer releases, which only confirms for me that we are indeed in a golden age of recording. This month I’ll pick up where we left off.
Three new CPO releases convince me that only now are we getting a fuller glimpse of the golden glow from the final sunset outburst of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Vienna before World War I — and even up until the Anschluss — was as fecund a cultural capitalas the world has ever seen. The musical wealth was staggering. Many who were part of it had to run for their lives from the Nazis and never recovered from their displacement. But there was no new Vienna to which they could flee, and the language in which they spoke was foreign to the people in the lands to which they moved. It was also foreign to the avant-garde, led by Arnold Schoenberg and his Second Viennese School, which eschewed the old world of tonality and its riches.
Emil Nikolaus von Reznicek (1860-1945) exemplified this richness. He wrote with staggering virtuosity in the vein of Richard Strauss or Franz Schreker. CPO has previously released CDs of his Schlemihl and Der Sieger, as well as his one big operatic success, Donna Diana. Sometimes Reznicek seemed to be taking the Strauss tone poem idiom seriously; at others, to be making delicious fun of it. He could flip it on and off at will with extraordinary dexterity and orchestral skill. This might have confused audiences, but there is much to admire and enjoy in this humorous fabulist’s work.
The newest CPO CD (777 047-2) features the delicious Eine Lustspiel Overture, which sounds gloriously Viennese and fun, and two lengthy sets of orchestral variations, one after the poem "Tragische Gershichte," by Adalbert von Chamissio and other on Kol Nidrey. The marvelous performances are, once again, by the WDR Symphony Orchestra Koln, under Michail Jurowski.
No one better illustrates the profile of the lost Viennese world than Franz Mittler (1893-1970). A new CPO release of his String Quartets Nos. 1 and 3, with the Hugo Wolf Quartet (777 329-2), makes the claim that "this recording is thus a document of the important countercurrent to the break with tradition represented by the second Viennese school — a development that has been emphasized in such a way as to obscure all else." Mittler had to flee the Nazis in 1938. He ended up in the United States, where he wrote a one-finger polka for Groucho Marx. He was only 16 when he wrote his highly precocious First Quartet, which lilts along to the delights of song and dance from 1909 Vienna.
Mittler composed the Third Quartet when he was serving as a lieutenant in World War I. It commemorates his service in Volhynia (now in Ukraine), Serbia, Styria, and Hungary in the most musically delightful way, especially with the wild sense of play in the gypsy-like Hungarian movement. This music does not aim at greatness. Its goal is enjoyment, and it shows how high a standard for such pleasures that lost world enjoyed.
Eric Zeisl (1905-1959) served as Franz Mittler’s best man, when he got married in exile in the United States. Zeisl is another voice from lost Vienna. He also fled in 1938. According to his granddaughter, Barbara Zeist Schoenberg, "He won an Austrian state prize in 1934 (for a Requiem Mass), but because he was a Jew he could not secure a publishing contract since his works would have by that time been banned in Germany, the primary market. (He was just 29 years old.)" In American exile, like so many other great Viennese talents (such as Korngold), Zeisl was reduced to writing film music in Hollywood, such as Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man.He complained,
Even Milhaud, Stravinsky, Tansman are struggling. Bela Bartok died in New York of hunger! . . . Last year I orchestrated a Tchaikowsky [sic] operetta which provided [a] living for 8 months, but why does Tchaikowsky have to be put into an operetta? . . . No composer is important here.
The good news is that Zeisl found the time and the spirit to continue composing serious music.
CPO has issued the premiere recordings of Zeisl’s Piano Concerto and the ballet suite, Pierrot in der Flasche, with Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra and pianist Gottlieb Wallisch, under conductor Johannes Wildner (777 226-2). The 1951 Piano Concerto was not performed until 2005. This gives some measure of magnitude of the scandal of his neglect, because this is simply one the best of its kind from the mid-20th century. I defy anyone not to be swept up by this music. Each of the three movements has a wonderfully distinctive and attractively developed theme. This is Romantic music with an edge and a great deal of character. Along with beauty, there is an expressive eeriness to sections of the Andante, and some bracing harshness to the opening chords of the third and last movement. The Concerto is immediately engaging and highly memorable. May its success bring us more of his music — how about Zeisl’s Cello Concerto?
More late-Romantic 20th century concertos come from Naxos. The immensely attractive Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2, by Hungarian composer Erno von Dohnanyi (1877-1960), are available on a new Naxos CD (8.570833) with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, violinist Michael Ludwig, under conductor JoAnn Falletta. These are sumptuous, colorful works. Naxos also delivers the famous Violin Concerto by Miklos Roza (1907-1995), written for Jascha Heifetz, in a superb performance by violinist Anastasia Khitruk and the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, under Dimitry Yablonsky (8.570350). The quality of these two releases demonstrates that Naxos bargain prices are no obstacle to the very finest quality.
I have been fascinated by the revelatory series of CPO releases of Turkish composer Ahmed Adnan Saygun’s music. The recorded evidence is now ample that he was Turkey’s greatest 20th-century composer. Saygun (1907-1991) was a Turkish Bela Bartok. In fact, he traveled with Bartok throughout Turkey collecting folk materials. The richness of his sources is clearly revealed in his highly distinctive and complex music.
Because it reveals the strength of this man’s character, his general orientation, and the profundity of his insights into the crisis of modernity, I think it is worth quoting at length from Saygun’s artistic credo, written in 1945:
The twentieth century takes the "ego" to extremes. This century seeks to shatter everything to its very foundations; and its destructive spirit also reverberates in the world of sounds. Local color and "national atmosphere" have undergone a great many changes in the last forty years. In the end, when even artists were seized by the urge to tear everything down, nothing was left of local color or anything else . . . . Only the "stamp of personality" and "ego" remained. . . . It is as if the people of this new era live, not to "integrate" themselves, but to "devaluate." A terrible collapse; a terrible self-abnegation; and — rootlessness.
As you might imagine, Saygun’s music is the antithesis of what he denounces, particularly in the fabulous orchestral color he creates. The Cello Concerto on CPO (777 290-2) is particularly appealing in its melody and orchestral exoticisms. The accompanying Viola Concerto is also an intriguing work, if not as immediately accessible as the Cello Concerto. It contains an abundance of marvelous, mysterious, crepuscular murmurings of the kind that Saygun may have learned from Bartok. Cellist Tim Hugh, violist Mirjam Tschopp, and the Bilkent Symphony Orchestra, under Howard Griffiths, perform brilliantly.
After giving us British composer William Alwyn’s orchestral music, including his Five Symphonies, Naxos had added three more CDs featuring his piano music (8.570359), song cycles (8.570201) and chamber music (8.570340). The latter contains some real jewels, like the Sonata Impromptu for Violin and Viola, and the Three Winter Poems for String Quartet. All praise to Naxos for giving Alwyn (1905-1985) his belated due.
As I listened to Manuel Blancafort’s delightful Piano Music without reading the notes from the CD jacket liner, I thought: What a very pleasant example it is of French impressionism. Oops — I read the notes to discover that Blancafort (1897-1987) was an avid Catalan, whose music supposedly evokes various sites in Spain. My confused musical geography is no reason not to enjoy these refined reflections, as finely performed by Miquel Villalba on Naxos (8.557335).
I end with brief notes on two CDs offering huge orchestral works. Einojuhani Rautavaara (b. 1928) may be the most popular symphonist alive today. All you have to do is listen to the new Naxos CD (8.570069) featuring his Symphony No. 8, The Journey, Manhattan Trilogy, and Apotheosis to understand why — sumptuous sweeping music of almost cinematic character, beautifully performed by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, under Pietari Inkinen.
Match this with another Symphony No. 8, this one by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933), in its world premiere recording on Naxos (8.570450), with the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra, under Antoni Wit. This symphony is a setting of 19th and early 20th century German poems by Goethe, Rilke, and others, titled Songs of Transience. The settings are beautifully done, some of them quite haunting, which is not a surprise considering the subject matter. What is surprising is that most of this work would not have been out of place in the late 19thor early 20th century. Compare it to the hair-raising Dies irae from 1958, also on this disc, from Penderecki’s avant-garde phase, and you will see how long a journey this composer has traveled.
Lastly, if on your summer travels you need some gorgeous, operatic, Puccini-like lyricism, I repeat my highest recommendation of Daniel Catan’s magical opera, Florencia en el Amazonas, on Albany (Troy 531/32).
Robert R. Reilly is the music critic for InsideCatholic.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.