March 1, 2010
From Classical to No-Later-than-Late Romantic
As is happily the norm, I am inundated with CD releases that demand your attention. The music spans the 18th to the 20th centuries, so I shall proceed chronologically, having no other principle of organization at hand. This way you can simply skip the centuries you deplore and get to the good stuff. (That is what I do, which is why you so seldom encounter reviews of Renaissance and Baroque music in this column. Please do not protest. De gustibus.)
Thus we begin in the 18th century with Joseph Martin Kraus (1756-1792), the only composer other than Mozart whom Franz Joseph Haydn declared a genius. We already know that Krauss was a great composer from earlier Naxos recordings, Vols. 1-4, of his brilliant symphonies. A new Naxos release (8.570585) provides the extensive incidental music from Kraus’s opera based on Virgil’s Aeneid, titled Aeneas in Carthage. One can imagine how monumental this six-act opera is, as this music by itself comprises 70 minutes of overtures, ballets, and marches, with marvelous depictions of an archery contest, hunting calls, a chase, and a storm. There are some good, solid chunks of music here, like the eight-minute Prologue and the ten-minute Chaconne from Act V, so things do not seem too episodic. In all, this is another excellent demonstration of Kraus’s lively imagination, and the performance by the Sinfonia Finlandia Jyvaskkyla, under Patrick Gallois, brings it vividly to life.
Naxos also remains faithful to the music of Louis Spohr (1784-1859) — get the marvelous Naxos CDs of the clarinet concertos and the string quintets — by releasing his Concertante Nos. 1 and 2 for two violins and orchestra, along with Violin Duet in G major, Op. 3, No. 3. Spohr was one of the great violinists of the early Romantic era, and his writing for his own instrument is never empty showboat exhibitionism. There is very little spectacle in this music. It is lyrical, sweet, and refined. The dialogue between the two violins is often touching in the fine performances by Henning Kraggerud and Oyvind Bjora. This is very enjoyable music (Naxos 8.570840).
One of the finest recent string quartet releases comes from a sometime student of Spohr, Bernhard Molique (1802-1869). Like Spohr, Molique seems to have kept to a more understated, refined approach to his art than some of his wilder Romantic contemporaries. On evidence of the two String Quartets, Op. 18 and Op. 28, Molique was a highly gifted chamber music composer whose work in this genre might be favorably compared to Mendelssohn’s. It is played here with panache and feeling by the Mannheimer String Quartet on the CPO label (CPO 777276-2). Apparently, Molique wrote some 13 quartets. This CD is marked Vol. 2, which means we have a lot to look forward to.
It seems that the great violinist Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) was quite fond of Molique and a frequent visitor to his house. Joachim was persuaded by Franz Liszt to begin composing and, not surprisingly, we hear the surging drama of the high Romantic era in his two violin concertos. He certainly gave himself plenty to do in the Violin Concerto in D minor in the Hungarian Style, Op. 11, the first movement of which lasts almost half an hour. Yes, it has its longueurs, but it is more than instructive to hear this kind of work, especially since Joachim had such a major influence on Brahms in his single work in the same genre. Violinist Suyoen Kim does a superb job with the Staatskapelle Weimar, under Michael Halász, on Naxos 8.570991.
A fun orchestral discovery of the winter is the symphonic music of Theodore Gouvy (1819-1898), as put forth in two entries by the CPO label, containing Symphonies Nos. 3 and 5 (777 379-2), as well as Symphony No. 6 and the Sinfonietta Op. 80 (777 380-2). I was inclined to overlook the first issue until I put on the second. That impressed me enough that I went back for a more thorough listen to the first. What finally intrigued me were the various influences that kept popping up. A little Mendelssohn here, some Berlioz there, a bit of Schumann and, most surprisingly, what sounded like a presage of Smetana. The Berlioz makes itself felt in the gorgeous Larghetto of the Third Symphony, which employs a melody that that master could have written — ten minutes of sheer beauty. The next movement then moves into the sylvan world of Mendelssohn. Gouvy whips up some real power toward the end of the first movement of the Sixth. A section of the Scherzo that follows sounds like it is coming out of Smetana’s Ma Vlast. This is not great music, but it provides a very interesting and attractive look into its period, especially when the music is so well performed by the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern, under conductor Jacques Mercier.
I must mention the Fine Arts Quartet CD featuring the Cesar Franck (1822-1890) String Quartet and the Piano Quintet, with pianist Cristina Ortiz. Naxos seems to be using the Fine Arts Quartet to go over some repertory staples. This is very good news. (I was deeply impressed by their performances of the complete Schumann string quartets and the Bruckner quintet released earlier.) With the Franck works, we enter deeply into the emotionally turbulent world of Romanticism. Last week, I was blown away by a performance at the Kennedy Center of the Faure Second Piano Quartet, by members of the Quartet Ébène and pianist Orion Weiss. These works come from that same highly charged atmosphere and were written roughly around the same time. (Was there something in the absinthe?) Ortiz and the Fine Arts Quartet infuse these works with the passion they require. Fasten your seatbelts (Naxos 8.572009).
With late Romanticism, music went increasingly over the top, or perhaps over the cliff, as it became more extreme in expression and gargantuan in shape. Gerhard Schjelderup’s Brand and Symphony No. 2, To Norway, on a new CPO release (777348-2), are exhibit A. Huge orchestral sounds are employed to convey the striving and storms encountered by the hero Brand (after Henrik Ibsen’s drama), as he reaches for a Wagnerian apotheosis. The subheadings tell the tale: “Journey through fog and storm to the highest peak”; “Love in suffering and desire”; “He who has beheld Jehovah must die”; “My God is storm”; and “Death of a hero.”
All is not Sturm und Drang, however. There is also wonderful, touching love music for the meeting with the girl, Agnes, the one moment when I heard hints of Norwegian folk music. Surprisingly, given the scenario, none of this comes off as corny. In fact, this is riveting music that has some of the most convincing and terrifying thunderclaps I have heard in symphonic music. Using all the resources Wagner developed and more, Schjelderup achieves what he strove for: the hero’s apotheosis. It is extraordinary that this music had not been recorded before. It cries out for one of the major orchestras to perform. The Trondheim Symphony Orchestra, under Eivind Aadland, heroically plays its heart out in this fine performance.
Late Romantic music was also very rich and overripe, as in Alexander von Zemlinsky’s Die Seejungfrau (“The Mermaid”), after Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the same title. Here are more storms, gorgeous melodies, and broken hearts in a symphonic fantasy from 1905 that requires a virtuoso orchestra. The style of this intense and highly atmospheric music is redolent of early Schoenberg, without its hints of morbidity. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, under James Judd, gives this music the sheen it requires. You will be swept away. The accompanying Sinfonietta from 1934 shows exactly what the post-Romantic meant: The lushness is gone, and in its place is music that is more acerbic and angular. One can easily hear how far 1934 was from the world of pre-war Vienna. This is another outstanding bargain from Naxos (8.570240).
More attractive, if obscure, orchestral extravaganzas come from Hermann Hans Wetzler (1870-1943) in his Visionen, Op. 12, and Assisi, Op. 13. Wetzler explained, “These tone paintings capture in musical form visions of the human spirit, originating in our inner life.” After a puckish introduction, the Adagio’s vision is so beautiful it sounds like it is coming from the neighborhood of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll. Most of the rest shares in the sound world of Richard Strauss, who introduced some of Wetzler’s works. The Scherzo depicts the demon Charon in Dante’s Inferno. The last movement aims at depicting “the vision of the divine. The work concludes with the dissolving and evaporating of this impalpable image.” Assisi is another attractive Straussian-style tone poem, depicting “Mourning Bells,” “Easter Morning,” “Sermon of the Birds,” “Sister Sun,” and “Brother Death.” This sumptuous music makes another wonderful find for CPO, which provides a sonic feast from the Robert-Schumann Philharmonic, led by Frank Beermann (CPO 777 412-2).
I cannot leave the subject of late Romanticism without alerting you to the fact that CPO has also released the complete Quartets, Nos. 1-3, and the Piano Quintet of Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957), the man who personified echt Viennese music in his pre-war wunderkind years, and who successfully gave it a new lease on life in his great Hollywood scores. Flamboyant, meltingly lovely, achingly nostalgic, impassioned, and whimsical, these works are finally together in all their glory in a two-CD set with the Aron Quartett and pianist Henri Sigfridsson. (CPO 777 436-2)
Lucky for you who are wary of modernity that I got this far, and no further.
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