I grow old (but shall not wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled), and my interest in Anton Bruckner’s music deepens with time because it speaks of the timeless. His Symphony No. 8 is one of the summits of music that endeavors to make the transcendent perceptible. In it you will hear the swirl and turn of galaxies, the vastness and majesty of creation, and the tread of the Creator coming toward you. It will shake you to the roots of your being. Little in art is as awe-struck and awe-inspiring.
I seldom seek out more than one or two versions of any work; I am too interested in discovering the new and overlooked. But I must have close to a dozen versions of Bruckner’s 8th. The performances that have moved me most are by Günter Wand, Wilhelm Furtwängler, and Klaus Tennstedt. I have been immersing myself in a new live recording by the Staatskapelle Dresden, under Christian Thielemann, who has recently been appointed that orchestra’s new principal conductor (starting in 2012). I am particularly taken by Thielemann’s capture of a certain kind of tenderness in this work, caught without losing its sense of transcendence. This is something new, something I had not noticed before, for which I was grateful.
Thus I was taken aback when I read in the new Gramophone magazine (Awards 2010 issue) that this performance “fails to ignite” and that it suffers from “a lack of detailed long-term preparation.” Strange: Only detailed preparation could have produced what I heard. The reviewer suggests that the failure he perceived was caused by “parties who barely know one another,” by which he meant that Thielemann had been called in as a last-minute replacement for the indisposed conductor Fabio Luisi. But it was Thielemann who chose the program, and he knows this symphony well and has performed it before. From what I heard in this Profil recording (2 SACD Ph10031), so does the Dresden orchestra.
In other words, what you will get here is a very fine performance of a great symphony in modern sound — perhaps not quite with the terrifying sublimity and metaphysical chill down the spine that Furtwängler and Wand achieve in their reach for the infinite, but there is more than a brush with greatness here. Rather than strangers in the night, the pairing of Thielemann and the Dresden State Orchestra promises to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. It is no wonder that Dresden announced Thielemann as Luisi’s successor three weeks after the concert took place. If this is the way they play unprepared, I cannot wait to hear them after more rehearsal.
That settled, we shall dwell for a few more worthy releases in the German-speaking world but from the unfortunate period of Nazi misrule. There were two kinds of exile generated by Adolf Hitler — inner and outer. Adolph Busch, of the famous Busch Quartet, left Germany because he, a non-Jew, was appalled by Nazi racism. Walter Braunfels, a Catholic convert of half-Jewish parentage, lived in inner exile, his music banned. RCA has released Busch’s String Sextet and Braunfels’ String Quintet (RCA 886976449025) in an album titled Two Roads to Exile. I had not known Busch was a composer as well as a famous violinist, but his Sextet is a delight.
The real find here, though, is the world premiere recording of the Braunfels. Written in 1945, the Quintet in F-sharp minor is a work steeped in melancholy, with an almost Schubertian poignancy to it. It cuts through the heart. However, the fourth movement, Finale-Rondo, begun dolefully, slips into a Janáček-style dance that lifts the spirits and dispels the gloom. The wonderful ARC musicians (Artists of the Royal Conservatory, Toronto) do a marvelous job bringing these works fully to life, a service they have provided in their equally outstanding releases of Weinberg and Rontgen chamber music. This is not to be missed by lovers of chamber music.
Readers may recall my June column on the rediscovery of the music of Gunter Raphael, another partly Jewish German composer (declared a “half-Jew” by the Nazis) who remained in Germany during the war, with his music forbidden. After the CPO label’s stunning release of four of his symphonies, I am happy to report that Toccata Classics has released a CD of his Music for Violin (TOCC 0122) that allows for a fuller view. The Busch Quartet, by the way, championed Raphael’s chamber music. The Sonatina in B minor is immediately appealing, but I am particularly attracted by the two Sonatas for solo violin and the Duo for two violins, with their strong echoes of Bach. Like the Braunfels, this music is good enough not to need special pleading, but it does help reveal the dimensions of the Nazi culture crime. Become a member of the Toccata Discovery Club, and you can get this CD for a song.
Austrian Jewish composer Hans Gál fled the Nazis in 1938 and eventually moved to Scotland, where he died at the ripe old age of 97. I have earlier written about his superb string quartets. Now the Avie label has released a CD with Gál’s two Violin Sonatas and the Suite for Violin and Piano (AV 2182), written between 1920 and 1935, and a second CD with his Violin Concerto, Violin Concertino, and the Triptych for Orchestra (AV 2146).
There is something expert about this music without a hint of pedantry. If it did not sound too self-congratulatory, I would say that Gál is a composer for the connoisseur. I mean this in the sense that the fineness of what he does can easily be overlooked. He does not grab your attention; you have to give it. As I noted earlier, his music in no way forces itself upon you; it has a sense of privacy. Otherwise, it is written in echt Viennese style of the pre-twelve-tone variety and without a whiff of decadence. Gál never felt the need or the desire to change that style throughout his long and productive career.
Gál’s grandson described the Op. 17 Sonata as “possibly one of Gál s most outwardly-expressive chamber works.” This remark should be understood within the context of Gál s being essentially an inwardly expressive composer. It and the other works on this CD have immediate appeal, especially as delivered by violinist Annette-Barbara Vogel and pianist Juhani Lagerspetz.
Vogel reappears as the soloist in the immensely attractive CD of Gál’s concertante works for violin. The opening Fantasia movement of the Violin Concerto, composed at the height of Gál’s success in Germany in 1932, has an instantly memorable theme, long-lined and lyrical. Three minutes into it, you might think Vaughan Williams had a hand in it. Well before he crossed the channel, Gál was sounding like an English pastoralist. This is the first orchestral work of his that I have encountered, and it raises him even higher in my estimation. The second movement, marked Arioso, is just as beautiful and runs into the concluding, lively Rondo.
Vogel’s playing is superlative, obviously a labor of love, as is the dedicated performance of the Northern Sinfonia, under conductor Kenneth Woods. It is a measure of the damage the Nazis did that this work was not heard after 1933 until 2004. It is, I suppose, easy to imagine how music this lovely and civilized was first suppressed and then overlooked in the ideological age of the 20th century. How wonderful that Avie has revived it. The Concertino is just as delicious as the Concerto, and the Triptych from 1970 shows that Gál never lost his bearings. As you can tell, this is one of my favorite discoveries of the year.
Another Austrian composer, Marcel Tyberg, had a story that ended less well than Gál’s. Though Tyberg was a Catholic (he composed a Te Deum and two Masses), his mother’s great-grandfather was Jewish, making him 1/16th Jewish. That was enough for the Nazis to deport him from Italy, where he was living, to Auschwitz, where he was murdered in 1944. In a marvelous story, however, the manuscript of his Symphony No. 3 was hidden and preserved by an Italian doctor, whose son eventually brought it to Buffalo, New York. JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra have revived the piece, giving its world premiere in 2008. Naxos recorded it, along with Tyberg’s Piano Trio (Naxos 8.572236).
Like Gál, Tyberg had no truck with musical modernism. Three years younger than Gál, he wrote music that is even more conservative than Gál’s. He seems to have been completely in thrall to the influence of Gustav Mahler and, to round out this review, Anton Bruckner. This is not a rediscovered masterpiece, though it is full of felicitous ideas and is more than a curiosity. Falletta and the Buffalo forces play it with verve. Tyberg’s Romantic affinities take us even more deeply into the 19th century in the Piano Trio. Tyberg must have had a time machine to write a work like this in 1936, though that does not prevent enjoyment of it in 2010. If nothing else, this CD is an act of musical justice.