Playing Catch-Up

Catching up is hard to do. It reduces me to elliptical reviews of new CDs, the merit of which you must accept from a few brushstrokes of praise from me, as space — even in this medium — does not allow for more. Therefore, this is a matter of trust and taste. By the latter, I do not mean that you must share my taste; simply know it, so you can adjust accordingly.

I might as well proceed chronologically, so as not to frighten the horses. I am a huge fan of the chamber music of Sergey Taneyev (1856-1915) and consider him a neglected genius in this medium among the ranks of the greatest — Schubert, Mendelssohn, Dvorak, Brahms, etc. In orchestral music, he did not achieve a similar status, which is probably why he wrote only four symphonies and left two of them uncompleted (only one published in his lifetime). Still, it is more than worth a listen, and Naxos allows us to do so at bargain price with its new issue of Symphonies Nos. 2 and 4 (Naxos 8.572067). In an earlier Naxos release, I praised conductor Thomas Sanderling and the Novosibirsk Academic Symphony Orchestra for rousing performances of Taneyev’s Oresteia Overture and Interlude (Naxos 8.570584). They are equally fine in these renditions. Remember that Taneyev was Tchaikovsky’s favorite pupil, and you will know what to do.

I only just finished singing the praises of Ludwig Thuille’s forgotten chamber music last month when up pops a recording of his two string quartets by the Signum Quartet on Capriccio (5049). My excitement abated when I listened to this pleasant but conservative (for its time) music. Where was the Romantic passion and surging drama that I had heard? The answer came in the liner notes. These are two student works from 1881, before Thuille had found his footing and while he was still looking back to Haydn. I am glad to have them, as they have charm, but first go to his mature chamber works. This one is only for the Thuille completist.

There is no absence of drama in Max Reger’s late Romantic chamber music. Naxos is releasing his complete String Trios and Piano Quartets. I have listened to Vol. 2, with the Piano Quartet in A minor, op. 133, and the String Trio in D minor, Op 141b. Reger (1873-1916) earned, often unfairly, a reputation for thickness of texture and turgidity, the same rap from which Brahms sometimes suffered. Do not let it dissuade you from these two gems. The tender Largo movement of the Piano Quartet is about as sweet and touching as melancholy can be. It is exquisite and transparent — far from the general impression of Reger’s reputation. The String Trio is elegant, touching in its Andante, and graceful and masterful in its closing fugue. The players of the Aperto Piano Quartet give these two works dream performances. This CD makes for a great introduction to Reger’s chamber music (Naxos 8.570786).


Further into the hothouse of late Romanticism we find Joseph Marx (1882-1964) — another composer, like Reger, who refused to abandon tonality when Schoenberg informed the world that it had been exhausted. This may account for his subsequent obscurity, which has been relieved by recent recordings of his sumptuous, impressionistic tone poems. (Try Marx’s orchestral music on CPO 777 320-2, which offers glowing, luxuriant evocations of nature in Eine Fruhlingsmusik, Idylle, and Feste im Herbst.) Now the CPO label has given us Marx’s three works from 1911 for piano quartet: Rhapsody in A major, Scherzo in D minor, and Ballad in A minor (CPO 777 279-2). They are extravagant Romantic works that verge on the hyperglycemic (a German Respeghi?): Listening to all three together may be a bit like having three Sacher Tortes in a row. Gorgeous playing by all concerned, do not hesitate if this is to your taste.

Ever so slowly, we have been getting a more complete picture of Italian orchestral music as it emerged from under the complete domination of opera in the last half of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. This began with the Naxos and Marco Polo traversal of Gian Francesco Malipiero’s eleven magical symphonies. Malipiero (1882-1973) also devoted himself to resurrecting pre-19th-century Italian music, which he would occasionally repackage into suites such as Gabrielana, obviously based on the music of Gabrieli; and Madrigali, orchestral arrangements of vocal works by Monteverdi, from Book VII of his madrigals. CPO (777 322-2) offers a fine new recording of these, along with the Serenata per Fagotto e 10 strumenti, 5 Favole, and Sette Canzonette Veneziane, with the Camerata Strumentale Città di Prato, under conductor Marzio Conti.

Malipiero’s contemporary, Alfredo Casella (1883-1947), did the same thing with his Scarlattiana — a delightful, vivacious setting of themes from Scarlatti’s sonatas. A new recording of this charming work is out from the Chandos label (10605). But the big news is the appearance, almost all at once, of Casella’s Three Symphonies for the first time, including the Second on this CD.

These works allow us to witness the composer’s evolution from the bombast of late Romanticism to a lean, but no less melodious, neo-Classicism. The first two symphonies are late Romanticism at its overblown, cataclysmic best. Casella studied in France, but I hear the steppes of Russia here, in all their gloom and doom, via Rimsky Korsakov and even Tchaikovsky, especially in the second movement of the First Symphony. Casella was gifted with great themes, and he knew how to milk them for all they are worth. He so liked the theme to the Adagio of the First Symphony that he used it again in the Adagio of the Second. It is so gorgeous that you will not mind. Francesco La Vecchia and the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma give an excellent world-première performance recording of Symphony No. 1 on Naxos (8.572413).

The Second Symphony is even better. Simply add Mahler to the Tchaikovsky equation, with a brief visit from Wagner’s Valkyries, who go riding in the middle of the first movement. Gramophone magazine’s reviewer went into high dudgeon over this work, declaring that he was not for a moment persuaded by “its hyped-up bombast and soft-centered pseudo-eloquence.” What’s more, it prefigures “the worst kind of movie music bathos, though even Cecil B. de Mille might have balked at having his more sentimental images so relentlessly underlined.” Yes, it is that good. As we all deserve a good wallow now and then, I recommend the Second for the purpose. As musical melodrama, it is so over the top that it is irresistible.

Mirable dictu, there are now two recordings of it. The Chandos version with the BBC Philharmonic, under Gianandrea Noseda, I prefer to the new Naxos release, with same forces above, because it has even more swagger, grip, and panache, plus superb sonics, which the music particularly benefits from. Naxos’s Roman forces take more than five minutes longer with the Second, but add a great companion piece, the haunting A Notte Alta for piano and orchestra, Op. 30bis, on Naxos (8.57214), which displays some of the impressionist influences Casella fell under in his Paris years.

The last entry is CPO’s release of the Sinfonia per orchestra, Op. 63 (Symphony No. 3), and Italia, Op. 11, a colorful, engaging evocation of Sicily and Naples, with some rousing reprises of Funiculi-Funicula (cribbed from Luigi Denza). The Sinfonia comes from another sound world — a neo-classical one, with shades of Shostakovich and Stravinsky. Gone are all the excesses that the Gramophone reviewer deplored. However, the melodies remain. Commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, it could otherwise pass as a product of mainstream American symphonism of the mid-20th century. It was a huge hit at its première; the only mystery is why it has taken this long to revive. The WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne, under conductor Alun Francis, puts its heart into both works, which CPO captures in excellent sound (CPO 777 265-2). If you can buy only one Casella, this may be the one to have, but then you would miss the fun of his stylistic journey through the thickets to an open clearing.

I haven’t even begun to catch up. So I will have to be briefer next month.

The Remorse of Orestes, William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1862)


Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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