Summer Potpourri

There is much to catch up on for your summer listening pleasure.

Faithful readers will recall how often I choose the Classical period for musical refreshment. And so it is again with the Symphonies Op. 3, Nos. 1-4 of Franz Ignaz Beck (1734-1809) on a new budget Naxos release (8.570799). I seemed to recall an earlier encounter with Beck’s music that left an impression of mediocrity, and I therefore almost missed this release. It must have been a faulty memory, because these four gems are very engaging; or perhaps the music I heard was not played by the excellent Toronto Chamber Orchestra, under conductor Kevin Mallon, who so perfectly captures the spirit and flair of Beck’s inventive works. This highly enjoyable CD is never far from my player.

I am beginning to think that no one in the Classical era wrote a bad clarinet concerto. This happy thought is brought to mind by the CPO release of Andreas Goepfert’s three wonderful concertos for this instrument, with clarinetist Dieter Klocker and the Jenaer Philharmonie, under Johannes Moesus (CPO 777 407-2). I have never heard of Goepfert (1768-1818), who was apparently kept at an obscure German court for most of his life. On evidence of these mellifluous works, I will not miss another opportunity to hear his music. Balance and beauty reign.

And they do so in the premier release of Johann Gottlieb Naumann’s two Masses, one in D minor and the other in C minor, on a new Ars Musici CD (232237). These works were written for liturgical use. If I happened to hear either of these Masses in church, I would think I had died and gone to heaven. I long for the days when music like this was considered ordinary — or, more accurately, was in ordinary use. These may not be at the level of Haydn’s works in the genre, but they are very fine.

Easing into the Romantic period,
I find myself delighted by the Toccata Classics’ first recordings of the Piano Trios Nos. 1-3 by Salomon Jadassohn (1831-1902). Like Mendelssohn, Jadassohn was a Romantic classicist. Stronger on charm than passion, good-humored and free of angst, he wrote melodiously and with ample warmth. I do not condescend in calling this music companionable. Like the Beck, it has not been far from my CD player this summer. The transparent performances by the Syrius Trio and the quality of the recording are outstanding.

Almost as obscure, but perhaps even more deserving of attention, is Ludwig Thuille (1861-1907), a student of Josef Rheinberger, who seemed to share his teacher’s taste for chamber music and a fairly conservative compositional idiom. There seems to be a Thuille boomlet in the recording world. Naxos has issued a very attractive recording of the Thuille Sextet for Piano and Wind Quintet, and the Piano Quintet in E flat major, Op. 20 (8.570790). In a two-CD set, Champs Hill Records includes these two works and adds the Trio for Violin, Viola and Piano in E-flat major, and the Piano Quintet in G minor (CHRCD001 & CHRCD002). Earlier, the CPO label paired the two piano quintets together (CPO 777 090-2). All of these recordings are very good and the performances excellent. Since my motto has become “the more Thuille, the better,” I am inclined to recommend the two-CD set, as it contains the irresistibly attractive wind Sextet and the passionately driven, highly dramatic Quintet in G minor. If you like Romantic chamber music (à la Brahms), you cannot miss: You will be the poorer for not knowing this music in one or other of the versions on offer here.

A short but very pleasant report on the Franz Schmidt (1874-1939) front. Before the musical world fell apart, this is how music could still sound in Vienna, even after the First World War. I have raved over the first two releases in the Naxos traversal of Schmidt’s four symphonies. Now we have a radiant No. 3 from 1927-1928, with the Malmo Symphony Orchestra, under Vassily Sinaisky (8.572119). Like its two predecessors, the Third benefits from a top-notch recording and Siniasky’s ability to show all the strands in this very rich, sumptuous music. The pace is slow but the concentration and commitment of the conductor and players carry the day in this extended variation treatment of a very beautiful theme. Schmidt again displays his prowess with variation form in the Concertante Variations on a Theme of Beethoven for Piano Left Hand and Orchestra. The theme is from the Scherzo of Beethoven’s Spring Sonata, and has more Classical charm than Romantic drama. Schmidt’s treatment of it is delectable in this performance by pianist Markus Becker, with the very fine NDR Radio Philharmonic, under Eiji Oue. It is accompanied by Schmidt’s Concerto for Piano Left Hand on CPO (777 338-2).

Deeper into the 20th century, Alexandre Tansman (1897-1986) is a composer whom I have been trying to warm up to during the Chandos label’s traversal of his symphonic cycle. It has not been easy because of the lack of warmth in his music. It is neoclassical and ultra dry, without the joi de vivre brut champagne requires to succeed. This is what I thought, at least, until I listened to the new Chandos recording of his Symphonie de Chambre, the two effervescent Sinfoniettas, and the Sinfonia piccolo (CHAN 10574). This is very genial music, sparkling and rhythmically alive, in the way that Martinu’s music can be, though the most obvious influence here is Stravinsky in his neoclassical phase. Tansman, a Pole, spent most of his life in Paris, where he obviously acquired some musical panache. The proceedings are enlivened by the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana, under conductor Oleg Caetani. This is a great disc to start with in exploring Tansman.


Regarding my favorite American film composer, Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975), I want to register a gripe. Several issues ago in Gramophone magazine, the boys in the “Gramophone Debate” section were having themselves a good laugh over Herrmann’s supposed inability to write a melody. This, they thought, explained his lack of success in the concert world. I almost gagged. Herrmann wrote gorgeous melodies and a truly great one that I have never been able to get out of my mind. It haunts me still. Clearly, it haunted him as well: He kept using it, or variations of it, in many of his works. It is in his Souvenirs de Voyage for Clarinet and String Quartet (1967). It is one of the highlights to his great score for Vertigo (listen to the stunning Varese Sarabande recording with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, under Joel McNeely). There is something close to it in Marnie.

This achingly nostalgic theme also appears in the new Naxos label release (8.570186) of Herrmann’s score to The Snows of Kilimanjaro. It is introduced on the oboe in the lovely Nocturne and reappears as a variation in the following Memory Waltz. The Adagietto, The Letter, and The Farewell are all saturated with the theme. Herrmann’s use of it is obsessive (and obsession was the theme of many of the films he scored, especially for Hitchcock) but never tiresome, because the music goes to something so deep in the human soul concerning loss and yearning that I am always nearly overwhelmed by its powerful undertow. Thus I treasure this new release with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, conducted by William Stromberg, with it is the equally fine score to 5 Fingers, a superb spy movie with James Mason.

Strains of this melody can also be heard in an excellent new Chandos CD (CHAN 10577) with Herrmann’s score to Hangover Square, a deliciously done film-noirish movie about a deranged composer. It contains the highly romantic Concerto Macabre, which the insane musician plays as a house burns down around him at the climatic finish. It does not get much better than that, except this release also contains the more famous score to Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, complete with the faux opera aria from the fictitious work, Salammbo. The recording and performances by the BBC Philharmonic, under Rumon Gamba, are smashingly good. Perhaps someone can send these CDs to the Gramophone panel and then ask its members if they can hear any melodies.



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

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