Music: Fall Havrvest

Fall is the season of harvest but also of essential sales of wine and music. That seems fitting since we are headed indoors to enjoy the early and deliciously chilly darkness by a roaring fire. For the wine, pay attention to the bargains from southern France and Spain—about the only bargains left for the indigent enologist. For the music, well, pay attention to what follows.

While walking through the woods with Beethoven one day in 1817, English composer Cipriani Potter popped the big question: Whom did Beethoven, apart from himself, consider the greatest living composer? At first Beethoven seemed startled by the question, then answered, “Cherubini.” This was not the first time Beethoven had expressed himself about Cherubini’s stature. A decade earlier in Vienna, he proclaimed Cherubini “Europe’s foremost dramatic composer.”

In the 1980s, Italian conductor Riccardo Muti gave evidence for Beethoven’s high esteem in four recordings of Cherubini’s Masses and two Requiems. Now on the EMI label, he offers the Missa Solemnis in D Minor—a stupendous creation of almost an hour and 20 minutes—written in 1811, with a newly composed Sanctus added in 1822. Muti, the four soloists, and his German forces take an appropriately monumental, yet highly lyrical approach to this gargantuan, yet exquisitely refined work. Cherubini composed his Masses with symphonic genius, and anyone who loves great liturgical music should hear this new recording.

While Cherubini may not have ultimately measured up to Beethoven’s standards, neither did anyone else who succeeded him. Poor Georges Onslow, along with his exact contemporaries, Ferdinand Ries and Ludwig Spohr, all born in 1784, were largely forgotten after their deaths. The CPO label has done much to restore their music to circulation. The most recent effort reveals Onslow’s Symphonies Nos. 2 and 4 as worthy works that may not bear out his contemporary reputation as “our French Beethoven” but that are far less derivative than Ries’s work in the genre and far superior to the symphonic efforts of Spohr. No less than Berlioz said of Onslow, “You will know that it is he who bears the scepter of instrumental music since Beethoven’s death.” Conductor Johannes Goritzki and the Radio Philharmonic of Hanover play these exhilarating works in a way that at least demonstrates what may have led critics at the time to exaggerate their merits.

Onslow’s real forte, however, was chamber music. He wrote 70 string quartets, the earliest of which, as revealed on earlier CPO releases, closely followed Classical models. His later chamber pieces, such as the Grand Quintet for Piano and Strings and the Sextet for Piano, Winds, and Double Bass, both written toward the end of his life in 1849, show a more Romantic side and compare favorably with Spohr’s best works of this kind, which are very good indeed. The Signum label (distributed by Qualiton) has issued a recording of these two pieces with the redoubtable pianist Horst Gobel, who has been so active in resurrecting Josef Rheinberger’s superb chamber music, and members of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. While not plumbing the depths, these are delectable works. In the finale of the Quintet, Onslow creates a delightful imitation of the wind, “Le Coup de Vent,” the effects for which he partially lifted from the last movement of his Fourth Symphony.

I seldom traverse the marshes and bogs of late Romanticism, the period following Onslow and Spohr, but I do occasionally take a good wallow only to remind myself why: The pathetic soon turns bathetic. Thus I approached the Symphony No. 3, Tragica, by Felix Draeseke (1835-1913) expecting the worst. After all, this forgotten man thought “that the tragic element introduced by Beethoven into instrumental music did not find a completely satisfactory solution in purely instrumental terms in the Eroica” and that the finale of his work would succeed where Beethoven had failed. If one can forget that remark, there is much to enjoy in this not-so-tragic work filled with the influences of Wagner, Brahms, Bruckner, and, for the spine that holds it together, Beethoven. It is coherent and, despite its occasional portentousness, convincing, especially in the fine performance by the Radio Philharmonic of Hanover, under Jorg-Peter Weigle on the CPO label.

Someone who completely assimilated Wagner’s influence and created his own unique style was Edward Elgar (1857-1936). Though toward the end of his life his music was regarded as old hat, he was persuaded to undertake a commission for a third symphony. He filled out 127 pages of sketches before he died from inoperable cancer. Some of the symphony was in short score, a bit of it was fully orchestrated, and the rest was left as fragments. Elgar’s dying wish was that no one tinker with the remains. Several years ago, the Elgar estate gave British composer Anthony Payne permission to “elaborate” on the sketches. So we now have an approximation of Elgar’s last thoughts in full orchestral dress. Though some critics have called it a “shapeless mess,” the first movement alone vindicates the enterprise. It is gloriously rich and ripe in quintessential Elgarian style, and I cannot imagine an Elgarian who would not want to hear it, especially in Paul Daniel’s magnificent and poignantly powerful performance with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra on the budget Naxos label.

I have earlier reported on the CPO label’s traversal of Swedish composer Kurt Atterberg’s nine symphonies. The latest release, containing Symphonies Nos. 2 and 5, brings it one shy of completion. Only the Ninth remains. The Second Symphony is a worthy harbinger of the ecstatic Symphony No. 3, West Coast Pictures. Ari Rasilainen and the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Frankfurt play these works for all they are worth, capturing both the surging drama and the delicate, magical evocations of nature. It would be an exaggeration to call Atterberg a Swedish Sibelius, though Sibelius’s influence is clearly detectable. Atterberg is certainly in the same class as, if not superior to, the other Scandinavian nationalist composers of the early 20th century, such as Wilhelm Peterson-Berger and Wilhelm Stenhammar. CPO’s series of these symphonies is what CDs are for.

Anyone subject to the beguilements of French Impressionism, as practiced by Debussy, Ravel, and Roussel, should not miss the delicate tracery of Belgian composer Joseph Jongen’s music for harp, flute, cello, and piano, as variously displayed in his Flute Sonata, Flute Trio, Danse Lente, and other works on a new Naxos CD, with Belgian soloists and musicians from the Royal Conservatory of Brussels. Jongen (1873-1953) perfectly captures the same sort of languor and dreaminess in these exquisite jewels. Why does one ache so when hearing something this beautiful? This is the kind of music one wishes to lie down in, in the hopes that the dream comes true. The performers seem to breathe this music rather than play it. This CD has been one of the most delightful surprises of my fall listening season.

Speaking of the harp, the Chandos label has continued its laudable series of Nino Rota’s orchestral works with the premier recording of his Harp Concerto. Rota (1911-1979) is known as one of the finest film composers of the 20th century. Now we know that in his other works, he was also a purveyor of sheer, unashamed delight. This CD also contains his Concertos for Bassoon and Trombone and Castel del Monte, the Ballad for Horn and Orchestra, beautifully played by various soloists and I Virtuosi Italiani, under Marzio Conti. The reason you have not heard these compositions before is that they were meant to be enjoyed, and that used to be forbidden. Now eat of the fruit.

  • Robert R. Reilly

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

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