Music: Summer 2007

One of the premises of my book, Surprised by Beauty: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music, was that the music of the 20th century could not be written for another hundred years because so much of it had been neglected or buried for various ideological and political reasons that it would take that long for it to come to light. I begin this summer’s survey with recent excavations of three composers who justify this thesis, before moving on to some other recommendations.

Last winter, I had the privilege of speaking with Alice von Hildebrand about a German composer whom I admire greatly, Walter Braunfels (1882-1954), whose neglected music is only now coming to surface. He eschewed radical modernity, was profoundly Catholic and anti-Nazi, and he paid the price of obscurity. I knew of a Te Deum that he had written in 1920 and have always been anxious to hear it. Von Hildebrand knows Braunfels’s son, contacted him in Germany, and obtained for me a performance tape of this work, for which I am very grateful.

This glorious, exhilarating composition has had such an impact on me that I am beginning to rethink my whole attitude toward the Weimar Republic. If a work of this kind was possible at that time, maybe the horror show that followed was not as inevitable as many think. Perhaps for this reason, this magnificent piece carries with it an extra poignancy. It stands in the great tradition of the Te Deums by Berlioz and Bruckner. The live performance by various soloists and the Swedish Radio Symphony and Chorus is stunningly good. Now, here is the rub: It is not available—yet. I was so impressed that I called a record producer and told him he must get the rights to this performance. He said, alas, it had already been grabbed by another label. Stay tuned and I will alert you to its release.

Here is another puzzle: An almost exact contemporary of Braunfels’s, Karl Weigl (1881-1949), prospered in Vienna until the Anschluss in 1938. If you recall my high praise for the chamber music of Hans Gal in the February/March issue of Crisis, it was Weigl who replaced Gal as lecturer at the University of Vienna in 1929. Weigl’s renown did not survive his voyage to the United States, to which he fled. I was very enthusiastic about the BIS label’s earlier release of Weigl’s wartime Fifth Symphony, the Apocalyptic (BIS-CD-1077). Now there is more good news with the issue of his Sixth Symphony. The puzzle is that this gorgeous work went unperformed for nearly 60 years, until the performances that led to this magnificent recording by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, under Thomas Sanderling (BIS-CD-1167). This rich, 40-minute symphony is echt Viennese in that it completely inhabits the world from which Weigl had to flee. It sounds like Mahler without the neuroses, or a bit like Franz Schmidt in its nobility. Yes, for 1947, it was a bit anachronistic and that, no doubt, is why it lay dormant. Now Sleeping Beauty has arisen, and you must hear the meltingly lovely Adagio of this masterpiece by a man whom Arnold Schoenberg called “one of the best composers of the old school.”

And so on to the priceless chamber music of Paul Juon (1872-1940). Who? Exactly. The head of Toccata Classics, Martin Anderson, recommended to me a recording of Juon’s complete string quartets on two Musiques Suisses CDs (MGB CD 6242). Even though I lived in Switzerland, I had never heard of this composer. Only knowing that Juon was Swiss, I listened to the four quartets without reading the liner notes. Though Juon’s name sounds French, possibly from the Suisse Romande, I did not hear any French influences, or German for that matter, from the Berner Oberland. The music sounded to me like a later-day Dvorak in its inimitable element of human warmth, sweet melody, and gently rocking ostinatos. I then read the notes and, voilà, Juon grew up in Russia and had studied with the great chamber music composer Sergei Taneyev. That’s Slavic enough to explain my impression. In any case, this is some of the most enjoyable, companionable chamber music I have heard in years. These quartets are new friends for life. They receive wonderful performances by the Niziol Quartet.

Another set of string quartets, these by American composer Quincy Porter (1897-1966), has also been a steady companion. Albany Records has made many invaluable contributions to American music. One of the most notable was its release of the complete string quartets by David Diamond, played by the Potomac String Quartet. Albany has tapped this extremely fine ensemble, which I have heard in concert as well, for Porter’s nine quartets (TROY 918/919). Albany previously released a superb CD containing Porter’s two symphonies. Porter won the Pulitzer Prize for his Concerto Concertante for Two Pianos and Orchestra, but his renown never compared to that of Aaron Copland or even Howard Hanson, two other American composers who stayed close to tonality and generally eschewed the radical currents of the time. Copland indulged in American folk music, and Hanson in a kind of Sibelian surging Romanticism. Porter did neither. His music was finely crafted, assertive in its own way, but also subdued.

These quartets may help explain the respect he received without the concomitant popularity. They have a quality of interiority that relies little on surface appeal and requires concentration and repeated acquaintance to fully reveal itself. Porter was not afraid to be quiet, to be drawn into the silence, and then to express what the silence contains. Whatever they may lack in immediate appeal or overt drama, these quartets make up in staying power and priceless intimacy. These private ruminations are what string- quartet writing is for. The Potomac String Quartet takes us on this inward journey with some exquisite playing, especially notable in some of the extraordinarily fine adagios. This is a major contribution.

I cannot leave the theme of chamber music without recommending the Naxos release (8.570151) of Robert Schumann’s String Quartets Nos. 1-3, played so expressively by the Fine Arts Quartet. Playing of this caliber in music this wonderful makes for an outrageous bargain. On a breezier note, if you would like some wind quintets to refresh your summer, get the Toccata Classics recording of the complete wind quintets by Ferenc Farkas (1905-2000). If Mozart were a Hungarian in the 20th century, he probably would have done something like this delightful music, delectably delivered by the Phoebus Quintet. For a touch of French insouciance, just below the level of the witty and incomparable Francis Poulenc, try the new CPO recording (999 779-2) of the Trio, Quartet, and L’Horloge de Flore (for oboe and orchestra) by Jean Francaix (1912-1997). This music has no ambition greater than to amuse and charm, and is immensely enjoyable at that level.

If you are in need of some major orchestral extroversion, go straight to CPO’s new release in its series of Heitor Villa-Lobos’s symphonies. The huge Second Symphony chatters, burbles, and gurgles along in Villa-Lobos’s inimitable garrulous style. It may be a gaudy mess but it is marvelously attractive, especially in Carl St. Clair’s typically exciting and lucid performance with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra.

I close with a special contribution from the Naxos label of a new recording of the two symphonies by the late Stephen Albert (1941-1992). Steve was a dear friend, cut down in his prime in an auto accident. He had recently written a stunningly good Cello Concerto for Yo-Yo Ma (hear it on Sony SK 57961) and had just finished the short score of his Symphony No. 2, which had been commissioned by the New York Philharmonic. Now this work, as orchestrated by composer Sebastian Currier, has received its world-premiere recording (8.559257) by the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, under Paul Polivnick. It is accompanied by Symphony No. 1, River-Run, for which Steve won the Pulitzer Prize. The most prominent influences on his music can be easily heard: Strauss, Stravinsky, and Sibelius. That may seem like an odd admixture, but Steve assimilated them into his unique and fascinating sound world.

Steve endeavored to “reach out and touch an audience once again,” as this music so successfully does. To achieve this, he thought it necessary to reconnect with “ideas and practices that were part of a six-hundred year continuum” of musical tradition. Steve believed that “continuum still moves through our soul as a subterranean river flows faithfully and silently beneath the parched desert.” That river resurfaces in these two works. Of his endeavor, Steve said, “it is a matter of trying to find beauty in art again,” for “art is about our desire for spiritual connection.” I miss him, but listen to what he left behind.

  • 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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