CLASSICAL LOST AND FOUND
FORGOTTEN MUSIC BY GREAT COMPOSERS AND GREAT MUSIC BY FORGOTTEN COMPOSERS
8 FEBRUARY 2010
The albums below are "Classical Releases Of Current Key Significance," or "CROCKS", if you will. To purchase an album, simply click on one of the Web site retail outlets given in the "AVAILABILITY" table under the write-up.
Hermann, Robt.: Syms 1 & 2; Fifield/ReutWürt P [Sterling]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
Swiss-born Robert Hermann (1869-1912) started out as a premed student in Geneva, but at the encouragement of Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) decided to become a composer. Consequently he moved to Germany where he studied with Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921). But unlike his teacher, who idolized Richard Wagner (1813-1883), Robert was very much his own man. He deplored the chromaticism so prevalent in Richard's music and that of his successors, Max Reger (1873-1916, see the newsletter of 9 June 2009) in particular.
This aversion is evident in the two symphonies featured here. There's absolutely no hint of the compulsive chromatic peripateticism that dominates Max's music. Both might best be described as highly lyrical mood pieces where modulation is kept to a minimum. But that's not to imply they lack color because the vertical harmonic structure as well as the orchestration is highly imaginative, and fires the listener's imagination.
In three movements, the first symphony dates from 1895. The opening allegro is refreshingly rustic, and contains a couple of attractive thematic ideas that make it quite captivating. The alternatingly slow and fast grave that follows spins out some comely melodies that could be of folk origin, including one that smacks of the old English folk song "Long, Long Ago" [track-2, beginning at 04:28]. Even though the composer would undoubtedly reject the notion, at one point there are some violin figurations [track-2, beginning at 06:18] reminiscent of Wagner's Magic Fire Music in his Ring Cycle. Other passages may bring to mind some of Grieg's more somber works, and even Beethoven's (1770-1827) Pastoral Symphony (No. 6, 1808).
The mood of the final allegro is similar to that of the opening one. It's easy to picture a quaint country village where a local dance festival is underway. The music seems much in keeping with Jules Massenet's (1842-1912) Scènes Alsaciennes Suite (No. 7, 1881, see the newsletter of 15 January 2008).
Not so much a series of tone paintings like the first symphony, the four-movement second of 1905 is structurally more sophisticated. But those endearingly naive melodic touches that characterize the music of this should-be-better-known composer are still present. There's an innocence as well as an unpretentiousness about the opening allegro that's totally captivating, and in river-like fashion, it sweeps the listener right along. Oddly enough one of the recurring motifs [track-4, beginning at 02:33] sounds like a precursor of the melody Cole Porter (1891-1964) would use for "It's Too Darn Hot" in Kiss Me Kate (1948).
Rather than following any formal design, the andante is a moving rhapsodic flight of fancy that's a melodic stream of consciousness. An exceptional romantic utterance, you'll find yourself playing this one again and again! And that also goes for the waltzlike allegretto that's next. Here the composer contrasts a graceful lilting tune with a snapping lupine motif to great effect. The scoring is exceptional for its clarity and brilliance.
The finale begins menacingly, but suddenly turns hopeful. The composer plays these two moods off against one another in much the same way as thematic material is developed in a sonata form movement. Optimism vanishes in the end, and the symphony concludes in desperation.
The performances by the Reutlingen Württemberg Philharmonic under conductor Christopher Fifield (see the newsletters of 1 June 2007 and 15 April 2009) certainly get the point across that Hermann was a late romantic composer with something refreshingly different to say. As for the playing itself, there are isolated spots where some of the musicians, particularly in the brass section, seem to be on somewhat shaky ground. But the orchestra as a whole makes up for any technical shortcomings with its enthusiastic commitment to these scores.
Made on separate occasions in 2008 and 2009 the recordings are quite consistent, and sound like they were done in the same venue. They're notable for their musicality, which seems to perfectly complement Hermann's guileless style. The orchestral timbre is totally natural with silky strings, well rounded winds, and articulate percussion. Depending on your speaker configuration, some may feel the soundstage is a bit narrow, but it's not so constricted that it interferes with the enjoyment of this music.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P100208)
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Popv, G.: Sym 3 "Heroic" (stgs), Sym Aria (vc & stgs); Khrychov/Titov/StPeteStAcad SO [N Flowers]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
Russian composer Gavriil Popov (1904-1972) possessed enormous potential talent, but the culturally repressive circumstances under which he lived seem to explain why it found its way into only a few of his works. He wasn’t as capable as his friend Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) of rolling with the cultural punches being delivered by hard-line Stalinists (see the newsletter of 21 December 2009) to the body of serious music being written in what was then the Soviet Union. The two selections on this new Northern Flowers release in their ongoing "Wartime Music" series show him at his best.
Both works here are significant contributions to the canon of string music, and at almost an hour and calling for massive numbers of instruments divided into many parts (see the newsletter of 15 January 2010), the Heroic Symphony (the third of his six, 1939-46) could be considered a monumental addition. Originally conceived in 1939 as a concerto grosso, it wasn't until 1946 that it found its final form as a greatly expanded symphony.
In five movements, the initial intrada begins with a soaring theme much in keeping with the title. The music is at first rather martial sounding, invoking thoughts of courageous deeds. But it gradually winds down, painting a somewhat more tragic picture. The movement ends in the minor with a subdued reference to the opening heroic motif.
Glinka (1804-1857) as well as Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908, see the newsletter of 30 August 2007) had used Spanish folk tunes in their music, and Popov was no exception! For the next two movements he borrowed heavily from a score he'd done in 1939 for a Russian documentary film about the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). The first of these is a highly emotional sonata form allegro whose first theme is infused with the spirit of the Castilian jota. It's followed by a melody that's the tune for the Basque folk song "Argizagi ederra" ("The Beautiful Moon"). The two vie for dominance in an exciting strife-ridden developmental section with the jota idea winning out in the final recapitulation.
Described by the composer as a "scherzo tarantella," the prestissimo that follows is a frenzied rondo involving three Spanish dances. It leaves the listener on a real high, and is the exact opposite of the tragically wrenching extended largo that's next.
Almost as long as everything we've heard so far, this is the symphony's dramatic nexus and center of gravity. It contains some of the most inspired string writing you could ever hope for, and shows Popov at the height of his creative powers. One can't help associating it with the horrors suffered by the Russian people during World War II. Many may find themselves reminded of Gustav Mahler's (1860-1911) ninth (1909) and tenth (1910) symphonies.
The dark clouds of despair are dispelled in the upbeat concluding presto, which starts confidently and with great optimism. The heroic theme with which the symphony began bursts forth towards the end, and is the pith of a thrilling coda, heralding bright hopes for the future.
The disc is filled out with the Symphonic Aria for Cello and String Orchestra, which also has movie associations. It began life as a sketch for a score to accompany Sergei Eisenstein's (1989-1948) Bezhin Meadow" (1937). But early on, the Soviet cultural bozos found fault with the film, and Eisenstein stopped production on it. Consequently Popov put it aside until 1945 when he incorporated what he’d done into this memorial for his good friend Russian author Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1883-1945), who had just died.
In a single fifteen minute span, it falls into three connected sections, beginning with a grief-stricken prologue made all the more poignant by some lachrymal recitatives for the cello. A lyrically passionate central episode with eerie embellishments in the upper strings follows. The work then ends in peaceful resignation as the composer has the cello spin out a touching final lament for Aleksey.
One couldn't ask for more impassioned performances than what the strings of the St. Petersburg State Academic Symphony Orchestra under conductor Alexander Titov and cellist Dmitry Khrychov give us. There are occasional intonational anomalies in the violas, but nothing so striking that it detracts from the overall appreciation of these remarkable scores.
While far superior to those old Soviet steely sounding Melodiya recordings, one couldn't classify these as audiophile demonstration quality. The soundstage is a bit pinched, and the string tone somewhat grainy except for the solo cello, which is perfectly captured and balanced against the orchestra. Then again with music this captivating, you'll soon forget any sonic shortcomings.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P100207)
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Roger, K.: Cl Qnt (w stgs), Pno Son, Pno Trio, Vars... (fl, vc, pno); Soloists/Gould Pno Trio [Naxos]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
Austrian-born and trained Kurt Roger (1895-1966) could count Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) among his instructors, but always remained a tonal composer with late romantic leanings. He taught at the Vienna Conservatory up until 1938 when the Nazis annexed Austria. Then, because of his Jewish heritage, as Schoenberg and Tansman (1897-1986, see the newsletters of 25 November 2008 and 11 May 2009) did, he fled to the United States. He held distinguished teaching positions in New York City and Washington, DC, becoming a U.S. citizen in 1945. His music received many notable performances by some of America’s most outstanding orchestras under a number of distinguished conductors.
In 1948 he was invited back to Austria as a guest lecturer, and in 1964 accepted a professorship at Queen's University Belfast. While in Ireland he made frequent visits to Vienna where he died two years later shortly after finishing the quintet for clarinet and string quartet offered here. In three movements, it's an equal opportunity employer where there's no dominant instrument.
This is obvious from the very outset where the beginning allegro opens with a march-like motif (ML) that's dissected, and along with other related fragmentary ideas, tossed about by each of the performers. Much to his credit Roger manages to construct a movement which in spite of its structural complexity and thematic intricacy remains emotionally meaningful.
The lento that follows opens with a somber variant of ML. This is subsequently subjected to a number of transformations, including one that's almost scherzo-like. Again all of the instrumentalists are on equal footing with each having something memorable to say.
The finale is basically a rondo where previous ideas come home to roost, and at times with feathers flying. Subdued at first, the music becomes electric as remembrances of past motifs flash by. The composer's skill as a contrapuntist shines through in this exciting conclusion to a memorable quintet.
The piano sonata that's next dates from 1943 and is also in three movements. Borrowing from past musical eras, the opening is a thrilling throwback to baroque times in the form of a virtuosic toccata. While a bit reminiscent of the opening from Maurice Ravel's (1875-1937) Le Tombeau de Couperin (1913-17), it's decidedly a unique Roger utterance guaranteed to please. The impressionism of Claude Debussy (1862-1918) seems present in the middle movement, while the concluding "Phantasmagoria" is just that, and the most modern sounding track here. There's an originality and flamboyance that may remind some of Leo Ornstein's (1893-2002, see the newsletter of 28 March 2007) music.
Distinctively different moods characterize the three movements of the 1953 piano trio. There's a sense of detachment about the neoclassical, contrapuntal first. It's the exact opposite of the lyrically amorous second, where the two stringed instruments seem to be having an affair until the piano enters, making it a ménage-à-trois. The entomologically pesky finale is humorously irreverent, providing the piece with a tongue-in-cheek ending.
The Hibernian folk tune commonly known as "Down by the Salley Gardens" after the poem by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) is the subject for the concluding selection, "Variations on an Irish Air" (1948). For flute, cello and piano, it's the longest work here, and some may find it the most engaging.
The piece begins with a brief reverie for solo flute based on the air. The twelve variations that follow are remarkable for their variety and inventiveness. They include a flighty, virtuosic second, fourth, and fifth [track-10, beginning at 04:18, 06:39, and 07:34]. Then there's a villainous "Dishonest John" sixth [track-10, beginning at 08:31], wistful seventh [track-10, beginning at 09:34], and comely aria-like ninth [track-10, beginning at 12:54]. Contrapuntal devices are used in the last two variations [track-10, beginning at 16:53 and 19:30] to deconstruct the original tune, and then put it back together again. The piece ends as it began with another reverie, albeit more subdued, for solo flute.
Previously we told you about some outstanding performances of British chamber music by our core group of artists here, the Gould Piano Trio (see the newsletters of 30 August 2007 and 31 July 2009), and this disc is no exception. Their pianist, Benjamin Frith, is to be singled out for his stunning rendition of the sonata, while clarinetist Robert Plane, flutist Emily Beynon, violinist Mia Cooper and violist David Adams are to be commended for their exceptionally fine playing in the quintet and variations.
While all of these recordings were done in the same venue, and one that seems ideal for chamber music, there are slight differences between them. The quintet is rather closely miked and accordingly appears across a modest soundstage. This is probably just as well as it adds greater clarity as well as better balance to a piece where all five instruments have equally important roles. The remaining selections are given a bit more lebensraum. Generally speaking, the instrumental timbre is quite natural sounding, but some may detect a bit of digital grain in dense piano passages.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P100206)
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Schjelderup: Brand (sym drama aft Ibsen), Sym 2 "To Norway"; Aadland/Trond SO [CPO]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
Here's some late romantic, industrial-strength orchestral music by a composer who's an intriguing mix of Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), Richard Wagner (1813-1883) and Richard Strauss (1864-1949). Born in Bergen, Gerhard Schjelderup (1859-1933) grew up in Norway, later studied music in Paris, and then moved to Germany, where he spent the last forty years of his life. A devoted Wagnerian and quite prolific, he would write nine music dramas, most of which were to his own librettos. In spite of being one of Norway’s least known composers, this gives him the distinction of being its foremost in the field of opera. He also penned a significant amount of nonoperatic music represented here by two of his most outstanding symphonic creations.
Lasting about half an hour, the symphonic drama Brand is a tone poem after Henrik Ibsen's (1828-1906) 1866 play about a priest by that name. Probably written between 1908 and 1910, it's in nine contiguous sections, each of which is subtitled, and represents some character or psychological aspect associated with the stage work.
The first, "Journey through fog and storm towards the highest peak" [track-1], opens with agitated brass fanfares representing Brand's idealistic struggle to save Man's soul. Suddenly a chorale of hope that could be out of a Bruckner (1824-1896) symphony intervenes. But Brand's tribulations resume with greater intensity, and a motif, which is synonymous with the concept of "All or Nothing" (AN), and will become an idée fixe throughout the work, bursts forth [track-1, beginning at 04:09]. The section ends as he collapses in exhaustion.
Delicate sighing violins announce the second section, "Agnes" [track-2], who is Brand's beautiful fiancée. Peacefully pastoral at first, menacing brass and references to AN [track-2, beginning at 03:22] darken the score, serving as an introduction to the next three interlinked sections.
The first of these, "Brand's admonition" [track-3], is a musical characterization of restrained passion. It begins unassumingly, builds to a libidinous climax, and then falls back as godly self-control prevails. The next, "Love in suffering and desire" [track-4], rapturously extols the Schjelderup equivalent of "Redemption through love." It concludes with some impressive brass flourishes that anticipate Janácek's (1854-1928) Sinfonietta (1926) of sixteen years later. A final gong crash serves as an exclamation point and introduction to the next section, "All or Nothing" [track-5], which recalls AN. The music fades and ends with whimsical upturned phrases in the woodwinds reminiscent of the quieter moments in another symphonic epic, Strauss' Ein Heldenleben (1897-98).
After a brief caesura, the next episode, "He who has beheld Jehovah must die" [track-6], paints an Elysian picture of celestial repose under the watchful gaze of some benevolent Godhead. The solitary, desolate "Alone" [track-7] that follows finds Brand ready to resume his spiritual labors on Man's behalf.
Agitated passages introduce the penultimate section, "My God is storm" [track-8], in which our hero strives ever upwards and onwards. Reminders of AN return [track-8, beginning at 00:31], and undergo a Brucknerian transformation into another overpowering chorale. The music then becomes increasingly frenetic, transitioning into the finale, "Death of a hero" [track-9]. Here raucous minor chords for full orchestra mark Brand's final death throws, but a sudden spine-tingling transition to the major implies his ultimate triumph over adversity along with all mankind.
Dating from 1923-24, the second symphony, "To Norway," fills out the CD. In keeping with its sobriquet, it's more Scandinavian sounding than the tone poem we just heard, with Norwegian folk influences apparent in the last three of its four movements. Like Danish composer Rued Langgaard (1893-1952, see the newsletter of 15 June 2008), Schjelderup was big on subtitles, and consequently all of its sections have names.
He tells us the opening movement, "The Sea," is a musical depiction of the dark, deep, dangerous waters that surround Norway. The opening measures may resemble Debussy's (1862-1918) ever popular oceanic oeuvre (1903-05), but from that point on it has a Germanic sound all its own. Sinister, continuously rising and falling passages provoke feelings of anxiety and impending doom throughout the movement. The only glimmers of hope come from fragmented bits of something that sounds like it might once have been a chorale tune. The musical counterpart of a storm breaks out about halfway through, and then gradually subsides with the movement ending unpretentiously.
The next section, "Spring," which could be considered the symphony's scherzo, brings to mind Grieg's Norwegian (1887) and Symphonic Dances (1896-98). It's followed by the equivalent of a slow movement, "The mountain plateau," which bears a resemblance to Edvard's more melancholic pieces for strings. This is first-class nature music (see the newsletter of 28 January 2009) that limns a pastoral scene with pantheistic as well as mystic overtones.
The same per aspera ad astra idea (see the newsletter of 30 August 2007) found in Brand underlies the finale, "Up to the highest peaks." But there’s a Scandinavian coolness and restraint here that make this music considerably less volatile and more transparent than the previous piece. The final few minutes radiate a Brucknerian "from darkness into light" glow that ends the symphony on a somewhat religious note.
While the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra (see the newsletter of 31 October 2009) may sound a little thin at times, conductor Eivind Aadland elicits enthusiastic, totally committed performances from its members that well make up for any shortage of personnel. What's more, with repertoire this rare, it’ll be a cold day in hell before anything better comes along!
As far as the sonics go, there are pluses and minuses. On the positive side, the instrumental timbre is quite natural sounding with bright transparent highs, and a clean bass end that can become earthshaking during Schjelderup's more dramatic moments. On the negative, the soundstage seems to suffer from tunneling, which visually speaking is like looking at the orchestra through the wrong end of a telescope. Fortunately this is one of those audio phenomena the ear becomes accustomed to as the music progresses.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P100205)
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Thieriot: Pno Qnt, Th & Vars (2 vcs & pno), Stg Sxt; HamChPl [Toccata]
RECOMMENDED BEST FIND (1 CD)
The adventurous folks at Toccata Classics have come up with another winner here that should appeal to those who liked the Gernsheim (1839-1916, see the newsletters of 28 April 2007 and 21 December 2009) and Herzogenberg (1843-1900, see the newsletters of 30 April 2008 and 15 April 2009) discs we’ve told you about. Like both of those composers German-born Ferdinand Thieriot's (1838-1919) early works show the influence of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). However, there's a sporadic lightness of touch recalling Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), and a harmonic conviction akin to that found in Anton Bruckner (1824-1896), which give his music a sound all of its own.
The program begins with an impressive four-movement piano quintet, which first appeared in 1869, and was then revised in 1894. The opening allegro is a stunning essay in sonata form with thematic material somewhat indebted to Robert Schuman (1810-1856), and a rich harmonic structure similar to that in late Brahms. A couple of profoundly beautiful ideas appear in the following adagio, while the bouncy scherzo is right up there with the best found in Beethoven's (1770-1827) piano trios.
Two contrasting motifs, one jaggedly anxious and the other sinuously reassuring, are the main ingredients for the finely wrought finale. Thieriot juggles them with consummate skill, eventually working them into a thrilling final coda that would leave any audience on its feet.
From the instrumental standpoint, the next piece is a bit of a chamber rarity, being a theme and variations for two cellos and piano. An outstanding cellist himself, in 1883 the composer wrote and dedicated this piece to his first cello teacher, and it seems highly likely the two of them performed it together. After an extended main idea with folk overtones, twelve variations follow, giving the two string soloists a chance to strut their stuff as they explore all aspects of cello technique.
Highlights include a flowing second variation reminiscent of Chopin (1810-1849), an anguished fourth, and a feather-blown ninth. The stately fugue-laced eleventh acts as an introduction to the concluding twelfth, where the main idea returns in great majesty. The piece then ends on a subdued, wistful note.
Next up, a late string sextet (no date given), which we're lucky to have at all! Like many of Thieriot's other scores, it remained in limbo until 1991, and the story surrounding its plight is right out of Hollywood.
It begins when his manuscripts were handed over to the Hamburg State Library shortly after his death. Then with the advent of World War II, they were moved to eastern Saxony to escape Allied bombing. But the Red Army confiscated them when it "liberated" Germany, and they eventually wound up in Leningrad.
A city subject to repeated flooding, they were discovered there in a waterlogged basement in 1983, but not returned to Germany until eight years later. Since then, twenty-nine works from this fortuitous find have been published. And in the case of the sextet, with music this good, better late than never!
In the usual four movements, it’s a significant addition to romantic string literature, and as the informative album notes point out, bears comparison with the two (1858-60 and 1864-65) of Brahms as well as that (1878) of Dvorák (1841-1904). The tuneswept opening allegro is a charming, harmonically and rhythmically fickle offering with a couple of phrases that recall Mendelssohn’s octet (1825). Two winsome melodies buddy up and compete most agreeably for center stage in the perky intermezzo that follows.
A sighing lyricism characterizes the aria-like adagio, which ends imploringly with some somber modulations that could be out of a late Bruckner symphony. However, any lingering gloom is suddenly banished by the concluding allegro that begins with an exuberant, exceptionally infectious motif (EI). This is followed by another more restrained idea, but by a number of very clever developmental means, including a fugue, Thieriot insures the spirit of EI dominates the entire movement. The sextet ends on a Mendelssohnian high (see the newsletter of 21 December 2009), leaving the listener with an ear-to-ear smile.
The Hamburg Chamber Players (two violinists, two violists, two cellists, and a pianist) make a strong case for Thieriot's music with enthusiastic committed performances of everything. Aside from a couple of isolated spots where individual intonation seems problematic, as an ensemble they have a rich luxuriant sound, and play with complete authority. Pianist Yuko Hirose gets a special round of applause for her exceptional keyboard work in the first two selections.
The recordings are quite good with each of the three different performing groups spread across convincing soundstages. The instrumental timbre is very musical with shimmering strings and a well-rounded piano sound. Picky audiophiles might opt for more highlighting of solo passages, but that could well have ruined the lush ensemble sound Toccata's audio engineers have so beautifully captured, particularly in the sextet. It's probably a case of "You can't have your cake and eat it too!"
One last thought. Thieriot was quite prolific, and considering the quality of what's here, it's safe to assume there are more of his works which would be outstanding program material for future recordings. So it's good to see that this album from Toccata is apparently only the first volume in a projected series of discs devoted to his chamber music.
And speaking of undiscovered Thieriot treasures, apparently he wrote ten symphonies, none of which are currently available on disc. How about it CPO? And while you're at it, also consider the four by Salomon Jadassohn (1831-1902, see the newsletter of 9 June 2009).
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P100204)
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Widor: Sym (arr Ops 13/2, 42/2), Sinfa Sacra (both org & orch); Schmitt/Solyom/Bam SO [CPO (Hybrid)]
RECOMMENDED (1 SACD)
Best known for his ten solo organ symphonies, and the warhorse toccata from the fifth in particular, French composer Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937, see the newsletter of 7 May 2006) wrote a significant amount of orchestral music, some of it with organ as well. That's what the CPO folks treat us to on this hybrid, CD(2)/SACD(2/4.0), release featuring two of his three symphonies for organ and orchestra.
The disc opens with the first of these, which was requested by Britain's future King Edward VII (1841-1910) for a benefit concert that took place at the Royal Albert Hall, London in 1882. Like Alexandre Guilmant (1837-1911) frequently did (see the newsletter of 1 June 2007), Widor based it on some of his earlier solo organ music. The outer of its three movements are reworkings of the first and last sections respectively from his sixth organ symphony (Op. 42 No. 2, 1879). The central one is drawn from the andante of the third (Op. 13 No. 2, 1872).
But don't get the idea this is simply an inflated version of the original music! Widor was a skilled symphonist, and you'll find imaginative touches throughout the entire work give it a life all its own. The beginning and ending of the majestic opening allegro, where the organ and orchestra take turns stating one of Widor’s biggest and most powerful tunes, are hair-raising. The clever developmental interplay between soloist and tutti in the central section is a testimonial to Widor's consummate skill as a composer.
Done with great reserve and sensitivity, the andante is to die for! You'll find it much more dramatic and moving than its solo organ counterpart. However, the best is yet to come in the joyous stunning finale! Here the composer's imaginative scoring and colorful registration generate a sense of excitement on a par with that experienced in the closing measures of Saint-Saëns' (1835-1921) Organ Symphony (No. 3, 1886).
The Sinfonia Sacra is the third and last of Widor's symphonies for organ and orchestra. It's totally original and an undiscovered French romantic masterpiece with Germanic associations. Written in 1908 at the suggestion of Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), Widor intended it as a token of his gratitude for having been made a corresponding member of the Berlin Academy of Arts. The tune for the old chorale “Nun komm' der Heiden Heiland," which J.S. Bach (1685-1750) used in his Cantatas Nos. 61 and 62 (BWV 61, 1714; and BWV 62, 1723), figures heavily in the Widor.
With The Guns of August primed and ready for World War I, this symphony may also have been born of Widor's hopes for sustained peace between Germany and France. In five movements, the opening adagio is restrained as the orchestra and organ seem to contemplate the possible outbreak of hostilities. A solo violin soon introduces the chorale melody [track-4, beginning at 01:58], and the music builds to a searching perorational climax.
Another adagio follows immediately. At first soft-spoken and rather tragic, shimmers of light from the organ brighten the proceedings in almost scherzo-like fashion. The orchestra joins in, and the music segues into a brief andante saturated with romanticized fragments of the chorale. A tiny meditative allegro follows almost as an afterthought, hinting at the stunning finale to come.
When it does, you may find the opening a recitative-like combination of the slow movement from Saint-Saëns' Organ Symphony, and Franck's (1822-1890) Symphonic Variations (1885). But a fugal fire soon breaks out in the orchestra followed by a restatement of the chorale on the organ. In typical Franckian cyclic fashion Widor works all the previous major motifs up into a glorious supernova of sound, and the symphony ends with a triumphant coda built on the chorale. Hearing this one can only wonder why many of Widor's numerous other symphonic works have never appeared on silver disc. How about it, CPO?
It's hard not to associate Widor's organ music with the outstanding French instruments built by his fellow countryman, good friend and benefactor Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (1811-1899), but the German one featured here does not disappoint. Built in 1992-93 by the Georg Jann Company, no expense was spared to create an instrument versatile enough for solo as well as concerted works of every musical period. That said, with organist Christian Schmitt at the console, and the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra under conductor Stefan Solyom, these performances are superb, and arguably preferable to what little competition exists.
With the microphone setup used here, the Joseph-Keilberth-Saal of the Bamberg Concert Hall where these recordings were made is not so resonant that it blurs the massive sound produced when the organ and orchestra are playing full tilt. In fact some may even find it a bit on the dry side.
The organ and instrumental timbre are quite convincing in all three playing modes with the highs a bit more listener friendly in the SACD ones. The stereo tracks present a well integrated soundstage appropriately proportioned for the forces involved. The multichannel track is most impressive, and gives the listener a virtual center orchestra seat. But be forewarned there's no center channel -- not that it's really needed with the tsunamis of sound generated on this disc.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P100203)
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