CLASSICAL LOST AND FOUND
FORGOTTEN MUSIC BY GREAT COMPOSERS AND GREAT MUSIC BY FORGOTTEN COMPOSERS
31 OCTOBER 2016
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.
Dostal, N.: Die ungarische Hochzeit (cpte opera); Soloists/Berkurt/LehárFest C/FrLehár O [CPO]
RECOMMENDED (2 CDs)
This operetta by Austrian composer Nico Dostal (1895-1981) premiered on the eve of World War II (1939-45). That makes it a very late addition to the many in the Austro-Hungarian tradition by such composers as Franz Lehár (1870-1948; see 7 October 2011), Leo Fall (1873-1925), Emmerich Kálmán (1882-1953) and Oscar Straus (1870-1954). Incidentally, Nico was an arranger for both Lehár and Straus.
Nico left a significant body of works that include many film scores and operettas, Die ungarische Hochzeit (The Hungarian Wedding, 1939) being one of his best. It shows what a great tunesmith he was, and the scoring is arguably more varied and colorful than that of his colleagues. This is the only recording of it currently available on disc.
A comic stage work, the libretto is by one of the composer's close associates. Unfortunately, it’s not included, and there doesn't seem to be one online. That said, there is a sketchy plot synopsis in the album notes.
Consisting of an overture, prologue and three acts, it takes place in 18th century Hungary, and involves folksy marital shenanigans. As done here the work has a hundred minutes of music and fifty-two of dialogue. The latter is rigorously banded, making it easy for those disliking chatter to program it out. For the purposes of this commentary, we'll only reference the musical selections and their track numbers.
The overture [D-1, T-1] is a return to those full-scale ones for operettas written twenty to fifty years earlier, such as Johann Strauss Jr.'s (1825-1899) Der Zigeunerbaron (The Gypsy Baron, 1885). It opens in Magyar fashion with a >ff flourish. and clarinet solo recalling Hungary's itinerant Gypsy bands. This is repeated, after which we get a brilliantly scored sampling of the captivating melodies soon to come.
In the prologue we learn Empress Maria Theresia (also spelled Theresa, 1717-1780) has had numerous complaints from many male Habsburg Monarchy homesteaders camped out in Popláka. They're upset because they've been promised fair young damsels for brides, but none have showed up.
As it turns out the town Mayor, Josef von Kismárty, has delayed things, hoping to make some money off this arrangement. Moreover, he plans to get some desperate widows and old ladies to pay him for pairing them off with the men.
We also discover the Empress has ordered Count Stefan Bárdossy, who lives in a castle near Popláka, to find out what's amiss. Initially not wanting to go there, he sends his Uncle Desider and Valet Árpád Erdödy, who’s attired as the Count. He then changes his mind and prepares to follow them dressed as a homesteader.
These impersonations make the story somewhat confusing. So in an effort to clarify things, we’ll refer to the Count and his Valet when they appear in their disguises as C>H and V>C respectively.
The music here is a charming waltzlike aria for Árpád with some choral support [D-1, T-2]. It’s immediately followed by Act I, which is set in Popláka, where C>H has just joined Desider and V>C. In accordance with the Mayor's scheme, he and his wife Frusina have rounded up fourteen attractive maidens that they present to the visitors as some of the brides.
The latter include her daughter Janka and a farm girl named Etelka, whom C>H and V>C respectively fall for, and want to marry. But Frusina, thinking V>C is the Count, would like him for Janka, and plans to get him so drunk he'll miss the weddings scheduled for the next day.
As for the music, the act opens with two selections for C>H, V>C, Desider and chorus. These are a melancholy ballad [D-1, T-4], followed by a charming song and dance [D-1, T-6]. Then there's a change of pace with a rustic episode featuring a shepherd [D-1, T-7], and a lovely flowing introductory song for Janka [D-1, T-9].
After that we get three ensemble numbers with the whole cast, including Janka's servant Anna, whom we'll be hearing from later. The initial one is a captivating csárdás-like offering (CC) [D-1, T-11]. This is succeeded by a buoyant playful waltz [D-1, T-13], and a flirtatious, occasionally dramatic passage [D-1, T-15], ending with CC [05:37].
Then there are a couple of fetching love duets. The first for C>H and Janka is a winsome amorous selection (WA) [D-1, T-17], while the next features Etelka and V>C in a more animated exchange [D-1, T-19].
It sets the tone for the closing episode that includes everyone [D-1, T-21]. This has a busy, festive, sung introduction, followed by a captivating orchestral dance sequence [01:42-05:30]. Then the act ends colorfully with reminders of WA [07:10] and CC [09:34].
The second one takes place the next day, and is the occasion for all those weddings. In the meantime, Desider has spilled the beans to the Kismártys (see above) about the true identity of C>H and V>C. Frusina then tells Janka, who's deeply hurt that the Count hasn't told her who he really is, and accordingly plans a nasty surprise for him.
This comes to light following the nuptials, where all the brides are veiled. Moreover, upon removing that of his new wife, he discovers he's married Anna (see above)!
As for Etelka, despite Frusina's having plied V>C with much drink, he's made it to the ceremony in a heavily hungover state, and is now her new hubbie. Unfortunately, she's then crestfallen to learn he's just a valet. All these scrambled identities end the act somewhat like a Gilbert (1836-1911) and Sullivan (1842-1900; see 10 November 2014) operetta.
Regarding the music, there are six selections. The first has an anticipatory orchestral passage followed by Frusina introducing a chorus of those about to be married [D-2, T-1]. A merry trio for V>C, Etelka and Desider [D-2, T-3] with suggestions of village bagpipers follows, and is succeeded by an impassioned duet for C>H and Janka [D-2, T-5].
Next come the mass marriages, which start with the Mayor and brides singing an infectious, paprika-spiced number [D-2, T-7]. This escalates into another catchy csárdás [03:06], after which Janka, who's just discovered C>H's true identity, sings an initially troubled, wistful "Romance" [D-2, T-9].
The whole cast then appears for the finale [D-2, T-11], which begins ceremoniously. Later there are festive brass fanfares, lovely solos for the main protagonists, and a dramatic conclusion with a shocked Count and disappointed Etelka.
Act III takes place at Maria Theresia's castle in Pressburg (now Bratislava). The Empress having been informed about everything that's happened forgives the Mayor for his intrigues, and annuls the marriages except for that of Árpád and Etelka.
The operetta then ends happily with a Grand Ball, during which the Count and Janka realize they're meant for each other. In the final moments Maria Theresia gives them her blessing, presumably implying their imminent marriage.
As for the music here, it gets off to a reflective start with a somber Magyar orchestral introduction [D-2, T-12] having a knockout melody that would have turned Lehár green with envy [01:47]. After that we get a terrific, tune-swept "Hungarian March" [D-2, T-13], which at one point [00:40] smacks of Zoltán Kodály's (1882-1967) Háry János (1925-7).
The Count then delivers a placatory aria [D-2, T-15] followed by an optimistic orchestral episode [D-2, T-17]. After that he and Janka dance a minuet of reconciliation [D-2, T-19], leading to the operetta's conclusion [D-2, T-20]. Here they profess their love for one another [00:00], and are blessed by Maria Theresia to an ethereal accompaniment [02:12]. Then this wonderful throwback to happier, less-threatening times ends with some towering, transcendent notes of hope for the future.
The major singing roles include sopranos Regina Riel (Janka) and Anna-Sophie Kostal (Etelka), mezzo-soprano Rita Peterl (Frusina), tenor Jevgenij Taruntsov (Count), as well as baritones Thomas Zisterer (Valet) and Tomas Kovacic (Mayor). All are in fine voice, and deliver lively portrayals of their respective characters. They receive enthusiastic support from the Lehár Festival Chorus and Franz Lehár Orchestra under conductor Marius Burkert.
Done during the 2015 Lehár Festival, Bad Ischl, Austria, the recording is good with no extraneous stage action or audience noise. Made in the Congress and TheaterHaus there, it projects a comfortably sized sonic image in warm surroundings that complement Dostal's glowing score.
The soloists and two choruses, are well placed across the stage, and ideally highlighted against a sizeable orchestra. Now and then the upper voices have a bit of an edge typically found on conventional CDs. However, the orchestral timbre is characterized by pleasant highs, a natural sounding midrange, and clean bass. While this album falls a bit short of an audiophile rating, it gives us a very serviceable account of some music long overdue for revival.
In closing, those who like this release should make sure they have an earlier one of Dostal’s symphonic music (CPO-999811). Like the album above it shows what a master of melody he was.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P161031)
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Helsted, G.: Decet (wnd qnt, stg qt & dblb), Stg Qt 4; Dan Sinfta [Dacapo]
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
Born eight years before Carl Nielsen (1865-1931; see 26 March 2010), Danish composer Gustav Helsted's (1857-1924) music somewhat anticipates that of his illustrious compatriot, and is well worth getting to know! He first studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Music (RDAM), Copenhagen, where one of his teachers was Niels Gade (1817-1890; see 18 April 2011). He'd then received further training in Germany, France and Italy.
Beginning in 1891 he established a reputation as one of Denmark's finest organists, and went on to become an instructor at the RDAM. From age eighteen (1875) almost up until his death he wrote a modest body of works having a directness and no-nonsense quality, which we're told reflected his personality. They include some in the chamber category, two of which appear on this recent Dacapo release. Both are world premiere recordings.
The program begins with Decet of 1891 scored for wind quintet (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, French horn), string quartet (2 violins, viola, cello) and double bass. Conceived along symphonic lines, it's in four movements, and opens with an allegro [T-1]. This is a delicate pastoral tone painting that invokes images of a summer morning in the country. It opens with warm string sunshine, and woodwind bird calls welcoming the coming day. Then there's an inventive developmental dialogue of late romantic mien that ends the movement tranquilly.
The andante is a theme and variations [T-2], which starts with a sullen main subject (SM) presented in tandem by oboe [00:08] and clarinet [00:23]. Seven transformations follow, the first being a repeat of SM for the winds to a bouncing triplet string figure. Then there's a somewhat eerie version [02:03] succeeded by three that could easily represent children at play. These are respectively skipping [03:02], boisterous [03:34], and a game of tag [04:05].
After that the mood darkens, and we get a lament for strings [04:35]. This turns insistent [06:42], and gives way to a final wistful variation [07:28]. It ends the movement with a small ray of hope, setting the tone for the cheerful scherzo. Here jolly, contrapuntally-spiced outer sections hug an amorous, melodically attractive one [01:53-03:22].
However, gloom returns for the SM-dominated, first part of the finale [T-4]. Then increasingly busy passages with some curious, churning string riffs [01:33 & 01:40] resembling the opening of Mussorgsky's (1839-1881) Night on Bare Mountain (1866) [01:33 & 01:40] introduce a refreshing Nordic theme (RN) [01:54]. It's the subject of a consummate development ending in a fugato [04:20] that introduces a radiant recap of RN [06:56]. After that the music turns briefly nostalgic [09:01], only to bloom into a big tune reminder of RN and final coda [09:56], ending the work happily.
The last of Gustav's four surviving string quartets fills out the disc. Probably dating from 1917, this is highly chromatic music that may well reflect the influence of César Franck (1822-1890), whose organ music Helsted championed in Denmark.
The first of its four movements is an allegro [T-5] that opens with a snarling feral motif (SF) [00:00], which will dominate it. SF is explored, and sires an extended romanticized version of itself (ER) [01:15]. Both ideas next undergo a two-stage development [02:25 & 03:48] that ends abruptly. Then some pianissimo pizzicato [05:32] prefaces a sad reminder of ER [05:38]. This is succeeded by an upward, SF-related forte flourish [06:00], bringing things to an emphatic close.
The hectic pace set above prevails in the next presto [T-6], which is a scherzo in all but name. Here a highly agitated idea (HA) [00:00] of SF temperament alternates with a laid-back pleading one [01:27]. HA has the last say, and the movement concludes much like it began.
Then we get a change of mood with an andante [T-7] that's in essence a lament. At one point the music becomes somewhat hopeful [03:47], but then turns grief-stricken, ending this section despairingly.
The terminal, sonata-form-like allegro [T-8] is the work's high point, and for that matter many may find it the zenith of this release. The jittery thematically fragmented opening (JF) [00:00] and amorous songlike theme (AS) that follows [00:58] find the composer at the height of his creative powers. Then they battle it out in a development [02:34], which is both harmonically headstrong and virtuosically demanding. This eventually abates into a reappearance of JF [04:33] and AS [05:09] succeeded by a frenetic coda [06:11], which finishes the quartet in an elated major key.
Our performers for these works are drawn from the Danish Sinfonietta (aka Randers Chamber Orchestra), whose artistic director and chief conductor is Scottish-born David Riddell. Under him they make a strong case for the Decet, while four of their string players leave the ensemble to give a stunning performance of the technically demanding Quartet.
Made three years ago at the Vćkert Arts Center, Randers, Denmark, the recordings are excellent, and project appropriately sized sonic images in a warm, nurturing venue. The Decet musicians are positioned in conventional symphony orchestra fashion, thereby giving a somewhat wider soundstage than that for the Quartet. All of the instruments are well captured and balanced in both works, making this a demonstration grade disc.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y161030)
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Moszkowski: Fackeltanz, Don… (6 airs), Habanera, Gondoliera, Prés…, Aux…, Spanische…; West/SanFrBal O [Reference]
AUDIOPHILE BEST FIND (1 CD)
Not long ago we told you about an exceptional CD of chamber music by Polish-born composer Moritz Moszkowski (1854-1925, see 31 January 2016), who left a substantial body of works across all genres. Now here's an equally outstanding disc with seven for orchestra. And a groundbreaking release it is, considering most are world premiere recordings, which are marked "WPR" after their titles.
While most of these selections began life as piano pieces, two started as orchestral fare, and the disc begins with one of them titled Fackeltanz (Torch/Candle Dance, 1893; WPR) [T-1]. These were nighttime celebrations associated with royal marriages, and particularly popular in Germany during 1800s. They're polonaise-like, and in some cases by such well-known composers as Meyerbeer (1791-1864), who wrote four (1844-58). The one here is a festive, rhythmically arresting piece Moritz penned for the Berlin Royal Opera Ballet.
The other original orchestral work is part of some incidental music he wrote In 1896 for German dramatist Christian Dietrich Grabbe's (1801-1836) tragedy Don Juan und Faust (1829). This includes an overture (currently unavailable on disc), and the Six Airs de Ballet (WPR) that come next.
The opening "Entr'acte" [T-10] is a relaxed graceful offering, while there's a wistfulness about "Intermezzo" [T-11]. Then the mood turns mercurial in "Fantasmagorie" [T-12], which is followed by a captivating "Minuetto" [T-13]. The penultimate "Sarabande" [T-14] is amorous with heroic flourishes. And the final “Passepied" [T-15] has jolly outer sections surrounding a lovely folk-song-like inner one [00:41-01:09].
Turning to those pieces that first appeared as keyboard works, we have Aus aller Herren Länder (From Foreign Lands). This began as six miniatures for piano four-hands (1879), which the composer later orchestrated and published in 1884, giving us a symphonic dance suite. Each section represents a different country, and choreographer Alexie Ratmanksy (b. 1968) found it ideal music for a 2013 production he did for the San Francisco Ballet.
Please note the dances appear in the order given below, and not as the album notes would have you believe. For that matter no itemized track listings are provided for any of the works here with multiple subsections.
Starting in the East, the initial "Russian" one [T-2] takes the form of melancholy Slavic number having two perky interjections. The next "Italian" [T-3] is a lively tarantella with a lightness of touch bringing to mind one of Moritz's instructors in Berlin, Friederich Kiel (1821-1885, see 27 February 2008).
Moving north into "German" territory [T-4] we get a sweeping melody that brings Wagner's (1813-1883) more subdued moments to mind. It couldn't be more different from the proud, bounding "Spanish" treat that follows [T-5].
Then the suite journeys to Eastern Europe for a "Polish" dance [T-6] with a catchy three-step start and pensive finish [03:16]. A busy "Hungarian" csárdás follows [T-7], bringing the work to a mirthful whirling conclusion.
Continuing with the selections derived from four-handed piano pieces, there's also a set of five Spanische Tänze (Spanish Dances, 1876; see 31 January 2016), which is one of the composer’s earliest and best loved creations. They’re presented in orchestral versions done by Frank Van der Stucken (1858-1929) in 1884 (Nos. 1, 3 & 4), and Moskowski's good friend Philipp Scharwenka (1847-1917) in 1879 (Nos. 2 & 5). Moritz tells us they're not based on actual melodies or dance forms, but just meant to be of Spanish temperament.
The first [T-17] is a bubbly, engaging castanet-accented romp, and the second [T-18] an introspective optimistic piece. The last three are sequentially smiling with hot-blooded castanet embellishments [T-19], melodically captivating [T-20] and saucy [T-21]. The composer was in top form when he wrote these gems.
It seems their success encouraged him to write another set of three Neue Spanische Tanze (New Spanish Dances) in 1900. The last of these titled "Habanera" appears here in a 1904 orchestration by the composer (WPR) [T-8]. It's colorfully scored and has a couple of winsome tunes set to an engaging Latin beat.
Filling out the disc we have another two selections originally for solo piano. "Prés de berceau" ("By the Cradle") is the third in a set of eight pieces titled Tristesse et sourires (Sorrows and Smiles, 1896; currently unavailable on disc). The composer instrumented and published it in 1897, giving us this innocent, lyrically moving soupçon [T-9]. It's the only recording of it currently available on disc.
The other one known as Gondoliera (Gondolier, 1886) is a short mood piece. It might have been inspired by German poet Emanuel von Geibel's (1815-1884) eponymous ballad (1842; English version in album notes), and appears here in German-born, cellist-composer-arranger Otto Langley's (1851-1922) 1912 orchestration (WPR) [T-16]. This is gently rocking mood piece with a couple of dramatic passages, and perfectly captures the atmosphere and amorous aspects of the poem.
We have San Francisco Ballet (SFB) music director and principal conductor Martin West to thank for this invaluable rediscovery of neglected symphonic treasures. Not only that he leads the SFB Orchestra in stirring accounts of them, which hopefully may inspire future releases of more Moszkowski memorabilia.
The recordings were made at Skywalker Sound, Marin County, California, under the watchful ear of Reference Recordings' cofounder and Technical Director of digital chicanery, "Professor" Keith O. Johnson. He designed the HDCD (High Definition Compatible Digital) encoding process touted by this label. Their discs play on conventional machines, but should sound even better with those having an HDCD chip.
Unfortunately, if you don't have such an animal, which was the case here, you're out of luck as they're no longer made. Moreover, it probably won't be long before the same holds true for hybrid (CD/SACD) players.
That said, the conventional CD sonic image projected is appropriately sized, well-focused, and in warm marginally reverberant surroundings. As for the orchestral timbre, the high end is exceptional with the violins superbly captured. The midrange is very natural, and the low end generally convincing. However, depending on the make and placement of your speakers, some may find the bass drum a bit tubby.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y161029)
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Van Gilse: Eine Lebensmesse (A Mass of Life); Soloists/Stenz/Neth VJC, GrRC & RPO [CPO]
RECOMMENDED BEST FIND (1 CD)
Over the past four years Dutch composer Jan van Gilse's (1881-1944) symphonic works (see 7 November 2012) have found wide acceptance thanks to CPO, and now they give us one of his large-scale vocal creations. This is the only recording of it currently available on disc.
Eine Lebensmesse (A Mass of Life, 1903-4) is a setting of an eponymous poem (see the album booklet for German and English texts) by German writer Richard Dehmel (1863-1920) that's a turgid Teutonic ode rooted in Friedrich Nietzsche's (1844-1900) philosophy. This included the notion of throwing social mores to the wind, and following one's own basic instincts.
The work is in two parts with an orchestral introduction, and might best be described as a "philosophatorio" with some seasonal imagery. There's a sincerity, structural integrity and sense of confidence about the music that make it hard to believe the composer was only in his early twenties when he wrote it.
That's true from the first bars of the opening prelude [T-1], which begins searchingly [00:03] with some inquiring wind highlights. Then we get a profoundly affecting theme (PA) [02:43] that undergoes a compelling examination worthy of Richard Strauss' (1864-1949) more recondite moments. This builds and fades, after which there's a sublime variant of PA [08:54] that’s worked into a powerful afterthought.
The first part starts [T-2] with a profound orchestral lead-in (PL) [00:01] to a moving chorus of "Greise" ("Elders"). The latter sing about old age bringing back fond childhood memories and playful fantasies. Then they proclaim the Nietzschean tenet of man's power being within himself.
After that the music bridges peacefully into an elated, stimulating aria delivered by "Eine Jungfrau" ("A Maiden") [05:35]. She sings of spring and its arousing sensual thoughts. Then a lovely subdued orchestral passage bridges into a martial hymn for "Väters" ("Fathers") [07:59], which seems tinged with Gustav Mahler's (1860-1911) gallant moments. This sets the stage for a bombastic aria by "Ein Held" ("A Hero") [11:40]. In it we learn that instead of enjoying earthly summer pursuits, he'll ride a bull around the countryside, accomplishing victory after victory -- and no, I'm not making this up!
Presumably he represents Nietzsche's superman, who's the master of his own fate. Van Gilse reinforces the idea with some triumphal "Übermensch" music [14:44], having a magnificent PL-derived theme [15:01].
All this transitions into a closing "Mütter" ("Mothers") chorus [16:06], where there are some mezzo solos for one of them. In it there's a plea for the anti-authoritarian upbringing of children, which seems increasingly true today. And on that note, many would probably agree this gives kids a sense of entitlement, which turns them into spoiled brats! Be that as it may, the music shows Wagner's (1813-1883) influence, and ends the first part of the work dogmatically.
The concluding one [T-3] begins with a somber orchestral preface [00:00]. This is followed by a strange metaphysical colloquy between "An Orphan Girl" -- call her Annie -- and "Zwei erfahrene Sonderlinge" ("Two Worldly Eccentrics"). It opens with Annie lamenting the coming of autumn, and expressing feelings of isolation in her callous surroundings [01:20]. Sportive passages [04:02] introduce the Eccentrics (tenor & bass), who in respectively ardent [04:46] and heroic [06:50] arias try to win her over.
But she's unable to decide which of them to follow, and they tell her, "Without simplicity all wisdom in the end is deaf and blind" [09:56], which seems much in line with Nietzschean philosophy. The two go on to declare "Come: join our hands -", after which there's a triumphal passage where all three sing, "that have grown to be equal to their fate!" [10:18] -- and you're on your own as to what that means.
Remember the "Hero" in Part I? Well, he returns a changed man in another aria [10:53]/. Moreover, he's decided to butcher the bull, and go on a long ocean voyage with "Orphan Annie". Not only that, it seems there will be some hanky-panky below decks, as he proclaims, "and she'll give me children" [12:07]! He then adds that enigmatic concept noted before, "who grow up to be equal to their fate!" [12:12].
The music then transitions tranquilly into a winter Yuletide scene featuring a children’s chorus [13:02] with some soprano solos for a Christmas Angel. It's one of the work's most endearing sections, and transitions via a radiant swelling orchestral passage into a glorious number for all the adults [17:37]. There's a Nietzschean plea for a return to the open-mindedness of childhood, and then the work closes with words all too familiar by now, "who have grown to be equal to their fate?!"
Many will find Dehmel's poem expressionist hooey, and in that regard those not understanding German may be better off for it. However, van Gilse's music carries the day, making this disc of discovery well worth hearing!
We have soprano Heidi Melton (Maiden, Christmas Angel), mezzo-soprano Gerhild Romberger (A Mother, Orphan Girl), tenor Roman Sadnik (Hero, 1st Eccentric), bass Vladimir Baykov (2nd Eccentric), the Netherlands Female Youth Choir, Great Radio Chorus and Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, all under conductor Markus Stenz, to thank for this groundbreaking 2013 performance. They deliver a superb account of this kooky work made all the more vibrant by its having been done live at one of the Friday concerts in Vredenburg Castle, Utrecht, Netherlands.
Skillful postproduction touch-up and/or editing give us an acceptable recording of a rare Dutch treat. The soloists, choruses and orchestra are convincingly captured across an appropriately wide soundstage in an enriching acoustic. That said, there are a few isolated extraneous noises, and substantial but well-deserved applause at the end.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P161028)
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Zimmermann, B.: Sinfonie (1951), Giostra Genovese, Conc Stg Orch, King Ubu's Supper Music; Hirsch/ColWDR O [Wergo]
AUDIOPHILE BEST FIND (1 CD)
Born near Cologne, Germany, composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918-1970) would study at the University of Music there (CUM) beginning in 1937. But with the outbreak of World War II (1939-45), he was drafted into the German Army, and would serve until 1942, when he was released for medical reasons. He then resumed his education, and 1946 saw him become a part-time freelance composer, writing music predominantly for radio.
Despite all the havoc created by the war years, Bernd finally graduated in 1947. He then pursued further studies at home (1948-50), and took over Frank Martin's (1890-1974) position as Professor of Composition at CUM. The 1960s saw him achieve great success as a composer, especially after the premiere of his opera Die Soldaten (1958-64), which at one point had been declared "unspielbar" ("not performable"). But good times turned to bad as he experienced increasing bouts of depression and deteriorating eyesight, which led to his committing suicide in the summer of 1970.
His music is written in what he referred to as a "pluralistischen Kompositionsmethode" ("pluralistic compositional method"), where blocks of sound become the most important elements, recalling today's colorist composers (see 23 January 2015). Moreover, he combines the traditional with such diverse elements as neoclassicism, atonality, including twelve-tone technique, and even jazz. He also frequently embeds quotes from composers of other periods. These are the only currently available recordings on disc of the four selections making up this new Wergo release.
The program begins with the original 1951 manuscript version of Sinfonie [T-1], which is in many ways more effective than the revision of 1953 titled Sinfonie in einem Satz (Symphony in One Movement; see the album notes). Scored for large orchestra, this is a commanding introduction to a composer new to these pages. You'll find it all the more effective for an organ part that was dropped in the reworked one.
It's a stream of sonic consciousness that generally falls into five conjoined arches or spans, the first being the longest. This opens with an ominous forte percussion-laced pronouncement for organ and orchestra [00:01]. It transitions via mysterious pensive passages, which at times sound like Bartók (1881-1945), into a dramatic episode [03:08].
Then a short motif surfaces in the brass (SM) [03:28] that will make veiled appearances throughout the piece. It’s followed by a diabolical developmental span [06:20], which turns thunderous with screaming strings, snarling brass and a vengeful organ. This gives way to an ethereal arch [09:16] hinting at SM [11:54], where there are a couple of explosive outbursts [12:44 & 13:15].
It’s succeeded by a scherzo-like span [13:27] featuring skittering winds and strings that escalates into a closing arch. Here the organ plays an inverted variant of SM [15:26], which is picked up by the orchestra, and fuels a percussion-enhanced climax of catastrophic proportions. Thrilling by today's standards, it apparently grossed out the audience attending the work's 1952 premiere!
Like American composer George Antheil (1900-1959; see 14 May 2014), Zimmermann was taken with "vorticism", which was poet Ezra Pound's (1885-1972) name for an early twentieth century art and poetry movement based on abstract geometrical figures. Employing what he calls the "spherical form of time", Bernd translated this concept into music with the ballet Giostra Genovese (The Genoese Carousel, 1962). All highfalutin notions aside, it's a modern-day mélange of time honored dances by 16th and 17th century composers.
The first of its five sections is titled "Introduction" [T-2]. This sets a couple of Belgian composer Tylman Susato's (c. 1500-1570) best tunes to a bizarre accompaniment with queasy winds made all the more squeamish by the inclusion of a slide whistle. There's even a jazzy riff before the music ends with an underlying hint of what seems like a Bronx cheer.
The next three selections are of English origin, beginning with "Pavane I" [T-3], which is a conventional setting for harp and mandolin honoring Orlando Gibbons (1583-1624). Then we get another oddball number based on William Byrd's (1543-1623) "Moresca" ("Moorish Dance") [T-4]. In A-B-A form the animated "A" sections have a melody decorated with honking winds that create a barrel organ effect, and surround a tipsy "B".
Then it's back to Orlando for "Pavane II" [T-5], which is a delicately arranged amorous ditty. After that the ballet concludes as colorfully as it started with a "Finale" [T-6], bringing this tongue in cheek creation to a raucous conclusion.
In 1948 Zimmermann reworked his string trio of 1942-4 into Konzert fur Streichorchester (Concert for String Orchestra; see the album notes). The first of its three movements marked "Introduktion" [T-7] starts with thematic questions and answers, followed by an introspective episode [00:48] that ends calmly.
French writer Alfred Jarry's (1873-1907) controversial play Ubu Roi (King Ubu, 1896) inspired the closing selection Musique pour les soupers du Roi Ubu (King Ubu's Supper Music) of 1966. Zimmermann describes it as a "ballet noir" that utilizes his "pluralistic compositional method" (see above). The term "noir" relates to Ubu's being an ugly, bestial, totally evil character.
Apparently composed for the composer’s induction ceremony into the Berlin Academy of Arts, the work is scored for orchestra with organ, and a collage of musical quotations. Some are from his own works, and it takes on a surrealistic aspect along the lines of Eric Satie's (1866-1925) ballet Parade (1916-7).
The initial "Entrée de l'Academie" ("Entrance of the Academy") [T-10] begins with festive brass flourishes [00:01] as the faculty enter, and each member is introduced by an appropriate musical nomen. These fly thick and fast with one of the first being the familiar melody for the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass sequence known as the Dies Irae (DI). It apparently represents the Academy's Professor of Organ, and is accordingly played on his instrument [00:17]. There's also the promenade theme from Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (1874).
Seven dances follow, the first "Ubu Roi, Capitaine Bordure et ses partisans" ("King Ubu, Captain Bordure and his Partisans") [T-11] being a facetious concoction with flatulent martial overtones. It brings to mind Kodaly's (1882-1967) Dances of Galánta & Marosszék (1927 & 1933), and has a flippant jazzy outcropping [01:23]. Then there's "Mčre Ubu et ses gardes" ("Mother Ubu and her Guards") [T-12], which is a stollen full of familiar melodic morsels. Most of these are too fleeting to identify, but J.S. Bach's (1685-1750) Orchestral Suites (1717-39) take several hits [beginning at 00:22].
"Pile, Cotise et l'ours" ("Pile, Cotise and the Bear") [T-13] is a droll offering with a bear depicted by a lumbering tune for double bass and tuba. The animal then attacks two of Ubu's officials, and we hear their frightened cries in the woodwinds. Incidentally, this section reputedly quotes some of Zimmermann's radio music (see album notes).
The following "Le cheval ŕ phynances et les larbins de phynances" ("The Financier's Horse and his Flunkeys") [T-14] is a cheeky creation with moments of Berlioz' (1803-1869) Symphonie fantastique (1830) [00:01], and Bizet's (1838-1875) Carmen (1875) [00:22]. Then there's "Pavane de Pissemblock et Pissedoux" ("Pavane for Pissemblock and Pissedoux" -- whoever they are!) [T-15], which starts gracefully, and turns qualmish with references to Wagner's (1813-1883) Ring Cycle (1853-74) [01:15].
"Berceuse des petits financiers qui ne peuvent pas s'endormir" ("Lullaby of the Little Financier Who Can't Sleep") [T-16] is a dreamy, somnambulant creation having more of Bernd's radio music. Then concluding this balletic gallimaufry there's "Marche du décervellage" ("March of Dishevelment") [T-17], which begins with an insistent, percussive rhythmic riff (RR) [00:00] based on the opening chord of Karlheinz Stockhausen's (1928-2007) Klavierstück IX ("Piano Piece IX", 1955-61; see album notes).
After that all hell breaks loose, and we’ll make up our own story to go along with it! To wit, Wagner sends the Valkyries down to dispatch Ubu [00:33]! But things don't bode well for them as low brass intone the DI [01:58]. Moreover, Berlioz pulls Brunhilde off her valiant steed Grane, and they march to the scaffold, where it’s “off with her head” to more RRs. These continue with mind-numbing regularity for another couple of minutes, and then this choreographic curiosity ends with a final fff spasm.
The West German Radio (WDR) Orchestra of Cologne and conductor Peter Hirsch give totally committed accounts of these selections. His careful phrasing, as well as attention to dynamics and detail bring out all the subtleties of some twentieth century fare having "something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue". The composer couldn't be better served!
Made in 2013 (Sinfonie & Giostra Genovese) and 2015 (Konzert fur Streichorchester & Musique pour les soupers du Roi Ubu) at Cologne Philharmonic Hall (CPH), the recordings are superb, and sound consistent. They project an ideally sized sonic image in an enriching venue, which with Zimmerman's colorist scoring will challenge the best sound systems.
The orchestral timbre is characterized by pleasing highs, articulate mids, and lows that go down to rock bottom, while remaining well-defined. All this is complemented by the CPH's magnificent, 67-register, Klais organ. Audiophiles liking contemporary music won't want to be without this release.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y161027)
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