Guest Columnist Eccentrics, anomalies, and forgotten gems: Reilly's June music review

As I was saying before we were interrupted by the time and space constraints of May, we will now address some of the fine music from the late 19th and early 20th centuries that recent CD releases have made available to us. As usual, my focus is on composers whose works were, quite undeservedly, nearly forgotten.

First off, we have several new CPO releases of the music of Dutch composer Julius Rontgen (1855-1932). Initially, Rontgen became familiar to me through his chamber music. When I listened to it, I thought that I had encountered an undiscovered genius. It's that good. If you don't believe me, try the RCA CD, titled Right through the Bone (a reference to Rontgen's brother, who discovered x-rays), which includes a gorgeous piano quintet and string sextet. You must also hear his fabulous piano trios. I, therefore, looked forward with great anticipation when the CPO label began releasing gobs of his orchestral music, including a selection of his many symphonies.

Alas, the level of accomplishment was not the same, which is not to say that it is not very good music. It is, but I would not put it in the absolute first rank, where his chamber music belongs. How do I tell the difference? Easy. When I discovered the chamber music, I went around grabbing people by the lapels to tell them to listen to it. I don't do that with his orchestral works. This may be a highly subjective standard, but it's how I know – my own personal barometer of quality.

CPO has added to the Rontgen orchestral survey with three new releases: one, containing his Piano Concertos Nos. 2 &4 (CPO 777 398-2), another with his with two of his Violin Concertos and a Ballad for Violin and Orchestra (CPO 777 437-2), and the third, containing two wind Serenades and a Trio for flute, oboe and bassoon (CPO 777 127-2). All of this music is pretty solidly anchored in the late 19th century, even though more than half of these works were written in the early 20th. Rontgen's language did not change much over the course of his lengthy career. In any case, these are all very attractive works, which would make for great summer listening. As I knew from his chamber music, Rontgen had a pronounced melodic gift. Even Rachmaninoff might have envied the main theme of Piano Concerto No. 2. The wind Serenades could not be more gently genial. They make for a lovely entertainment. Anyone enamored of late 19th-century violin concertos will also be delighted with the graceful sonority of these.

I have followed with keen interest the releases on the Guild label of the complete symphonies of Fritz Brun (1878-1959), Switzerland's 20th century answer to the great symphonist Anton Bruckner. Brun wrote large-spanned, big-boned music that may require the ministrations of the Berlin or Vienna Philharmonics to show its stuff. The Moscow Symphony Orchestra, under Adriano, has been soldiering through several releases with mixed results. The first issues were clearly not equal to the demands of the music. The newest release, on Guild GMCD 7372, with Symphonies Nos. 6 &7, shows improvement and comes much closer to the mark in exhibiting in a convincing way the impressive stature of this music. Still, there is an occasional stodginess present that I am inclined to blame on the musical forces, rather than the composer. However, I may be wrong. I will certainly continue to listen because I think there is some level of greatness here. Whatever my reservations, Adriano and his forces capture a good deal of beauty, and I am very grateful to Guild for investing in this important enterprise.

One of the most extraordinary eccentrics of the music world was Havergal Brian (1876-1972), a largely self-taught English composer who wrote 21 of his 32 symphonies after turning 80 years old. I shall forever love this man for having told a Gramophone interviewer, who had gently inquired about the issue of mortality after Brian had turned 90, "I can't die. I just bought a new pair of trousers." The majority of Brian symphonies are now available. So the intrepid Toccata Classics label is bringing out a series of Brian's orchestral music, the first two volumes of which are now available in excellent performances by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Gary Walker. Volume 1 contains a very substantial Burlesque Variations on an Original Theme (1903), written partially in response to Elgar's Enigma Variations and in the works. Volume 2, titled Orchestral Music from the Operas, has substantial excerpts from four of Brian's five operas, all of them yet to be staged. What can one say of this music other than that it is completely unique combination of the archaic and the radical, which is what makes it so interesting and intriguing? Brian employed traditional means in nontraditional ways. If that seems enigmatic, it's supposed to. The music can sound more or less normal for some stretches and then, all of a sudden, arrest you with a startling abruptness or an eruptive outburst of power that leave you wondering what just happened. With concentrated power, the music occasionally congeals in giant exclamation points. The element of surprise is part of the great fun in listening to Brian. I can't think of a better place to start than this new Toccata Classics series.

The Romanian composer George Enescu (1881-1955) is famous enough, but I wonder how many people actually listen to his music. I've been very taken by the chamber music releases I have been listening to, especially of his Piano Quartets Nos. 1 & 2, played by the Tammuz Piano Quartet on CPO 777 06-2. This is riveting music, richly Romantic, with haunting themes. It is highly animated, hard driving, and gloriously melodic – almost overheated, but generally irresistible. The second Quartet is a bit less rhapsodic, but no less dramatic. There is also a wonderful Naxos recording (8.570582), issued several years ago, of an Enescu's Cello Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2. In the second Sonata, the cello usually carries the melody – long lines of it, sprinkled with glittering, shattered shards of crystal from the piano. This music is performed with panache by cellist Laura Buruiana and pianist Martin Tchiba.

Hans Gal (1890-1987), whom I have praised to the skies for his refined chamber music, is now finally receiving attention for his symphonies. The Avie label has previously given us his Symphony No. 2, which is a treasure, as well as the marvelous Violin Concerto. Now, it delivers Symphonies Nos. 1 & 3, albeit on two different CDs. The First is matched with Franz Schubert's Symphony No. 6, with the Northern Sinfonia, under Thomas Zehetmair, and the Third with Robert Schumann's Symphony No. 3, with the Orchestra of the Swan, under Kenneth Woods.

I would've preferred Gal's two symphonies on the same CD, but I understand the point that Avie is making by matching his music with Schubert and Schumann. It is placing Gal in the grand tradition of which he is so obviously a continuation and an expositor. It is not mere hype to title the CD paired with Schubert "Kindred Spirits." The Viennese world of Schubert is still present in Gal. Indeed, it comes as a shock that these two symphonies are here receiving their world premiere recordings. Gal's music was driven underground, after he fled Vienna from the Nazis in 1938. This is clear evidence that the line to the great tradition in music was, in fact, not broken, either by the depredations of Second World War or by Arnold Schonberg. Here preserved intact are the senses of structure, balance, and proportion, not as if in aspic, but living, breathing.

Gal's First Symphony is fresh and engaging, charmingly balletic in places, with some of the effervescence of Prokofiev, though without a Russian sound. In fact, it has a touch of musical chinoiserie. The Third Symphony, which opens with such a gentle, lovely theme on the oboe, then the flute, before the horns zone in more assertively, has simply to be one of the most graceful modern symphonies. There is a haunting Viennese waltz lilting through parts of it. How can anything this lovely – try to resist the gorgeous andante – not have been performed in 55 years, until this superb recording by Kenneth Woods and the Orchestra of the Swan? Both he and Zehetmair are Avie veterans of Gal's music, and they and their forces both do equally well with the Schumann and Schubert pairings. This is music for those who thought the world had ended, and who can now discover that it didn't.

Walter Braunfels' music also disappeared as a result of the Nazis, and he, too, remained deeply rooted in tradition. Braunfels (1882-1954) had a huge reputation before the war, but it never recovered – until now. His glittering opera, “The Birds,” made a big splash in its 1997 Decca recording debut, and now can also be seen on an Arthaus Musik DVD. Premiered in 1920, Fantastic Appearances of a Theme by Hector Berlioz is a set of variations on Mephistopheles' "Song of the Flea" from “The Damnation of Faust.” It is a wild tour de force, every bit as orchestrally brilliant as the best of Richard Strauss and completely worthy of its source in Berlioz. The piece was recorded in 2001 by Dennis Russell Davies, who is perfectly fine conductor. He is to be praised for the sumptuous performance he gave this piece on the CPO label, with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. However, Gunter Wand was a great conductor and a notable exponent of Braunfels' music. Issued by the Profil label (PH 06004), his 1953 recording, in good monaural sound, with the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra, is incomparably more bracing and exciting. This is the recording to listen to in order to realize the greatness of this phantasmagoric piece. It is thrilling. We simply must have more Braunfels. In the meantime, listen to his stunning Te Deum on the Orfeo label.

Space-time constraints tell me to race through some other worthy releases. Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876-1948), once a famous opera composer, was largely forgotten after World War I. It turns out, he wrote some exquisite orchestral works, Triptychon, Divertimento, and Venezianische Suite, which the CPO label now brings us with the Munich Radio Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Ulf Schirmer (CPO 777 567-2). As one might expect from his hyphenated name, Wolf-Ferrari's music shows both German and Italian influences. However, these very attractive works also display some solemnity, and an almost Elgarian melancholy and stately nobility. They are very well crafted and immediately appealing. This is one CD to which I have repeatedly returned for its bittersweet pleasures.

Felix Weingartner (1863-1942) was one of the most renowned conductors of the first half of the 20th-century. He was also a lesser-known composer. The CPO label has been releasing his symphonies and a complete set of his five string quartets. Truth to tell, I have not been able to make it through a second audition of any of the symphonies. I find them exemplars of what I dislike most in late Romantic music – too much emotion in too little form. Thus it was a more than a pleasant surprise to discover that his string quartets are superlative. Perhaps the form demanded greater discipline from him. In any case, the third and final volume (CPO 777 253-2), containing Quartets Nos. 2 & 4, simply confirms my opinion that this is one of the most enjoyable and revelatory quartet cycles of the recent past. What does it sound like? You might think that Franz Schubert had continued writing music at the turn of the 19th century, especially in the moving vein of his Death and the Maiden Quartet. If that sounds appealing, and it should, do not hesitate, because the Sarastro Quartet plays this music with real feeling and distinction.

I close with another anomaly, Paul Graener (1872-1944), a German who avidly gained British citizenship in 1909, but who then went on to enthusiastically join the Nazi party and work in its musical bureaucracy. I don't read jacket notes before I listen to music, and my first impression was that I was hearing a Swiss composer of the caliber of the Paul Juon – high praise indeed. While he was a contemporary, he was not a compatriot of Juon. Nonetheless, like him, he wrote terrific music for piano trio, evidence of which appears on the CPO label (777 599-2), with the capable ministrations of the Hyperion-Trio. The Kammermusikdichtung for Piano Trio is a stand out, with its surging, dramatic melodic flow. If you can bracket his distasteful political affiliation, you can enjoy some excellent late Romantic chamber music here.

I see I have barely reached the mid-20th-century, which lets me know exactly where I should begin in July. Stay with me, and I will introduce you to some exciting new music, which will include two recent guitar concertos, one from Ernesto Cordero and another from Paul Lansky. They will provide the cool breezes you will need in a simmering July.

This article was originally printed in “Crisis Magazine”  June 19, 2012.

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