May 10, 2007


Cherubini: Symphony in D Major; Overtures to Médée, Faniska and Lodoïska. Piero Bellugi conducting Orchestra Sinfonica di Sanremo. Naxos. $8.99.

Tintner: Sonata for Violin and Piano; Variations on a Theme of Chopin; Prelude—Sehnsucht (Longing); On the Death of a Friend; Piano Sonata in F Minor; Fugues in G Major and C Minor; Trauermusik (Musica Tragica). Cho-Liang Lin, violin; Helen Huang, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

      Here are two composers who are primarily known for something other than the music heard on these recordings. Luigi Cherubini was an opera superstar in his day, and was much admired by Beethoven – whose sole opera, Fidelio, is the same sort of French rescue opera as Cherubini’s Faniska and Lodoïska (despite Cherubini’s Italian birth, he did most of his important composing in France). The featured work on the new Naxos CD is, however, not operatic, but is Cherubini’s sole symphony. It is well constructed, with a bustling but rather episodic and over-long first movement (what sounds like the coda begins four minutes before the end and proves not to be the coda at all, but merely another episode). The second movement is pleasantly tuneful, with a dramatic – indeed, operatic – contrasting section. The third is bright and rhythmic, the fourth scurrying; but although everything is put together well, Cherubini seems to have little to say in symphonic form, and there is nothing distinguished about the piece. The opera overtures, once much favored by Arturo Toscanini and other conductors as concert pieces (and deserving of reconsideration on that basis), are more interesting. The Médée overture is very dramatic and intense, with an opening that somewhat resembles the Fidelio overture with which Beethoven eventually decided to open his opera – and with contrasting lyrical sections that inevitably return to the dark minor-key beginning. The Faniska overture alternates between dramatic and lighter sections and then juxtaposes them. The overture to Lodoïska is elaborate, with an ominous section ended by a lovely and nonrecurring tune, then dramatic and lyrical elements alternating in a multi-section piece. The performances are all right but scarcely outstanding: Piero Bellugi somewhat undermines the drama of Médée by taking the overture too slowly, especially at the start, while the other overtures and the symphony meander along pleasantly but without any real dramatic spark – although Orchestra Sinfonica di Sanremo plays everything quite well.

      Georg Tintner (1917-1999) is not known as a composer at all: his fame rests on his conducting, especially of Bruckner; his Naxos recoding of all 11 (yes, 11) Bruckner symphonies remains an outstanding accomplishment. But Tintner liked to think of himself a composer who conducted – although he wrote almost no music in the last 40 years of his life. The new Naxos CD of Tintner piano music and one violin-and-piano work is interesting historically, and is very well played; but the pieces themselves do not really show Tintner developing a voice of his own. Considering his age when he wrote these works, this is not particularly surprising: he was 14 or 15 when he composed the Piano Sonata in F Minor and On the Death of a Friend, 17 when he wrote his Variations on a Theme of Chopin, 19 when he created Prelude—Sehnsucht (Longing), 22 when he wrote the two fugues heard here, 24 when he finished Trauermusik, and 27 when he completed the Sonata for Violin and Piano. All the works show considerable skill in craftsmanship, and some have noticeably clever touches. For example, the Chopin variations, on the well-known Prelude in A Major, vary in rhythm, dissonance and mood while still staying in audible touch with their source; and the structure of individual variations ranges from chordal to elaborate to what can best be described as Chopinesque – a direct tribute to the originator of the theme. Everything is well played, with Helen Huang, who is 23, matching Tintner’s youthful enthusiasms with her own – and being very well complemented by Cho-Liang Lin in the Sonata for Violin and Piano. Still, this CD is more a curiosity than anything else. Tintner may have wished for a legacy as a composer, but it is as a conductor of intelligence and subtlety that he will be remembered.

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