Grieg: Symphony in C Minor; Old Norwegian Romance with Variations; Three Orchestral Pieces from “Sigurd Jorsalfar.” Bjarte Engeset conducting the Malmö Symphony Orchestra.
Gottschalk: Symphonie Romantique (No. 1), “A Night in the Tropics”; Symphony No. 2, “À Montevideo”; Célèbre Tarantelle pour piano et orchestre; Escenas Campestres Cubanas—Opéra en 1 acte; Variations de concert sur l’hymne portugais du Roi Louis I; Ave Maria; La Casa del Joven Enrique por Méhul—Gran overture. Richard Rosenberg conducting the Hot Springs Festival Orchestra.
It’s a safe bet that few listeners will have heard any of the three symphonies on these two CDs before playing the recordings – and it’s nearly a sure bet that virtually no listeners will have heard all three of them. These are minor symphonies by composers who did not excel in or even much practice the symphonic form; indeed, the two so-called symphonies by Louis Moreau Gottschalk are really tone poems, lacking symphonic structure, length and gravitas. As a whole, what these CDs offer is well-played curiosities – not first-tier or even second-tier music, perhaps, but the sorts of works worth discovering by listeners who are tired of the standard repertoire and looking for something to tickle their ear buds.
Edvard Grieg was generally at his best in small things. His great success with such works as Peer Gynt and Sigurd Jorsalfar came precisely because the incidental music he composed was a series of snippets. The symphonic form did not come easily to Grieg; but when he was a young composer, he was an admirer of Niels Gade. Grieg’s sole symphony follows the model of Gade’s Symphony No. 1 very closely indeed – it is even in the same key. Indeed, the opening of Grieg’s first movement is practically a tribute to the older composer’s Sturm und Drang. Grieg declared in 1867, after several partial performances of his symphony, that it “must never be performed,” and indeed it disappeared from concert halls for 113 years. But since 1980, it has garnered some attention and a few recordings – and the one by Bjarte Engeset and the Malmö Symphony Orchestra, which does not try to make the work more than it is, is particularly fine. There is very little of the later Grieg audible here, but the work is structurally sound, reasonably well constructed and certainly worth an occasional hearing.
The Old Norwegian Romance with Variations is less worthwhile. It is rather stolid music, with nothing wrong but nothing exciting in it, and the variations are brief even by Grieg’s miniaturist standards, many running less than a minute and none lasting more than two. The excerpts from Sigurd Jorsalfar are more interesting: the scene-setting Prelude, which has some of the sound of the nature scenes from Peer Gynt; the Intermezzo, which represents a dream and which effectively portrays both sleep and the martial worries that intrude on it; and the unusual Homage March, in which the triumphal sections make up only a small part of the overall pastoral mood. In all, this is primarily a CD for Grieg fanciers.
It’s harder to say for whom the Gottschalk disk is. It is a very strange CD, including all the extant orchestral music by Gottschalk – but much of it is not really Gottschalk’s, having been resurrected, arranged, filled in and bulked up by conductor Richard Rosenberg and others. The music is strange, too, sounding mostly like tuneful “pop” works even though Gottschalk wanted very much to be taken seriously as a composer – not just a piano virtuoso. Gottschalk’s death at age 39, and his extremely sloppy habits during extensive international travel as a performer, left his manuscripts scattered and in a huge mess; many were lost altogether. The reconstruction of these Gottschalk pieces is admirable, but the resulting CD roams all over the place, just as much in its way as Gottschalk did during his life.
The first “symphony” is bright and forthright, ending with an extended treatment of “Yankee Doodle,” while the second starts with a sultry, gently swaying section and then moves into a bouncy, happy one with lots of swing (Gottschalk here anticipates jazz by half a century). These are the bookends of the CD. In between is music of varying interest and quality. The Célèbre Tarantelle is a fine Lisztian showpiece, and pianist Michael Gurt plays it with real style. It is hard to see Escenas Campestres Cubanas as an opera – it lasts just 13 minutes – or even as a song cycle (only two of the four movements are vocal). But it is colorful, with attractive dance rhythms, and the sections in which the three voices intertwine (soprano Anna Noggle, tenor Darryl Taylor and bass-baritone Richard Ziebarth) are neatly scored and nicely sung.
The Variations de concert are pleasant but foursquare; Gurt handles them well enough, but there is little of substance in them. Ave Maria, though, is a surprise: a pretty and sentimental setting of the familiar verses, with soprano Melisa Barrick offering a childlike voice, almost devoid of vibrato – it puts one in mind of the naïve wonder of the finale of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. La Casa del Joven Enrique por Méhul, on the other hand, is all pomposity, using five pianists (John Contiguglia, Richard Contiguglia, Angela Draghicescu, Chin-Ming Lin and Joshua Pepper) – fewer than Gottschalk wanted – at the service of a great deal of sound and fury, signifying very little. The large scale of most of these works is seen only in their orchestrations, not the thoughtfulness or depth of their ideas. Lost Gottschalk works, such as his operas, may have had more substance; but this CD, despite the care taken in the reconstructions and the mostly excellent playing, will do nothing to change the reputation of Gottschalk as an outstanding performer and clever composer whose strength was primarily in the piano, not in the handling of larger forces.