October 21, 2010


Franz Danzi: The Complete Symphonies. Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana conducted by Howard Griffiths. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

Lehár: Der Zarewitsch. Tiberius Simu, Alexandra Reinprecht, Harald Serafin, Marko Kathol, Sieglinde Feldhofer, Ciro De Luca, Zoltán Galamb; Mörbisch Festival Choir and Festival Orchestra Mörbisch conducted by Wolfdieter Maurer. Oehms. $16.99.

     There are many classical works that are scarcely of the first water – but they can still be gems, even if less valuable or semi-precious ones. Sometimes they lie undiscovered (or un-rediscovered) for many years, their composers little known or long since faded into obscurity. At other times, they are worthy pieces overshadowed by better ones by the same composer. In these two new releases, we have one of each of these cases.

     Franz Danzi (1763-1826) is better remembered, when he is remembered at all, for his association with Carl Maria von Weber, than for his own works. Like Weber, he was determined to create a true German national opera that would go beyond the Singspiel tradition; but unlike Weber, who was more than 20 years his junior, Danzi never had a smashing success along the lines of Der Freischütz. Indeed, for various reasons – some artistic, some personal – none of his stage works fared particularly well, and he turned to writing instrumental music in part because he could at least get that sort of music performed. Danzi was a very fine craftsman, if scarcely a highly original symphonist. He wrote six symphonies in all, and every one of them is worth hearing – much as the lesser symphonies of Haydn are worthwhile. In fact, Danzi’s symphonies resemble Haydn’s so closely that they sound at times almost like extensions (mostly in harmony) of the earlier composer’s work. The fact that four of Danzi’s symphonies were written while Haydn was still alive reinforces the impression of imitation and expansion, although, in truth, Danzi was no more influenced by Haydn than were many other composers of his time. He was, however, rather less influenced by Beethoven than one might expect: his last two symphonies, which both date to around 1818, were written later than Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth, but they show not the slightest rhythmic, harmonic or instrumental relationship to those works. Indeed, all six Danzi symphonies contain third-movement minuets, not scherzos; and all are shorter than Haydn’s late symphonies – the longest runs less than 24 minutes. Yet it is unfair to look at or listen to all the things that Danzi was not, since there is a great deal of pleasure to be had by focusing on what he was. His symphonies show some intriguing structural elements, such as integration of some first-movement slow introductions into their overall fabric. Some of his modulations are Schubertian, as are some of his wind-focused themes; and even some of his most Haydnesque elements have great charm and interesting twists – such as his habit of pausing in propulsive movements, then suddenly starting again with a quiet re-entry or strong chords. Furthermore, there is some genuine stylistic development among Danzi’s symphonies – although that is something that the otherwise excellent CPO set makes it unreasonably hard to follow. There is no reason whatsoever for these CDs to be set up with Symphonies Nos. 5, 3 and 1 on the first disc, in that order, and then Nos. 6, 4 and 2 on the second. This is a set that simply cries out for the symphonies to be offered in the order in which they were composed, and their lengths would have made it easy to do so. Some decisions by recording companies are simply inexplicable. Thank goodness, though, that the performances themselves are so good. Howard Griffiths, a champion of neglected works and neglected composers, does a top-notch job of presenting the symphonies with all the flair and instrumental coloration they contain, and the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana plays everything with great spirit. Indeed, these are all highly spirited works (even the sole symphony in a minor key keeps insisting on moving into the major, although not always the expected major). Danzi was unsuccessful in his theatrical ambitions and is virtually unknown today, but even if his works break little new ground, they are attractive in their own right and certainly worth at least an occasional performance.

     Unlike Danzi, Franz Lehár is well known in his field – operetta. But not all of his works are well known. Indeed, aside from The Merry Widow, which remains one of the most popular operettas ever written, many people do not know his other productions at all. Most are still popular in German-speaking countries, though. But that popularity cannot readily be extended to the rest of the world with recordings such as the new one of Der Zarewitsch directed by Wolfdieter Maurer. This is not a criticism of Maurer, who leads the music with skill – rather, it is a criticism of Oehms, which has released this recording from the Mörbisch Lake Festival in such a way as to render it unintelligible to anyone who does not speak German and is not already familiar with what happens in this 1927 operetta. The recording contains only the music – even though, being just 60 minutes long, it could have had 20 minutes of dialogue and still been a single-disc release. Libretto? There is not even a plot summary – only a little background on the composition of the work. So any English-speaking listener not already thoroughly familiar with Der Zarewitsch will be completely at sea when listening to this CD. And that is a shame, because this operetta – one of the composer’s serious ones, with an ending filled with pathos if not exactly tragedy – contains some glorious tunes and some unusual homoerotic implications that would surely interest people who knew they were there. The work’s historical background involves Alexei, son of Peter the Great, who went into self-imposed exile to be with his mistress, but was eventually forced to return to Russia – where he was tortured into a confession, convicted of conspiring against his father, sentenced to death, and died (probably of torture-related injuries) before the sentence could be carried out. Lehár’s librettists, Béla Jenbach and Heinz Reichert, redid the story so it features a Zarewitsch who has no interest in women but who must be sexually initiated and then made to marry for reasons of state – so a lovely, charming and experienced girl named Sonja is hired to seduce him, which becomes possible only because she first meets him when disguised as a male Circassian dancer. Eventually the two do have a passionate heterosexual affair, which ends after the old Czar dies and the Zarewitsch and Sonja both realize that he must put duty above personal desire and leave his lover to assume the throne. Unfortunately, little of this plot is clear from the music alone, even for those who are able to follow the German words. And while most of the singers are very fine indeed – Alexandra Reinprecht as Sonja is particularly good – Tiberius Simu is not a satisfactory Zarewitsch, because his voice gets tight and pinched in its upper registers, where the composer often requires it to go (the duets between him and Reinprecht are all to her advantage). There are many lovely tunes in Der Zarewitsch, and it is certainly possible to listen to this recording purely for the music and get more than a modicum of enjoyment from it. But just as there is more to Lehár than The Merry Widow, so there is more to Der Zarewitsch than this recording shows. This may not be one of the composer’s best works, but even his less-important pieces deserve to shine in their own light to a greater extent than Der Zarewitsch does here.

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