March 29, 2012


Wagner: Symphonies in C and E; Huldigungsmarsch; Kaisermarsch; Overture to “Rienzi.” Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi. Chandos. $19.99.

Humperdinck: String Quartet in C; Piano Quintet in G; Menuet in E-flat for Piano Quintet; String Quartet Movements in E minor and C minor; Notturno for Violin and String Quartet in G. Diogenes Quartet (Stefan Kirpal and Gundula Kirpal, violins; Stephanie Krauß, viola; Stephen Ristau, cello); Andreas Kirpal, piano; Lydia Dubrovskaya, violin. CPO. $16.99.

Dohnányi: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 3. Aviv Quartet (Sergey Ostrovsky and Evgenia Epshtein, violins; Nathan Braude, viola; Rachel Mercer, cello). Naxos. $9.99.

     Richard Wagner is preeminent as an opera composer and is known to audiences almost solely in that role, but a new Chandos CD barely touches on Wagner’s operatic works and shows him instead as a would-be symphonist and a composer of occasional works. By no stretch of the imagination is Wagner’s symphonic output a major part of his oeuvre, but listening to it does provide a more-nuanced view of the composer and an interesting sidelight on how his contemporaries viewed him: Clara Schumann quite admired the Symphony in C and used it to spur her husband, Robert, to get going with symphonies of his own. This is Wagner’s only completed symphony, finished before he turned 20, and it conforms to classical models while showing his indebtedness to the dramatic propensities of Weber. The Symphony in E was started two years later, then abandoned, with its two surviving movements orchestrated after Wagner’s death by conductor Felix Mottl. It shows Wagner pushing symphonic forms somewhat more than in the C Major work, but also makes it clear – at least retrospectively – that the symphony could not contain Wagner’s ambitions. He did, however, put those ambitions on hold when he needed money or had a patron to praise, creating works such as the Huldigungsmarsch and Kaisermarsch for such purposes. The orchestration of the former was started by Wagner and finished by Joachim Raff; the orchestration of the latter is Wagner’s own. Both works are suitably triumphant, although the Huldigungsmarsch actually has fewer overtly martial passages than one might expect, and more of a feeling of flow from the strings. Neeme Järvi is not a particularly intuitive Wagner conductor, but he handles this particular repertoire well, with fine playing and good balance from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. It is only in the Rienzi overture that lusher strings and a better grasp of Wagner’s structure would have been welcome. Rienzi was Wagner’s third opera, very much in the style of Meyerbeer, and it deserves a first-rate modern performance – which it shows little sign of getting, in part because so many top-tier singers are needed to do it justice. The overture does receive fairly frequent concert performances, and it is a wonderful compendium of tunes from the opera, from a moving prayer to a march more triumphal than either the Huldigungsmarsch or the Kaisermarsch. Järvi’s reading here is a trifle bland, but well-enough played to make this Chandos CD as a whole an interesting compilation of comparative rarities.

     Nothing on the Wagner disc is as rare as what is on the new CPO release of chamber music by Engelbert Humperdinck, a composer who sits so firmly in Wagner’s shadow that he is rarely discussed in any other terms. And Humperdinck is known as a one-work composer: his opera, Hänsel und Gretel, is performed very frequently, but his five other operas are almost completely unknown, and listeners may be surprised to find out that Humperdinck ever wrote anything but the one work that is always associated with him. This is as unfortunate as a belief that Pachelbel wrote only “the” canon, when in fact he wrote many other pieces; but sometimes history is unkind to talented composers perceived as craftsmen rather than innovators in their time (thus, Pachelbel takes a back seat to J.S. and J.C. Bach, and Humperdinck to Wagner). No single release is likely to set the record straight where Humperdinck is concerned, but this very well-played chamber-music CD will certainly show that Humperdinck had a firm understanding of writing for small groups: there is nothing turgid, overdone or grandiose in any of this music. The pieces here are mostly from the 1870s, when Humperdinck (1854-1921) was young and still exploring nuances of composition; several individual movements are from works intended to be larger but never completed. Some of them show stylistic flair as well as a gift for melody, notably the Notturno of 1879, which seems a more-mature work than it is. The one full-scale early work, the piano quintet of 1875, has an exceptionally interesting relationship to Humperdinck’s sole, late string quartet, which dates to 1919-20 and was the composer’s final completed piece: the quartet’s finale is actually based on the finale of the quintet from more than four decades earlier. Both of these extended works – each in three movements rather than the typical four – lie well on the instruments and show attentiveness to formal structure (and variations on it) as well as considerable melodic gifts. None of the music on this CD will be considered “great,” and certainly none of it is groundbreaking, but all of it shows that Humperdinck was a more-considerable and more-versatile composer than his single super-popular work makes evident – and had a more-individual style than he usually is credited with.

     Nor is chamber music considered a particular forte of Ernő Dohnányi, who is almost a “one-piece composer” as well: this piano virtuoso’s Variations on a Nursery Tune, for piano and orchestra, is the only piece many listeners will know. The new Naxos CD, featuring excellent playing by the Aviv Quartet, shows Dohnányi’s chamber music to as good an effect as the CPO disc shows Humperdinck’s. And Naxos also pairs an early work with a later one: Dohnányi (1877-1960) wrote his first quartet in 1899, his third in 1926. Not surprisingly, the earlier quartet, which is in four movements, is more derivative – specifically of Brahms – than original or nationalistic: Dohnányi never explored the folk-music influences of Hungary in the ways that Bartók and Kodály did, although there is certainly some Hungarian flavor to Dohnányi’s tunes. The first quartet is highly expressive in late-Romantic style, with a very heartfelt slow movement. The third quartet is a more sophisticated work both structurally and harmonically. The melodies are pleasantly effective, and they percolate neatly among the instruments; and this three-movement work has an especially interesting central movement whose unusual tempo designation is Andante religioso con variazoni. This quartet also shows some awareness of the bypassing of tonality in which other composers were involved, although it can scarcely be deemed a forward-looking work in that regard. Both these chamber pieces show a sure sense of craftsmanship and an understanding of the needs of small-ensemble composition, and the disc as a whole – like those devoted to Wagner and Humperdinck – offers strong evidence of the value of looking beyond the standard repertoire and beyond the standard way of thinking about individual composers.

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