May 28, 2015
(++++) BYWAYS OF THE 19TH CENTURY
Salomon Jadassohn: Symphonies Nos. 1-4; Cavatine for Violin and Orchestra; Cavatine for Cello and Orchestra. Klaudyna Schulze-Broniewska, violin; Thomas Georgi, cello; Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt conducted by Howard Griffiths. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).
Carl Czerny: String Quartets in A minor, D minor, D, and E minor. Sheridan Ensemble (Yuki Kasai and Matan Dagan, violins; Florian Donderer, viola; Anna Carewe, cello). Capriccio. $16.99 (2 CDs).
Alkan: Études dans Touts les Tons Mineurs, Op. 39; Trois morceaux dans le genre pathétique, Op. 15; Grande Sonate “Les Quatre Áges,” Op. 33; Sonatine, Op. 61; Étude, Op. 76, No. 3. Vincenzo Maltempo, piano. Piano Classics. $27.99 (3 CDs).
Josef Suk: About Mother, Op. 28; Chausson: Four Dances, Op. 26; Reger: From My Diary, Op. 82, Vol. 3. Paul Orgel, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
As the long-delayed rush to rediscover now-little-known composers of the Romantic era proceeds headlong, those rescued from oblivion become more and more obscure. Few have been as thoroughly forgotten as Salomon Jadassohn (1831-1902). A noted pedagogue who taught, among others, Delius, Grieg, Busoni, Felix Weingartner, Emil von Reznicek and George Chadwick, Jadassohn was so conservative as a composer that he himself admitted, in 1899, that he had fallen behind the times musically and no longer understood what others were writing. Jadassohn’s conservatism was different from that of his near-contemporary, Saint-Saëns, who had strong esthetic reasons for sticking to harmonic approaches and compositional techniques that had served him well for decades. In Jadassohn’s case, his compositions – his four symphonies in particular – had a distinctly academic cast, being created in furtherance of a philosophy that deliberately harked back to and largely duplicated the sounds of Mendelssohn and Schumann and that incorporated a belief that (among other things) everything of value had to be heard twice. This, not surprisingly, resulted in works that were long on repetition and rather short on development of themes, and that made no attempt to reach beyond the harmonic boundaries of Jadassohn’s models. Indeed, Jadassohn explicitly stated his tripartite approach to creating music: “melody is the soul of a musical composition,” counterpoint is essential to developing musical themes, and “in every composition everything important has to be repeated.” Notably absent from this formulation is any of the emotionalism generally attributed to the Romantic era. And indeed, Jadassohn’s symphonies, even in performances as nuanced and attractive as those of the Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt conducted by Howard Griffiths, have a certain pervasive coolness about them, their slow movements studied rather than heartfelt, their fast ones right on the edge of being formulaic (with speedups at ends of finales being one predictability among many). The four symphonies (from 1860, 1863, 1876 and 1888) are uniformly well-crafted, attractively assembled, and nicely if not innovatively scored. The first two (in C and A) are upbeat pretty much throughout, the latter pair more thoughtful, as befits minor-key works (D minor and E minor, respectively, although in a couple of places CPO wrongly lists No. 3 as being in D major). But there is little profundity to be had anywhere in these works, and little musical inventiveness beyond that of the time of Wagner’s Lohengrin (1850), a work that Jadassohn much admired. These symphonies are nevertheless quite interesting to hear as examples of the sort of music being produced in and around conservatories in the 19th century by composers with talent but without genius. And Griffiths certainly handles the music with sensitivity and considerable skill. The presentation of the symphonies is also broken up interestingly, with two works written in the operatic style of a Cavatine – one for violin and one for cello – that are in some ways more appealing than the symphonies themselves. Jadassohn worked in many forms, but not that of opera; he nevertheless shows in these two pieces – especially the one for cello, which was his last orchestral work – an affinity for the lyrical expressiveness of opera, as well as skill in composing for the solo instruments, which (especially in the violin work) carry essentially all the interest of the material. Jadassohn may justifiably be only a footnote as a composer, but hearing his compositions will be fascinating for listeners looking for a wider-than-usual perspective on the thriving musical world of the Victorian era.
Much of what is said about Jadassohn also applies to Carl Czerny (1791-1857), who even today is known for his pedagogy but already in his own time was deemed at most an adequate or pedantic composer. Czerny’s case, though, is different from Jadassohn’s, for Czerny divided his work into segments and was well aware that the exercises and salon-style pieces that he created for students and popular entertainment were different from what he called his “serious” music. He was quite capable of producing virtuosic and superficial piano works based on themes from operas while at the same time putting together thoughtful, well-proportioned and often quite impressive string quartets – witness the four performed by the Sheridan Ensemble on a new Capriccio release. Two of these works, in A minor and D, have never been recorded before, and the other two are scarcely better known: interest in Czerny’s music has barely begun to revive, part of the same increasing attention being paid to less-known 19th-century composers that has brought Jadassohn back to a measure of public awareness. Czerny shows in these quartets a genuinely impressive command of instrumental voices, of thematic balance, of the conversational elements of chamber music, and of the expressive potential of a small string ensemble. The three minor-key quartets delve more deeply into emotion than does the one in D, the emotive characteristics of the music here appearing quite genuine and less studied than those in Jadassohn’s symphonies. And Czerny offers some genuine cleverness of musical design in these works: in the D minor, for example, the first theme of the first movement is introduced by viola and cello rather than violin, and the second theme is a variation on the first one – in the relative major. Certainly there are influences of other composers audible here: a touch of Mendelssohn in the first movement of the A minor work, a bit of Haydn in the finale of the quartet in D, even a bit of Schubert here and there. But there is a stylistic solidity to Czerny’s quartets that shows him to have had his own compositional style, one that did more than choose bits and pieces of the approach of other composers. These very fine quartet performances show that Czerny’s more-serious music is certainly worthy of at least occasional revival.
Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888) has been getting something of a revival for a while now, although much of his often-astonishing piano output remains quite obscure (and beyond the technical reach of many modern pianists, for all their virtuosity in other composers’ works). The first great modern proponents of Alkan’s music were the formidable if somewhat dry Ronald Smith (1922-2004) and the more-theatrical Raymond Lewenthal (1923-1988). Both of their Alkan recordings deserve to be re-released, along with the notes Lewenthal provided about the music: his technique was not always perfect, not always as strong as Smith’s, but Lewenthal’s knowledge, enthusiasm and breezily accessible writing style made Alkan’s music come quite vibrantly alive. A few pianists in more-recent times have made some first-rate Alkan recordings, notably Marc-André Hamelin – and Vincenzo Maltempo, whose name might as well be “bontempo” in this music, so assured is his handling of the repertoire. Several of his recordings on the Piano Classics label have now been combined into a first-rate three-CD set whose primary attraction is an extraordinary presentation of all 12 of the Études dans Touts les Tons Mineurs, pieces so complex that Alkan labeled four of them a symphony for solo piano and three others a concerto for the solo instrument. The composer surely knew that the labels did not fit: the techniques called for are such purely pianistic ones that these pieces could never have been thought of as working in a piano-and-orchestra combination, much less for an orchestra alone. But in terms of communicating the scale and intention of these works, Alkan’s labels make perfect sense: this is music that is truly symphonic in scope, and concerto-like mostly in terms of a work such as Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1, itself essentially a symphony with piano. Indeed, Alkan was always pushing the boundaries of musical definition: his Grande Sonate “Les Quatre Áges,” for example, is really much closer to a fantasy in the sense of Schubert’s Wanderer-Fantasie, a point made explicitly by Maltempo, who, like Lewenthal, offers his own notes on the works he performs. Alkan’s music is so difficult to play that it is tempting to dismiss the works as mere showpieces, like Czerny’s variations on operatic tunes; but in fact Alkan’s pieces flow from a very personal and difficult-to-encompass esthetic. Like Liszt, Alkan was interested in making the piano an orchestra-in-miniature, but he also sought to find expressive potential in what is essentially a percussion instrument – potential realized not in a Chopinesque manner but through intimate understanding of the piano’s capabilities and full, knowing exploitation of them. Le festin d’Ésope, the last and most famous of the Études dans Touts les Tons Mineurs, is a particularly trenchant example, refusing to provide listeners with a guide to the attendees at Aesop’s feast but leaving it up to listeners to decide just which animals are on hand (Lewenthal wrote that in one section he heard fleas). It is the combination of distinctive use of the piano’s capabilities with an insistence on taking the performer’s ability to an absolute extreme that lends Alkan’s music its unique character. The challenge for any pianist trying to scale these particular heights is not to make the virtuosity seem easy – that runs counter to the sensibilities of the music – but to harness the extreme difficulty in the service of the expressive potential of the material. Maltempo clearly understands this, getting the scale of the works just right – the Sonatine, for example, is a typical example of Alkan’s understatement in his titles, since it is very much a sonata even though its scale is less than that of the Grande Sonate “Les Quatre Áges.” Alkan’s music does not always rise to the level of the profound, but it is always interesting music, with characteristics of expression and expressiveness not found in the works of most other composers of his time. Maltempo plays it not only with tremendous skill but also with considerable understanding, of the heart as well as the head: he “gets” Alkan in a way that helps listeners “get” him, too. Maltempo writes that Alkan’s music offers “a constant contrast between the angelic and the demonic,” and that is a good formulation as far as it goes. But Maltempo’s performances go further: this music not only contains beauty and challenges, but also requires that performers find the beauty through the challenges. And that is what Maltempo does in this exhilarating release.
Matters are less intense and complex in the repertoire on a new MSR Classics CD featuring Paul Orgel, but there is still plenty of room for fine pianism here, and for sensitive interpretations of yet more little-known Romantic music. At least two of the three composers featured on this recording, Chausson and Reger, are better-known than Jadassohn and Czerny, although not many of their compositions are performed with any frequency; and Josef Suk (1874-1935) is known almost entirely for his relationship with his father-in-law, Dvořák, rather than on his own account. It turns out, interestingly, that About Mother is a work in which Suk was moving beyond the Dvořák influence that is clear elsewhere in Suk’s work. Despite its title, this set of five character pieces is a reminiscence of Suk’s wife – that is, it was written for Suk’s children about their mother. Suk actually subtitled it “simple pieces for my children,” but the pieces – although often charming in their straightforward emotional expression – are not easy to play, in part because Suk was not a pianist and may have been unaware of some difficulties he created for the performer. These pieces are 19th-century in feeling and approach, despite having been written in 1907: they have enough of Impressionism about them to seem very much of their time, and enough of introspection to reflect a thoroughly Romantic emotional temperament. Orgel plays them with appropriately tender feeling, with the simplicity of the middle piece, “How Mother sang at night to her sick child,” especially affecting. Chausson’s Four Dances (1896) is also a contemplative work, despite its title, with three of its four movements slow or moderate and only the concluding Forlane marked Animé. There is some sense of Impressionism here as well, some resemblance between the moods of these dances and those of works by Fauré, Debussy and Ravel, but Chausson’s emotional connection is somewhat more rarefied, less personal, than that communicated by Suk. As for Reger, a composer frequently considered dry and formal, not emotional at all, Volume 3 of From My Diary (Aus meinem Tagebuch) is a surprisingly lush work and another piece that is clearly in the late-Romantic idiom despite being written after the turn of the 20th century (in 1910-11). The structural parallels between Reger’s six movements and Chausson’s four are interesting, since in Reger too the predominant pacing is slow-to-moderate: two Andante sostenuto movements, an Allegretto, two more marked Andante sostenuto, and only at the end a Vivace. Reger, like Chausson, is a touch more emotionally removed from his subject matter than is Suk from his, although there is a certain pervasive moodiness through most of the Reger suite. Orgel’s playing is sensitive to the emotional ups and downs of all these works, which do, however, tend to pall a bit if heard straight through – largely because of the tempos chosen by the composers (even Suk’s five movements consist of four slow-to-moderate ones plus a not-much-faster Allegro molto moderato). The attraction here lies in the chance to be exposed to some less-known works by some only moderately well-known composers, and to experience the emotions generated by piano pieces that clearly partake of Romantic sensibilities even when their dates of composition range from the end of the 19th century to the early part of the 20th.