January 18, 2018
(++++) NAMES UNKNOWN, MUSIC REDISCOVERED
Georg Schumann: Symphony in F minor, Op. 42; Overture to a Drama, Op. 45; Overture “Joy of Life,” Op. 54. Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by James Feddeck. CPO. $16.99.
Georg Schumann: Symphony in B minor, “Prize-winning Symphony”; Serenade for Large Orchestra, Op. 34. Münchner Rundfunkorchester conducted by Christoph Gedschold. CPO. $16.99.
Imre Széchényi: Complete Dances for Orchestra. Budapest Symphony Orchestra MÁV conducted by Valéria Csányi. Naxos. $12.99.
Highly respected in his own time and completely unrelated to Robert Schumann, Georg Schumann (1866-1952) was director of the Sing-Akademie zu Berlin for half a century, from 1900 to1950. He was a violinist and pianist of more than usual skill and a well-respected composer in his time. And he has disappeared from the concert hall and from the knowledge of nearly all musicians and listeners – a most unfortunate state of affairs, as two CPO discs of his symphonic works demonstrate. Schumann was not a great composer, true, but he was a sensitive one who produced excellent late-Romantic music that fits firmly in its time and certainly deserves as much attention as the orchestral works of, say, Charles Villiers Stanford in Schumann’s time or Ferdinand Ries somewhat before it. Nor is that “damning with faint praise,” since both Stanford’s works and those of Ries are distinctly under-appreciated but have regained a measure of performance frequency, while those of Schumann have not. Perhaps these recordings will change that, because there is a great deal to admire and enjoy in Schumann’s music. His F minor symphony of 1905 is a kind of “variations symphony,” structured interestingly from essentially a single subject that is expanded and developed throughout the whole piece – not as an idée fixe in Berlioz’ mode or a leitmotif in Wagner’s, but as a kind of “source kernel” forming the structural basis of the symphony’s four movements. The symphony is on the cusp of later musical developments without ever quite reaching into the future, being highly chromatic and almost but not quite atonal in some sections (notably in a lower-string theme in the slow second movement). The influence of earlier composers is certainly present, among them Beethoven and Robert Schumann, and the Scherzo has nearly Brucknerian heft – although here that is a bit too much for the work, this third movement being longer than the finale. Actually, there is something Brucknerian about the finale itself, in an impressive chorale near the conclusion. Expansive without being massive, the symphony has a somewhat Brahmsian darkness about its scoring but a style that is certainly its own. It is very well played by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under James Feddeck, and nicely complemented by two concert overtures that show Schumann’s abilities in more-compressed form. Overture to a Drama (1906) is not attached to any specific drama, just as Brahms’ Tragic Overture is not about any specific tragedy. Schumann builds the overture very effectively, with themes having clear emotional resonance (dramatic, warm, turbulent, etc.) and playing effectively against each other in modified sonata form. In contrast, the Overture “Joy of Life” (Lebensfreude) (1911) is packed with multiple themes, a dozen or more, and they tumble over one another in just the sort of joyful cascade that the work’s title indicates. Near the end, a popular song called Freut Euch des Lebens (“Let us cherish life”) appears, producing a distinct resemblance between what Schumann creates here and what Brahms does with Gaudeamus igitur in his Academic Festival Overture. Indeed, these two Schumann overtures, although not created as a pair as Brahms’ were, serve to showcase Schumann’s compositional skill in similar fashion.
Schumann’s ability to handle a full orchestra emerged early. He created his B minor symphony in 1886, when he was just 20 and a student at the Leipzig Conservatory, and the piece won the top prize two years later in an orchestral competition among 57 entries – hence “Prize-winning Symphony,” although Schumann himself did not give the work that designation. There is considerable maturity already evident in this symphony, along with some felicitous touches, such as Schumann’s use of a short introduction to each of the four movements. True, this is a much more derivative work than the later symphony in F minor – the B minor is distinctly Mendelssohnian – but there is nothing that actually sounds duplicative of Mendelssohn’s music: there is only a flavor, not identical ingredients. The performers here, Christoph Gedschold and the Münchner Rundfunkorchester, treat the music well, paying particular attention to the effective contrasts that Schumann offers among themes that range from the dancelike to the hymnlike to the gypsy-influenced. There is even a slight hint here of the chromaticism that Schumann would explore more fully in later works, through the juxtaposition in the finale of the keys of B and B-flat. This CPO disc pairs the symphony with Schumann’s Serenade for Large Orchestra of 1902, and if the symphony has ties to Mendelssohn, the serenade distinctly reflects Richard Strauss in Ein Heldenleben mode. In fact, the work’s structure is quite similar to that of Strauss’s 1898 tone poem, which Schumann may well have known. Schumann arranges the serenade as a five-section work telling the story of a rejected lover. But there is nothing depressive or even deeply sad here – this is a work more of wistfulness than despair. True, that limits its emotional impact, but it prevents the work from sounding dour. Again and again, Schumann introduces light and slightly sarcastic music said to come from “opponents and ridiculers” who presumably upbraid the would-be lover for his failings or rejoice in his discomfiture. But they do so with a much lighter and less snide touch than do those of the artist’s critics in the Strauss tone poem. The warmest part of the work is its third, which is an actual serenade in which the clarinet carries along a lovely theme and is supported, in one of many felicitous touches of instrumentation, by a harp. The imprecise program of the work leaves plenty for listeners to think about in terms of whatever may have happened and what the whole matter may mean – but really, a program is not especially necessary to enjoy the music fully (as it is needed for Ein Heldenleben). Schumann gives this half-hour piece much of the sumptuousness and emotional effectiveness of his symphonies, and that is a great deal. Nothing on these CDs suggests that Schumann is an undiscovered genius, but everything on them shows him to have been a skilled composer with command over a wide range of moods and a strong ability to carry listeners along the dramatic arc of his works. His music is a reminder of the many pleasures to be found in well-crafted pieces by composers who were overshadowed by the handful of greats whose works are heard again and again, sometimes to the point of over-familiarity.
The pleasures of the less-known extend to the realm of light music as well as that of major concert-hall pieces, as is clear from a new Naxos CD of dance music by Count Imre Széchényi of Sárvár-Felsővidék (1825-1898), an important diplomat in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and an almost exact contemporary of his friend Johann Strauss Jr. (1825-1899). Széchényi was neither a great composer nor a prolific one – this world première recording of his dance music includes just 18 works, arranged in six groups of three. But Széchényi was an assured stylist in the standard non-waltz dance forms of his time, producing 11 polkas, five polka-mazurkas and two mazurkas. The works as presented here are grouped as two character pieces followed by a generally more-extended concert work. And they have much of the lilt and charm of the music by Strauss himself and his many competitors – although Strauss was quite far from considering Széchényi’s music competitive, even programming some of it in his own concerts. Széchényi has a pleasantly light touch in his works, giving them more humor than many other dance composers provided (he dubs one Polka prétentieuse) and using some of the pieces to call up specific scenes (Polka hongroise and, for the snowy clime of St. Petersburg, where Széchényi wrote most of his music, Neige-Polka). The Budapest Symphony Orchestra MÁV under Valéria Csányi performs these semi-precious musical gems with fine polish and a sure sense of style – providing further evidence of the extent to which the Strauss family overshadowed a very large number of fine composers who, if they did not produce really first-rate material, did offer audiences in their time and ours a great deal of verve and enjoyment.