September 06, 2018
(+++) BEYOND BRAHMS
Anton Urspruch: Piano Concerto, Op. 9; Symphony, Op. 14. Oliver Triendl, piano; Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie conducted by Georg Fritzsch (Concerto) and Marcus Bosch (Symphony). CPO. $16.99 (2 CDs).
Ignaz Brüll: Macbeth Overture; Violin Concerto, Op. 41; Symphony, Op. 31; Serenades Nos. 1, Op. 29, and 2, Op. 36. Ilya Hoffmann, violin; Malta Philharmonic Orchestra and Belarusian State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Laus and Marius Stravinsky. Cameo Classics. $18.99 (2 CDs).
The adjective “Brahmsian” has come to have a distinctive meaning in classical music: it is usually applied to works of grand scale, with soaring themes, dense (and sometimes cloying) orchestration, with influences of Beethoven and Schumann but a style that adapts and ultimately transcends both. The one other great composer of Brahms’ time whose work is in fact distinctly Brahmsian is Antonin Dvořák, whose friendship with Brahms was deep and long-lasting and led to fascinating cross-pollination (e.g., Brahms’ Hungarian Dances and Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances, and an opening of the finale to Dvořák’s Sixth Symphony that sounds almost uncannily like Brahms’ Second). But Brahms’ influence, which extended in somewhat indirect fashion as far as Mahler and Schoenberg, was quite pronounced in Brahms’ own productive years on a whole group of composers whose works fell rapidly into obscurity, sometimes during their own lifetimes and that of Brahms, sometimes shortly afterwards. Some of those composers are now receiving belated reconsideration, and if their music is scarcely the product of genius, it is often exceptionally well-crafted and deserving of greater attention than it has received for more than a century.
Thus, the single piano concerto by Anton Urspruch (1850-1907) shows distinctly Brahmsian elements on a two-CD release from CPO, where it is splendidly played by Oliver Triendl and nicely accompanied by the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie under Georg Fritzsch. Actually, “accompanied” falls a bit short of what the orchestra does here: as in Brahms’ piano concertos, especially No. 1, the orchestra takes on the primary role through much of the work, turning the piano into more of an obbligato instrument than a front-and-center soloist. If Brahms does this more successfully, through more-elegant balance and more-attractive themes, that does not take away from Urspruch the pleasantly pastoral character of his concerto’s first movement and the fine treatment of woodwinds in the second. As with Brahms’ first concerto, the first movement of Urspruch’s bears a great deal of the weight of the work – although, again, Brahms uses this movement to construct a grand edifice, while Urspruch meanders and offers themes that are more pretty than consequential. Urspruch does give the pianist opportunities for virtuosity in his finale, whose principal subject is the most memorable tune in the whole work. The oddity here is that the emotional heart of the work is its second movement, but its pianistic heart is its third; the concerto as a whole does not quite coalesce, but it is filled with distinctive elements as well as Brahmsian ones and ones reminiscent of the works of Joachim Raff, who was Urspruch’s teacher. Less successful is Urspruch’s only symphony, in which Marcus Bosch leads the orchestra. One critic actually commented at the work’s première in 1881 that Brahms was the only other composer who could have written the piece, and while that is true to an extent thematically and in orchestration, this is not a work that Brahms would have written. Even as heard on CPO, in what appears to be an edited and shortened version, the symphony runs 50 minutes and seems longer. The third movement, its shortest and most compressed, is its most attractive by far – the rest sounds bloated and, like the first movement of the piano concerto, rather uncertain of its direction. There are certainly enjoyable elements here, including some pleasant lyricism and attractive woodwind passages, and the finale is an interesting almost-blend of approaches reminiscent of those of Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schumann. But the symphony is not a particularly convincing work, and its neglect is more understandable than that of Urspruch’s piano concerto. In fact, this release itself shows an element of neglect: the concerto’s performance dates to 2009 and the symphony’s to 2006, but the recording is only now becoming available.
Delayed release is also a factor in a Cameo Classics two-CD set featuring music by Ignaz Brüll (1846-1907). Here, the performances of the Macbeth Overture and violin concerto date to 2011, that of Serenade No. 2 comes from 2010, and those of the symphony and Serenade No. 1 are from 2007. Perhaps it is only now that there seems to be sufficient interest in some less-known composers of the Romantic era for companies to be interested in producing these CDs. In any case, there is an even stronger connection between Brahms and Brüll than between Brahms and Urspruch. Brüll, a fine pianist who wrote two concertos and three concertante pieces for his instrument, was a close friend of Brahms and often had Brahms as a guest at his, Brüll’s, home. The initial two-piano versions of Brahms’ symphonies were performed for friends and publishers by Brahms and Brüll as duo pianists, and Brüll played Brahms’ piano music in concert as well. Brahms thought highly of Brüll’s compositional skill – a rarity for Brahms, who tended to be harsh in judging the works of composers other than Dvořák. The new release of Brüll’s music shows reasons for Brahms’ praise, even though it omits any of Brüll’s piano works. The Macbeth Overture is a compressed and moody piece reflecting the atmosphere of Shakespeare’s play rather than the specific events in it. The two serenades (there is also a third, Op. 67) are quite different in character, the first (in six movements) having a fleet and pleasant delicacy and modest orchestration, the second (in three movements) being for larger orchestra and subsuming some pleasantly Mendelssohnian elements within a nicely varied set of themes and overall sense of playfulness. Then there are the two most-serious works here. The symphony, Brüll’s only one, is far more modest than that of Urspruch or any of those by Brahms, and proffers a good deal of gentleness and numerous pleasantries despite its dark E minor home key and the dramatic elements that permeate the work and eventually bring it to an insistent close. And the violin concerto, also Brüll’s only foray into this form, is something of a find: its lovely central slow movement, which is its emotional heart, is sandwiched between an extended and symphonic opening movement with a distinctly Brahmsian main theme, and a finale that is considerably lighter than anything that has come before and that presents the soloist with plenty of virtuoso opportunities. Brüll was a skilled craftsman and a fine melodist, and even though his main compositional interest was stage music – he wrote eight operas – his instrumental productions show a high level of skill, befitting someone who entertained and sat side by side with Brahms and who, if scarcely at Brahms’ level as a composer, certainly deserves better than the near-universal neglect to which his compositions have been relegated.