February 07, 2019
(+++) LATE ROMANTIC, LARGELY LOST
Alberto Nepomuceno: “O Garatuja”—Prelude; Série Brasileira (Brazilian Suite); Symphony in G Minor. Minas Gerais Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Fabio Mechetti. Naxos. $12.99.
The rediscovery of generally forgotten Romantic-era composers continues apace, but even within that rediscovery, some composers are less likely to be “found again” than others. This is not necessarily because their music is inferior to other music being written at the same time, but it can be because they have – by design – more of a regional focus than an international one. Thus, Alberto Nepomuceno (1864-1920), although unfamiliar to most classical-music listeners, is not entirely unknown in his native Brazil, where he was important not only culturally but also politically: he was heavily involved in the unrest that eventually led to the creation in 1889 of the First Brazilian Republic.
Furthermore, Nepomuceno was scarcely unrecognized in his own time: he lived for a while with Grieg, whose friendship encouraged Nepomuceno to go further on the road he was already traveling toward nationalism in music. He was well-thought-of by Mahler, who at one point invited Nepomuceno – a conductor as well as a composer – to conduct at the Vienna Opera, although illness prevented Nepomuceno from doing so. Nepomuceno was good friends with Debussy as well as Grieg, and one of Nepomuceno’s students was Heitor Villa-Lobos.
Yet because of his staunch devotion to Romantic forms and approaches at a time when musical tastes were changing rapidly, plus his focus on the “Brazilian-ization” of music wherever possible, Nepomuceno never became an internationally prominent composer, and his works are very rarely heard today. And this makes a new Naxos CD featuring the Minas Gerais Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Fabio Mechetti all the more welcome, providing as it does the chance to hear more than an hour of some of Nepomuceno’s large-scale compositions: to the extent that he is known at all nowadays, it is primarily for chamber music, notably his String Quartet No. 3 (1890). The works conducted by Mechetti are from around the same time as that quartet: Série Brasileira dates to 1891, Nepomuceno’s sole symphony to 1893, and the prelude to his unfinished opera O Garatuja to 1904.
There is little stylistic progress during the decade-plus in which these pieces were written; indeed, all of them are distinctly Brahmsian in sound, scoring, thematic approaches and harmony. Nepomuceno, though, occasionally shows a considerable melodic gift: notably, the second movement of Série Brasileira, called Intermédio (Intermezzo), opens and closes with a theme so catchy that it is difficult not to continue humming it as the four-movement suite continues. The suite’s concluding movement, the ebullient Batuque, is also impressive, but the other two movements are more ordinary: the first and longest, Alvorada na serra (“Dawn at the Mountains”), features distinctly Grieg-like tone painting but goes on much too long, while the third, Sesta na rede (“Napping in a Hammock”), is pleasant enough but not particularly distinguished.
Nepomuceno’s symphony also has high points and middling ones. In the traditional Brahmsian four movements, it opens boldly and effectively, then has a moderately engaging but not particularly emotionally gripping sort-of-slow second movement, marked Andante quasi adagio. The third movement is the best and most innovative, opening and closing in fine late-19th-century Scherzo style and containing in the middle an extended episode marked Intermezzo that goes beyond the traditional Trio and expands the movement’s emotional palette. Unfortunately, the finale, after all this, is disappointing and almost trivial in sound, marked Con fuoco but possessing little forcefulness thematically or expressively. Still, the symphony, like Série Brasileira, shows that Nepomuceno had considerable skill in orchestration, with occasional highlighting of woodwinds (flute, bassoon and others) being a hallmark of his approach to the orchestra.
The O Garatuja prelude, designed for what was to be a lyric comedy, comes across as something along the lines of a compressed version of the symphony and suite: Nepomuceno creates themes of various types and in various tempos (presumably taken or intended to be taken from the finished opera), weaves them together skillfully, and creates a well-balanced, generally upbeat and altogether pleasant listening experience. The prelude is not substantial, but presumably the opera was not intended to be, either, and certainly Mechetti’s conducting and the orchestra’s playing – here and throughout the disc – show idiomatic appreciation of Nepomuceno’s compositional style. Indeed, the performers do a fine job of propelling this music along effectively and giving listeners plenty of opportunities to enjoy being introduced to a composer who, if scarcely innovative in any way except for the inclusion of some Brazilian material in his works, was a fine craftsman who does not deserve the near-total obscurity to which he has been relegated for a full century.