January 25, 2007


Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst: Fantaisie Brillante sur la Marche et la Romance d’Otello de Rossini; Concerto in F-sharp minor (Concerto Allegro-Pathétique); Elégie sur la mort d’un objet chéri; Concertino in D major; Rondo Papageno. Ilya Grubert, violin; Russian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Dmitry Yablonsky. Naxos. $8.99.

     The neglect of composers after their death – the judgment of musical history – is not always easy to understand.  Leopold Mozart gave up his composing career to manage the future of young Wolfgang, but the father did leave behind some very fine music that deserves to be heard more often, from his Toy Symphony to a well-wrought horn concerto.  Ferdinand Ries, once Beethoven’s secretary, created eight interesting symphonies that are now rarely performed.  Anton Rubinstein wrote six well-crafted symphonies, plus five substantial piano concerti, but all have been consigned to near-total oblivion.

     Rubinstein’s case is somewhat parallel to that of Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst (1814-1865).  Rubinstein was universally acknowledged as a great pianist in his own time, but his showy compositions did not do well when he was no longer around to play them.  Similarly, the great violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim considered Ernst the best violinist of Joachim’s time, which is quite an endorsement.  But later generations had little interest in music that Ernst had composed largely for his own use.  This new CD of Ernst’s music argues that while total neglect of this composer is unfair, it is in some ways understandable.

     Ernst modeled himself on Paganini, but sought greater lyricism and more depth of emotion than that ultra-virtuoso was known for.  Still, Ernst’s fame rested on his playing, not his compositions – which he wrote to showcase his particular technical and expressive strengths.  Now, 140-plus years after Ernst’s death, when we have only the music itself, it is fair to say that while it has moments of beauty and sections of extraordinary virtuosity, it does not wear particularly well.  It draws attention to technique, not emotion or even structure.  Ilya Grubert – whose 1740 Guarnieri violin once belonged to Henryk Wieniawski – plays with tremendous style and panache; he is certainly as good an advocate for Ernst’s music as it is likely to get.  For the most part, though, the pieces themselves do not have much to offer.  The Fantaisie Brillante is a Liszt-style exposition and expansion of two pieces from Rossini’s Otello, and is an effective showpiece.  The Elégie is a pleasant, mildly melancholy meditation.  Of the two concerti – the one called Concertino is actually longer – the F sharp minor alternates demanding and lyrical sections but offers little of interest thematically.  The D major is more interesting, opening with an orchestral tutti that resembles those in Paganini’s concerti and continuing on a moderately grand scale – although the finale is lacking in tunefulness.  The most interesting work here is Rondo Papageno, because it is a pure showpiece and it is almost possible to imagine Ernst himself romping through it.  Based loosely on Papageno’s song from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, it features some attractive writing for an actual flute plus some violin imitations of the instrument (through clever use of harmonics).  Ernst’s music is far from great, but it does have its moments, and Grubert – with the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra under Dmitry Yablonsky providing excellent orchestral accompaniment – certainly makes the most of what is there.

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