Ries: Flute Quartets Nos. 1-3, Op. 145. John Herrick Littlefield, flute; Aaron Boyd, violin; Ah Ling Neu, viola; Yari Bond, cello.
Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsodies for Orchestra, Nos. 1-6. Staatskapelle Weimar conducted by Arthur Fagen.
Stanford: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 5. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Lloyd-Jones.
The boundaries of the Romantic era run roughly from Beethoven’s time (1820s), past the end of the 19th century, and some distance into the 20th (Rachmaninoff, one of the last of the great Romantic composers, lived until 1943). Romantic music is scarcely monolithic, but it has certain characteristics, emotional and structural, that are recognizable in the early, middle and late years of its age.
Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838), friend and biographer of Beethoven, represents the early years. His three quartets for flute and strings are among his late works and postdate anything by Beethoven, who died in 1827. But they are only tentative forays into Romanticism, retaining a great deal of the poise and balance that were the hallmarks of the earlier Classical era. The first, in C major, actually includes a quotation from Mozart’s “Dissonant” quartet in its slow movement, and in general one hears the strains of a more bewigged time throughout the work, which ends with a distinctly Spanish-flavored finale. The second quartet, in E minor, is more serious and closer to what most people think of as Romantic temperament. Its darkness never comes close to despair, though, and often has the piquancy of earlier minor-key Mozart (say, Symphony No. 25 rather than No. 40). Both these quartets end quietly, in contrast to the third, in A major, which bounces along merrily to an uplifting conclusion. The players in the new Naxos CD of these quartets toss melodies and melodic fragments back and forth with aplomb, and the performances combine enthusiasm and lightness with a kind of wistfulness that is as close as Ries ever came in these works to full-blown Romanticism.
Franz Liszt (1811-1886), on the other hand, is one of the most Romantic of all composers, and his 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies for piano are a high point of mid-19th-century nationalism as well. The six that were orchestrated by Franz Doppler in the 1850s, with Liszt’s help, have all the characteristics of full-blown Romantic music: sweep, style, grand (even overblown) emotion, orchestral color, and tremendous dynamism. Staatskapelle Weimar has a deep historical connection to this music: Liszt himself directed the orchestra for a time. The playing is extraordinarily good, whether because of the orchestra itself or because of Arthur Fagen (not a particularly well known-conductor) it is impossible to say. The result is often revelatory in well-known music that one might think has little more to reveal. Fagen and the orchestra are especially good during the transitions between the slow (lassu) sections of the works and the fast (friss) ones. The attention to instrumental detail is exceptional, and while a certain level of raucousness is inevitable in these pieces (especially the sixth, “Carnival in Pest”), this recording gives the works a great deal of grandeur as well – not just in the fifth (Héroïde élégiaque) but in the third and fourth as well. This is an outstanding version of a Romantic staple.
Late Romanticism was the