January 29, 2009


Schubert: Complete Overtures, Volume 1—Der Teufel als Hydraulicus; Der Spiegelritter; Overtures in D major, D. 12 and D. 26; Des Teufels Lustschloß; Der vierjährige Posten; Claudine von Villa Bella; Die Freunde von Salamanka; Overture in B flat major, D. 470. Prague Sinfonia conducted by Christian Benda. Naxos. $8.99.

Johann Strauss I Edition, Volume 13. Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina conducted by Christian Pollack. Marco Polo. $9.99.

Spohr: Violin Concertos Nos. 6, 8 and 11. Simone Lamsma, violin; Sinfonia Finlandia Jyväskylä conducted by Patrick Gallois. Naxos. $8.99.

     The fact that the works on these three CDs are uniformly unknown or little-known makes one wonder how much other splendid 19th-century music is out there waiting to be rediscovered so it can flood the 21st century with pleasant, buoyant melodies that it could certainly use. The flourishing melodic gifts of Franz Schubert, Johann Strauss Sr. and Louis Spohr give even their minor works such lilt and spirit that although none of the music on these CDs can be called “great,” all of it will give a listener tremendous enjoyment – partly because of its novelty but mostly because of its sheer beauty.

     The melodic gifts of Schubert flourished very early – it is all too easy to forget that he died younger than any other great composer, at 31 – and all the overtures played stylishly by the Prague Sinfonia under Christian Benda date to the composer’s teens. Schubert was quite determined to succeed as a theatrical composer, but has gone down in history as a songsmith and symphonist. His operas suffer from execrable plots – yes, even worse than those typically associated with opera – and dramatic inconsistency (Fierrabras, for example, has almost nothing to do with the title character). Yet Schubert’s overtures are marvels of concise melodic inspiration, starting with his very first composition for the theater, Der Spiegelritter (“The Looking-Glass Knight,” 1811). Der Teufel als Hydraulicus (“The Devil as Engineer”) followed a few months later, as did the two concert overtures in D heard on this CD. The remaining overtures here, for concert, Singspiel and opera, followed over the next couple of years, the latest being the concert overture in B flat major of 1816 – when Schubert was all of 19. What unites all these disparate works is gorgeous melody, cleverly varied instrumentation, and occasional forays into skillful tone-painting (as in Der vierjährige Posten, “The Four-Year Posting,” which includes both pastoral and military elements). A few of these overtures periodically appear on concert programs, such as Des Teufels Lustschloß (“The Devil’s Pleasure Castle”), but most will be new – and a joy – to owners of this recording.

     Johann Strauss Sr., although later overshadowed by his sons Johann Jr. and Josef, was in his own way as gifted a melodist as Schubert was in his. The 13th volume of Marco Polo’s excellent series of Strauss’ music includes six waltzes, a wonderful set of variations called Erinnerung an Ernst oder Der Carneval in Venedig (“Reminiscence of [violin virtuoso Heinrich Wilhelm] Ernst or The Venetian Carnival”), and a tribute called Souvenir de Liszt, Fantasie that incorporates themes from the great pianist’s Hungarian Melodies and – typically for the financially astute Strauss – was designed to advertise his 1846 collaboration with Liszt, whose Hungarian March to the Assault had been given its first performance by Strauss’ orchestra. Every work on this CD is lively, lovely and beautifully played by the Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina under Christian Pollack, who has studied this music in depth and has a real feel for its charms. Of the six waltzes, four date to 1840: Cäcilien-Walzer (“Cecilia Waltzes,” which quotes from Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata), Palm-Zweige (“Palm Branches”), Amors-Pfeile (“Cupid’s Arrow”) and Elektrische Funken (“Electrical Sparks,” in which Strauss gives a musical impression of flying sparks from the then-new experiments being conducted in electricity). The two remaining waltzes are from 1841: Deutsche Lust oder Donau-Lieder ohne Text (“German Joy or Songs of the Danube without a Text”) and Apollo-Walzer (“Apollo Waltzes,” which has greater unity than many of Strauss Sr.’s works because the coda returns to the music of the introduction). Strauss Sr.’s works, as the elaborate titles indicate, were occasional pieces, written for specific celebrations or gatherings and generally not expected to be heard repeatedly: audiences constantly demanded something new. Many of these pieces have in fact gone unperformed for a considerable period of time – and will give a modern audience considerable pleasure.

     Louis Spohr’s music also gets far fewer performances now than it did at the height of his popularity, when Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado referred to “Bach, interwoven with Spohr and Beethoven.” No one places Spohr’s music at the level of Bach’s or Beethoven’s nowadays, but it does not deserve total neglect – as the new CD of three of his violin concertos makes clear. It was with violin concertos that Spohr first established his reputation as a composer, and all three of these works (No. 6 from 1808-9, No. 8 from 1816 and No. 11 from 1825) show why that reputation was once so high. These are classically structured but Romantically inclined concertos, exploratory in harmony and instrumentation but generally true to the formal elements of Haydn and Mozart. It is this very blend that contributed to Spohr’s fall from popularity: like other “transitional” composers (Hummel comes to mind), Spohr was considered neither here nor there, with his backward-looking elements seeming increasingly unappealing to audiences seeking something new. Today, it is easier than it was in the past to appreciate Spohr’s music for what it is: an advance, if not a large one, beyond classical models in its handling of the solo violin parts, and music of considerable poise and elegance in its own right. Spohr, himself a violinist, wrote 18 violin concertos in all. No. 8, in A minor and labeled “in modo di scena cantante,” is particularly interesting, being a one-movement work (although with four tempo indications) with strong operatic overtones. Twenty-three-year old Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma handles this concerto with particularly appealing skill, almost but not quite overdoing its theatrical qualities. She also does a fine job with No. 6 in G minor, which in some respects is fairly straightforward but which includes a “recitative-and-aria” slow movement that looks ahead to No. 8; and with the more unusual No. 11 in G major, which offers considerable lyricism in both the first and second movements. Naxos often produces complete sets of composers’ works, but has not identified this Spohr CD as the first of a series. It deserves to be – there is a great deal of virtually unknown beauty here.

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