February 12, 2009


Brahms: Complete Organ Works. Anne Horsch, organ. CPO. $16.99.

Offenbach: Piano Works, Volume 3—Musette; Les Amazones; Les Arabesques; Berthe; Brunes et blondes; Les Fleurs d’hiver; Les Trois Grâces; Le Voyage de MM. Dunanan père et fils—Polka des bravi; Le Voyage dans la lune—Valse favorite; Cascoletto--Quadrille; La Chanson d’Olympia. Marco Sollini, piano. CPO. $16.99.

     One no more thinks of Brahms as a composer of organ works than of Offenbach – a fine cellist before he hit it big in operetta – as a piano composer. But both men did make some efforts in these unfamiliar territories, and what they produced is well worth hearing when played as well as the pieces are on these two new CDs.

     Brahms’ debt to and appreciation of Bach is clear in many of his works, most notably in the Fourth Symphony, so it is scarcely surprising that many aspects of Brahms’ five organ works are built on Bach’s models. The Chorale Prelude and Fugue on “O Traurigkeit, O Herzeleid,” WoO 7, possibly written in memory of Robert Schumann, is impressively worked through and clearly echoes Bach’s form and approach. The Prelude and Fugue in A minor, WoO 9, and Prelude and Fugue in G minor, WoO 10, are essentially contrapuntal exercises, well constructed but (despite their minor keys) not especially deep. The Fugue in A-flat minor, WoO 8, however, is fascinating and has elements unique to Brahms. Written in the darkest of all minor keys, with seven flats, and originally with the tempo indication “gloomy” (later changed to “slow”), the work is highly chromatic and filled with rests that almost seem like breaths – or gasps. There is real profundity here, and real sorrow, but there is also a slow climb toward hope, so the work ends consolingly if not exactly peacefully. There is consolation as well in the longest work on this CD – and the longest of all Brahms’ organ works: Eleven Chorale Preludes, op. posth. 122. This is the very last work Brahms wrote, consisting of settings of nine chorale preludes (two are set twice) that collectively constitute a heartfelt meditation on death. Brahms was not religious – a fact that caused his famous split with Dvořák – but in this final work he turned to religious themes for comfort and as an expression of attitudes toward life’s end. The eleven works are highly varied, from the simplicity of Es ist ein Ros entsprungen to the two settings of O Welt, ich muss dich lassen, showing a gradual rather than abrupt removal of the self from the world. Anne Horsch plays the pieces quite beautifully, on an organ in Munich that was built in 1887 and probably played, or at least heard, by Brahms himself. Although the organ has since been expanded and refurbished, it provides an almost mystical feeling of connectedness to some Brahms pieces that show a little-known side of his work.

     Offenbach’s piano music is as light as Brahms’ organ music is heavy. The third and last of Marco Sollini’s CDs of these works combines ones originally written for piano by a very young Offenbach with a number of arrangements – including Sollini’s own version of La Chanson d’Olympia from Les Contes d’Hoffman. Four of the six waltzes on the CD date to the 1830s, when Hoffman was a teenage cellist and just starting out as a composer; the others date to the 1840s. All are pleasant salon pieces with some nice melodies, but are otherwise not especially distinguished. Musette is a piano arrangement of a work originally written in 1843 for cello and piano, and it has a certain wistful charm. As for the piano pieces extracted from Le Voyage de MM. Dunanan père et fils, Le Voyage dans la lune, Cascoletto, and La Chanson d’Olympia, all are bits of Offenbach stage works. The arranger of the first of these is unknown, but the arranger of the second was Offenbach himself – an unusual circumstance that shows how the composer wanted his “lunar waltz” to sound on piano. The third arrangement is by Eduard Strauss – and, interestingly, it was Vienna’s Strauss family that helped popularize Offenbach’s Parisian music. The most intriguing arrangement is Pollini’s, since the coloratura “doll’s aria” includes sections where the clockwork mechanism runs down -- giving Pollini opportunities to let the music collapse. None of these piano works is central to Offenbach’s oeuvre, but all show a rarely heard side of his compositions, and the pleasantly hummable melodies provide new evidence, if any is needed, of the reasons for Offenbach’s very considerable popularity.

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