June 18, 2009


Schubert: Complete Overtures, Volume 2—Overture in D major; Overtures in the Italian Style in D major and C major; Rosamunde, D. 644, from “Die Zauberharfe”; Die Zwillingsbrüder; Overture in E minor; Rosamunde, D. 732, from “Alfonso und Estrella”; Die Verschworenen—Der häusliche Krieg; Fierrabras. Prague Sinfonia conducted by Christian Benda. Naxos. $8.99.

Dvořák: Symphony No. 7; The Golden Spinning Wheel. Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra Amsterdam conducted by Yakov Kreizberg. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Sacred Songs of the Romantic Period: Music of Dvořák, Wolf, Mendelssohn and Reger. Susanne Bernhard, soprano; Maria Graf, harp; Harald Feller, organ. Oehms. $16.99.

Johann Strauss Sr. Edition, Volume 14. Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina conducted by Christian Pollack. Marco Polo. $9.99.

Johann Strauss Jr. Waltz Arrangements: Wine, Women and Song by Alban Berg; Roses from the South, Lagunenwalzer, Emperor Waltz by Arnold Schoenberg; Treasure Waltz by Anton Webern. Linos Ensemble. Capriccio. $16.99.

     Schubert’s stage works had little success, but his overtures to them – and the overtures that he wrote for concert purposes – remain tuneful delights, with especially prominent woodwind parts and the sort of encapsulation of emotion that is a hallmark of the Romantic era. The second volume of Naxos’ recordings of all the Schubert overtures contains some well-known pieces – the two overtures “in the Italian style” and the Rosamunde overture taken from Die Zauberharfe – amid a number of unfamiliar works. The Rosamunde overture on which Schubert eventually settled flows far more pleasantly and naturally than does his original choice, which came from his opera Alfonso und Estrella. However, Christian Benda pushes the Prague Sinfonia very hard in the overture’s lovely main theme – one of the few tempo miscalculations here. The Overture in the Italian Style in D major is a particular delight on this CD – it out-Rossinis Rossini in its thematic variety and use of the orchestra. The overture to Fierrabras (misspelled “Fierabras” on the CD) is another highly effective work that deserves to be heard more often. The remaining pieces here, if not quite so inherently interesting, all have their moments of charm, and the orchestra plays everything with clarity and enthusiasm.

     The orchestra plays well for Yakov Kreizberg, too, as he continues his rather curious Dvořák cycle. What makes it odd is that Kreizberg seems to lavish more attention on the filler pieces than on the symphonies. His earlier recording, of Symphony No. 6, was truly awful: lumbering, uneven in tempo and utterly dull. But it was paired with a lovely rendition of The Water Goblin. Kreizberg does much better with Symphony No. 7, allowing it for the most part to flow naturally and without silly gimmicks or unneeded tempo changes. The Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra Amsterdam certainly does its part, presenting beautifully rounded tones and full- throated brass. It is only at the very end of the symphony that Kreizberg overdoes things with a ritard-accelerando-ritard that undercuts a mostly effective performance. On the other hand, The Golden Spinning Wheel is excellent throughout. All the Dvořák tone poems, which he wrote late in life, are based on very gory Czech fairytales, but all unfold to some of the composer’s warmest and most beautiful music. The Golden Spinning Wheel moves from episode to episode with real spirit, its martial sections strongly contrasted with its romantic ones, and its overall effect is quite marvelous. It sounds great, too – as does the symphony – thanks to PentaTone’s always outstanding SACD sound.

     Dvořák also assumes a prominent place on a CD called “Sacred Songs of the Romantic Period.” Eleven of his German-language religious songs, the Biblische Lieder, op. 99, are sung with great feeling by soprano Susanne Bernhard, who is accompanied by harpist Maria Graf in arrangements made by organist Harald Feller. The harp also accompanies two of the three songs by Max Reger on this CD. The rest of the music is accompanied by Feller on the organ – a particularly interesting choice for the two Mendelssohn songs, which were originally written for piano but which Mendelssohn said could optionally be played on organ. They certainly sound more churchlike that way; so does the third Reger song. The only pieces here that seem a touch out of place are five songs by Hugo Wolf, which do not have quite the same overtly sacred simplicity as the other works on the CD. Still, they too are beautifully sung, and the disc as a whole provides some interesting contrasts between the earlier Romantic-era songs and those of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

     Of course, not all Romantic music was heavy – not by a long shot. The 14th volume in Marco Polo’s wonderful Johann Strauss Sr. series shows once again that the elder Strauss had found the secret to elevating light music to a real art form – albeit not with the elegance that his sons Johann Jr. and Josef would later bring to it. The eight waltzes and a polka on the new CD are all charming, beautifully balanced and unendingly tuneful. Adelaiden-Walzer, the waltz Egerien-Tänze, and Die Tanzmeister – cleverly named to solidify Strauss’ relationship with the dance-masters who taught people to swirl to his music – are especially well crafted, and the Beliebten Annen-Polka is so bright and lovely that it only makes sense for it to be labeled “beloved.” The other waltzes here are not quite as captivating, although each has at least one section of great beauty: Die Wettrenner, Die Debutanten, Stadt- und Landleben, Die Fantasten and Musik-Verein-Tänze. The Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina under Christian Pollack – who has made a specialty of this kind of music – plays with so much lightness of spirit that it brings the days of old Vienna to life once again.

     But those days were long gone by 1921, the postwar year in which three famous (some would say notorious) members of the new Viennese school of composition turned their attention to five waltzes by Johann Strauss Jr. Considering how far into atonality Berg, Schoenberg and Webern were even then pushing music, it is remarkable to find them focusing their skills on lilting, very strongly tonal dance works written as many as 52 years earlier. It is even more remarkable to hear the respect with which they treated Strauss’ music – stripping it of opulence, to be sure, but retaining (especially in the three waltzes arranged by Schoenberg) its emotional underpinnings and genuine loveliness. Four of the five arrangements use the same musical forces: string quartet, harmonium (a pump organ that sounds a bit like an accordion), and string quartet. The fifth, the Emperor Waltz, retains the piano and strings but replaces the harmonium with a flute and clarinet. The Linos Ensemble plays the works with zest, bringing out the passages in which the arrangers somewhat re-harmonized the music (notably Berg in Wine, Women and Song) while making sure that the strong three-quarter-time beat remains apparent throughout. There is some feeling of looking through the wrong end of the telescope about these arrangements, which can certainly be considered curiosities but should not be dismissed as such. Berg, Schoenberg and Webern – Schoenberg most of all – believed they were building on Romantic ideals even as they moved beyond them. Their Strauss waltz arrangements show that they could appreciate the musical structure and rhythmic vitality of Strauss’ music even as they ultimately rejected the era in which it was written.

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