February 17, 2011


Lehár: Overtures and Waltzes; Suites, Dances and Intermezzi; Symphonic Works; Piano Sonatas. Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin conducted by Michail Jurowski (Overtures; Suites); Radio-Philharmonie Hannover des NDR conducted by Klauspeter Seibel (Symphonic); Wolf Harden, piano (Sonatas). CPO. $35.99 (4 CDs)

Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 88 and 89; Overtures to “Acide e Galatea,” “Lo speziale” and “L’incontro improviso.” Chamber Orchestra of Bohemia conducted by Douglas Bostock. Scandinavian Classics. $7.99.

Liszt: Two-Piano Transcription of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Duo Reine Elisabeth (Rolf Plagge and Wolfgang Manz), pianos. Telos. $16.99.

     It is truly amazing how much wonderful music exists just outside the mainstream compositions of even the best-known composers. A listener’s willingness to consider a composer to be more than what he is commonly thought to be opens the door to hearing everything from chamber music by Verdi to religious works by Tchaikovsky – and non-stage works by Franz Lehár. CPO has brought out a series of excellent CDs of Lehár’s non-operetta music in the past decade and has now collected four previously released ones in a box labeled, a trifle misleadingly, “Best of Symphonic Lehár.” The label is slightly incorrect for two reasons: first, some of the music is tied directly to Lehár as operetta composer; and second, one entire CD consists of music for solo piano. But let the title pass, because the music is fascinating to hear, very well made, often quite exceptionally interesting, and definitely worthy (some of it, at least) of being rescued from the near-total obscurity in which most of it has long languished. Not all of it, though, as will be seen from the contents of the CD labeled “Overtures and Waltzes.” This disc includes overtures to The Merry Widow, Der Göttergatte and Clo-Clo, plus Altwiener Liebeswalzer, Wilde Rosen (Valse Boston), Grützner-Walzer and Adria Walzer. The first of these, of course, contains hyper-familiar music -- except for the fact that the composer’s most famous work does not have an overture at all (Lehár arranged this pastiche after The Merry Widow attained worldwide success and demand for something for the concert hall became overwhelming). The remaining works are virtually unknown, but all contain music of charm, elegance and grace, with the peculiar piquancy that Lehár always brought to waltzes and other dances (through, among other things, his characteristic use of a solo violin). Michail Jurowski is something of a specialist in this music, leading it with great charm and warmth, both on this CD and on the one of suites, dances and intermezzi entirled “Fata Morgana” – so named because one piece on the disc is a gavotte with that title. Also here are Zigeunerfest (a ballet scene that incorporates music from the operetta Zigeunerleben), a march and dance from Wo die Lerche singt, the Preludium religioso from Rodrigo, a “Scène phantastique” called Ein Märchen aus 1001 Nacht, ballet music from Peter und Paul im Schlaraffenland, a polka-mazurka called Korallenlippen, an excerpt called “Resignation” from Fürstenkind, a Suite de Danse, and a Chinesische Ballett-Suite (which the composer later inserted into Das Land des Lächelns). It is fair to assume that few listeners will ever have heard of the stage works from which most of these excerpts are drawn – much less of the non-stage-related pieces. And that is a shame, since everything on the CD, if not quite at the highest levels of Lehár’s creativity, is tuneful, warm, expressive and altogether lovely, especially when played as well as the works are here.

     The CD called “Symphonic Works” contains only six pieces, five of them having a fairly large scale. From Tatjana comes a set of Preludes and Russian Dances; there is a very moving but rather odd “Tone Poem for Tenor and Orchestra” called Fieber (quite sensitively sung by Robert Gambill); and also here are a symphonic poem for piano and orchestra, Il Guado (well played by Volker Banfield, with the poem that inspired the work included in the CD’s booklet); a Concertino for Violin and Orchestra (in which Latica Honda-Rosenberg is a fine soloist); and a curious work called Eine Vision: Meine Jugendzeit, whose delving into his youth is about as close to self-revelation as Lehár ever came in his music. These are among the least-heard of all Lehár’s works, and it is fascinating to have them available in such lovely performances. And the final, shortest work on the CD is a must-hear: it is Lehár’s late waltz, Donaulegenden (“An der grauen Donau”), whose melancholy grey Danube stands in the starkest possible contrast to Johann Strauss Jr.’s ebullient paean to what he describes, rather less accurately, as the river’s beautiful blue waters. Interestingly, some of Lehár’s piano music is related to these less-known orchestral works: the second theme of the first movement of the composer’s second piano sonata (in D minor) was reused by Lehár in Il Guado. The sonata, which is very well played by Wolf Harden, nearly overflows with thematic material in its first movement and is an altogether substantial work, running nearly 40 minutes. It has many original passages and considerable theatricality, although it is not especially convincing formally. The earlier piano sonata, in F, written when Lehár was barely 17, has echoes of such composers as Chopin, Schubert and Schumann, and is quite atmospheric, if not entirely balanced structurally – Lehár was, after all, a violinist, not a pianist. The lack of required formal design makes the last work played by Harden, the Fantasie in A flat, somewhat more comfortable-sounding than the sonatas, and there are a number of elements in it that look ahead to the theater composer than Lehár was later to become. All three piano works are quite early – finished before the composer was 19 – so it is unfair to read too much into them, or expect too much of them. Nevertheless, it is hard not to look back from Lehár’s later music to these early pieces and seek signs of what was to come. And they are there – not in profusion, perhaps, but clear enough to make this CD, and the other three with which it is packaged, a thoroughly fascinating listening experience.

     A step or two outside the usual Haydn repertoire will also produce considerable rewards. Douglas Bostock, who brings a light touch and prominent harpsichord continuo to a new Scandinavian Classics CD of Haydn, neatly pairs two closely related symphonies – one extremely popular, the other very infrequently played. No. 88 is one of Haydn’s most-performed works, and it is easy to hear why: clever, witty, beautifully balanced, with some genuinely novel instrumental effects, it is a nearly perfect example of the poise and balance of Classical-era style at its very best. But its successor, No. 89, is another matter: it is something of a throwback to earlier Haydn and, indeed, to the works of more straitlaced composers. Here the elegance is decidedly cool, the rhythms stiffer than in No. 88 and other symphonies of this time, the themes perfectly proportioned but a trifle dry. No. 89 has some rhythmic and thematic elements in common with some of Haydn’s quartet music, including the halting nature of the finale; and the work as a whole is effective in a rather distancing way. The Chamber Orchestra of Bohemia plays it quite well, and Bostock brings plenty of verve and spirit to it – making a good case for a piece than even Haydn aficionados are unlikely to have heard often. Nor will most Haydn lovers have heard the opera overtures that round out the CD – not all three of them, anyway. All are in the older sinfonia style, with fast-slow-fast sections, the third part always abbreviated. The Acide e Galatea overture is very early Haydn, dating to 1762: this was only the composer’s second opera. But the overture is just as stylish as later ones – including that to a work called L’isola disabitata, now played as the overture to Lo speziale, whose own overture has been lost (or perhaps Haydn did not write one). Interestingly, this is the most often heard of the three overtures here. The most interesting one, though, is to L’incontro improviso, an opera whose plot resembles that of Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio. The overture is similar to Mozart’s, too, in its extensive use of percussion and the effects then known as “Turkish.” This is a bright, forthright and thoroughly delightful work that, like other less-known pieces by Haydn, deserves to be heard more frequently.

     One of the most frequently heard classical works of all is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, but Liszt’s arrangement of it for piano is much less often performed. One reason has to be its prodigious difficulty—or rather their prodigious difficulty, for Liszt made arrangements of the Ninth for both solo and dual pianos. The two-piano one, even less often heard than the solo version, is considerably more effective at bringing out both the grand scale of the symphony and its many contrapuntal touches, most notably in the finale but also in the first three movements. Pianists Rolf Plagge and Wolfgang Manz, who call themselves the Duo Reine Elisabeth, have taken the full measure of this work and give a really splendid reading of it on a new Telos CD. Tempos are carefully chosen, harmonic lines are beautifully brought out, the scale and drama of the work get their full due, and there is even something noticeably demonic about parts of the first movement. The playing has just the right Romantic touch for a work that, in some ways, ushered in the Romantic era in orchestral music. And while it is scarcely a surprise to find that the absence of a chorus in the finale robs the symphony of some of its cumulative power, it is worth noting that Liszt’s two-piano version has plenty of potency on its own terms – and was created at a time when the symphony was little known and audiences had few chances to hear it. Yet this Lisztian version of Beethoven – in which the considerable virtuosic demands are all at the service of the music, never designed purely for display – is no mere historical curiosity. It is genuinely interesting music on its own terms, and the relative paucity of performances and recordings in no way makes the piece less interesting, or less worthy of a listener’s attentive enjoyment.

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