June 07, 2012


Tchaikovsky: Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 50. Swiss Piano Trio (Angela Golubeva, violin; Sébastien Singer, cello; Martin Lucas Staub, piano). Audite. $19.99 (SACD).

Lehár: Der Graf von Luxemburg. Eberhard Wächter, Lilian Sukis, Erich Kunz, Peter Fröhlich, Helga Papouschek, Jane Tilden, Kurt Sowinetz; Symphony Orchestra Kurt Graunke, Munich, conducted by Walter Goldschmidt. Arthaus Musik DVD. $29.99.

Hérold: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2; Overtures to “Zampa” and “Le pré aux Clercs.” Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana conducted by Wolf-Dieter Hauschild. Dynamic. $12.99.

      Delving a little more deeply than usual into the works of composers who are known only for a relative handful of music often pays unexpected dividends: there turn out to be some real gems among pieces heard less often but created with the same level of skill as the better-known ones.  This is certainly the case with Tchaikovsky’s lengthy Piano Trio, Op. 50, his only composition in a form that he stated directly that he did not like.  It was the death of the brilliant pianist Nikolai Rubinstein that led Tchaikovsky to create this piece in his memory, and it is likely as a memorial to Rubinstein that the work has a more-prominent part for the piano than is given to either stringed instrument.  The form of the trio is quite unusual: it is in two movements, the first a very extended Pezzo elegiaco and the second an even longer set of variations, in which Tchaikovsky displays his considerable skill in such forms as the waltz, mazurka, barcarolle, Russian folk dance and even a fugue.  The length of the piece (50 minutes) and its unusual structure make it difficult for a typical set of three players to hold it together, but the Swiss Piano Trio does so very well indeed: each player is not only comfortably virtuosic but also quite willing to step back when the others’ parts need to be brought to the fore.  The performers play equally well in ensemble and as individuals, and seem thoroughly at home with a work that became the first of a series of “memorial piano trios” by Russian composers: Rachmaninoff, Arensky and Shostakovich all wrote them.  Although unlikely ever to become as popular as Tchaikovsky’s symphonies and ballets, the trio is a work of considerable emotional depth and a great deal of musical interest – it deserves to be heard more often.

      So does Franz Lehár’s 1909 operetta, Der Graf von Luxemburg, which is the only one of his pre-World-War-I works whose melodiousness and story can stand comparison to those of The Merry Widow (1905).  Most listeners consider Lehár a “one-hit wonder,” and certainly The Merry Widow is one of the greatest of all operettas, both musically and in its timeless (or at least easily updated) story of love found, lost and found again.  But Der Graf von Luxemburg, when performed as Lehár intended, is at the same level, and its superb “slow waltz,” in which the principals sing of looking for and possibly missing out on the “beautiful, golden dream” of love, is an even stronger expression of yearning than the famed Merry Widow Waltz.  Nor is this the only superb tune in this waltz-imbued work: a separate waltz for the operetta’s “second couple” is equally affecting in its deliberately lighter vein.  The new Arthaus Musik DVD of Der Graf von Luxemburg presents a televised performance from 1972 that is one of the best offerings of the work in recent years, assuming it is fair to count a 40-year-old version as “recent.”  What makes this presentation so good is its use of genuinely operatic voices: Eberhard Wächter as the Count, Lilian Sukis as Angèle Didier, Erich Kunz as Count Basil, Peter Fröhlich as Armand Brissard, and Helga Papouschek as Juliette Vermont are all in top form both vocally and in their acting.  The excellent libretto by Alfred Maria Willner and Robert Bodansky, whose basic theme involves two dissolute young people unexpectedly finding love with each other, has been edited and modified in some ways that work well by connecting the action effectively – and some ways that do not work at all, for example by eliminating any aria by Countess Stasa Kokozow (Jane Tilden).  Indeed, quite a few numbers are dropped, shortened, assigned to singers other than those for whom they were written, or heard only in snippets or as background, and that is very unfortunate, since Lehár’s music here is splendid throughout.  The modifications of the words sung to the music (the adaptation is by Huge Wiener) are serviceable, but the loss of a fair amount of the music itself is much to be regretted.  The story is twisted a bit to make Angèle less of a royal-title-seeking demimondaine and Basil less of a buffoon; in fact, this version ends up with a triply happy marital ending, which is not quite what Lehár and his librettists intended.  Nevertheless, as a TV adaptation – which starts with an exuberant carnival scene and features some delightful touches, such as Brissard using some of his newly acquired funds to install an electric light in his Bohème-like studio – this is quite a fine performance both musically and dramatically.  A full, uncut version of Der Graf von Luxemburg would be preferable, and would actually give The Merry Widow a run for its money musically if not dramatically.  But for those unfamiliar with Der Graf von Luxemburg, this DVD will come as something of a revelation.

      It would be exaggerating to consider Ferdinand Hérold (1791-1833) a truly well-known composer – he appears more often in light-classical concerts for his overtures to Zampa and, less frequently, Le pré aux Clercs, than anywhere else.  But although to some extent he is known for his operas and their well-constructed, vivacious curtain-raisers, he is known not at all for his two symphonies, so having a chance to hear them is a real treat.  This is not to say that these are, by any stretch of the imagination or auditory apparatus, great works: Hérold wrote them in 1813 and 1814 and was clearly influenced more by Haydn and by opera composers such as Paisiello and Rossini than by Beethoven or Mozart.  Nevertheless, the symphonies are well constructed and have a number of interesting elements, especially in the rondos with which both conclude.  No. 1, in four movements, has a fairly solemn opening movement that displays some contrapuntal skill, and No. 2, in three movements, begins with an attractive Largo introduction.  In both symphonies, though, the slow movement – not too slow, being marked Andante both times – is far from weighty and makes no attempt to delve into deep emotion or even very far into lyricism.  So the works’ finales, instead of being determinedly lightweight, end up containing more-interesting elements and having a greater feeling of personal involvement than the earlier movements – an unusual circumstance.  The Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana under Wolf-Dieter Hauschild gives the symphonies spirited performances in a recording made in 1998, but the ensemble does even better with Hérold’s two popular opera overtures, whose sparkling wit and succession of memorable tunes communicate effectively with listeners in a way that the somewhat stodgy symphonies do not.

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