February 27, 2014


Zdeněk Fibich: Orchestral Works, Volume 2—Symphony No. 2; At Twilight—Idyll for Orchestra; Selanka—Idyll for Clarinet and Orchestra. Irvin Venyš, clarinet; Czech National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marek Štilec. Naxos. $9.99.

Leevi Madetoja: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3; Okon Fuoko Suite. Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Storgårds. Ondine. $16.99.

Ernest John Moeran: Rhapsodies Nos. 1 and 2; Rhapsody in F-sharp minor; Overture for a Masque; In the Mountain Country. Benjamin Frith, piano; Ulster Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $9.99.

     The importance of folk music in the works of 20th-century composers such as Bartók and Kodály is universally acknowledged and respected. Its significance is also well-known in 19th-century works whose provenance is in the folk-music area even though the actual tunes may not come from the folk-music tradition or may misconstrue or misinterpret it – as in Brahms’ Hungarian Dances and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies. In both those centuries, the dominance of certain composers in specific regions has tended to keep the music of other area composers off listeners’ radar screens, as in the case of Czech composer Zdeněk Fibich (1850-1900). Fibich lived at the same time as Smetana and Dvořák and explored much of the same musical territory, although his works hew closely enough to the models of Schumann and Weber so they seem less inventive than those of the better-known composers. Still, Fibich was a genuinely creative force and not merely a craftsman skillfully assembling musical structures, and his Symphony No. 2 shows particular ability in balancing the Germanic elements of his time with folk influences. There is a programmatic feeling to the work, likely because many of its themes derive from Fibich’s own piano works – which, unlike the symphony itself, do have an explicit program, dealing with the composer’s intense romantic relationship with a former student. The symphony has a pleasant lilt, with folkloric sounds rather than actual themes, and shows considerable skill in its balance of polyphony and lyricism. It is very well played by the Czech National Symphony Orchestra under Marek Štilec, and the ensemble also does a fine job with the two idyllic, languorous works that fill out this Naxos CD. At Twilight takes after Wagner more than Schumann in harmony and orchestration, although not in scale or scope – those are modest, and the piece’s pleasantly meandering pace reflects its origin as an attempted musical depiction of walks taken by Fibich and friends on an island in Prague. Selanka is equally pleasant and just about as indolent, the clarinet solos using the instrument’s lyrical capabilities rather than calling on the performer for any major bursts of virtuosity. Fibich’s music certainly expands the nationalist tendencies of his better-known contemporaries, breaking no new ground formally but offering distinctive style in well-crafted compositions.

     The nationalistic and folk elements in the music of Leevi Madetoja (1887-1947) are those of Finland, and in particular of Madetoja’s home region, Ostrobothnia, whose traditional music strongly influenced much that Madetoja wrote. Just as it is inevitable to see Fibich in the light of Smetana and Dvořák, it is inevitable to compare Madetoja to Sibelius, whose work was a far more successful melding of Germanic and uniquely Nordic characteristics – and moved beyond that merger into genuinely new areas. Sibelius had come further when he stopped composing in the 1920s than Madetoja did even by the mid-1940s, but that does not mean that Madetoja’s work is unworthy of performance. His Symphony No. 3 (1922-26), in particular, has considerable value, packing a great deal of drama and intensity, as well as emotion, into its half-hour length; and this work is the highlight of the new Ondine CD featuring the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra under conductor John Storgårds. A previous Ondine disc offered Madetoja’s moving Symphony No. 2 (1916-18), a work clearly of World War I. The Symphony No. 3 absorbs the horrors and gloom of the Great War and moves beyond them, not exactly to acceptance but to a level of understanding. It is a well-made, well-thought-out work that is tuneful and dramatic enough to have been excerpted for use in a Finnish movie called The Man without a Past. The other music on this CD also shows considerable compositional strength. Symphony No. 1 (1914-16) is already a mature work in which Madetoja has largely found his own voice, although it is not as strongly knitted as No. 2. And the Okon Fuoko Suite (1925-27), taken from a one-act ballet, is tuneful, danceable and altogether lighter in tone than the symphonies. Madetoja trod some of the same musical and folkloric territory as Sibelius, writing a symphonic poem called Väinämöinen Sows the Wilderness (based on the Kalevala, which so influenced Sibelius) and even creating his own Kullervo tone poem in 1913 – 21 years after Sibelius’ five-movement work. It is perhaps inevitable that a fine but lesser talent such as Madetoja’s should fall into obscurity beside a blazing one like that of Sibelius, but Madetoja’s music is strong enough on its own to be worthy of at least occasional revival.

     So are the works of Ernest John Moeran (1894-1950), a dedicated folklorist who incorporated folk-music-like tunes into a great deal of what he wrote – but often created the melodies himself, using his knowledge of real folk music to produce themes that sound like folk music but are in fact original. Although born in England, Moeran is best thought of as an Anglo-Irish composer: his father was Irish and Moeran spent much of his life in Ireland. The folk music that Moeran incorporated into his works was as often English as Irish – he spent considerable time collecting some 150 folk songs in Norfolk and Suffolk. There are plenty of folk elements to be found in the works on a new Naxos CD featuring the Ulster Orchestra under JoAnn Falletta. Rhapsody No. 1 (1922) and Rhapsody No. 2 (1924; revised 1941) are both highly melodious and scored with considerable skill. Rhapsody No. 3 (1943) is effectively a piano concerto, and Benjamin Frith plays this unabashedly popular-sounding work with a sure touch and plenty of spirit. The other pieces on this disc are the impressionistic In the Mountain Country (1921), Moeran’s first orchestral work, and the pleasant and nicely scored Overture for a Masque (1944). Moeran’s works lie in the shadow of those of Ralph Vaughan Williams and John Ireland, contemporaries who integrated folk motifs into their music more thoroughly and somewhat more successfully – although it would be a mistake to think that Moeran was only a folk-influenced composer, since some of his pieces are dark rather than pastoral in orientation. Still, Moeran’s inherent conservatism in matters of structure and harmony shows him to be more a craftsman than an innovator, and although he does have a personal compositional style, it differs from those of his contemporaries mostly in fairly minor ways. Falletta gives the music on this CD its full due, and the works are due more attention than Moeran’s music generally receives; but it is understandable that Moeran is not considered to be at the same level as several other nationalist and folk-influenced composers who lived and wrote at the same time.

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