Berlioz: Roméo et Juliette. Katija Dragojevic, mezzo-soprano; Andrew Staples, tenor; Alastair Miles, bass; Swedish Radio Choir and Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robin Ticciati. Linn Records. $34.99 (2 CDs).
Donizetti and Mayr: Messa di Gloria and Credo in D. Siri Karoline Thornhill and Marie-Sophie Pollak, sopranos; Marie-Sande Papenmeyer, alto; Mark Adler, tenor; Martin Berner, bass; Simon Mayr Choir, Members of the Bavarian State Opera Chorus, and Concerto de Bassus conducted by Franz Hauk. Naxos. $12.99.
Bruch: Complete Works for Violin and Orchestra, Volume 3—Violin Concerto No. 3; Konzertstück, Op. 84; Romanze, Op. 42. Antje Weithaas, violin; NDR Radiophilharmonie conducted by Hermann Bäumer. CPO. $16.99.
Emil Nikolaus von Reznicek: Goldpirol—Idyllische Ouvertüre; Wie Till Eulenspiegel lebte; Konzertstück für Violine und Orchester; Praeludium und Fuge in C minor; Nachtstück. Sophie Jaffé, violin; Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin conducted by Marcus Bosch. CPO. $16.99.
In writing both his music and his words, Hector Berlioz seemed always at white heat, and it is scarcely a surprise that he lavished so much attention on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (in the revised form in which he knew the play). What is a surprise is how Berlioz’ creative impulses led him to structure his Roméo et Juliette as a symphony – one just as innovative in its way as was his Symphonie fantastique, and one also inspired by actress Harriet Smithson, whom Berlioz had seen when she acted in the revised play (which had been adapted by 18th-century actor David Garrick). Berlioz never sets any Shakespeare lines in the vocal parts of his Roméo et Juliette, and there are no singers representing the young lovers – only ones for the roles of Mercutio and Friar Laurence, plus a contralto narrator. It is scarcely surprising that this sprawling work, which lasts more than an hour and a half, is rarely heard in full; but it is highly dramatic and effective when performed as Berlioz intended. And that makes the Linn records release of Roméo et Juliette under the direction of Robin Ticciati very welcome indeed. Ticciati does not really hold the work together – it is episodic by design – but he gives full and careful attention to each of its instrumental and vocal elements, allowing the wonderful, extended instrumental love scene to flower and flow beautifully, keeping the “Queen Mab” scherzo fleet and light, and eventually bringing the whole tale of pathos and heartbreak to a well-thought-out (if rather sanctimonious) reconciliation – a section that Berlioz added back after Garrick excised it. Individual and choral voices are in fine form here, and Ticciati, who has shown himself an excellent interpreter of Berlioz in several earlier recordings on the same label, once again proves adept at managing his forces and exploring the intricacies and the emotional impact of the music. And it is worth saying a word about the packaging here, which is superb: Roméo et Juliette is presented as a book, one CD bound into the inside front cover and one into the inside back cover, with an essay, translated libretto, and a series of excellent photographs – plus some very thoughtful design that even includes fine color choices – making the whole release a joy to hold as well as to hear. Other firms could learn a lot from Linn Records about giving listeners even more than they expect when they purchase fine recordings, including ones as excellent as this.
The packaging is nothing special, but a new Naxos CD called Messa di Gloria and Credo in D nevertheless gives its listeners more than they expect – in several ways. First of all, the engineers have achieved something remarkable by putting more than 86 minutes of fine-sounding music on the disc. The limit for top-quality CD sound has long been established as 80 minutes, and while recordings have occasionally pushed slightly past that – by a minute or so – this one takes the maximum time to a whole new level. It is a highly impressive technical achievement. But it would be largely meaningless if not put at the service of an impressive musical achievement. So it is a pleasure to note that, secondly, the musicians have also produced something special and highly distinctive here. Naxos has been releasing a whole series of works by Johann Simon Mayr (1763-1845), an underrated early-Romantic composer whose music shows great skill in craftsmanship and some genuinely innovative ideas and techniques – and often packs strong emotional force as well. For this release, conductor Franz Hauk has returned to a 19th-century tradition of forming a complete Mass by taking individually composed movements and performing them in sequence – even though they were not written in integral mass form. To do this, Hauk has chosen selections from the little-known sacred music of Donizetti: a Kyrie, Gloria and Credo clearly intended to be the major part of a traditional Mass. Hauk has added to this another Donizetti sacred work, a short Ave Maria, and then two pieces by Mayr – Sanctus and Agnus Dei – to complete the traditional structure of a Mass. The mixing of these two composers’ music is not as outlandish an idea as it may at first seem, since it was Mayr who actually taught Donizetti (his junior by 34 years) how to set sacred texts. The result of Hauk’s efforts is a very extended and highly unusual Mass that holds together remarkably well even though its components were not produced in an integrated fashion. Donizetti’s very extensive six-part Gloria, itself lasting nearly 48 minutes, is the heart of the work, and it is impressive in its elevated tone and in sung lines that at times clearly show their composer’s more-typical operatic orientation. The performers are all more than equal to the exigencies of this music, handling it with fervor and exaltation as appropriate, with warmth and involvement as needed. Hauk leads the soloists, chorus members and instrumental musicians with a sure and practiced hand, clearly knowing what he wants to achieve with this compilation and making sure that all participants do their part to make the Messa di Gloria and Credo in D as effective as it can be. This both is and is not “authentic” sacred music by Donizetti and Mayr: the components are indisputably theirs, but the assembly of the pieces into a whole is Hauk’s. The whole production is delivered with skill and commitment and makes for a highly satisfying, even elevating, musical experience.
The Romantic temperament is, of course, reflected in purely instrumental works as well as in vocal ones – and Berlioz was not the only Romantic-era composer who threw himself into his music with a great degree of passion. Max Bruch had a notoriously prickly personality that led him to gain and drop friends and supporters frequently, often for arbitrary and even bizarre reasons. He would be a fascinating psychological study if anyone should wish to analyze him – he did, after all, live from 1838 to 1920, into the early years of psychoanalysis. But Bruch’s extremely rough personal edges stand in stark contrast to the smooth, elegant, warm and forthcoming nature of his music, and it is a shame that he is known today almost solely for his first violin concerto and Kol Nidre. Bruch was not a highly prolific composer, but he wrote a fair amount of music for violin and orchestra in addition to his famous Concerto No. 1; and Antje Weithaas has now completed her survey of all of it for CPO, with the NDR Radiophilharmonie conducted by Hermann Bäumer. The third and final disc in the series includes the very substantial and extended Violin Concerto No. 3, the late and quite beautiful two-movement Konzertstück of 1910, and a Romanze originally intended as part of the Violin Concerto No. 2 and sounding a great deal like something by Schumann. Weithaas plays all this material, and indeed has played everything in this series, as if the music is great or near-great, which is really more than some of it deserves: Bruch was a wonderful melodist but a somewhat haphazard structuralist, although his breaks with tradition in his Violin Concerto No. 1 are part of what makes that a truly great work. The warmth and fervor of the violin in all this music is infectious, and Bäumer contributes fine support that also emphasizes the emotionally warming effects of the material. This very fine series shows that Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 does deserve the enormously high regard in which it is held, but it also shows that the composer, as difficult as he was in the interpersonal realm, never lost his ability to enchant listeners through the sheer beauty of his melodies and their long-spun-out phrases for solo instrument and orchestra alike.
Bruch is far from the only Romantic-era composer known for a tiny part of what he created. Emil Nikolaus von Reznicek (1860-1945) is in much the same position, but to an even greater extent, since pretty much the only thing most listeners know by him is Donna Diana – and not even the whole opera; just the overture. That happens to be a marvelously perky piece, but really! Five minutes of music to represent the entirety of a composer’s life? It is better than being forgotten altogether, true, but since Donna Diana is also an early work (1894), Reznicek had the unenviable misfortune to live from his own initial popularity through his forthcoming obscurity. Yet it does not seem to have bothered him overmuch: he produced a considerable amount of more-than-respectable music, much of it somewhat in the mode of Richard Strauss (the two men had a relationship that was more or less one of mutual respect). CPO has released a number of discs of Reznicek’s music, the latest of which provides an interesting opportunity to compare his violin-and-orchestra writing with Bruch’s: the longest piece here is the Konzertstück für Violine und Orchester, which is really a full-length concerto and which here gets its world première recording; and there is also Nachtstück for violin (or cello) and a small orchestra of strings, horns and harp. In both these works, Reznicek is quite deliberate in turning against the late-Romantic notion of a display piece in which the soloist and orchestra seem to be in combat as much as confluence. He also turns further from late-Romantic tonality than Bruch ever did: parts of the Konzertstück of 1918 have a harshness similar to that of Prokofiev’s first violin concerto, begun in 1915 but not completed and played until 1923. Nachtstück is an earlier work (1905) and is atmospheric and pleasantly balanced among the instruments. Some of the remaining pieces are more typical of Reznicek to the extent that they employ humor, a frequent integral element of his music that distinguishes it from that of, say, Richard Strauss, for whom humor was situational but not endemic. Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche of 1894-95 is one of the composer’s best-known humorous items, but Reznicek’s Wie Till Eulenspiegel lebte (1900), although it draws on similar source material, has a very different reason for being: it is part of an opera in which Reznicek portrays Till not as a joker but as a “fool” in more of the medieval sense – a fighter and a celebrator of disobedience to the established order. There is certainly humor in the music, but here it serves a higher purpose. There is also something lighthearted, if not humorous in the sense of laughter, in the idyllic overture Goldpirol (1903), a nature portrait that at times seems to comment a touch ironically on the theme of nature as used by Mahler in his symphonies: the opening music is taken from the song of the golden oriole (hence the work’s title), a parallel to some of Mahler’s use of birdsong. The remaining work here is one of considerable seriousness: Praeludium und Fuge in C minor (1912), although certainly modeled on Bach, deliberately stretches the fugal form by working from a whole-tone subject that inevitably leads, as it is developed, to atonality – creating an intriguing mixture of the quite old and the very new, albeit one that Reznicek did not pursue in later works. All the music here gets strong performances, with Sophie Jaffé an elegant interpreter of the works including violin solo and Marcus Bosch showing a firm understanding of Reznicek’s forms and skillful use of the orchestra. Certainly nothing here has the easy smoothness of the Donna Diana overture, but there is plenty on this disc to show interested listeners that there was a great deal more to Reznicek than the one short work for which the vast majority of people know him.
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