May 10, 2018


Franz Krommer: Symphonies Nos. 4, 5 and 7. Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana conducted by Howard Griffiths. CPO. $16.99.

Richard Heuberger: Der Opernball. Gerhard Ernst, Lotte Marquardt, Alexander Kaimbacher, Ivan Oreščanin, Nadja Mchantaf, Martin Fournier, Margareta Klobučar, Sieglinde Feldhofer, János Mischuretz; Chor der Oper Graf and Grazer Philharmonisches Orchester conducted by Marius Burkert. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

     Composers who significantly influenced other composers deservedly get a great deal of credit for doing so. Haydn’s enormous influence on Mozart and Beethoven, Beethoven’s on Schubert and Brahms and a plethora of Romantics, Offenbach’s on Suppé and Sullivan, Wagner’s on Verdi and Puccini and on through-composition of opera in general, Schoenberg’s on nearly all composers from the Second Viennese School down to our own time – these are just a few examples. Many of those who absorbed and extended the innovations of earlier composers became influential in their own right. But some did not: they took in enough techniques to produce interesting, sometimes even compelling music, but their works were dead ends, and whatever popularity they enjoyed for a time faded, often quickly, after the composers’ deaths. But it is a testament to the high quality of some of this music that, when it is rediscovered, it proves more than worthy of performance and of repeated hearings. Such is the case with the symphonies of Franz Krommer (1759-1831), a Viennese composer who lived and worked almost literally in Beethoven’s shadow and who, as a result, faded quickly into obscurity despite the initial enthusiasm with which his works were met. Krommer wrote nine symphonies, eight of which have survived, and Howard Griffiths, a dedicated explorer of some of the byways of musical history, offers three of them in exceptionally forceful and well-played versions on a new CPO disc featuring the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana. It is easy to hear influences of Haydn in these works (especially in Symphony No. 7); and, like the symphonies of Louis Spohr, these are redolent of Beethoven as well. But it is Beethoven of around the time of his Symphony No. 2 (1801-1802), not later Beethoven – even though these three Krommer works date from 1820, 1821 and 1824, respectively. There is dynamism and a strong sense of sturm und drang in these pieces, and their sound may remind some listeners of that of Niels Gade’s symphonies (although those also have Mendelssohnian elements that Krommer’s symphonies lack). Krommer was writing some of his later symphonies, including No. 7, when Beethoven had advanced far beyond the Krommer sound: Beethoven’s Ninth was written from 1822 to 1824, and Krommer’s Seventh, which (like all three symphonies heard here) features a third movement labeled Menuetto, seems like something of a throwback. These are works of strength and solidity, but their style is a derivative one despite some clever twists that Krommer brings to the material. Symphony No. 4 in C minor is strong and dramatic, with a complex Adagio second movement. Symphony No. 5 in E-flat is filled with trumpets and timpani and offers intriguing contrasts between the martial and the pastoral within the first movement and between that whole movement and the following Andante sostenuto. And Symphony No. 7 in G minor is especially interesting for concluding with, of all things, a fugue – but one created in the harmonic language of Krommer’s time rather than that of Bach. Griffiths leads the orchestra with a sure hand in all the symphonies, giving Krommer his full due for the works’ structural integrity and thematic cogency. None of these symphonies is especially distinctive in breaking new ground for later composers: they are very much of their own time, and it is scarcely surprising that they were eclipsed by other material not long after Krommer’s death. Yet these well-made works are worthy of revival today, both for the innate pleasures they offer and for the insight they provide into the music being created in Vienna in Beethoven’s time.

     The influences that culminated in Der Opernball by Richard Heuberger (1850-1914) are apparent not only in the music but also in the story. This operetta, by far the best-known work by Heuberger and a piece whose overture continues to appear frequently on concert programs, has nearly the same plot as Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte and a structure almost identical to that of Johann Strauss Jr.’s Die Fledermaus. It is a straightforward and often amusing “bedroom comedy,” although here the room involved is a chamber séparée to which various men seek to bring various women who are not their wives – or maybe are. That is, the women decide to test their husbands’ faithfulness by creating a specific Carnival costume to be worn at the opera ball of the title – and matters get more complicated when the chambermaid of one couple decides that she too will wear the costume and use it to lure the man in whom she is interested. The opera ball occurs in the second act, as does the party in Die Fledermaus, and Heuberger’s third act is used to unravel matters, blame the confusion on the chambermaid, and assert, rather unconvincingly, the fidelity of both the married men: there is nothing here quite akin to Strauss’ conclusion that nur der Champagner war an allem schuld! However, Der Opernball of 1898 quite clearly echoes Die Fledermaus of 1874 (although the play on which Heuberger’s operetta was based did not appear until 1876). The music bubbles along in a similar vein as well – and it really is bubbly in the new two-CD recording from CPO. As for the overall Opera Graz production – well, sprechen Sie Deutsch? Dann ist die neue CPO-CD von "Der Opernball" ein echtes Vergnügen. If you do speak German – and are unfamiliar with Der Opernball or not particularly concerned about authenticity in performing it – then Marius Burkert and the Graz soloists, chorus and orchestra offer plenty of ebullience and charm in their rather broad interpretation. If you speak only English and/or would like to hear the operetta as Heuberger composed it, this release will be a disappointment despite the good playing and enjoyable singing. The language issue lies simply in the fact that the dialogue – which has been rewritten from the original libretto by Viktor Léon and Heinrich von Waldberg – is crucial to understanding the action and is neither printed in the booklet nor offered online, much less translated from German to English. The sung pieces are given in the booklet, and CPO deserves some credit for that, but they appear in German only. As for the sequences of the music, that issue belongs entirely to Opera Graz, which decided not only to alter the dialogue (a common if unfortunate occurrence in contemporary operetta presentations) but also to rearrange the order in which the set pieces are presented. It is very hard to understand why this was done: Der Opernball is confusing enough by intention so that it makes no sense to complicate matters further by moving its music around willy-nilly. Presumably the rewritten dialogue was designed to clarify the rearranged music, but it would have been a great deal simpler and a great deal more pleasant if Opera Graz had simply presented the operetta as the composer intended. Certainly the quality of the music, with whose orchestration Heuberger had the assistance of Alexander von Zemlinsky, comes through here, and certainly it is easy to hear why Geh'n wir in's Chambre séparée took Vienna by storm in 1898. The sheer quality of the musical material is enough to give this release a (+++) rating. But it could easily have been an even more welcome recording if the fine singing, playing and conducting had been put at the service of Der Openball as it was intended to be performed.

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