May 30, 2019


Beethoven: Triple Concerto; Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra. Alexandra Conunova, violin; Natalie Clein, cello; David Kadouch, piano (Triple Concerto); Bertrand Chamayou, piano; Sandrine Piau and Kristina Vahrenkamp, sopranos; Anaïk Morel, alto; Stanislas de Barbeyrac and Jean-François Chiama, tenors; Florian Sempey, baritone; Accentus (Fantasia); Insula Orchestra conducted by Laurence Equilbey. Erato. $13.

Emil Nikolaus von Reznicek: Karneval-Suite im alten Stil; Traumspiel-Suite; Symphonische Suite No. 1. Weimarer Staatskapelle conducted by Stefan Solyom. CPO. $16.99.

Josef Rheinberger: 12 Character Pieces, Op. 156; Reger: 12 Pieces for Organ—Toccata in D minor; Fugue in D; Mendelssohn: Organ Sonata No. 6; Brahms: Fugue in A-flat minor; Liszt: Prelude and Fugue on B-A-C-H. Felix Hell, organ. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     It was not so long ago that Beethoven’s Triple Concerto and Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra were dismissed as oddities, unsuccessful experiments of little lasting value either to Beethoven himself or to those who came after, and worthy of only very rare performance. Times and thinking have certainly changed, with both works now seen as unusual, innovative and highly creative. The Triple Concerto does an admirable job of balancing the trio of solo instruments, perhaps making the cello – rather than Beethoven’s own instrument, the piano – something of a first among equals. This is a work of considerable poise, and it is that element that stands out in a finely played and well-conducted performance on the Erato label – a performance that does, however, have some peculiarities of which listeners should be aware. Chief among these is the use of a restored Pleyel piano from 1892 – an instrument that does not quite fit either the depth and aural strength of modern pianos or the delicacy and fine tone of the fortepianos for which Beethoven actually wrote these works. Since the Insula Orchestra is an original-instrument ensemble, this results in a rather curious hybrid sound in which the piano almost-but-not-quite fits into the texture that Laurence Equilbey creates so admirably in the Triple Concerto. That said, the enthusiastic and often quite lovely performance is a joy to hear, even if it is neither quite authentic nor exactly contemporary in sound. The Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra comes across beautifully, too, although, again, with some peculiarities. Here they relate both to the piano – the same 1892 Pleyel used in the Triple Concerto – and to the vocal elements of the piece. It used to seem odd that Beethoven created this work, calling for an extended piano solo (played originally by him) and a chorus, plus orchestra, but the Fantasia is now recognized as an extended and unusual encore to the famous concert of December 22, 1808, at which Beethoven introduced his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the concerto aria Ah, perfido for soprano solo, the Sanctus and Gloria from the Mass in C, and the Fourth Piano Concerto. The Fantasia followed all these – and the forces needed for it were on hand already, having performed the earlier pieces. Thus, the extended piano section that starts the Fantasia, and which in its structure gives hints of how Beethoven extemporized at the keyboard, makes perfect sense, as do the following orchestral and choral elements, including the solo quartet. Equilbey, however, uses a solo sextet of voices, doubling the soprano and tenor soloists for no clear reason. Add that decision to the one involving use of the 1892 piano and you have a reading that is distinctive in some strange ways as well as in its clarity, focus and attractive blend of vocal and instrumental material. Because neither of these performances is quite authentic or exactly modern in approach, neither is likely to be first-choice material for listeners unacquainted with these two works. But the combination of the two pieces, and the enthusiasm with which the performers present them, make this a winning CD that people who already enjoy the music will find very congenial indeed.

     Congeniality is not exactly what listeners will find in a new CPO release of symphonic works by Emil Nikolaus von Reznicek (1860-1945), whose reputation this label has been burnishing for years through releases of his orchestral music – some of which is quite fine and undeservedly neglected. However, this recording by Stefan Solyom and the Weimarer Staatskapelle comes across as a bit of an afterthought, as indeed does the timing of its release: the performances date to 2012. The three works here will be “finds” for listeners who have become familiar with Reznicek, but they will be of less interest to anyone trying to understand why his reputation deserves rehabilitation. The best piece is the latest and shortest: Karneval-Suite im alten Stil (1931/1935) shows the composer’s skill in orchestration as well as highlighting his abilities in stage music, from which the suite is constructed. The seven movements are modernized and updated versions of Baroque forms; and with four of the seven lasting less than a minute apiece, they indicate the skill with which Reznicek could handle miniatures – not something for which he is particularly known. More in keeping with his overall approach to instrumentation and style is the Traumspiel-Suite (1916/1921), which also originates with a stage work but which, unlike the later Karneval-Suite, is fully late-Romantic in concept, sound and expansiveness. The six movements illustrate different scenes from a Strindberg play, but Reznicek rearranges the material so the suite has something approaching coherence and near-symphonic form, eventually ending with music that, on stage, goes with the play’s Prelude rather than its conclusion. This is effective and affecting music, familiarity with the stage work not being necessary for a listener to appreciate the dreamscapes that Reznicek weaves. Even more symphonic in structure, and indeed originally titled as a symphony, the Symphonische Suite No. 1 is by far the earliest piece here, dating to 1882, when Reznicek was 22. It was essentially a graduation exercise, and it is a good one in showing mastery of orchestration, mood creation and contrast both within and between movements. It is also somewhat overripe, and lacks the thematic inspiration found elsewhere in Reznicek’s music. It is thus a piece that in some ways points ahead to his later work while in other respects it simply shows how strongly influenced he was by the Wagnerian sound at this time of his life. This is less a CD for discovering an unjustly neglected composer than it is a disc for those who have rediscovered Reznicek already and are looking to fill out their knowledge and impressions of the creator of Donna Diana and Ritter Blaubart.

     Josef Rhineberger (1839-1901) is also well overdue for rediscovery, although organists have never really lost a connection with this organist/composer from Liechtenstein. General listeners are far less likely to be familiar with the works of Rhineberger, who wrote two symphonies, two operas and a fair amount of chamber music but was devoted primarily to the organ. A new MSR Classics CD (which spells the composer’s first name “Joseph”) provides a fine introduction to Rhineberger in addition to being a tour de force for Felix Hell, a performer of remarkable skill and agility in negotiating the complexities of Rhineberger’s music as well as the other material on this very interesting disc. The title of Rhineberger’s work, 12 Character Pieces, would seem to point to portraits of people, but in fact this is “12 pieces of varying character” rather than a directly illustrative work. Some of the pieces have more or less the character that could be inferred from their titles: the rather sweet “Romance,” pretty “Canzonetta,” and ethereal “Vision,” for instance. Others, though, have a greater communicative level and handle the organ in impressive ways: “Duett” really does have the effect of a duet, “In memoriam” is solemn and heartfelt, and “Abendfriede” (“peace at evening”) is a lovely three-minute tone poem that effectively paints a crepuscular scene. The longest piece is the concluding one, “Trauermarsch,” and it presents a suitably serious funeral cortège without ever trying to delve into tragic realms. Hell is quite clearly at home with the individual characteristics of each piece as well as the stylistic elements that they have in common, and his choice of registration seems completely apt throughout the sequence. He is equally skilled in presenting Max Reger’s Toccata in D minor and Fugue in D from 12 Pieces for Organ. Reger’s works can be turgid and often thorny in ways very different from those of Rhineberger, but here too Hell finds the internal structural elements of the pieces and uses them to build a highly satisfying performance. The CD also includes organ works by three much-better-known composers who, however, are not particularly associated with the organ. Mendelssohn’s six organ sonatas, like many works by Rhineberger, are quite familiar to organists but otherwise not well-known. The last of them, in D minor, includes a set of variations on Martin Luther's chorale, Vater unser im Himmelreich, and Hell is sensitive both to the music and to the underlying meaning of the Lord’s Prayer, on which Luther based his hymn. Brahms’ Fugue in A-flat minor is interesting mainly because of the unusual key and the sounds that result, but Liszt’s Prelude and Fugue on B-A-C-H is a substantial and impressive work – Liszt actually wrote a considerable amount of organ music of all types, from a fantasy and fugue on a chorale from Meyerbeer’s Le prophète to an organ version of the Pilgrim’s Chorus from Tannhäuser to several works for Bach cantatas and even an arrangement of the Agnus Dei from Verdi’s Requiem. Hell handles the Prelude and Fugue on B-A-C-H as an extended encore, a celebratory and triumphal piece celebrating not only Bach but also Liszt himself. Although built around the music of Rheinberger – 12 Character Pieces appears in the middle of the CD and is the longest work on the disc – this recording has insights aplenty throughout, along with some first-rate playing on a 1902 E.F. Walcker organ that was thoroughly restored in 2008 and has just the right sound for the sort of Romantic music on which Hell focuses.

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