October 10, 2019


Weber: Peter Schmoll und seine Nachbarn. Paul Armin Edelmann, Thorsten Grümbel, Ilona Revolskaya, Sebastian Kohlhepp, Christoph Seidl, Johannes Bamberger; ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Roberto Paternostro. Capriccio. $16.99.

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 4, 11 and 12. James Brawn, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     The modern concept of wunderkind is scarcely equal to the task of describing the many amazingly youthful composers of the 18th and 19th centuries, who were producing outstanding music when they were young teenagers, preteens and even young children. Mozart is the best-known by far, but Mendelssohn and Schubert were almost equally astonishing in their earliest years. And so was Carl Maria von Weber, already an accomplished (and published) composer at age 12, when he wrote his first opera. That one has not survived, but his second, Das Waldmädchen, was partly turned into his later Silvana. And his third opera has come down to us intact, at least as far as the music is concerned. The libretto of Peter Schmoll und seine Nachbarn (“Peter Schmoll and His Neighbors”) has disappeared, but the sparkling score – 20 numbers, plus an overture that has rightfully made its way into the concert repertoire – is now available on a new Capriccio CD. The recording shows just how skillful Weber was in the years before he created his final three operas, which among them ushered in full-fledged Romanticism on the stage: Der Freischütz, Euryanthe, and Oberon. Unlike those grand and sometimes grandiose works, Peter Schmoll und seine Nachbarn is a simple musical comedy – and, indeed, seems to exist in a direct line with many of the light and frothy stage entertainments of the 20th and 21st centuries. The arias make the plot clear, even though the actual spoken dialogue is missing: Peter Schmoll seeks to wed his much younger niece, Minette, believing that both Minette’s lover and Peter’s own brother (Minette’s father) are dead; but the two turn up alive, upending Peter’s plans, and eventually the brothers are reconciled and the young people are suitably joined. The whole plot is frothy, and Weber produces appropriately joyful and witty music to go with it. He also shows, even at this early stage of his career, his fondness for the sort of exceptional wind writing that would characterize his later work: one aria has the bassoon bubbling happily along, several use flutes to good advantage, and one is introduced by a clarinet passage that will remind listeners that Weber wrote two high-quality concertos and a concertino for that instrument. All the male singers manage their formulaic roles with panache and no trace of irony – the plot is a typical one and needs to be handled straightforwardly for maximum effect. The sole female in the troupe, Ilona Revolskaya as Minette, is not quite as effective as the men, her voice tending to be a bit shrill and her delivery sometimes on the breathy side. But she is certainly more than adequate in the role – and Roberto Paternostro does a very find job indeed directing the ensemble and the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, which plays neatly and enthusiastically throughout. Capriccio thoughtfully provides an attractive 54-page booklet that includes all the sung texts – but only in German, putting English speakers at a distinct disadvantage. However, the intent of the words comes through quite clearly thanks to Weber’s expert settings, and it is always possible to look up translations of their exact meanings online – not that the verbiage is particularly distinguished. The music, however, is of very high quality, and Peter Schmoll und seine Nachbarn is certainly worth a listen. And it is worth remembering, sadly, that the musical prodigies of Weber’s time flourished early but did not live long: Mozart died at 35, Schubert at 31, Mendelssohn at 38, and Weber at 40.

     Beethoven had a longer life, to age 57, and his first published music did not appear until he was 25, although he had begun composing before that. Still, when one thinks of early Beethoven, it is generally of music he wrote in his 20s and up to about 1800, when he turned 30. It is music of that time period that James Brawn explores in the sixth release of his Beethoven cycle for MSR Classics. The three sonatas here date to 1796-97 (No. 4 in E-flat), 1799-1800 (No. 11 in B-flat), and 1800-01 (No. 12 in A-flat). Apart from all being in “flat” keys and all in four movements, the sonatas are not clearly related: this series gets a (+++) rating because Brawn’s excellent performances are presented in a somewhat scattershot manner. The readings themselves, however, are very impressive: Brawn is a thoughtful pianist who draws attention not to his own technique but to the intricacies of the music, and that approach works very well in these sonatas. No. 4 is both the earliest piece here and the longest, and indirectly foreshadows some of the demands that Beethoven was to make of himself and other pianists in later works: he not only violates expectations in the design of the usual Minuet-or-Scherzo third movement (here marked Allegro & Minore) but also creates highly challenging scalar passages in the first movement and a finale in which sforzando chords play a significant role. The CD then proceeds to Sonata No. 12, which opens, unexpectedly, with an Andante con variazioni – a structure more usually expected as a slow movement or finale – and then places the Scherzo second, following it with a rather short but very impressive funeral march sulla morte d’un Eroe. Although this does not look directly ahead to the “Eroica” symphony of 1805, it certainly shows Beethoven’s evocative skill: the piano offers everything from drum rolls to musket fire. The finale of this sonata is on the perfunctory side, but Brawn handles it as skillfully as he manages the other movements. Then, placed last on the disc, comes Sonata No. 11, and here Brawn skillfully unites disparate elements that can seem jarring in less-skilled readings. The sonata includes orchestra-like flourishes and techniques on the one hand and, on the other, an especially lovely slow movement, marked Adagio con molta espressione, which Brawn makes very expressive indeed. There is also a bright and fairly extended final Rondo in which, unexpectedly, a sweetly lyrical theme appears midway, recalling the slow movement in mood if not in actual notes. Firm control and a strong sense of the sonata’s overall structure are needed to bring this work off successfully, and Brawn has both. As in his five earlier recordings in this series, Brawn plays cleanly and with feeling, delving into the sonatas’ proto-Romantic elements without overdoing them and without exaggerating the works’ tempos or rhythms. His focus on getting the dynamics right is notable, and if there is a weakness in his concepts, it flows from his willingness to use the resources of a modern concert grand piano, so different from anything Beethoven knew, unashamedly – although Brawn is certainly not the only pianist to do this, and his approach to his instrument is as well-considered and tasteful as is his handling of the sonatas themselves.

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