October 29, 2020


Moritz Moszkowski: Orchestral Music, Volume One—Johanna d’Arc. Sinfonia Varsovia conducted by Ian Hobson. Toccata Classics. $18.99.

Moritz Moszkowski: Orchestral Music, Volume Two—Suites Nos. 2 and 3 for Orchestra. Sinfonia Varsovia conducted by Ian Hobson. Toccata Classics. $18.99.

     Audiences tend to think of classical music as a calling, an artistic endeavor motivated by the need to express certain feelings, beliefs and emotions, sometimes while satisfying the specific requirements of a particular group or individual (as Bach’s Goldberg Variations were created at the behest of a noble patron needing something to calm him during his frequent bouts of insomnia). However, composers themselves are well aware that their musical creations are a business – a state of affairs readily accepted when it comes to pop music but less so when concert halls, recital rooms and opera stages are involved. It was probably the realization of the “business” element of composition that led to the near-obliteration of the name of Moritz Moszkowski (1854-1925) as a composer of large-scale, serious works. Quite well-known for a time around the turn of the 20th century, Moszkowski is now remembered only for a handful of pianistic trifles and encores – and that is partly his own fault, since he realized early on that his larger-scale, more-serious works were not catching on in the way that his smaller ones were. Besides, his piano pieces could serve the dual purpose of getting his name out there and giving him something to play at his own recitals: he was a notable virtuoso for a decade, until prevented from performing by a physical ailment – after which he became a successful conductor.

     Moszkowski’s disappearance from the ranks of well-known composers was not solely the result of his focus on smaller works: his musical conservatism in an era of considerable artistic change did him no good, and the tremendous upheavals at the time of World War I not only ruined him financially through unwise investments but also relegated his music to being deemed material from a bygone era. However, the earlier part of the 20th century has in recent decades been rediscovered, and it turns out that even some of its lesser lights had considerable communicative skill and produced music that deserves a far better fate than the oblivion to which history has consigned it. So now we have, from Toccata Classics, a planned four-volume series of Moszkowski’s orchestral music – and on the basis of the two volumes now available, this will be a genuine delight of a rediscovery.

     The first CD is devoted entirely to a four-movement symphonic poem – sometimes referred to as a symphony, but a work that is more loosely knit, in the mode of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade of 1888. Moszkowski’s Johanna d’Arc is more than a decade older, dating to 1875-76, and is based not on the historical record but on Friedrich Schiller’s fictionalized 1801 play. This massive work, receiving its world première recording with Ian Hobson conducting Sinfonia Varsovia, is essentially a full-hour tone poem, or rather four related tone poems, opening with a portrayal of Joan before her famous vision and ending with her death and Verklärung (“transfiguration” or “apotheosis”). Although the performance here is quite fine, with extra credit due to Jakob Haufa, who handles the solo-violin parts in the first and fourth movements, it has to be said that Moszkowski’s Johanna d’Arc sprawls, especially in its very extended first movement (23 minutes of the work’s total of 59 in this reading). The naïveté of the pastoral opening is nicely delineated and is well-contrasted with the increasingly dark and serious mood later in this movement, but the movement as a whole goes on at very considerable length without having sufficient fluidity or melodic attractiveness to make the auditory journey worthwhile. The three other movements are, all in all, more successful. The second represents Joan’s inner struggles effectively; the third is a very well-composed march that would not be out of place in the Hollywood historical epics of 50 years later, and that includes (probably unintentionally) one section identical to a portion of Liszt’s Les Préludes; and the finale is suitably dark at first, building to a well-considered reappearance of first-movement material relating to Joan’s original vision – before the foregone triumphal conclusion, which concludes the work with suitable uplift if without a great deal of originality. Moszkowski’s Johanna d’Arc shows the composer capable of handling large forms and a large orchestra, skillfully enough if not with any particular innovation. By itself, it does not really indicate any good reason for a “Moszkowski revival,” but it does whet the appetite for additional orchestral material from the same source. And that is what the second CD in this series provides.

     Moszkowski wrote three non-programmatic orchestral suites (in 1885, 1890 and 1908); all are on a considerably more modest scale than Johanna d’Arc and are more varied in mood, melodious in content, and satisfying in total effect. No. 2, a six-movement work receiving its première recording here, is a real gem, moving unerringly from a serious opening Lento to a complex and surprisingly well-constructed Fuga. There is a suitable Scherzo to lighten the mood, then an extended Larghetto to deepen it again and to show Moszkowski, at least in this case, to be a master of melodiousness and lyricism – the movement is quite lovely by any measure. The fifth movement is an Intermezzo that is essentially a minuet and trio, and the finale is a brisk and upbeat Marcia that, as in some of the material from Johanna d’Arc, looks ahead to the film scores of many decades in the future. This suite is thoroughly satisfying on its own terms, and is surely worthy of at least occasional revival for its fine construction and its many original touches of orchestration: it includes not only a solo violin (played by Haufa) but also a harp (Zuzanna Elster) and, truly surprisingly, an organ Damian Skowroński). The third suite pales a bit beside the second, but is also well-made and pleasant in its effect. It is a four-movement work that opens with material well-written for winds and brass and then moves to a second movement with the clever title La note obstinée, referring to the harp playing C, in eighth notes, almost throughout, even when the rest of the ensemble is doing something with which that note does not really fit. It is the third movement, though, that is the most immediately appealing: it is a lovely Tempo di valse that is filled with a sense of nostalgia and faint tinges of regret, as if for the century concluded not that long before (Moszkowski, mindful of the business realities of music, knew it would work well as a piano solo and accordingly made a transcription himself). This suite’s finale is straightforward and upbeat, building to a restatement of material from the first movement to give the work as a whole some sense of unity – although there is really very little that intrinsically connects the four movements. Both the suites are on the superficial side emotionally, but both work quite well as examples of something beyond “light music” that does not, however, strive for the seriousness and depth of spirit that Moszkowski was after in Johanna d’Arc, where, on the whole, it eluded him. These two very well-played recordings, in which Hobson takes the full measure of the music and Sinfonia Varsovia plays with enthusiasm and élan, certainly do not make Moszkowski out to be a major composer whose works have unaccountably vanished from the repertoire – but they do show him to have created very listenable music with considerable skill, sometimes trying to do a bit more than his talent could accommodate (as in Johanna d’Arc, which, after all, he started writing when he was only 21), and at other times channeling his ambitions into more-modest productions that deserve something better than total obscurity and make it easy to look forward to the upcoming releases in this Moszkowski series.

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