September 16, 2021


Music for Piano by Schumann, Liszt, Scriabin, Busoni, and Berg. Burkard Schliessmann, piano. Divine Art. $29.99 (3 CDs).

Philipp Fahrbach Sr. and Philipp Fahrbach Jr.: Dance Music. Nürnberger Symphoniker conducted by Christian Simonis. CPO. $16.99.

Music for Clarinet and Orchestra by Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Vittorio Monti, and Robin White. Ian Scott, clarinet; Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Robin White. Divine Art. $18.99.

     Fine performances of fine music stand the test of time on two levels: that of the music itself and that of the interpretations. Burkard Schliessmann proves a first-rate interpreter of a variety of Romantic piano music on a new three-CD release on the Divine Art label – and in so doing, affirms or reaffirms the quality of the works he plays. The performances are not new: all date to 1990, 1999 or 2000 and were released on CD before, except for those of Busoni’s Chaconne and Berg’s Piano Sonata, Op. 1, which are of the same vintage (1994) but have not previously been issued. The entire set of recordings has been remastered, but that is not an especially significant matter in recordings that were originally digital, although certainly everything here sounds fine – and has been remastered in such a way that any sound changes associated with the use of different Steinways are not apparent. What does matter is the quality of Schliessmann’s playing and the service of the music at which he puts it. On that basis, this is a very fine release/re-release indeed. It is dominated by Schumann, for whose works Schliessmann clearly has particular affinity. The Symphonic Études, Op. 13 have elegance and sweep in addition to attention to the fine detail inherent in the carefully crafted variations. And the Fantasie in C, Op. 17 scales emotional heights with unerring skill, giving full expression to the “Florestan” and “Eusebius” elements of Schumann’s personality. Similar expressiveness, combined with truly impressive power to evoke the piano’s near-orchestral capabilities, is present in Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor, which inhabits an emotional landscape different from Schumann’s but which, to Schliessmann, is cut from similar cloth in terms of the relationship between technique and the evocation of feelings. Schliessmann very effectively makes a similar argument regarding Scriabin, whose place on the cusp of Romanticism’s end is one thing that makes his music difficult to interpret successfully. Schliessmann deals with this by simply accepting Scriabin’s substantial debt to the Romantic era, whether or not he fits easily into it. Piano Sonata in F-sharp minor, Op. 23 has a distinctive mixing of Baroque underpinnings with virtuosic technique – a thoroughly Romantic combination. Two Études – Op. 2, No. 1 and Op. 8, No. 12 – are charming, almost pastoral. And Schliessmann gives plenty of evocative individuality to a considerable selection of Préludes, offering Op. 11, Nos. 1, 3, 9, 11, 13 and 14; Op. 16, Nos. 3 and 4; Op. 27, Nos. 1 and 2; Op. 37, Nos. 2 and 3; and Op. 51, Nos. 2 and 4. In truth, this rather scattershot mixture of material – with the Op. 11 works not even offered in the order in which they appear in the total set – is something of a disappointment, not because of the playing or interpretation but because there is a feeling of disorganization bordering on disorientation in the choice to present these specific pieces in this specific and rather arbitrary order. This becomes clear in the other Scriabin works here, the Deux Danses, Op. 73, and the entire Cinq Préludes, Op. 74. In both those instances, especially the latter, it is easy to hear each small piece’s independence and clear communication, while also picking up on the context in which Scriabin places it. This makes Schliessmann’s finely honed interpretations all the more impressive. His finely balanced and carefully considered handling of the remaining two works heard here are first-rate as well. These two pieces – one of which appears first on the first disc and the other of which is heard last on the third – are the least overtly Romantic pieces Schliessmann plays, yet both show their ties to that era quite clearly in these performances. Busoni’s Chaconne in D minor, after Bach’s Partita No. 2, BWV 1004, uses Bach as a jumping-off point for a work whose sound differs as much as possible from that of Baroque times – but, in that reinterpretation of an earlier era, reflects the way in which many Romantic composers rethought Bach and altered his works for their own purposes (as in, for example, Brahms’ Symphony No. 4). And Berg’s Piano Sonata, Op. 1, which retains the tonal clothing of the Romantic era, at the same time contains hints that music itself is changing in as-yet-undefined ways to something derived from Romanticism but quite different from it. The skill with which Schliessmann makes this point, without ever being untrue to the music as Berg created it, is just one pleasure among many in this three-hour-plus offering of top-notch interpretations of multifaceted works.

     Music that is every bit as Romantic as anything Schliessmann plays, but much more lighthearted – to the point of almost being frivolous – is delightfully performed by the Nürnberger Symphoniker conducted by Christian Simonis on a new CPO release. This is thoroughly Viennese music from a music-making family of which very few listeners will have heard. There is certainly nothing new about music as a “family business” – think of “old Bach” (Johann Sebastian) and sons Wilhelm Friedemann, Johann Christian, Carl Philipp Emmanuel, and Johann Christoph Friedrich. In 19th-century Vienna, of course, the dominant “family business” belonged to the Strausses (Johann Sr., Johann Jr., Josef and Eduard). But the Strausses had colleagues and rivals, such as the Komzáks (Karel I, II and III – father, son and grandson); and then there were the Fahrbachs. Two members of the family, Philipp Sr. (1815-1885) and Philipp Jr. (1843-1894) turn out, on the basis of this CD, to have just as much ability as their peers to create bright, tuneful, eminently danceable music, including some with distinctive elements that are much the same as those used by the Strausses in their better-known pieces. Of the 14 works here, 11 are by Philipp Jr., although Philipp Sr. was actually more prolific, writing about 700 works to his son’s 500. Either of those numbers is enormously impressive, in any case – and the uniformly high quality of the selections led by Simonis indicates that there must be many long-unheard gems among the Fahrbach creations, which are only now being rediscovered. Fahrbach Sr. and Jr. both held military-band positions, and both produced a considerable number of marches. The two on this disc – both by Phillip Jr. and both produced in connection with the 1893 Columbian Exposition – are suitably celebratory and well-structured; they are called Columbus and Wiener Weltausstellungs. More interesting and also by Philipp Jr. are the galop Storchschnäbel, in which the rustling and pecking of storks is well-imitated by the instruments, and the fast polka Zirkus, in which wide leaps indicate the excitement as a trained horse jumps over hurdles. Philipp Sr. here contributes a well-done fast polka called Talmi, the word referring to a form of imitation gold and metaphorically standing for something phony – the musicians repeatedly shout pfutsch (“botch”) during the piece. The waltzes on the disc are less engaging than the shorter works, although there are interesting elements to Philipp Sr.’s offering “im Ländler Style,” whose title is given in Austrian dialect: s’Schwarzblàtl aus’n Weanerwald. The Romantic era was a time of great upheavals on many levels, music certainly being one. The gulf between the hyper-serious music of Wagner, Liszt, Brahms and others and the far lighter productions of the Viennese light-music masters seems unbridgeable. But it is worth remembering that the composers themselves did not deem the gap as wide as critics and scholars considered it to be – Brahms famously wrote down a few notes of the Blue Danube Waltz for Strauss’s stepdaughter and then wrote, “unfortunately not by Johannes Brahms.” The Fahrbachs’ pleasant, unpretentious music is further evidence, if any were needed, that there is enjoyment aplenty to be had both in grand Romantic works and in smaller, semi-precious gems.

     The Fahrbachs, Strausses, Komzáks and others wrote mostly frothy music by design, but music that comes across as light was not always intended that way by the composers. That is the case with the works on a new Divine Art CD featuring the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Robin White. This is essentially an entire disc of encores, all of them Russian in origin or at least Russian-sounding (or Slavic-sounding). White is the arranger and conductor of the entire presentation, and while he certainly approaches the material with enthusiasm – and has a good understanding of the capabilities of the clarinet, which features prominently throughout – the CD as a whole gets a (+++) rating because it simply spends too much time (all of its 53 minutes) trivializing non-trivial music. Individually, the pieces here are certainly enjoyable, and Ian Scott’s clarinet playing is worth hearing throughout. But White’s own five-movement Russian Suite really encapsulates the disc’s approach: he latches onto highly familiar, upbeat tunes for the first and last movements, and arranges emotionally fraught folk material for the three middle ones. It is all fine but quite inconsequential. Among the other works here are the Introduction and Gopak from Mussorgsky’s Sorochinsky Fair; an orchestral arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Clarinet Concerto (originally written for military-band accompaniment and really a brief, single-movement Konzertstück); and four little bits of Tchaikovsky that are so familiar as to be inevitable in a program like this one: Andante Cantabile from the first string quartet; Humoresque, Op. 10, No. 2; the hyper-familiar None but the Lonely Heart from Six Romances, Op. 6; and the pretty little Valse from Album for the Young, Op. 39. White then ends the CD with his arrangement of a Slavic (not Russian) work by an Italian (not Russian) composer: Vittorio Monti’s Czardas, just about the only piece for which Monti is known. This happens to be a rousing work that thoroughly deserves its popularity as an encore, and it is played here – as all the music is – brightly and with a kind of pop-music flourish. Certainly the CD is fun, at least in small doses, and certainly the clarinet playing is worth hearing – the Rimsky-Korsakov is the highlight of the disc. Most of this music, though, was meant to be taken seriously, and White’s determination not to do so, while understandable in the context of creating a series of encores, is ultimately not very satisfying – certainly not to anyone who knows these works in their original forms and contexts.

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