May 26, 2022


Schubert: Overtures—In the Italian Style, D. 590 and D. 591; Fierrabras; Rosamunde; “Der häusliche Krieg”; “Der Teufel als Hydraulicus”; in D, D. 556; in C Minor, D. 8. Berliner Symphoniker conducted by Hansjörg Schellenberger. Solo Musica. $20.

Moritz Moszkowski: Orchestral Music, Volume Three—Suite No.1 for Orchestra; Overture in D; Prélude et Fugue pour Orchestre à Cordes. Sinfonia Varsovia conducted by Ian Hobson. Toccata Classics. $18.99.

     There are numerous classical compositions that exist in a sort of grey area between the highly serious and the overtly amusing. They are certainly not funny along the lines of Mozart’s Musical Joke, Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals, or Ibert’s Divertissement, but neither are they meant to be absorbed with great solemnity and contemplated for their high purpose and important aims. Schubert’s overtures and Moszkowski’s orchestral suites fall somewhere into this middle musical ground, being well-made, nicely proportioned, enjoyable to hear, but scarcely profound. The Berliner Symphoniker under its chief conductor, Hansjörg Schellenberger, certainly gets the lighter side right in the eight Schubert overtures on a new CD from Solo Musica. The two works “In the Italian Style,” which is to say in deliberate imitation and emulation of Rossini, come across especially well here: both the overture in D, D. 590, and the one in C, D. 591, are perky and pleasant, filled with memorable tunes and ultimately signifying very little except that Schubert clearly could write music of this sort (presumably up to and including entire operas) if he wanted to – which, however, he did not wish to do. He did have his own approach to overture-writing, though, whether in openings to stage works such as Fierrabras and Rosamunde (the most-often-heard of the pieces on this disc) or in pure concert-overture mode – as in the overtures D. 8 (the only minor-key work on this CD) and D. 556. Actually, D. 8, as befits a work in C minor, professes greater seriousness than the rest of the pieces heard here; but even in this overture, there is no searching for profundity and no sense of tragedy – the music is serious enough but never hints of despair or high drama. At the opposite end of Schubert’s expressiveness are his overtures to what were in effect musical comedies rather than operas: Der häusliche Krieg (“The Domestic War”) and the intriguingly (and absurdly) titled Der Teufel als Hydraulicus (“The Devil as Hydraulics Engineer”). What is interesting in all these works – and is brought out very well in these performances – is the way in which Schubert’s incessantly tuneful, flowing melodies capture a kind of lighthearted spirit even when (indeed, especially when) contrasted with slightly darker material, such as the slow, minor-key introductions to the Fierrabras and Rosamunde overtures. Certainly not everything Schubert created in his short life was ebullient, but there is so much sunshine pervading the overtures heard on this disc that it is inescapable to think of Schubert, when he was not striving deliberately for intensity, as simply being unable to hold in all the lightness that his music could contain.

     Moritz Moszkowski was also quite capable of writing intense, even dark music, and in fact the shorter works on a new Toccata Classics CD are very much in serious mode. Those works actually bracket Moszkowski’s orchestral creations: the Overture in D was his first orchestral work, dating to 1871 (when Moszkowski was 17), while the Prélude et Fugue pour Orchestre à Cordes of 1910 turned out to be his final piece for orchestra, although he lived a further 15 years. The early overture is derivative, to be sure – Schumann comes repeatedly to mind – but already shows Moszkowski’s skill in orchestration and his ability to encapsulate a dramatic scene, or rather drama in general, since no specific scenario is dealt with here. The two string-orchestra movements show considerably greater maturity of expression, being serious, dignified and mournful, if not quite tragic – Moszkowski wrote the music after the death of his mother, and it serves as an altogether fitting tribute to her. The majority of the material on this disc, though, falls squarely into the “lighter side” musical realm, with Ian Hobson and Sinfonia Varsovia offering what is almost the world première of Moszkowski’s first orchestral suite. That is “almost” because the suite’s final movement, an ebullient and clever perpetuum mobile, has been recorded before, although nothing else in the suite has been. It is not hard to see why this suite has dwelled in obscurity: it runs more than 40 minutes, is even less focused and organized than suites (as opposed to, say, symphonies) usually are, and is a bit of a musical hodgepodge. For example, its central and longest movement is a theme with eight variations, and the fifth variation is itself a miniature excursion into the sort of Hungarian dance popularized by Liszt, with a slow and highly Romantic opening followed by a hectic latter portion. The suite as a totality is somewhat dizzying, changing moods, keys, rhythms and approaches capriciously. Yet it is clear that Moszkowski knew exactly what he was doing here, whether labeling the second movement Allegretto giojoso or creating that perpetual-motion finale: he was celebrating music-making for its own sake, without seeking (much less finding) anything particularly profound or dramatic to convey. The suite is not exactly “salon music,” but is not too far from that designation – which actually fits individual portions of the work rather well. Hobson knows that a work like this needs to be presented with verve and style but without attempting to make it into something more substantive than the composer ever intended it to be. And he and Sinfonia Varsovia do just that: the suite flows pleasantly and with ease throughout, the individual movements disconnected from each other and from the whole but no less enjoyable and entertaining as a result of their distinct lack of profundity. There is certainly a case to be made for lighter music of this sort, and Hobson and this orchestra make it very well indeed.

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