December 22, 2022


Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 (1876 version). ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Markus Poschner. Capriccio. $16.99.

Hummel: Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 2 and 6 arranged for Flute, Violin, Cello and Piano. Uwe Grodd, flute; Pettman Ensemble (Curt Thompson, violin; Edith Salzmann, cello; Michael Endres, piano). Naxos. $13.99.

Edward German: The Seasons (symphonic suite); Richard III—Overture; Theme and Six Diversions. RTÉ Concert Orchestra conducted by Andrew Penny. Naxos. $13.99.

     Pretty much anyone who listens to Bruckner regularly knows there are two versions of his Symphony No. 4, “Romantic”: the original from 1874 and the revised one, containing the famous “Hunting” Scherzo and performed much more frequently, from 1878-80. But the “1876” listing on a new Capriccio CD featuring the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Markus Poschner is not a misprint. There was in fact an intermediate variant of this symphony, altering a number of details in the 1874 version but not yet changing the Scherzo or smoothing the work’s contours as Bruckner would later do. Although admittedly many of the differences between 1874 and 1876 are subtle and not always clearly audible – despite the fine performance – the overall impression left by this virtually unknown variant is a fascinating one. It sounds very fine on its own, even with the earlier Scherzo, and provides an unusual window into Bruckner’s creative process and his symphonic thinking in the mid-1870s. If many of the details that Bruckner changed for the 1876 version are small and not readily audible, some are genuine surprises: the extended development in the first movement, for example, and a complex contrapuntal section in the second (featuring call-and-response from two horns) that Bruckner later simplified. Indeed, the contrapuntal elements are more prominent in the 1876 version than they would later become: Bruckner professed himself horrified at the amount of counterpoint here and decided to remove much of it in the 1878-80 revision. The approach of the bicentennial of Bruckner’s birth in 2024 has led numerous orchestras, conductors and impresarios (of concerts and recordings alike) to explore the byways and little-known elements of the composer’s oeuvre, and those explorations are at their best when they provide genuine insight into the composer’s thoughts and compositional processes. The 1876 version of Symphony No. 4 will surely remain an oddity, but it has many worthy and very intriguing touches heard neither in 1874 nor in 1878-80, and as a result will be a must-have for listeners looking for something out of the ordinary to complement the more-familiar sounds of the other versions of the “Romantic.”

     Speaking of familiar symphonies, they just don’t get any more familiar than those of Beethoven. But this was not always the case. In Beethoven’s own time and for a while thereafter, anyone who did not live in a major European music center – Paris, London, Vienna, Leipzig – would be able to hear these symphonies very rarely, if at all. Picking up on audience frustration at missing out on famous orchestral works, whose reputation preceded them through reports in newspapers and specialist publications, arrangers found ways to make numerous large-scale pieces more readily accessible by reducing them to chamber size. Johann Nepomuk Hummel did just this for Beethoven’s first seven symphonies and the Septet, Op. 20, arranging them for flute, violin, cello, and piano – an instrumental combination that Hummel especially favored, using it more than 50 times for a wide variety of pieces. Naxos has now released a second CD of Hummel arrangements, like the first one featuring Uwe Grodd on flute; the trio here is different from that on the previous disc but no less accomplished. This time the symphonies offered are Nos. 2 and 6; the previous recording contained Nos. 1 and 3. Unsurprisingly, Hummel’s Classical-era training and his preoccupation with balance come through somewhat better in No. 2 than in the “Pastoral” – in fact, No. 2, which tends to be comparatively neglected today, was highly thought of in Beethoven’s time, with the composer himself arranging it for piano trio. No. 2 is a transitional work, carrying forward elements of No. 1 (whose chamber arrangement by Hummel is particularly successful) but expanding and driving them in new directions. No. 6 in Hummel’s version feels almost like a suite, its individual movements standing out as separate entities as much as they do when regarded as part of a larger whole. The delicacy of the chamber version gives No. 6 a very different effect from that of the orchestral original, with Szene am Bach and the concluding Hirtengesang having lovely lilt and thoroughly pleasant rhythms, while the dramatic Sturm unsurprisingly is somewhat lacking as heard here. Yet Hummel is well aware of what he is working with in both these symphonies, and how best to dispose the instruments. He generally gives the piano prominence – he was a virtuoso pianist himself, and often played these arrangements – and tends, if anything, to pull non-piano parts into the keyboard: many flute melodies are heard not on the flute but in the upper reaches of the piano. Hummel knew Beethoven and his music well – the two composers had a somewhat fractious relationship that became close at the end of Beethoven’s life – and Hummel’s chamber arrangements of these symphonies clearly show that he understood their character and structure and was able to preserve much of the “Beethoven sound” even without access to full orchestral coloration. It is scarcely a surprise that these arrangements helped bring Beethoven’s music more quickly to a wider audience than would have been the case without them.

     The audience for the works of Edward German rose and fell through the composer’s lifetime (1862-1936), with German outliving the sort of interest in lighter music that so well served Arthur Sullivan (who once named German his successor). German had self-awareness about changing tastes, ceasing to compose in the last decade-plus of his life and saying that people would simply no longer be interested – although they were engaged by the way he conducted his own works, which he continued to do for years after he stopped composing new ones. A Naxos re-release of performances from 1994 by Andrew Penny and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra provides a welcome chance to hear bits of German’s serious, non-stage music and contrast it with his theatrical work. The CD also shows some of German’s stylistic maturation over time. The one for-the-stage piece here, the overture to Richard III, is the earliest work on the disc, dating to 1889, is an effective curtain-raiser or concert overture (it was used both ways), and helped establish German as an important theatrical presence in British music. Thirty years later, toward the end of his compositional career, German created Theme and Six Diversions, an attractive and well-made reinterpretation of the theme-and-variations form – German’s title is intended to indicate that the material that comes after the theme is not strictly a set of variations but, instead, a kind of revisiting of the original theme in varying guises. This interesting approach leads to some effective writing, including a Gipsy Dance and a concert waltz that both hover around the theme rather than draw explicitly from it. The orchestration is somewhat leaner and not as lush as in earlier works by German, showing elements of the composer’s later thinking both structurally and in terms of the sound of his music. Between these two pieces chronologically lies The Seasons of 1899, a substantial four-movement suite filled with attractive tone painting. From the rustic dance of Summer (actually called Harvest Dance, a title that would seem better suited to autumn) to the solemnity and gloom that open Winter before the music turns into a playful tarantella that sweeps away the darkness, this is music that engages the listener and proffers theatrical qualities despite not being tied to any specific scenes or staging. So thoroughly have German’s skills been neglected, though, that almost everything on this CD is a world première recording: only Summer and Theme and Six Diversions have been recorded before, and neither of those at all recently. German had the misfortune to be something of a transitional figure in the sort of music in which he specialized – Hummel, whose music is also under-appreciated, was in a similar position in his time – so recordings such as this one are particularly welcome for bringing German’s well-made music to, potentially, an entirely new set of listeners.

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