January 12, 2023


Heinrich Marschner: Overtures and Stage Music, Volume 1. Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice conducted by Dario Salvi. Naxos. $13.99.

Music for Solo Bassoon with Piano, Bass and Drums. Eric Van der Veer Varner, bassoon; Lisa Leonard, piano; Scott Davis, bass; Juanmanuel Lopez, drums. MSR Classics. $14.95.

     Wagner’s three earliest operas, which are very rarely performed, showed him absorbing the influence of three major composers of his time and beginning to move toward his own style, which differed significantly from theirs. The second opera, Das Liebesverbot, was a Wagnerian channeling of Rossini; the third, Rienzi, has clear parallels with the grand and grandiose works of Meyerbeer. And the very first, Die Feen, was in effect a tribute to – or more accurately an internalization of – the works of Heinrich August Marschner (1795-1861). Marschner’s use of melodrama, his creation of antiheroic central characters, his expansion of the lower range of the orchestra, and his development of supernatural protagonists with mortal failings, all influenced Wagner to a considerable degree; and two Marschner operas – Der Vampyr and Hans Heiling – stand the test of time rather well. Dario Salvi’s foray into Marschner’s theatrical music is therefore very welcome – but the first volume of this planned multi-CD series on Naxos is, unfortunately, not a high point. On the plus side, it is packed with world première recordings: the overture to Der Kyffhäuser Berg; excerpts from Schön Ella and Ali Baba, oder Die vierzig Räuber; and the overture to Die Wiener in Berlin. In fact, only one short piece on the disc, the overture to Der Holzdieb, has previously been recorded. Unfortunately, the music here is rather thin gruel and does not really foreshadow the operatic innovations and dramatic intensity that Marschner was later to produce. These pieces for the stage were written from 1816 to 1825, and while they are workmanlike enough and show some skill in orchestration, they are not particularly creative musically or particularly trenchant dramatically. They are, by and large, formulaic contributions to stagings of plays: four of the seven excerpts from Schön Ella, for example, are entr’actes. Short and modestly atmospheric, most of the pieces on the disc would serve their stage purposes well, including the ballets incorporated into both Schön Ella and Ali Baba. The use of brass is the most distinctive element in these works, and is especially notable in the March from Schön Ella, which dispenses with strings altogether – but is undermined by its considerable repetitiveness, which may have served the play well but does not make the material very listenable. Everything on the disc gets knowing, careful and well-paced performances from the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice under Dario Salvi, but hopefully later volumes in this series will contain music of greater substance that will leave a stronger impression of the quality of Marschner’s work.

     The theatrical elements are matters of expression rather than direct ties to any stage material on an MSR Classics disc featuring the final recordings by bassoonist Eric Van der Veer Varner (1974-2019), who died of a heart attack in Thailand while on a performing-and-teaching tour. The five composers whose works are offered here – four contemporary and one from an earlier era – approach the bassoon in a wide variety of ways that, collectively, show just how expressive, lyrical and dramatic the instrument can be under the right circumstances and in the right hands. Songs for Wicked Children, by Amber Ferenz (born 1973), is for bassoon and piano. It is a suite of four short movements with very intriguing titles: “Toys Left in the Rain,” “Strangers Have the Best Candy,” “Lost: Green Parrot,” and “Shark-Infested Pudding.” The first movement is lyrical; the second has gentle swing; the third, also rather gentle, explores the bassoon’s lower register; and the finale is bouncy, with just a hint of wickedness. Jazz Suite by Ken Cooper (1941-2003) is for the interesting combination of bassoon with piano, string bass and drums. True to its title, it contains jazzy elements in all five of its movements. It is not particularly innovative – the second movement, “Moderate Jazz Waltz,” and the fourth, “Animated,” sound especially derivative – but it is well-designed to showcase the bassoon’s multifaceted potential in the jazz idiom. Compostela by Jenni Brandon (born 1977) is an ambitious work: a 16-minute piece for unaccompanied bassoon that is somewhat overextended but that does an admirable job of taking the instrument through its entire range of both notes and expressive potential. There are two works on the CD by Max Lenz (born 1887-death year unknown). Both are for bassoon and piano, and both evince considerable, rather dry humor. Der Angeber (“The Boaster”) neatly uses the comedic capabilities for which the bassoon remains well-known, while The Tale of an Old Bassoonist pretends to a level of grandiosity in its piano introduction and then systematically dismantles any pretentiousness once the bassoon enters and thereafter. The underlying theatricality of both works – largely in the form of farce – comes through effectively and delightfully. The disc concludes with Mathematics, another bassoon-and-piano work, this one by Alyssa Morris (born 1984). Its three movements are “Geometry,” “Trigonometry,” and “Integral Calculus,” and if the music does not seem directly reflective of any of those titles, it is well-structured throughout and rather challenging to perform, requiring delicate breath control. The contrast between the expansive second movement and the leap-filled and rhythmically awkward third is especially pronounced. Eric Van der Veer Varner plays every work here as if it is a masterpiece, even though none rises to that level and several are closer to being trifles. Whether on his own or accompanied, he displays a sure command of each composer’s style and total comfort with capabilities that many people are unlikely even to realize that the bassoon possesses. The disc will be a special delight for bassoonists, but even casual listeners will find plenty here to surprise, delight and engage them.

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