March 07, 2024


Suppé: Fantasia Symphonica; Overtures—Poet and Peasant; Morning, Noon and Night in Vienna; The Sailor’s Homecoming—excerpts; Exhibition at the Carltheater—Präludium. Tonkünstler-Orchester conducted by Ola Rudner. Naxos. $13.99.

Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini; Respighi: Toccata for Piano and Orchestra; Alfredo Casella: Partita for Piano and Orchestra. Joshua Pierce, piano; RTV Slovenia Symphony Orchestra conducted by Anton Nanüt. MSR Classics. $14.95.

     It is always a pleasant surprise to discover that a composer is a lot more substantive than he or she is generally thought to be – as is certainly the case with Franz von Suppé, who is going through a bit of a revival nowadays. Deservedly well-known for his strikingly ebullient overtures, a mainstay of “light classics” for many decades, Suppé turns out to have been quite skilled in works beyond those programmatic stage and concert pieces – and even beyond the Viennese operettas for which he is also well-known (indeed, he wrote the very first such work, Das Pensionat, in 1860). A new and exceptionally well-played Naxos CD combines two of Suppé’s best-known pieces with some little-known music and two outright world premières – one of which is both serious and significant. This is Fantasia Symphonica (1859), which turns out, its title notwithstanding, to be a full-scale symphony, and a very well-wrought one at that. Suppé had an intriguing musical style whose blend of German, French and Italian elements is not always apparent in his overtures but is very much in evidence in this impressive four-movement work. The piece – which Ola Rudner rediscovered – manages to combine Viennese lilt with thematic seriousness and suitably symphonic structure that includes well-handled sonata form, fugato elements, and convincing use of a large orchestra in ways that are always apt and sometimes genuinely impressive. Among the work’s notable elements are the solemnity of the early part of the first movement, the second-movement dialogue between winds and lower strings, the use of trombones in the third movement, and the transformation in the finale of a march-like theme into a lyrical one. The Tonkünstler-Orchester treats the work with all the respect due to a significant mid-Romantic symphony, and Rudner pays careful attention to the frequently clever instrumental touches that show the extent to which Suppé’s theatrical skills extend as well to this large-scale exercise in pure music. Fantastic Symphonica is quite a find, and one that deserves to be heard much more often. The other world première heard here is an overture from the early 1870s, written for an Exhibition at the Carltheater, a once-famous operetta venue where Suppé himself was musical director for a time and where works by him and many other famous Viennese operetta composers (including Johann Strauss Jr., Oscar Straus, Franz Lehár, Carl Zeller and others) were first heard. The piece is melodically similar to familiar Suppé overtures, with a well-balanced differentiation of solemn, lyrical and lighthearted material, but it has some distinctions of its own, including a virtuoso flute solo and an ending that, uncharacteristically for Suppé, fades away to pianissimo. Two of the three remaining pieces on this disc are ones that are highly familiar even to people who have no idea who composed them. Both are overtures written by Suppé in his 20s: Poet and Peasant (1846) and Morning, Noon and Night in Vienna (1843-44). Both get the sort of rousingly lyrical (or lyrically rousing) performances that show Suppé at his best and most familiar, making it clear just why some of his music is so well-known. Also on the disc are two brief excerpts from one of Suppé’s later and more-serious works, The Sailor’s Homecoming (1885). These are the Präludium and Dance of the Cabin Boys – the former notable for its depiction of a storm at sea, the latter for its ebullience. As fine as are all the pieces on this CD, the release is mainly a pleasure for helping audiences discover that Suppé’s music can be enjoyed not only for a handful of lighter works but also for altogether more-serious ones such as his Fantasia Symphonica.

     Another very-well-played CD that balances the lighter side with a veneer of seriousness, and the well-known with the less-known, is an MSR Classics release of piano-and-orchestra display pieces performed by Joshua Pierce with the RTV Slovenia Symphony Orchestra conducted by Anton Nanüt. This is a remastering and reissue of a recording that originally appeared in 2006, with performances that date back all the way to 1991 – yet have lost none of their verve and vitality. Pierce and Nanüt do an absolutely bang-up job with the best-known work here, Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Taken at a very fast pace that it seems unlikely pianist and orchestra will be able to sustain – but that they do, after all, manage to present without faltering – the recording crackles with intensity, the variations flowing along seamlessly with, toward the end, a sense of gathering excitement that eventually leads to a really rousing conclusion. Pierce and Nanüt bring the same freshness and vivacity to the much less familiar Toccata for Piano and Orchestra by Respighi. This work is an interesting amalgam of styles and time periods, using motifs and embellishments associated with toccatas of the 17th and 18th centuries, concluding with a sort-of gigue that also has cantabile elements, and pervaded by the influence of Vivaldi and Frescobaldi – all packed within identifiably Romantic sensibilities. The curious mixture, which also includes a dark central section and some obbligato cello material, helps explain why this work is not heard more frequently. But this Toccata certainly offers plenty of opportunities for piano display and sensitive orchestral accompaniment, and that mixture is exactly what it receives in this recording. Even less-known that the Respighi is Partita for Piano and Orchestra by Alfredo Casella (1883-1947). Dating to 1925, the same decade as the Respighi work (1928) but earlier than Rachmaninoff’s popular piece (1934), Casella’s Partita is a three-movement concerto-in-all-but-name whose movement titles hark back to earlier times but whose structure does not incorporate older approaches in the way that Respighi does. Casella’s longest movement, Passacaglia, is the middle one, and it proffers some depth of feeling and warmth of sound. It is, however, overshadowed by the bright and forthright (and rather repetitive) opening Sinfonia and the thoroughly overdone but quite delightful concluding Burlesca, which sounds as if it should accompany a cartoon satirizing the pomposity and seriousness of military maneuvers and the bands that celebrate them. Pierce and Nanüt really revel in this thoroughly surface-level Partita; indeed, the disc as a whole is something of a testimony to the enjoyable nature of material that is scarcely great music but is definitely great fun.

No comments:

Post a Comment