Schrekin’ Along With Schreker

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SCHREKER: Ekkehard, Symphonic Overture. Vom ewigen Leben (On Eternal Life).* Fantastic Overture. 4 Little Pieces for Large Orchestra. Prelude to a Grand Opera, “Memnon” / *Valda Wilson, sop; Deutsche Staatsphilarmonie Rheinland-Pfalz; Christopher Ward, cond / Capriccio C5348

With the exception of Die Ferne Klang, which I simply don’t like because the music is episodic and there is far too much dialogue, I’ve really come to admire many of the works of the ill-fated German-Jewish composer Franz Schreker. This new album presents us with two early works (the Ekkehard Symphonic Overture and Fantastic Overture) plus three late ones, including the Prelude to a Grand Opera which may be the last piece he ever wrote (1933).

Ekkehard, dating from 1902-03 when Schreker was about 35 years old, clearly has echoes of Wagner and the influence of Strauss in it…perhaps even a bit of Mahler, using grand tonal themes in an interesting manner. Conductor Christopher Ward gets the German State Philharmonic of the Rhineland to play with exceptional warmth and a broad legato, which suits the music perfectly, yet also with an emotional engagement that suits the more excitable sections of the piece.

By contrast, the melodic and harmonic language of the two songs that make up On Eternal Life are quite modern, sort of a cross between Richard Strauss and Stravinsky. Happily, soprano Valda Wilson has a fairly steady and attractive voice as well as excellent diction, and she sings them extremely well. The texts by Hans Reisiger are taken from poems by Walt Whitman. The orchestration is also quite different, mostly light and transparent, even using an organ in the second song for color.

The Fantastic Overture of 1904 is in the same Straussian-Mahlerian vein as the opening work. The tonalities shift within its tonal framework by means of changing chord positions, and after the slow, moody introductory section, it becomes almost menacing in its violent harmonic clashes. Yet there is also a well-developed middle section in which the music shifts to the major and becomes alternately dark and playful, with sweeping string figures playing against more ominous winds and brass.

The Four Little Pieces for Large Orchestra, dating from 1930, are subtitled “four sketches for a film,” but since I was not provided a booklet to download with this album I have no idea what film it was intended to go with. Here, too, we hear the more mature Schreker, more tonally ambiguous although a bit less adventurous than in On Eternal Life. The second piece is particularly lively and, for Schreker, almost cheerful in demeanor while the third, with its broad, expansive melodic contour, almost looks back to the earlier pieces.

The finale, a massive 22-minute-long Prelude to his grand opera “Memnon,” is clearly one of Schreker’s most imaginative works, using a sort of quasi-Middle Eastern theme and orchestration in its quiet opening. Eventually the tempo increases, as per usual, this time with a very odd theme that sounds neither Straussian nor Stravinskian, but strictly Schrekian. The piece almost has the militant sound of Mahler’s Sixth as the snare drum enters and a sort of march beat ensues, but of course in this case Schreker was not being prescient; the Nazis had been elected, were duly in charge, and very quietly began persecuting Jews, removing them from posts they had held for years and replacing them with Aryans. Schreker was one such victim, and it is suggested that the stroke that killed him in early 1934 was a result of his stress over this. It does, however, tend to drag towards the end and goes on rather too long.

Nonetheless, this is an interesting and excellent CD of music by Schreker, well worth acquiring.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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