Herzogenberg’s “Columbus” a Great Find!

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HERZOGENBERG: Columbus / Andrè Schuen, bar (Columbus); Michael Schade, ten (Fernando); Markus Butter, bar (Bootsmann); Chor & Extrachor der Opera Graz; Grazer Philharmonic; Dirk Kaftan, cond / CPO 555 178-2

Written in 1870, when Heinrich von Herzogenberg was only 27 years old, the dramatic cantata Columbus is radically different from his later, Brahms-influenced compositions. It is clearly Wagnerian in his harmonic language and scope.

Yet despite Herzogenberg’s obvious admiration for Wagner and occasional use of some of the same “transition chords” in certain passages, the melodic contour and rhythm of the music is quite different. Columbus pushes forward, from the very first note, with a greater impetus than almost any of Wagner’s early operas with the exception of Der Fliegende Holländer. Moreover, I also feel in this music some influence from Berlioz: the orchestral colors are brighter and some of the melodic construction puts one in mind of Les Troyens, which was published in the early 1860s and thus was music that Herzogenberg might have known, particularly since his family origins were actually French, not German.

However you slice it, however, the music is clearly interesting, exciting, and apropos to its grand subject. Well, perhaps we need to take its “grand subject” with a grain of salt, for despite Columbus’ obvious bravery in setting out on a long sea journey that almost ended badly, he never actually set foot in North America though, as Sarah Palin might have said, he could “see it from his rented house.” But the 19th century was a time when Latin explorers of the “New World” were lionized in operas—Spontini wrote Fernando Cortez while Meyerbeer wrote L’Africana (a.k.a. Vasco da Gama), so why not an oratorio on Columbus?

Like his musical idol of that time, Wagner, Herzogenberg wrote his own libretto for Columbus and set it to music in relatively swift fashion. This, too, was in contrast to his later self, when he spent up to a year crafting pieces in imitation of Brahms but never up to the high level of his eminent friend. Since Herzogenberg’s wife Elisabeth or Lisl, also a great friend of the British composer Ethel Smyth, was a major supporter and patron of Brahms, the famous composer hedged his words to Herzogenberg himself about the quality of these works while being more open and honest with his close friends.

The orchestra, chorus and conducting in this new recording is absolutely splendid; unfortunately Markus Butter, who sings Bootsmann, has one of those infirm-wobbly voices that drive me up a wall. What rock do they find these people under?!? And for a project of this importance, do you mean to tell me that a loser like Markus Butter was the best you could find? Well, let’s face it: no matter how terrific Columbus was, how many people do you think are going to buy this set? I’d guess a couple of thousand at most. So hey, maybe a few hundred of them like wobbly voices and think Markus Butter is the berries. Hey, at least he interprets the words, in a somewhat over-the-top manner.

Happily, Andrè Schuen, our Columbus, has a somewhat firmer voice and is an equally interesting interpreter. His first scene, “Wie wildes Wogenrollen,” has an aria-like form and is quite interesting both structurally and harmonically. And it is just at this time in the oratorio that the music really takes off, moving away from the nice but somewhat staid style of the opening two numbers and becoming much more dramatic. Herzogenberg also does something here that Berlioz did quite a bit but not Wagner of this time, which is to suddenly jump keys rather than modulate smoothly, and this, too, adds interest to the work.

Tenor Michael Schade’s voice seems to have grown in size over the years, retained its lovely tone, but now has a slight spread. It’s not as bad as Butter’s wobble, but it worries me a little. Nonetheless, the music remains interesting and grows out of its melodic cells with imagination and energy. This is clearly great music, which makes it all the sadder that Herzogenberg declined as a composer during his Brahms-worship days. With the choral passage “Rohe Gewalt,” the music becomes more conventional for a few bars, but quickly picks up its dramatic pace. Much of the oratorio, at this point, is underscored by accented whacks of the timpani. Part Two begins with a lovely cello solo that evolves into a cello-flute duet. This leads into an extended scene for Columbus, “Wie blinkt mit feuergleichen Schäumen,” which builds up from lyricism to drama and back again, modeled to some extent on the Flying Dutchman’s entrance aria, “Die frist ist Um,” despite its very original melodic line. This second part has much less choral music and many more solo passages, including a duet for Columbus and Fernando, “Genug, Fernando, sei gefasst!” Sadly, the Bootsmann makes another appearance in this section as well. But this later portion of the cantata is, again, very interesting music, turning more lyrical and less dramatic as it moves towards the finish. Just before the finale is an interesting trio for the three solo singers with chorus written in counterpoint—a nice touch. Except for the quicker tempo (and lots of timpani), the final chorus seemed to be a model for the ending of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony, with its interesting rising chromatics.

All in all, I liked this piece very much. I’d give it six fish easily were it not for Butter’s wobble and the slight unsteadiness of the other two soloists, but it’s still a piece of music I wouldn’t want to live without.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Feltsman Presents Forgotten Russians

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FORGOTTEN RUSSIANS / STANCHINSKY: Prelude in the Lydian Mode. Sketches, Op. 1: Nos. 3, 7, 8 & 10. FEINBERG: Berceuse. OBUKHOV: Icons, Nos. 1 & 2. LOURIÉ: Forms en l’Air. Phoenix Park Nocturne. ROSLAVETS: Préludes. MOSOLOV: 2 Nocturnes. 2 Dances. PROTOPOPOV: Piano Sonata No. 2 / Vladimir Feltsman, pno / Nimbus Alliance NI6377

The impetus of this release is to focus on Russian composers of the early 20th century who either remained in Russia, later the USSR, or who emigrated to France but were scarcely known outside that circle. Of this group of seven such composers, the only two whose work I was familiar with were Nikolai Roslavets, who stayed in the USSR, and Arthur Lourié, who moved to France and “Francophiled” his name, since both have been revived on records in recent years (Lourié most especially by the great Hungarian pianist Giorgio Koukl).

First up is Alexei Stanchinsky with Prelude in the Lydian Mode and four of his Op. 1 Sketches. The first of these is late Romantic music with a harmonic twist, not terribly interesting to my ears, but the Sketches are clearly more modern in outlook, using even more unusual modal harmonies. Samuil Feinberg’s Berceuse is so much in the same vein that at first I thought it was another of Stanchinsky’s Sketches; evidently, these composers influenced one another.

I particularly liked Nikolai Obukhov’s two Icons: this is modern music in the vein of late-period Scriabin, impressionistic with chromatic and modal harmonic movement. And again, there seemed to me to be some cross-influence between Obukhov and Lourié, whose Forms en l’Air was also impressionstic yet modern in feeling. In all of this music, however, Feltsman plays with great understanding of these works’ structures and the right feeling.

Nikolai Roslavets’ Préludes are also Scriabin-influenced. It’s amazing, in a way, how strong this composer’s influence was among Russians after his death—in a way, far more than Stravinsky, whose odd sense of rhythm was less flowing and more “mechanical,” not to mention far more complex, with constant time signature shifts, sometimes from bar to bar. But then again, Scriabin was very close in some respects to the French impressionists, and this was the order of the day in France despite the fact that Stravinsky was also living and working there in the 1920s. Thus, Alexander Mosolov’s two nocturnes fall into the same general pattern.

What impresses me, then, is not the originality of each composer but rather their stylistic similarity. Most of this music could have been written by one composer, so alike it sounds. Of course, this is not an indictment on the structure of each piece, which is sound, so much as on the reluctance of each to create a personal voice. I think it is this, as much as anything else, that has kept most of them from being rediscovered. Why bother when they all sound pretty much alike? That being said, Mosolov’s second nocturne is clearly different from the pack, with ferocious rolling chords and a quicker tempo that removes it, for me, from the concept of a nocturne entirely. Mosolov’s Two Dances sound more Stravinsky-related than most of the preceding music, so evidently he had more than one “voice.”

Sergei Protopopov’s second piano sonata inhabits the same harmonic world as most of the preceding music, but has a much stronger rhythmic drive, particularly in the first movement. Being a sonata, it is also more interesting in terms of development; yet by nine minutes into it, I felt that Protopopov had lost his way, getting entangled in the harmonic novelty of the piece and not paying much attention to form. Despite some interesting moments afterward, it seemed to me to not go much of anywhere.

The program ends with Lourié’s Phoenix Park Nocturne, a charming piece in a style that seems to vacillate between impressionism and 1920s dance music (which was rhythmic but not necessarily jazz). Overall, then, an interesting program with some highs and lows, but a lot of music that sounds alike.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Wallfisch Plays Brahms

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BRAHMS: Cello Sonatas Nos. 2 & 1. Violin Sonata in A min.: III. Scherzo / Rafael Wallfisch, cel; John York, pno / Nimbus NI5972

When you come right down to it, this should be the only Wallfisch-Plays-Brahms CD that Nimbus should be releasing since he only wrote these two cello sonatas, but they’re planning a Vol. 2 in which Wallfisch plays cello versions of the two clarinet sonatas and one of the violin sonatas (as here, where he plays the third movement of the violin sonata in A minor). I have to admit, I simply do not “get it” with these transcriptions of other sonatas (not just by Wallfisch, of course) for instruments that have no business playing them, but it seems to be the big fad nowadays. Apparently, people just can’t get enough of these tonal Romantic pieces. As for me, I can listen to them occasionally but I don’t live or die by them.

As for the current disc, Wallfisch plays Brahms in a straightforward style (which I like) with minimal use of rubato or rallentando effects, and pianist John York is a crisp, wide-awake accompanist. I was, however, somewhat put off by the microphone placement, which tended to make Wallfisch’s tone sound a bit hard and (to my ears) artificial, almost as if he were playing the cello with an electronic pickup on the instrument. Of course, you can’t blame the artist for this; it is most assuredly the work of the recording engineer; but I don’t have to like it, either.

And oddly, this defect doesn’t seem to have been applied to York’s piano, which sounds perfectly clear and natural. Compare this to Zuill Bailey’s outstanding recording of the Brahms cello sonatas with pianist Awadagin Pratt. Not only Pratt’s piano, but also Bailey’s cello, come across with a warm, natural sound, and I like Bailey’s approach to the music as much as I like Wallfisch’s.

Still, as I say, Wallfisch’s interpretations are very fine and do full justice to the music. He is delicate in the slow movements without resorting to sentimentality, and his strongly-accented pizzicato adds backbone to the music. I have to admit that Wallfisch also plays the violin sonata “Scherzo” very well for a cellist, but to my ears the music sounds all wrong in this key. I think Brahms might have agreed with me or he would have transcribed it for cello.

As for the first sonata, I don’t think anyone has done it as well as Emanuel Feuermann, whose finely-honed, manicured tone suits the music perfectly, but Wallfisch does add his own touches.

And that’s about it!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Arkhipova and Hvorostovsky Star in “Queen of Spades”

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TCHAIKOVSKY: Queen of Spades (Pique Dame) / Vitaly Tarashchenko, ten (Hermann); Natalia Datsko, sop (Lisa); Irina Arkhipova, mezzo (Countess); Dmitri Hvorostovsky, bar (Prince Yeletsky); Nina Romanova, mezzo (Pauline); Grigory Gritsyuk, bar (Count Tomsky); Alexander Vedernikov, bass (Surin); Oleg Klenov, bar (Chekalinsky); Vladimir Grishko, ten (Major-Domo); Tatiana Kuzminova, mezzo (Governess); Lidia Chernykh, sop (Masha); Yurlov Republican Academic Choral Capella; USSR Radio & TV Symphony Orchestra; Vladimir Fedoseyev, cond / Melodiya MELCD1002549 (live: Moscow, December 1989)

This concert performance of Tchaikovsky’s operatic masterpiece, given at the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory in December 1989 but sometimes erroneously attributed to 1990, was an important early appearance by the late baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the role of Prince Yeletsky. Although this is being touted as its first commercial release, it is actually just the first official release taken from the master tapes. It was previously issued, in somewhat drier and boxier sound, on MCA AED 3-68023 and Relief CR 991067.

Although this is not quite as taut and driving a performance as Mark Ermler’s famous Philips recording with Tamara Milashkina (Lisa), Vladimir Atlantov (Hermann), Andrei Fedoseyev (Yeletsky) and Elena Obraztsouva (Countess), it is much better sung. Everyone is in great voice, the natural hall acoustics give the whole endeavor a wonderful presence, and despite Fedoseyev’s slightly more relaxed tempi the soloists interpret their

Tarashchenko

Tarashchenko

roles very well. Atlantov, one of my all-time favorite Russian tenors, had a huge, bronze voice, almost like a Russian Caruso, with a very distinctive timbre, yet although Vitaly Tarashchenko has a more generic Russian sound he sings with greater ease and an equally brilliant top (Franco Corelli, eat your heart out!). Nina Romanova, who sings Pauline (Arkhipova’s star role in this opera until she was moved on to the Countess), also has an outstanding voice. And, of course, young Hvorostovsky is of a world standard while Andrei Fedoseyev (I’d bet the son or brother of the current set’s conductor) was just OK in his role. In addition, all the singers here blend their voices together beautifully in ensembles, a detail one rarely hears in modern performances of almost anything nowadays.

Where the rubber meets the road, so to speak, is in the latter part of the opera, where Lisa’s passions and Hermann’s mania reach a fever pitch. Natalia Datsko drives her beautiful soprano voice about as well as you could expect, but Milashkina, in the commercial recording, is practically at the brink of insanity despite her thinner, shriller, more nasal voice. She doesn’t sing beautifully and was several years past her sell-by date, but she inhabits the role with Callas or Martha Mödl-like intensity. Datsko thrills you while Milashkina sends electric shocks down your spine, but you know what? In the end, I found myself preferring this performance to the studio recording.

Taken as an overall performance, this new release will certainly give you your money’s worth of Pique Dame (as I insist on calling it, since that is its more common title), and for Western ears the Datsko-Tarashchenko-Hvorstovsky triumvirate will be far more acceptable. And then there is Irina Arkhipova, in my view the greatest Russian mezzo who ever trod the planet. Others have had prettier voices (not Obraztsouva, whose voice was dramatic and powerful but not particularly pleasant to the ear), but none, in my experience, ever matched Arkhipova’s combination of beauty, metal or “ping” in the voice, musicality and interpretive skill. She was unique, much like the legendary Ernestine Schumann-Heink, and I don’t think that comparison is the least bit out of place.

The difference, then, is more a case of a performance given at orange heat (this one) compared to red hot (the Philips recording). Musical values are better in this performance: Ermler does tend to rush things a bit. But in the end, both the musical and vocal values are better served by this performance. This is now my preferred version of the opera.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Antheil’s Orchestral Works in New Recording

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ANTHEIL: Archipelago. Symphony No. 3, “American.” Hot-Time Dance. Symphony No. 6, “After Delacroix.” Spectre of the Rose Waltz / BBC Philharmonic Orch.; John Storgårds, cond / Chandos CHAN 10982

This album of music by George Antheil covers his later (post-1920s) output, the earliest work here being the Archipelago rhumba of 1935 and the latest being his Sixth Symphony of 1949-50. As stated in the liner notes, Antheil during this period moved away from the audacious harmonies and renegade form of his earlier music towards a more tonal and formally conventional means of expression. But he was not alone in this: Aaron Copland did the same thing, in fact becoming even less edgy than his 1940 piece El Salón México starting with his popular ballets Rodeo and Billy the Kid. In a sense, both composers were led down this path by the very clever but tonal music of Morton Gould, a fine composer who is often overlooked but who had an enormous impact on American musical thought. Even Virgil Thomson moved away from the neoclassical rhythms and edgy harmonies of his two operas, Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All, to more tonal and easily digestible music in his film scores.

The question, then, is not whether or not this music sounds like earlier Antheil, for it clearly does not, but whether or not it is good music in its own right. I say that it is. Once past the orchestral rhumba that opens the disc, we hear all sorts of interesting figures and unusual rhythms in his “American” symphony of 1939-41, which he revised in 1946. At this point Antheil may have indeed been more tonal, but he was no more predictable in his musical directions. A work like this clearly would have baffled more old-fashioned conductors like Bruno Walter, Klemperer or Toscanini, who actually did like Copland’s El Salón México and Roy Harris’ Third Symphony, but apparently its value also eluded that champion of new music and specifically American new music, Leopold Stokowski. The only part of the symphony that was performed in Antheil’s lifetime was the third movement, “The Golden Spike,” by (of all people) Hans Kindler with the National Symphony Orchestra in November 1945.

Antheil hoped to capture the feisty spirit of America, and particularly American pioneers in various fields, with this music—an America that has been all but erased by the sweeping wave of anti-nationalism and political correctness in our time. In this respect, I doubt that the music would find much sympathy if played in the concert hall today. The themes jump around, are juxtaposed, and in general exhibit an rough enthusiasm that used to be associated with what it meant to be an American but nowadays is blasted as jingoism, racism and sexism. One might think of it as a brilliant anomaly, a snapshot in time that has been deemed degenerate.

The afore-mentioned movement “The Golden Spike” was taken from Antheil’s unused score for Cecil B. de Mille’s 1939 film Union Pacific. Initially supportive of Antheil, de Mille, worried about public reaction, apparently “enlisted almost everyone in the studio’s music department to voice their collective disapproval of Antheil’s style,” and he was dropped from the project. Here, as in the first movement, the sheer energy of the music almost bursts at the seams. In this respect, it has ties to such earlier works as Ballet Mécanique, even if the rhythm is less ambiguous and the harmonic language more tonal. Nor does this almost manic energy let up in the last movement, “Back to Baltimore: Allegro.” I might point out by way of irony that this marvelously energetic and brashly American-sounding performance is being performed by a Finnish conductor who is Artistic Director of the Lapland Chamber Orchestra in addition to his duties as chief guest conductor of the BBC Philharmonic.

Hot-Time Dance, from 1948, is also known as American Dance Suite No. 1 or Election Dance. It is, as the title implies, built from the opening melody of A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight, but Antheil takes it almost immediately in a different direction, almost turning it into an American hora (though the liner notes call it “circus-like”). And once again, the music makes reference to an America now dead and gone. To quote Antheil:

On big election nights, we boys used to collect all the loose lumber in the neighborhood, stack it in a big pile on the back lots, burn it in a huge bonfire, while we danced around it. This is traditional, all over America.

Well, it was traditional. Nowadays the press would complain that it was cruel to cut down trees for lumber just to burn it and contributed to Climate Change.

The Sixth Symphony, subtitled “After Delacroix,” had a much happier fate than the Third. After the surprise success of his Fourth Symphony, Antheil was suddenly in demand again in concert halls (though, apparently, not in sufficient enough demand to have the Third Symphony performed), thus this work was premiered by no less an old-school conductor than Pierre Monteux with the San Francisco Symphony in February 1949. Even so, it met with mixed critical reaction; they liked its energy but didn’t care much for his juxtaposing themes in large blocks of sound or his “lapses into pomposity and bombast.” But once again, Antheil had pulled off a miraculously vital and unpredictable piece of music, one that typified his energetic enthusiasm as an American.

The music is admittedly quirky, and what surprised me when listening to it was that I didn’t feel it was different in any marked or substantial way from the doomed Third Symphony. Indeed, in the first movement, at the 7:50 mark, Antheil pulls off a Charles Ives moment, using harsh dissonances and a quote from The Battle Hymn of the Republic. The second movement, however, is particularly lyrical, almost gentle, a rare departure for the normally-fiery Antheil. The last movement is an all-speed-ahead rush to the finish line. One idiotic critic compared Antheil’s music to Shostakovich’s but complained that it lacked spirituality. Apparently, he had no clue what George Antheil was all about to begin with.

For a piece lasting less than five minutes, Antheil’s Spectre of the Rose Waltz had a strange and quirky history. It was part of the soundtrack he wrote for a 1946 Ben Hecht film of the same name. Though the film’s title was obviously inspired by the Diaghelev ballet, which used Berlioz’ orchestration of Weber’s piano piece Invitation to the Dance, the plot concerns a male ballet dancer suspected of murdering his first wife who seems intent on killing his second the same way. FYI, the full movie is (at this writing) available for free viewing on YouTube. Antheil’s music, by contrast, has absolutely nothing to do with Weber-Berlioz, but is a dark romantic piece based on Ravel’s La Valse.

All in all, then, this CD is a real ear-opener, one of the best so far in Chandos’ Antheil series.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Papandopulo Returns!

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PAPANDOPULO: Piccolo Concerto.1 Harpsichord Concerto.2 5 Orchestral Songs for Baritone, String Orchestra & Harp3 / 1Michael Martin Kofler, pic; 2Jörg Halubek, hpd; 3Miljenko Turk, bar; Southwest German Chamber Orch. Pforzheim; Timo Handschuh, cond / CPO 777 941-2

Having reviewed Ville Matvejeff’s excellent CPO album of Boris Papandopulo’s Third Symphony and Violin Concerto about a year and a half ago, I was eager to hear his concerti and orchestral songs. His music was tonal but not predictable, rhythmic in a folk-like way but not quite jazzy, yet all in all there was no other composer who remotely sounded like him.

The front cover of this new CD calls the first work a Flute Concerto, but that’s an error, possibly due to the fact that soloist Michael Martin Kofler plays a piccolo flute. No two ways about it, this is a piccolo concerto all the way, and Papandopulo had a ball writing fluttery, bird-like figures for it—if you can imagine a bird singing Eastern folk tunes that sound something like klezmer!

In the slow movement, Papandopulo wrote a surprisingly beautiful, long-lined melody for the soloist, not terribly easy for a piccolo-player to sustain. The third movement, in a rapid 3 (or perhaps 6/8) with alternating measures in 4, skips and jumps its way along with lively rhythmic tunes and motifs.

Surprisingly, the Harpsichord Concerto is much more bitonal, although using the instrument, technically speaking, in a traditional manner. It’s almost like listening to Bach or Handel starting to play their music, but somehow getting distracted by falling and rising chromatics and slipping down the rabbit-hole into Wonderland. In the second movement, Papandopulo came up with a very modern-sounding melody that, eerily, resembles Paul McCartney’s Yesterday. It does, however, also contain Eastern folk harmonies, and in this the harpsichord plays music that sounds nothing like its 18th-century repertoire. There’s even a slight touch of a jazz swagger in the way Jörg Halubek plays those little mordents in his solo section. As usual, the music is well-developed and the orchestral accompaniment has some nice scoring touches, including a pizzicato “walking” bass. In the third movement, Papandopulo gives us a lively tune in 3 with lots of chromatic movement and occasional key shifts, with the soloist playing rapid thirds along with crisp melodic lines while the orchestra jabs and pokes at him.

The five songs for baritone and orchestra are set to texts by Kurt Barthel, who was also known by the pen name KuBa. They vacillate between personal meditations and silly nonsense lyrics, the most surprising of which is a song titled “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” which refers to a top and not to the dance craze of the 1950s. Miljenko Turk has a pleasant timbre but his voice has an uneven vibrato on sustained notes (unfortunately, a defect all too prevalent nowadays). The music is, however, mostly written in short, brusque phrases, tonal but not terribly melodic in the conventional sense, and is quite interesting.

All in all, then, another fascinating album of music by Papandopulo!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Discovering the Music of Apostel

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APOSTEL: 11 Variationen über ein eigenes Thema. Kubiniana, 11 Piano Pieces. Sechzig Schemen nach Zeichnungen von Alfred Kubin / Thérèse Malengreau, pno / Bis SACD-2405

It has become an acceptable and fairly widespread fad in the classical music industry, since the late 1990s, to present albums of music by composers banned by the Nazis, but truth to tell, not all of them were great composers or even (in the case of Hanns Eisler) very good ones, yet a few of the resuscitated names have become welcome visitors in the concert hall after their revival. Tops among these are Erwin Schulhoff and Viktor Ullmann. I might also toss in the name of Franz Schreker, one of the first Jewish composers unceremoniously booted out of Germany, but his music never completely disappeared from the repertoire, in part because he was a really famous composer up to the point of his removal.

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“Bride of the Wind” by Kokoschka, 1914

Hans Erich Apostel (1901-1972) was not as lucky. A devoted pupil of Arnold Schoenberg, he also studied with Alban Berg beginning in 1925, the year that Wozzeck premiered. As you can see from his dates, he survived the Holocaust, but his music never really caught on either pre- or post-war. The three works presented in this recital disc, of which the first and third are world premiere recordings, are tied to the visual art of Austrians Oskar Kokoschka and Alfred Kubin. Both considered themselves impressionists, but Kokoschka, who worked in oils and pencil sketches, was much more outré than Kubin, a painter and printmaker. In the notes, Malengreau points out that it must seem odd that a composer of “absolute music” based his work on visual art, but Apostel was proud of this association and enjoyed writing music based on their work.

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“Camilla Swoboda” by Kokoschka, one of the group of pencil drawings that inspired the first work on this set

The 11 Variations on an Original Theme (1928), which Apostel sent to Kokoschka, only exists in manuscript form; Malengreau cannot trace any public performance of the work, yet states that Apostel considered it a major work since he gave it the honor of being numbered Op. 1 among his published pieces. The theme is quirky, with some atonal leanings and the use of modes, yet still essentially within the realm of tonality. The first variation uses rising and falling chromatics in the left hand which sometimes complement the variation and sometimes clash with it. It’s very interesting music, original and well-crafted, but although it shows some traces of the 12-tone school it is much more melodic than either Schoenberg or Berg. Indeed, it is not terribly different, harmonically or melodically, than the music of Schulhoff. Unlike his teachers, Apostel seems to have clung to a basic sense of rhythm, and this is the underlying basis of his musical aesthetic. Even within the bouncing, widely-spaced notes of the third variation, one hears an underlying rhythmic impetus of the sort that Schoenberg usually avoided and Berg did much, but not all, of the time. If one could imagine Apostel, for instance, writing Wozzeck and Lulu rather than Berg, one could hear in the mind a lyrical style with a more normal rhythmic flow. None of this is to detract from his originality as a composer, however; for all the little resemblances to Schulhoff, Apostel was still very much himself in his writing.

Of course, there’s also the chance that pianist Malengreau used a more lyrical style in her approach to his music as conductors Erich Kleiber did in Wozzeck and Jeffrey Tate did in Lulu. Their conceptions had a more lyrical and flowing style than the clipped, strophic sound we hear in most others’ performances—just as Schoenberg’s own recording of Pierrot Lunaire has not only a bit of lyricism to it but is less exact in the pitches spoken by the narrator. I think that we often  impose our own post-modern view on the revolutionary music of the 1920s, just as we do on the music of the 18th century via the historically-informed movement. Variations 5 and 8 are the darkest, harmonically densest and least lyrical of those in this series.

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Two of the pictures from Kubin’s “Schemen: 60 Heads from Past Times”

As opposed to this almost unknown work, Kubiniana (1945) is probably Apostel’s best-known piece, having been premiered in 1946 and even recorded for Austrian radio. It is based on Kubin’s Sketches: 60 Heads from Past Times, which impressed the composer deeply. This is much starker and less lyrical music, very much in the Schoenberg-Berg mold, yet even within these sometimes rough-sounding pieces there is a more lyrical flow than we’re used to in such music. One might think of this piano suite as Apostel’s Pictures at an Exhibition without the Promenades. It was previously recorded for the Neos label by Peter Stadlen, for Centaur by Karl Steiner and by Darko Domitrovič for Nota Bene, none of which I have heard. One of the many things I liked about Malengreau’s playing, however, was that it is not soft-grained, but exploits the hard edges of the music without flinching. As she describes the music in the notes:

For the first sketch, inspired by Kubin’s self-portrait, Apostel adopts to the musical cypher employed by Bach, much favoured by Schumann and also used by Alban Berg. The musical ‘anagram’ of Alfred Kubin’s name – the notes A F E D B (B = B flat) –begins the set with a motif that is full of energy and played forte. Hans Erich Apostel’s anagram, represented by the notes H A Es E C H A Es E (H = B natural; Es = E flat), then follows in a descending pianissimo figure, modest, slightly hesitant and conscious that it is lagging behind. In just nine bars, Apostel then manages to weave these two motifs together contrapuntally and to exploit the oscillation between B and B flat – the notes that identify the two protagonists.

The last work presented here, Sechzig Schemen nach Zeichnungen von Alfred Kubin, was also inspired by Kubin sketches and actually begun in 1937, though Apostel would not complete the work until 1948-49. Interestingly, he gave the suite the opus number 13a whereas Kubiniana was Op. 13, so he clearly thought of these two works as having a close kinship to one another. The music is very much in the same style as its predecessor, so much so that it sounds like a continuation of Kubiniana, although the pieces are clearly different.

Whether or not the style heard here stems from Malengreau or Apostel himself, this is clearly excellent music, emotionally moving as well as intellectually fascinating. I would, then, place him on the high level of Schulhoff and Ullmann among the best “entrarte music” composers banned by the Nazis.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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