Paul Graener’s Late-Romantic Concerti

Entwürfe cpo-Cover November 2018_cover.indd

GRAENER: Cello Concerto.1 Violin Concerto.2 Flute Concerto / 1Uladzimir Sinkevich, cel; 2Henry Raudeles, vln; 3Christiane Dohn, fl; Munich Radio Orch.; Ulf Schirmer, cond / CPO 777 965-2

Paul Graener (1872-1944) was a late-Romantic composer who, like Richard Strauss, wrote works in that vein into the 1940s. His tone poem Die Flöte von Sansouci was a favorite of Wilhelm Furtwängler and Arturo Toscanini, both of whom performed it with their respective orchestras, but for the most part he is forgotten today. During his lifetime, the most devoted of practicing musicians to his works was the cellist Paul Grümmer, the dedicatee of the Cello Concerto.

This album, which is Vol. IV of his orchestral works on the CPO label, covers three of his concerti written in 1927 (the Cello Concerto), Violin Concerto (1937) and Flute Concerto (1943, his last finished composition). Despite his late Romantic leanings, Graener’s music is by no means “easy listening” as in the case of so many other such composers. There is considerable interest and density in his writing, so much so that when the Violin Concerto began to played throughout Germany, several critics found fault with the “dense orchestral writing.”

Yet it is exactly that “density” of orchestral writing that set Graener apart from his other late-Romantic fellows. The edgy, serrated orchestral lines that open the Cello Concerto, for instance, are immediately arresting and set up the entrance of the solo cello, who plays in more of a concertante style like the solo viola in Berlioz’ Harold en Italie, perfectly. Moreover, Graener had a vivid imagination that led him to take twists and turns in the music that constantly surprise the listener. Tonal it may be, but it has a certain edginess related to Hindemith more than the much more predictable smoothness of late-period Strauss.

And happily, cellist Uladzimir Sinkevich and conductor Ulf Schirmer understand this music perfectly. They capture its unusual progression and contours beautifully, allowing the listener to follow the train of Graener’s thought perfectly. It also helps that Sinkevich has a lean tone, something like Emanuel Feuermann’s, which fits into the surrounding material perfectly. The second movement, though clearly an Adagio, uses subtly shifting harmonies in the background and unusual wind blends with an edge to them, not to mention the surprise appearance of a pianist just before the cello’s entrance. The third-movement “Vivace” has a quirky, almost Latin-styled rhythm around which the clarinets and strings dance as in a Berlioz score, with occasional luftpausen and a cello line that actually “leads” the orchestra rather than the other way around. Eventually the tempo increases and we get a minor-key theme reminiscent of Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which then moves back to the major for a very broad string section motif, but the cello pulls it back towards the sorcerer’s lair. This is clearly not the kind of tonal music you’re going to hear on your local classical radio station.

The Violin Concerto, so criticized by certain German scribes, opens with a broad theme played by the strings with soft brass holding long notes and chords in the background, but quickly this, too, begins to change. A French horn solo, accompanied high up by one of the winds, leads us to the entrance of the solo violin, and although this is a violin concerto its sudden appearance at this time is completely unexpected. The music for the soloist is also irregular in meter and wide-ranging in intervals, clearly not the sort of music designed to soothe the listener. Suddenly, the soloist plays a sort of German tarantella for several bars, after which we return to the more lyrical content, then the orchestra builds to a tremendous climax with the ensuing music continuing to develop in unusual ways. The solo part becomes busier and, in places, virtuosic, but never settles into a comfortable niche in which one can wallow in Romantic B.S. Small wonder that Furtwängler and Toscanini found Graener so interesting. The second movement, though not formally linked to the first, sounds like a continuation of it except in a slightly slower tempo, and here the orchestral textures, though still interesting, are not quite as complex. At 3:50, the violin plays very lightly on the edge of his strings for a few bars, producing an almost ghostly sound. Graener was also a master of timbral blends, able to mix the French horns and strings in such a way that they sounded like section-mates rather than opposing timbres.

In the third movement, he sets up a lively dance tune that almost sounds Elgar-like at first, with the violin soaring up and around the ensemble. Once again, the soloist is treated here in an almost concertante manner, adding themes and embellishments to themes played by the orchestra. At 3:24 there are some interesting chromatic chord changes, and when the march-like dance rhythm returns it is with several changes in the melodic and harmonic progression. Yes, we get a solo cadenza towards the end, but it almost sounds more like a development of the theme than just a flighty virtuosic excursion. The virtuosity does come in, however, once the orchestra re-enters, now at an almost manic clip, as the concerto drives relentlessly to the finish.

Next we get the Flute Concerto, which begins with a stately theme in an almost march tempo, again with surprising key shifts here and there. The soloist picks up the theme and develops it while the strings play light, lively figures in the background, and the strings also play what a musician would call the bridge. Graener had clearly not really modified his style by 1943, merely moved a bit more towards harmonic consonance due to the character of the solo instrument. Here the flute plays what I’d refer to as typically flute-like lines, with little trills and flurries sprinkled throughout, yet once again the musical progression is interesting and, at times in the first movement, the music almost sounds Russian. He vacillates constantly between the major and the minor, which also adds interest. The second movement is in 3/4 time, but with a slight dragging of the second beat of each measure to produce an unusual rhythm. Here the music is more broken up between the soloist and the ensemble, with the soloist contributing themes that are then taken up by the strings. Occasionally the French horn adds a few notes that completes the musical thought. The third movement is a more dance-like 6/8 and more consistently tonal, yet still very well constructed with interesting ideas that flit around from soloist to ensemble and back again. At the 3:10 mark, the horn begins a brief passage in counterpoint with other instruments, then takes over as the soloist, interacting with the orchestra for several bars before the flute suddenly pops up again, this time for its solo cadenza, during which the key changes and the orchestra returns much earlier than expected.

This is clearly very fine music, superbly played and recorded. Graener may not be a “major” composer, but he was clearly a very fine one whose works still hold up today.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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One thought on “Paul Graener’s Late-Romantic Concerti

  1. Very good to see well-informed appreciation of music which only a few days ago was completely unknown to me. Graener is certainly a very fine composer. There is no late-Romantic bloat, and for all his overt conservatism he never takes the easy way out, not harmonically, not in his orchestration or the way his music ‘moves’. I have been pleasantly surprised not only by these concertos, but also by other orchestral works. A pity his political stance led to decades of neglect. I judge him by his music, which is excellent.

    Greetings from The Netherlands!

    Johan Herrenberg


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