> Weber Symphonies etc Brilliant Classics [MC]: Classical CD Reviews- Nov 2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Symphony No. 1 (1812) [24.51]
Symphony No. 2 (1813) [18.16]
Piano Concerto No. 1 (1810) [20.26]
Piano Concerto No. 2 (1812) [23.04]
Konzertstück (1821) [17.04]
Euryanthe Overture (1823) [8.34]
Abu Hassan Overture (1811) [3.32]
Preziosa Overture (1820) [8.13]
Beherrscher der Geister (Rubezahl) Overture (1804?) [5.39]
Oberon Overture (1826) [8.48]
Jubel-Ouvertüre (1818) [7.46]
Der Freischütz Overture (1821) [10.04]
Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields/Neville Marriner (symphonies)
Recorded at the Abbey Road Studios, London, 1982, DDD
Peter Rösel (piano)
Staatskapelle Dresden/Herbert Blomstedt (piano concertos)
Lukaskirche, Dresden, Germany, 1984, DDD
Staatskapelle Dresden/Gustav Kuhn (overtures)
Lukaskirche, Dresden, Germany, 1985, DDD
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 99935 3 CD set. [43.43+60.59+53.22]


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The majority of these Weber compositions I have heard before, albeit a good many years ago and it was good to reacquaint myself with these works; so comprehensively presented here by Brilliant Classics.

Feted in his day Weber, a contemporary of Beethoven and Schubert, has become unfashionable like composers such as Gluck, Raff, Glinka and Berlioz. Although extremely talented in most musical genres, Weber’s operas and songs in particular became eminently successful. Weber always acknowledged Mozart as his major influence but interestingly he often felt imperious to Beethoven’s music.

I noticed that in an early edition of Grove he was allocated a biographical entry of 41 pages compared with Wagner’s 33 pages and Tchaikovsky’s 16 page entry. So if Grove is anything to go by, less than 90 years ago Weber was more significant than Wagner. I cannot recall a concert programme containing any of Weber’s orchestral works and to further compound the situation, recordings of his works are thin on the ground and virtually avoided by the top name performers and orchestras.

Following the premier of his opera Der Freischütz, in 1821, the writer ETA Hoffmann proclaimed Weber as the spokesman for the new Romantic movement then sweeping over Europe. The triumphant overnight success of Der Freischütz firmly established Weber as a major composer and the principal inspiration and foundation stone of the Romantic German opera tradition. Weber found himself in the influential position as a romantic opera composer somewhere between Beethoven and Wagner, which gives Weber immense historical significance. This significance has been recognised by many music critics. David Ewen holds the opinion that, "…Weber may well be singled out as opera’s first important romantic…" Furthermore RA Streatfeild exclaimed that, "Without Weber, Wagner would have been impossible."

The first CD comprises the two symphonies that Weber composed and both are in the key of C major. Written in the conventional form, when Weber was only 20 years of age, many music writers have perhaps unfairly dismissed them as insubstantial youthful experiments. I consider the Weber symphonies to be colourful, extremely interesting and most worthwhile. Significantly they provide a link between a late ‘classical’ Haydn symphony and an early ‘romantic’ Schumann symphony.

The first symphony is lively and appealing. There is a glorious section for solo woodwind over muted strings in the Allegro con fuoco (track 2, 1:17-2:29) and throughout the third movement Scherzo the conversational interplay between solo woodwind over the full orchestra is another highlight.

The second symphony continues in a similar vein to the first in terms of style and innate vigour, again with much use of the woodwind section. However the symphony is extremely uneven and unsatisfying, mainly owing to an extended first movement allegro and a outrageously short finale; which always leaves me in limbo, wondering if Weber really intended to cease so abruptly. Perhaps this is Weber’s idea of an ‘Haydnesque’ joke. Not surprisingly I feel the influence of Haydn in this symphony and hear distinct echoes of Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ symphony in the second movement Adagio (track 6, 2:26-3:56).

Sir Neville Marriner and the ASMF have full measure of these witty and happy symphonies with an acceptable sound quality but the alternative on Naxos with the Queensland PO, under John Georgiadis is extremely competitive. The Penguin Guide calls the Georgiadis performance sparkling with sound in the demonstration class, accolades that this Brilliant Classics release cannot achieve.

The second CD comprises Weber’s three main works for piano and orchestra played by soloist Peter Rosel and the Staatskapelle Dresden, under Herbert Blomstedt. Originally planned by Weber as his third piano concerto the sketches were formed into a stock-piece for virtuoso known as the Konzertstück. Completed on the same day that his opera Der Freischütz was premiered, the Konzertstück is programmatic and dramatic to be played in a single movement without interruption.

Weber’s two piano concertos are early works from 1810 and 1812 respectfully and are written in the conventional three movement allegro/ adagio/ presto form. The concertos are not Weber’s greatest compositions by any means but are big romantic concert works making considerable technical demands on the soloist. Both concertos have particularly exciting presto finales which enable the soloist to conclude with showpiece virtuosity.

Soloist Peter Rösel gives a stellar performance of the Konzertstück and the two concertos ably assisted by Herbert Blomstedt and the Staatskapelle Dresden who provide a spirited and full blooded performance. The orchestral sound is somewhat blurred at times however the soloist does not suffer unduly from this, albeit the piano sounds rather bright.

The Konzertstück is perhaps Weber’s most recorded work and soloist Peter Rösel has two exceptional competitors on rival versions to contend with. Alfred Brendel gives a distinguished performance in what is considered by many to be a benchmark recording, with the LSO, under Claudio Abbado, on Philips. Others may prefer the version on DG in which Mikhail Pletnev plays and directs the Russian National Orchestra in a dazzling performance.

There is not a great deal of competition for the two piano concertos against this disc. Perhaps the best alternative version is a Naxos release played by Benjamin Frith with the Dublin Radio and TV Sinfonietta, under Proinnsias O’Duinn. Frith plays with virtuosity and dash and the recorded sound is fresh and truthful.

The third CD played by the Staatskapelle Dresden under Gustav Kuhn is comprised exclusively of seven Weber overtures, which track his development as a composer; not surprisingly they are all uneven in quality but fascinating nevertheless.

Of the minor overtures ‘Abu Hassan’ is interesting for its writing for solo instruments and it actually reminds me of Gilbert & Sullivan overtures. The ‘Beherrscher der Geister’ (Rubezahl) overture alternates in feel from the oriental to Germanic, the ‘Preziosa’ overture contains both Spanish and Gypsy themes and the ‘Jubel-Overture’ includes the English national Anthem, ‘God save the Queen’ played on the woodwind accompanied by strings, at track 4, 6:47-7:43.

Major overtures include ‘Euryanthe’ which has particularly colourful affects and magnificent, dramatic and exciting writing. For me the highlight is the impassioned largo section, at track 1, 3:30-5:02 played with muted strings which provides a foretaste of the Wagner prelude to ‘Lohengrin’.

The overture ‘Oberon’, is mythical in programme content with impressions of fairies and woodland glades, yet strangely reminds me in parts of a Johann Strauss waltz. There is a beautifully and haunting melody played on the solo clarinet, at track 5, 3:52-4:09, which is subsequently taken up by strings.

Weber’s most performed orchestral work by a country mile is Der Freischütz Overture, which is undoubtedly an evergreen concert hall favourite. Widely regarded as being one of the first meaningful symphonic (tone) poems the overture is the epitome of Weber’s romantic vision of man and nature, forming an integral part of the opera which started the German opera tradition. Significantly the extended section for four horns at, track 7, 1:05-2:31 seems to serve as a precursor for Wagnerian horn-calls. Another personal highlight of the overture is the second theme so well played by the solo clarinet over tremolo strings, at track 7, 4:43-5:17.

Taken over the whole seven overtures the playing of the Staatskapelle Dresden under Gustav Kuhn is consistent and very effective rather than distinguished. The orchestra fairly gallop along with the proceedings and the performances clearly benefit for that.

With the exception of the symphonies I dare say that virtually all these works can be bettered by alternative versions. However these performances and the sound quality on this Brilliant Classics release are more than acceptable and often very fine. Virtually all of Weber’s major orchestral works are contained on this triple CD set which at budget price is a real snip.

Michael Cookson

See also review by Rob Barnett

 


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