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
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
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
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.
See also review by Rob