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Rudi STEPHAN (1887-1915)
Music for Violin and Orchestra (1911) [19:56]
Music for Orchestra in one movement (1910) [24:30] (premiere recording)
Music for Orchestra in one movement (1911) [18:34]
Sergey Stadler (violin)
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra/Oleg Caetani
rec. Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, 8-11 March 2005. DDD

The German composer Stephan was born in Worms and studied with Bernhard Sekles and Rudolf Louis. As may be gathered from the works listed in the header he had little time for fanciful and poetic titles. His first work was called simply Opus 1 for Orchestra. His penchant for grey and unengaging titles has no doubt played its part in his music sinking from sight. His death in Galicia in September 1915 and the destruction of most of his papers in the Allied bombing towards the end of World War 2 did not help either.

While the titles reject romance and fairytale notions the music itself is saturated in romantic sensibility and diaphanously impressionistic textures. Listen to the sighing of the orchestra in the Music for Violin and Orchestra at 09:02. Stephan wrote music of Korngoldian voluptuousness as in the ursine brass raptures at 12:45. Otherwise the music tracks through other allusions - some possible some impossible as influences: Stravinsky's Firebird, Debussy's Faune and Delius's tone poems and violin concerto. An insistent rhythmic tag pre-echoes William Schuman of all people. The fluttering pulse and tenderness is the antithesis of the ĎKolossalí in German music and leans more towards Berg and the glimmering skein of sound typified by the sheen and shimmer of the start of Trapp's Homerisch Symphonie. All in all this is a poetic work that links with such masterpieces as Szymanowski's Third Symphony and First Violin Concerto. Good to see and hear Sergey Stadler again. The last time I heard him was when he recorded the Tischenko second violin concerto and a composite disc of concertos by Lvov, Conus and Arensky. I see that he has been active as a conductor giving Russian premieres of the Turangalila and of Berlioz's Les Troyens.

After too short a pause comes the 1910 Music for Orchestra. Once again there is that lambency and languor we find in Delius and Debussy. This pervasive dreamy warmth and the shifting activity of his orchestral canvas also recalls Schoenberg's Pelleas et Melisande and the lapidary invention of parts of the Gurrelieder. The progress of the music has a sense of self-discovery and spontaneous reaction - truly rhapsodic - which also points towards Scriabin. A tolling Baxian climax arises at 13:43 onwards. A tragically heavy, even suffocating, magnificence carries over into another climax at 19:30 onwards. Here organ and brass temporarily crush out every breath of air. When stillness and quietness returns from the echoing tam-tam legacy of that climax we are ushered back into a much more intimate world. Daniel Kossov's solo violin sings a line of Straussian filigree before a brooding Hollywoodian outburst that again fades to niente before a fanfaring optimism calls out from on high. I can't help thinking that the closing pages are unconvincing and that valedictory niente is where the work really ends.

The 1912 Music for Orchestra was presented at the Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein in 1912 and 1913. The baritonal drift and haze of the music provides a backdrop to the soft presence of cor anglais and bass clarinet solos. A pause closes this section. The next is resolute and emphatic with once again those Scriabin-like magnificent excrescences from the brass. The trembling and pregnantly tense strings at 5:45 onwards fade and give way to manic brass and a drum-roll accentuated urgency. The commanding brass writing, as with that in the other works, has an incongruous similarity with that in Bax's Fifth Symphony of 1932. There are moments when Stephan has not achieved a complete synthesis as in the frankly Brucknerian clamancy of the brass at 14:48. Here the double harp upbeat and punched out fortissimo gestures work more convincingly than with its 1910 namesake.

His use of the title Music for Orchestra recalls the work of the same title written by Constant Lambert in the 1920s - a work recently issued by Dutton in an archive 1950s recording conducted by the composer.

Conductor Caetani, taking time off from his Arts Shostakovich cycle, immerses himself and his orchestra in the opulence of these scores. The Blackwood Hall is captured far more sympathetically than on the ABC Classics Dene Olding recording of 20th century violin concertos.

I listened to this SACD on a CD player.

If this music, saturatedly romantic yet knowing, appeals then don't forget to try to track down the Koch CD of four Stephan works [review] and the Pan Classics version of Music for Violin and Orchestra [review]. Other composers that may appeal in the same vein include the contemporaneous Berlin-based works of the Spanish composer Andrès Isasi (Claves review) and Charles Griffes on (Naxos review).

The documentation is by Gordon Kerry who might, I hope, take an interest in Chandos recording Marx's Herbstsinfonie, the orchestral work of another Great War casualty, Hugo Bienstock and such obstinately obscure ambitious works as August Bungertís Die Erstes Fahrt Zeppelin and the same composerís operatic tetralogy Homerisch Welt.

One for those with a taste for rhapsodic opulent late-romantic impressionism.

Rob Barnett



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