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Norbert BURGMÜLLER (1810-1836)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 2 (1833) [33:00]
Hugo STAEHLE (1826-1848)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor (1844) [40:30]
Orchester des Staatstheaters Kassel/Marc Piollet
rec. Kassel Opera House, August-September 2001
STERLING CDS1046-2 [74:25]

Both these symphonies were new to me, and the composers almost were. I'd never even heard of Staehle, and the only Burgmüller I'd previously heard was some ballet music that Richard Bonynge recorded years ago. The booklet represents both composers as part of a "Kassel School", trained in composition by Louis Spohr during his stint as court conductor and opera director in that city, from 1822 to 1857.
This is also beautiful stuff. Some people will call it "derivative" - there are clear echoes of Mendelssohn and Schumann, and the shadow of Beethoven hangs over everything. But if we hear the period's higher-profile composers in this music, that's simply because their music is already familiar to us, and this music isn't. Besides, the quest for originality is very much a modernist fetish; nineteenth-century composers weren't expected to reinvent the wheel with each new creation. So don't judge the music - just enjoy it.
Burgmüller's symphony certainly sounds more substantial than did those ballets. In the first movement, the themes aren't really distinctive, but the composer's use of the orchestra is striking: even the quieter passages - in the slow introduction, for example - always sound fully fleshed-out. The Adagio, with its segmented phrases, is simple and wistful; a few episodes of brief turbulence - the longest, at 3:33, introduced by peremptory horn fanfares - don't prove serious. The rambunctious, volatile Scherzo, punctuated with Beethovenian eruptions, unexpectedly scales down to a baby-hunting-horn Trio. The Finale's edgy, dramatic first theme, unfortunately, is too quickly allowed to bang away in tutti. The woodwinds' airy second subject provides a respite, spinning out more expansively on its reappearances; still, the overall effect remains bombastic.
The first influence we hear in the Hugo Staehle symphony isn't Germanic at all: the dark, ominous unison of horns, bassoons, and clarinets, answered by tremolos, is straight out of early Verdi! The tremolos continue to feature prominently in the Presto proper, where the first subject suggests Mendelssohn's more dramatic side. The oboe's broad contrasting theme seems static, but proves useful in the development, where bits of it are layered with the whirling accompaniment figures from the first group. The Adagio cantabile begins with a sweet chorale intoned by the strings. As the woodwinds take up the theme with string support, the textures gradually fill out, with a nice interplay of colors as woodwind strands weave in and out of the string-based sonorities. Harmonic shifts bring an unexpected note of disquiet, and later restore serenity. Short upbeat motifs give the Scherzo its forward-pushing impulse; the cheerful Trio, introduced by a little horn-and-clarinet fanfare - did Spohr give both composers this idea? - climaxes in a blaze of glory. The short, turbulent opening motif of the Finale segues smoothly into a tender clarinet melody. The development's homophonic wind phrases, in their dotted rhythm, recall Schumann's Spring Symphony. A diminished seventh chord abruptly stops the forward motion, after which the music turns slower and more chorale-like, tapering to a quiet yet full-toned conclusion.
Marc Piollet, the principal conductor of the Kassel State Theatre, provides sympathetic leadership, maintaining rhythmic buoyancy through the turbulent passages. He elicits beautiful sounds from the theatre's orchestra, a tremendous improvement on the scrappy ensembles that once documented such repertoire on Genesis, Vox, and other LP labels. The dark, burnished tone of the string body is particularly attractive; the violin sections aren't huge, but their playing is clean and unanimous in exposed passages - try 5:23 of Burgmüller's Adagio.
The engineering is good enough that I wish it were better. Most of the time, there's a lovely depth and warmth; but the full orchestra acquires a hard edge when the brass dominate - underlining Burgmüller's over-use of the tutti in his Finale - and sounds congested when they don't.
One wonders why we don't hear this sort of music in concert. The Burgmüller's finale mightn't wear well, but most of what precedes it is fetching, and the Staehle is simply lovely. Are we so jaded that we can't appreciate well-crafted, expressive music unless it's by the acknowledged greats? So much the worse for us, then.
Stephen Francis Vasta

see also review by Rob Barnett



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