No names, no pack-drill. But there are those, some of whom I know personally, who speak in hushed and highly reverential tones when it comes to Ludwig Thuille. As I was until now a Thuille virgin, as it were, I have just nodded and smiled and waited for things to quieten down. Well now is my chance with these four grand and impressive and in truth little known chamber works. They come in a pleasing box set on two discs.
After the best education of all, as a choirboy at the Kresm Benedictine monastery Thuille studied under Rheinberger, the great organ composer, in Munich. Later on Thuille foundered the Munich School of Composition, teaching, amongst others Ernest Bloch. He wrote a heavy tome on harmony (Harmonielehre) and was a friend of Richard Strauss. Thuille wrote opera and was performed in many European opera houses but, unlike his friend, never broke into the headlines. Unlike Strauss he concentrated on chamber music.
I started with the Piano Quintet in G minor, a student work completed when he was nineteen. It’s a very worthy and highly competent piece in three movements. A number of themes are used in each movement and the finale has a Brahmsian dance-step about it. The great master lies somewhere behind it but Thuille is his own man. The long slow movement is described in the notes by pianist Tomer Lev, as ‘prayer-like’ and the writing is calmer than Brahms. The passionate opening of the first movement - which could have got a little out of hand - is beautifully balanced. This is a performance that ought to win friends.
The CD booklet proclaims that the Piano Quintet in Eb is Thuille's “greatest chamber achievement”; I would whole-heartedly agree. It weighs in at almost forty-five minutes and right from the start has a symphonic sweep with its vast sonata-form opening movement. The second movement is a very moving, passionate and masterly Adagio with its surges of desperate climaxes which subside into uncertainty. The mood is never settled and ends undecided on its future. In fact its future is a rather aggressive ‘Ländler’; I just about agree with that description given by Tomer Lev. Certainly its trio section is “celestial” and makes for a “sharp contrast”. The finale is a breathless piece of what the cover calls “ecstatic beauty”, opening with a piano cadenza and culminating in the use of the chorale-like melody used in the second movement. Energetic counterpoint found in movement one mixes with ideas from the opening of the movement. One wonders why this work is almost entirely unknown. The performance by the Falk Quartet and the wonderful Tomer Lev is absolutely superb. It is powerful where necessary and intense, withdrawn and thoughtful where required. The music has splendid emotional sweep. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that Thuille died within six years of its completion at the young age of forty-six and was therefore was not able to consolidate his talent.
Richard Strauss and indeed his father are closely associated with the French horn. It’s interesting that the Sextet for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn and piano opens in both of its first two movements with a glorious horn solo. This work was published in 1889 so Thuille was in his mid-20s and already a fine contrapuntalist and orchestrator. This second disc played by the wonderful London Concord Ensemble has notes by Joanna Wyld. She comments on Thuille’s “deft alternation of instrumental roles”. The opening movement is a lengthy sonata structure. The second is a lyrical, autumnal song reminiscent of Brahms in so many ways. Then comes a rather original and witty ‘Gavotte’ with a fast trio section in which country music is evoked. Finally there’s a jolly finale ‘Allegro vivace’ which, almost riotously, brings the work to a very satisfactory conclusion. This is a work which mixes a “quirky amalgamation of lyricism and humour” (Wyld) with much joie de vivre. It is superbly captured by this spacious and imaginatively played performance.
The Piano Trio was composed on an even bigger scale. What is immediately striking, even at the start of the first movement, is the symphonic sound-world Thuille conjures up. I wondered if it was the magnificently powerful and committed performance or the close recording but I have concluded that it is the material itself. Although often very conventional it is developed with a symphonic stride. As the booklet notes remind us, although the ‘greats’ at that time wrote massively for the orchestra one should not underestimate those who wrote serious-minded chamber works. Movement 1 is a case in point. It is long for its form. Its compound time offers us opportunities for Brahmsian hemiola which Thuille indulges in but the great master is not an over powerful influence. Movement two is an almost tragic and tearful Andante maestoso. The style is very much Thuille and no-one else. The Moderato minuet which begins movement three is almost Schubertian but moves off into an enigmatic and intense trio section. The finale is somewhat hyper-active and is in a fully developed sonata form which combines lyricism with power. It serves to bring the work to a glorious conclusion.
The London Concord has now been going for eight years and has already secured a fine reputation. Several of these works although rarely heard live have been recorded before. The Quintets are on a CPO by the Vogler Quartet and the Op. 6 Quintet is on Sony played by the Ensemble Wien-Berlin. However, as indicated above, I have not heard them.
A fine double album then which will leave you pondering why musical history plays such tricks. I would add that although I have much enjoyed these works, especially the Eb Quintet, after a few minutes away from them I can remember nothing or little of the material - the melodies, the rhythms. Perhaps that is why Ludwig Thuille will have to remain a peripheral figure in late-romantic chamber music.