Victor HERBERT (1859-1924)
Serenade, for string orchestra, op.12 (1884) [24:15]
[Seven] Pieces, for cello and string orchestra (arr. Three Pieces for cello and piano and Five Pieces for cello and orchestra by Sam Dennison and Hans Kunstovny) (1900-06) [20:54]
Three Pieces, for string orchestra (1912-22) [8:33]
Maximilian Hornung (cello)
Southwest German Chamber Orchestra Pforzheim/Sebastian Tewinkel
rec. Matthäus Kirche, Pforzheim-Arlinger, Germany, 20-21 November 2008, 9-10 February 2009. DDD
CPO 777 576-2 [54:07]

Irish-born American composer Victor Herbert is probably doomed to be remembered in the annals of music history for his proto-musicals like Babes in Toyland (review). As with George Gershwin, there was another, more serious side to his music that recordings like this do their best to remind the public of. A decade ago Swiss label Guild released a recording of Herbert's fine Second Cello Concerto alongside his friend Dvorák's own Concerto (review), highlighting Herbert's credentials as a serious composer and certain similarities in background, if not necessarily style or imagination.

It may as well be stated at the outset, however, that these three works for strings do not reveal Herbert to be anything approaching the equal of Dvorák, nor, for that matter, Tchaikovsky, Grieg or Elgar. It is very easy to hear the composer of operettas and other light music in them - Herbert has less of a claim to undeserved neglect as a serious composer than his older contemporary Arthur Sullivan, whose situation paralleled Herbert's in some ways. On the other hand, Herbert wrote music to make money more than for artistic self-gratification, and as he died rich he might not have been too troubled by posterity's opinion.

Either way, there is an undeniable charm to his music, and warmth and melody in abundance. The five-movement Serenade is probably the least memorable of the three works here, though by the time of the attractive finale, signs of greater invention are starting to break through. In spite of its somewhat generic, anationalist nature, the Serenade appeared a couple of years ago on a Dutton disc entitled 'American Serenades' (review), billed as the premiere recording. The Three Pieces are lighter still, knocked into a cocked hat by many of the masters of this genre, yet still undeniably pleasing to the ear, particularly in the dreamy final 'Sunset'.

For a none too obvious reason, CPO have given this CD the subtitle 'Works for Cello & Strings', misleading in that there is only twenty minutes' worth of cello, in the so-called Seven Pieces. This item is actually an arrangement by other hands of two different works by Herbert. If the orchestral writing tends once again towards the predictable, there is no doubting the cantilena effectiveness of the cello part - Herbert himself had had a career as a cellist - confidently brought off by German soloist Maximilian Hornung. Even so, this is not music that ever wanders outside the generic listener's comfort zone, nor a work that was especially crying out for this arrangement which rather flattens some of the textures. On the other hand, it is probably the only work of the three that deserves to be heard with any degree of frequency.

Pforzheim's Southwest German Chamber Orchestra under Sebastian Tewinkel give a reasonable rather than spectacular account, though perhaps the modest nature of Herbert's music is partly to blame. Certainly neither they nor Herbert are done any favours by the apparent smallness of the ensemble - though the photo in the booklet shows fifteen members, many a string quintet can be heard with a richer sound. Audio quality is another minor issue: CPO's recordings are sometimes undermined by a certain flatness, and here too there is a noticeable, though by no means critical, 'mp3 effect'.

The shortness of the disc does not aid its cause, but some lost ground is made up in the accompanying trilingual booklet, which is as detailed as ever from CPO, with two or three photos of all the involved musicians looking quite friendly. Unfortunately CPO have once again failed to have the translation looked over by a native speaker, with the result that the English is rendered in a convoluted style that ranges at times from the recondite to the faintly ludicrous: "Herbert was apparently something on the order of a melodic volcano, to whom something always occurred and who was always ready to flow with something or other. Whether it was also by him, that he himself did not know." In fairness to the translator, however, the purple prose and quirky factoids of Eckhardt von den Hoogen's original German - which, for example, absurdly gives Herbert's and his wife's "BMI" (Body Mass Index) - must shoulder at least part of the blame.

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There is an undeniable charm to his music, and warmth and melody in abundance.