One is most grateful to Naxos for their continuing rescue job on the old Delos Seattle Schwarz catalogue, in which they are including not only the invaluable issues of American works but also a large number of other readings of works which have either never been previously issued – such as the Pfitzner symphony here – or have had only limited circulation and critical notice in the past. This disc is a most peculiar collection, only very loosely bound together by the theme of romanticism; but it assembles a number of valuable performances which would otherwise have slipped through the net.
The major work here is indeed the Pfitzner Third Symphony
, which was also the most recent track recorded. Those who are expecting a work of full-blown romanticism like the composer’s opera Palestrina
may be surprised by the somewhat severe neo-classical style of the music, which although it has been recorded a number of times remains obstinately unknown to the general listener. The only other modern recording which remains available is that included in the 1994-95 five-disc set of orchestral music (review
) recorded by the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra under Werner Andreas Albert, in which two discs (available separately) contain the three symphonies. Although the Bamberg recordings are invaluable for giving us the opportunity to hear Pfitzner’s orchestral music, they are not the most stupendous of performances. They also suffer from some of the most incredibly technical booklet notes, which may just possibly have made some sense in their original German but are almost totally incomprehensible in English translation: “the great clarity of Pfitzner’s music gestus
in the two symphonies,” we are informed, “is both their strength and their weakness: what is an associative plus proves to be an aesthetic minus.” Schwarz’s performance here is much more than just a ‘run-through’. He has obvious affection for the music, and he gets his orchestra to deliver a performance than is ripe and satisfying; the brass playing at the beginning, rich and virile, knocks spots of the Bamberg recording. DG once issued an early stereo recording of this same symphony under Ferdinand Leitner, but it did not long survive in the catalogues and never seems to have made the transition to CD. In any event one cannot imagine that they would have bettered the reading here. Those who love the music of Pfitzner – and I am certainly one of them – despite its obvious flaws will obviously want the complete Bamberg recordings on CPO, but even for those this recording will be an essential supplement.
The other real rarity on this disc is Gerard Schwarz’s own transcription of Webern’s early “slow movement”, originally written for string quartet but here realised for full string orchestra. It may seem odd to find Webern included in a collection of romantic music, but this is a very early work indeed, written long before Webern embraced serialism. The richness of the string playing inevitably recalls Mahler, but there is also more than a hint of Elgar’s Elegy for strings
in some of the writing, even though one doubts that Webern ever heard a note of Elgar. There are a lot of recordings of this piece in its original string quartet version, but only one other with chamber orchestra (by the Moscow Virtuosi) appears in the current catalogue; there was also a 2003 version with string orchestra given by the Lucerne Festival Strings, but this appears to have succumbed to the deletions axe. I have not heard the former; but the latter, with a much smaller body of strings, sounds pale by the side of this Schwarz reading.
I suppose the two Schumann Symphonic Studies
should also be classed as rarities, because the orchestrations by Tchaikovsky are not otherwise available on disc; but the two movements which Tchaikovsky orchestrated really deserve to be classed as no more than student exercises in orchestral technique – which is precisely what they are. The booklet notes by Paul Schiavo suggests that the scoring “foretells the skilled orchestral composer he would become” but they sound little more than highly proficient, a mildly interesting footnote to Tchaikovsky’s student career but no more than that.
The Brahms Hungarian Dances
and the Mendelssohn overture are also well performed, but the Brahms items are hardly rarities and form a rather forlorn group without their companion pieces; and the Mendelssohn piece, one of the products of his prodigious teenage years, does not rise to the heights of other works of that period in his development. The Schumann Konzertstück
on the other hand is a real masterpiece, fiendishly difficult to play even today (which probably explains its rare appearances in the concert hall) with passages rising to high E which must cause problems even to players equipped with modern double horns and which must have been next to impossible in 1849. The four players here are splendid, rising to the challenges with no signs of effort. Schwarz accompanies with a will, and this is a scintillating performance.
This disc may therefore seem a rather mixed bag, a collection of odds-and-ends from various sessions; but there are some magnificent performances here and those of the Pfitzner, Webern and Schumann Konzertstück
are among the best available. Given that these are the longest tracks on the CD, the rest of the items can be regarded as makeweights to some excellent readings.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
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