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Eugen d’ALBERT (1864-1932)
Symphonic Prologue to the Opera Tiefland Op.34 (1924) [10:45]
Symphony in F major Op.4 (1886) [51:55]
MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra/Jun Märkl
rec. MDR Studio, Augustusplatz, Leipzig, Germany, 24-28 January 2011
NAXOS 8.572805 [62:40]

Eugen Albert is one of the pianist/composer titans who bestrode Europe in the 19th century. His family was of French/Italian heritage and he was born as Eugène in Glasgow in 1864 - the same year as Richard Strauss. He trained in London, took advantage of a Mendelssohn Scholarship to further his studies in Vienna and very soon rejected all things British and embraced German culture. In his lifetime his success was founded upon a half-century long career as an international piano virtuoso. He was a friend and close associate of both Brahms and Liszt playing the former’s two concertos under the composer’s baton in Berlin in 1896. Yet he hankered to be able to settle down and devote himself more thoroughly to composition.
If he is remembered at all today in that role it is as an opera composer and even then really of just one work: Tiefland premiered in 1903. Music from the opera is included on this disc but I would prefer to consider the major work presented here first.
The Symphony in F major is as early a work as the Op.4 number would imply. It is d’Albert’s only attempt at the form and dates from 1886. I must admit my initial impressions on a first listen-through were rather dismissive. If imitation is the highest form of flattery Brahms must be blushing. This work is not just Brahmsian it has taken a Brahms symphonic template - be it in instrumentation, form, texture or even melodic outline - and onto that very recognisable skeleton draped another composer’s tunes. Then, by the second or third listen I thought one has to give d’Albert both his due and some musical slack. This is the work of a mainly self-taught musician who is just twenty-two. My sense is that as much as anything this might well be considered an apprentice work in much the same way that composition students might be set an exercise to write a quartet movement in the style of Haydn. By that standard it is an astonishingly confident success. Running just shy of fifty-two minutes in the current performance makes it a longer work than any of Brahms’ own symphonies. Some passages teeter on the edge of becoming discursive but d’Albert’s sheer youthful energy and ear for rich orchestral sonority disarms too much po-faced criticism. When you consider that Brahms had finished his Fourth Symphony just the year before this work, the Third two years before that and the First and Second around a decade earlier they were contemporary works and ones frankly worthy of copying.
The opening movement pays homage to Brahms’ First Symphony with a slow introduction where violas blend with horns and clarinets to create a sinuous theme full of developmental potential leading to a leaping compound-time development. This is clearly absolute not programmatic music. For sure the melodies are not as memorable or the handling of them as assured as the senior master but conversely I enjoyed it a whole lot more than other Brahmsian acolytes such as Gernsheim. Likewise listen around the 8:30 mark of the slow movement placed second where d’Albert builds to an impressively impassioned string-led climax which falls away to a beautiful reverie led by woodwind and solo horn counterpoint. Again one has to be impressed by how assured the handling of both material and musical arc is achieved albeit in a less than original idiom. The faster sections of the ‘scherzo’ are the least derivative parts - a quasi-fugato compound-time dance that lets accents side-slip appealingly. Credit to the composer again for sustaining more than eleven minutes of music with such interest. The pastoral central slower section risks lapsing into languor but is beautifully played here so it becomes a pleasant diversion rather than an unnecessary hiatus even if the similarity to the early Brahms Serenades is almost indecently apparent. The Finale seems to have taken the same movement from Brahms’ Second Symphony as its template - right down to the excitingly dynamic Coda with sustained chord from the trombones at the end. It opens with a typically Germanic/Romantic horn-call answered by a lyrical strings and woodwind melody. D’Albert builds the musical tension in the extended introduction very skilfully for such a young composer so that even though it takes over four minutes to reach the ‘meat’ of the movement proper the music has built gradually but effectively to that point.
I have deliberately avoided any mention of the performers or recording until this point. The MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra under Jun Märkl have - to my ear - an ideal rich and burnished tone for this music. All departments of the orchestra give a good account but I must mention an excellent principal horn and clarinet. They are given support in this by Tim Handley’s detailed but warm and resonant recording. One query - the venue for the disc is given as a radio studio but that has one of the most curious resonances I have heard in a long time - very extended but very even in its decay. Far longer than one would expect of a usually neutral radio studio but not nearly as ‘rolling’ as one hears in church locations. To be honest it suits both the music and the sound the orchestra makes. I happened to listen to it immediately after an old Kingsway Hall recording and the difference is huge but not one I minded once it had been noted. Having been less than impressed by Märkl’s Debussy series I am pleased to say that I have found this wholly convincing. Once one gets past the blatant influences at work here for those interested in little known German Romantic symphonies this is a guilty pleasure.
One’s sorrow is that d’Albert never returned to the genre once his own musical personality was more fully formed. Symphonic music’s loss was the theatre’s gain. The New Grove considers d’Albert to be musically superior to the likes of Leoncavallo or Mascagni. By the time he wrote Tiefland in the new century he had a far wider expressive range at his disposal. The very opening of the Symphonic Prologue shows this with an extended and brooding clarinet solo instantly creating memorable atmosphere. Important to note that what is recorded here is the work d’Albert created in 1924 as his Op.34 not just the opera’s overture. In effect the composer has combined the original prelude with music for the opera’s first scene. Why he chose to revisit the work in this manner twenty years on is not clear but it is both atmospheric and effective. So much so that I would question the programming choice in placing this first on the disc. Although it functions as the disc’s ‘overture’ it is so much more individual than the symphony that the latter is diminished - on first listen at least. Again Märkl and his Leipzig forces play this quite beautifully. On the recording I have of the complete opera the opening is even more distant and as such - representing perhaps a shepherd piping on the distant hills - adds more to the atmosphere but the added detail of Handley’s production brings its own delights.
There is competition in the main work from CPO with Hermann Bäumer conducting the Osnabrucker Symphony Orchestra (777 264-2). Bäumer is generally fleeter and his good orchestra do not have the same rich sonority as the Leipzig players but that chimes with the approach and the engineering to produce a wholly satisfying package. The CPO coupling is of considerable interest too; a dramatic scena Seejungfräulein Op.15 for soprano and orchestra. As ever, the interested collector has a difficult choice. If they possess the Bäumer already it would be unfair to say that the Märkl is superior in every way - better to invest in a complete Tiefland or the religious fervour of the 1913 Die toten Augen. However, for those coming to this work for the first time I would prefer the Naxos disc to the CPO. Idiomatic playing of an impressive interpretation backed up by good engineering seals the deal. Keith Anderson’s less enlightening than usual liner-note is a minor fly in the ointment - after a good biographical note he pads it out with a wholly redundant synopsis of the opera. With playing time at just an hour Naxos might have squeezed an extra piece onto the disc. D’Albert was not a prolific composer for the orchestral concert hall so it is to be hoped that Naxos will record more of his work with this team.
Nick Barnard