The 20th Century Concerto Grosso
Erwin SCHULHOFF (1894-1942)
Concerto doppio for flute, piano, string orchestra, and two horns, WV 89 (1927) [19:22]
Ernst KRENEK (1900-1991)
Concertino for flute, violin, piano, and string orchestra, Op. 27 (1924) [22:06]
Vincent d’INDY (1851-1931)
Concert for piano, flute, and cello and string orchestra, Op. 89 (1926) [20:13]
Maria Prinz (piano); Karl-Heinz Schütz (flute); Christoph Koncz (violin); Robert Nagy (cello)
Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Sir Neville Marriner
rec. St John’s, Smith Square, London, 21-23 September 2012
CHANDOS CHAN10791 [61:41]
This disc was reviewed by David Barker, and I recommend his text for its background information. This inter-war period can throw up some fascinating music, and those scared off by the ‘20th Century’ heading need have no fears about avant-garde with any of the pieces on this fine release.
Schulhoff’s Concerto doppio has appeared now and again on disc, with a nice version also available on the Arco Diva label (see review). Superbly performed, my only criticism of this Chandos recording would be the relative weakness of the strings against the flute and piano soloists. The horns mix in well enough, and there is plenty of substance in the string sound when the other soloists are silent, but there are also moments where this entire group is almost entirely obscured - a phenomenon which always irks. Let’s get real: Marcel Moyse said “power is not in the character of the flute”, and there is no reason on earth for it to stand head and shoulders above an entire orchestra. This takes only a small layer of enjoyment away from a concerto for which the outer movements are great fun, and the central Andante is gorgeously expressive. If you like Frank Martin, then you will enjoy this as well.
Ernst Krenek was something of a musical chameleon, and the Concertino comes from a period in which he was exploring neo-classical idioms in much the same was as Stravinsky, whose Pulcinella was a large influence at the time. Krenek wrote of the Concertino that it was “probably as close as I would ever come to the more obvious patterns of Neo-Classicism”, and his clear enjoyment of tonality and cadence combines fruitfully with apparently greater freedoms and the occasional anti-elegant contribution from the piano. Krenek can’t entirely avoid passages of chromatic development and tonal ambiguity, but his solutions in this always bring us back into more gently tonal undulating waters. For some reason the flute is at a better balance in this piece, and more comparable with the solo violin which plays a significant contribution in the stately central Sarabande. It is indeed remarkable that this fine work is seeing its first recording here, and I have little doubt we will be hearing it again before too long.
Vincent d’Indy’s Concert, Op. 89 was his last orchestral work, and with its ‘open-air’ feel and nationalist French associations comparisons can be made with composers such as Poulenc - indeed, the finale is marked Mouvement de Ronde française. D’Indy was an admirer of Wagner, but nothing could be further from this Teutonic heavyweight than the Concert, which avoids too much frothiness while throwing in plenty of elements of Romanticism. There are certainly some magical moments, and the central movement has that ‘play it again … and again’ quality. This work has been recorded a few times before, but this performance sounds pretty much ideal.
Sir Neville Marriner’s powers as a conductor show no slackening in this lively and youthful sounding programme, and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields sounds at the top of its game on its home turf. This is a release with everything going for it.
This is a release with everything going for it.
And a second review ...
Despite the widely-varied origins and opinions of the three composers represented on this disc these three concertos written almost consecutively during the 1920s can be taken as further proof that in most cases music transcends both religion and politics. However, the contrast between them is so fascinating I must quote from the introduction to the excellent booklet notes by Susie Harries: “Take three different composers: a Czech with German parents, an Austrian with Czech parents, and a full-blooded Frenchman; two near the beginning of their careers, one almost at the end of his; one with radical sympathies, one an entrenched conservative, one whose politics were ambiguous; one with Jewish origins, two convinced Catholics, of whom one was publicly outspoken on the pernicious influence of Jews in music. They all chose, in the mid- to late-1920s, to write in concerto grosso style - but as one might expect, for different reasons.”
Music is a continuously evolving art and each development embodies aspects of what went before and any notion that there should never be a re-examination of previous styles to see whether there can be something there for present generations would be folly. Whatever the impetus was that caused the style that came to be known as ‘neo-classicism’ in music - also encompassing art, architecture, literature and drama - the music that emerged as a result is just as valid as any other. It has gone on further to enrich the art and the lives of those who enjoy it. The main ‘principles’ that define this genre is a ‘back to basics’ decision to restore simplicity. This was characterised by a pared-down orchestra and a rejection of walls of sound and lushly romantic waves of emotion in favour of a more down to earth approach in which, as Susie Harries puts it, “The emphasis was more often on rhythm and contrapuntal texture than on harmonic colouring”. As she explains, the genealogies for the neo-classicism of the 1920s were the German version with its roots in the junge Klassizatät (new classicism) advocated by Busoni. This was interpreted by Paul Hindemith with its model of Bach’s counterpoint. The French version was influenced by Satie, Cocteau and Stravinsky and was less academic and more a question of viewing the Baroque through a twentieth century prism. The fascinating thing is that whatever the motivations were and whatever conscious efforts to be nationalist in sentiment - the ‘French’ school being pro-French and anti-German for example - there is an overall similarity in the style of music that emerged. The Bachian influences are very evident but then what better model could a composer have in any case. Both genealogies bring to mind the phrase that “all roads lead to Rome”.
It could be said that there were many influences that helped shape the music of Erwin Schulhoff but it was his political views that were the most crucial. As a soldier on the Russian front in the First World War he was revolted by his experience of it and by the forces that he believed had been responsible for it. All of this made him rebellious and in music this translated into an embracing of new and more radical trends. He wrote music that John Cage would have easily recognised decades before he wrote his. As a jazz pianist himself, and in common with many other composers at the time, he incorporated the jazz idiom into his music. Therefore, when neo-classicism emerged as a reaction to the perceived excesses of the late-romantic period it was natural that he should choose to explore it. His Concerto doppio is a superb example. Schulhoff, a child prodigy as a pianist, wrote the concerto for himself to play alongside flautist René le Roy. It gives the listener a good idea of how much of a piano virtuoso he must have been. Conforming to the traditional three-movement structure the work is a brilliant example of what a concerto grosso is, namely a small group of soloists who pass their material between themselves and the orchestra which is also small. This gives the whole enterprise a particularly intimate feel in a similar way to that of a chamber symphony. Schulhoff’s work dives straight in with a propulsive motoric drive that is full of energy. It hints at baroque inspiration but with some undertones of the exotic woven through. All of this serves to heighten the excitement. This energy is then dissipated and the movement becomes calmer. The second movement is much more restrained with an overall feeling of sad nostalgia. There is some especially beautiful writing for the flute and piano. The finale bursts back into life in a section marked Allegro con spirito followed by a short trio section for the soloists. This leads into a Tempo di blues with jazz overtones before a return to the dance-like opening theme that brings the work to its effervescent conclusion. The addition of two horns gives a further fresh ‘modern’ feel to the work. In every way it conforms to what Susan Harries sums up as the main features of the genre, “a return ... to ... qualities of balance, clarity and objectivity: the baroque and the eighteenth century”.
I very much like and agree with the quote that Susan Harries gives in her introduction to the next work on the disc. Here Krenek declares “I feel that it is perfectly legitimate for a composer to look for something different just because it is new and different, and he should stop apologising for being curious”. Though later in his life he did make some statements that appear to distance himself from his excursions into neo-classicism, his five movement Concertino, here receiving it world première recording, is a really successful and thoroughly convincing example with its charming and delightful ebullience. Krenek explored many different trends in music including twelve-tone composition hence his comment that his neo-classicist period was like “walking backwards into the future”. One of his compositions, his opera Johnny spielt auf embraced two of the Nazi regime’s particular hates: jazz and a black hero. As a result his music was declared ‘degenerate’ and he was forced to leave Austria in 1938.
Vincent d’Indy’s Concert for piano, flute and cello opens in a recognisably 18th century way firmly establishing its neo-classical credentials from the word go. For all the genre’s rejection of late-romanticism there is a lushness in d’Indy’s writing that makes it quite irresistible. Written in 1926 when the composer was 75 it was in part a response to the attempts to ‘re-nationalise’ French music. This chimed perfectly with his detestation of Satie and the Groupe des Six whose excursions into surrealism he found totally alien. The music is exuberant and the flute and cello have some wonderful moments between them with the piano often seeming to call them to order. I am pleased to have had the opportunity to get to know this work and to quell my feelings about d’Indy the man, whose “royalist, Catholic, nationalist and traditionalist” background as well as his anti-Semitism has usually steered me away.
Reading the booklet notes by the pianist Maria Prinz who came up with the idea of this disc these feelings were also considered by the musicians who finally decided that there is no real incongruity in including his music along with the other two just as she noted Daniel Barenboim had fought to programme Wagner in Israel. As Barenboim wrote “Wagner was an anti-Semite, but his music wasn’t ... the music is not ideological”.
As I said at the beginning, music transcends both religion and politics unless there is a specific message within it which there is most certainly not in d’Indy’s music on this disc.
The concept of devoting a disc to the neo-classical music of the 1920s is a very attractive one. I hope there will be further discs of it; there is much more similar music to explore including that of composers such as Hindemith, Honegger, Martinů, Poulenc, Stravinsky andFrançaix . The soloists played wonderfully, helping to make the best possible case for the genre and Sir Neville Marriner’s Academy of St Martin in the Fields was as sparkling as it has always been. It represents the finest traditions of orchestral playing of which we can all be justly proud.
This is a totally absorbing disc of fine music that is all too rarely heard and including a real discovery in the shape of the Krenek. Plaudits are deserved all round.
Totally absorbing … fine music that is all too rarely heard.
Previous review: David Barker
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