The influence, both positive and negative, of Richard Wagner upon composers of the later nineteenth century was so overwhelming that it has tended to overshadow his equally great influence on the field of conducting. He wrote an important essay on the subject in the 1850s, and conducted the works of many major composers of his day; but oddly enough he never conducted performances of his major works from the 1860s onwards, instead delegating the task to such acolytes as Hans Richter, Hermann Levi - and Baron Hans von Bülow. The latter had been a disciple of the ‘Master’ since his days of exile, and took charge of the premières of both Tristan und Isolde
and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
in Munich; but his relationship with Wagner fell apart after the composer eloped with the conductor’s wife Cosima, and the two never worked together again. During the 1850s and 1860s Bülow had also nurtured serious ambitions as a composer - he even framed ideas for his own opera on the subject of Tristan
- and although Friedrich Nietzsche - another of Wagner’s friends who fell out spectacularly with the composer - described Bülow as being “sterile as a composer”, he did receive approbation from Liszt and his music has long maintained a precarious foothold on the outermost fringes of the repertoire.
Paul Conway’s informative booklet notes for this issue speak of a number of orchestral works, but of these the only one I have ever heard is his tone-poem Nirwana
in a radio broadcast by the Ulster Orchestra under Bryden Thomson, and the commercial recording of that piece on CD conducted by Leon Botstein seems to have disappeared from the catalogues. Nirwana
is an orchestral fantasy in the Lisztian mould. Paul Conway suggests that it had its own influence on the music of Wagner in Tristan
; but it is a rather pallid piece which certainly lacks the transcendent ecstasy that its title would imply, although it was spoken of with admiration by his pupil Richard Strauss. The booklet notes speak of other large-scale pieces - which might suggest that a complete CD of Bülow’s orchestral music might be feasible, and the results would certainly be interesting.
Most of Bülow’s compositional output, however, came in the form of piano works - and his performing editions of the music of other composers such as Bach, Beethoven and Chopin. He was clearly a very proficient pianist - he was the soloist in the première of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto
, a work dedicated to him - and his paraphrases on the music of Gluck, Wagner and Verdi were once available on a 1993 Marco Polo CD played by Daniel Blumenthal. The issue under consideration here is Volume 2 of a series of recordings of his piano music, and it is good to report that the repertoire in the first two volumes of this Nimbus cycle consists of pieces that do not duplicate any of the items on that earlier disc - which although deleted remains available from ArchivMusic - with the exception here of one movement from the Trois Valses caractéristiques
and on the earlier disc of the Op.11 Ballade.
Indeed this volume consists almost entirely of original works by Bülow, with only one item being a transcription - the Chant Polonais
by Friedrich Hieronymus Truhn (1811-86), a composer who is only currently represented in the catalogues by a solitary two-minute song for male quartet.
None of the individual pieces here are longer than ten minutes in duration, the opening Mazurka-Fantaisie
being the most substantial. The influence of Chopin is strong here, as indeed it is in the other Polish-titled works Mazurka-Impromptu, Invitation à la Polka
and Chant Polonais.
These are also the earliest works in this collection, interspersed in the running order between the later pieces; and only the grandiose ending of the transcription of the Chant Polonais
steps very far outside the world of the salon
. The slightly later Elfenjagd
, as its title suggests, is one of those whimsical ‘fairy’ pieces of which nineteenth century composers were so fond. The mood of the music is a little more serious than merely scherzo-like friskiness in the Mendelssohnian style, with a rather unexpectedly subdued middle section.
The Trois Valses caractéristiques
- described with grammatical incorrectness as Trois Valse caractéristique
on both the CD cover and track listing - are somewhat later pieces, written as character sketches not unspiced with a sense of humour. The final Königsmarsch
comes as quite a shock after the earlier relatively laid-back music. It begins with an arresting call to attention, delivered in stentorian style by Anderson. It clearly reveals the influence of Wagner - it was written as late as 1880 - with the busy march counterpoints revealing, as one might expect, a close acquaintance with the score of Die Meistersinger.
It also sports a really good tune in its middle section which positively screams out for orchestral strings. Paul Conway in his notes observes that the march does not achieve “the same level of poetic sensibility” as the Mazurka-Fantasie
, but I would suggest that this theme - and the imaginative way in which it is developed - reveal Bülow as possibly a more substantial composer than his other music might suggest.
The earlier release in this Anderson series was reviewed
by Colin Clarke for this site and was well received - Blumenthal’s earlier release had received relatively lukewarm reviews at the time of its issue from publications such as Gramophone
,BBC Music Magazine
, Classic CD
It must be observed that Anderson makes out a much better case for Bülow’s music than Blumenthal managed to do, possibly assisted by the fact that he is dealing with something more substantial than transcriptions of other composers’ music. In his booklet note Paul Conway says of Bülow that “ultimately he forfeited his own career as a creative artist to focus on authentic and dedicated interpretations of the works of others”. That might well not have been an altogether unwise decision. Indeed it must be candidly noted that Bülow is no Liszt, and his compositions generally remain firmly in the realm of imitation rather than innovation. It is not bad imitation, for all that, and one or another of the items on this disc - and definitely the Königsmarsch
- would make a pleasant change in recitals from more standard fare.
Paul Corfield Godfrey