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Recordings of the Month


From Ocean’s Floor


Conner Riddle Songs

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Of Innocence and Experience


Symphonies 1, 2, 3

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Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Nocturne symphonique, Op. 43 [8:54]
Hans PFITZNER (1869-1949)
Piano Concerto, Op. 31 [42:20]
Max REGER (1873-1916)
Eine romantische Suite (A Romantic Suite), Op. 125 [28:57]
Tzimon Barto (piano)
Staatskapelle Dresden/Christian Thielemann
rec. live, 3 September 2011 (Busoni, Pfitzner), 1 June 2011 (Reger), Semperoper, Dresden, Germany,
Edition Staatskapelle Dresden, vol. 34
HANSSLER PROFIL EDITION PH12016 [51:54 + 28:57]

It’s wonderful to see an elite orchestra like the Staatskapelle Dresden under such a renowned conductor as Christian Thielemann releasing a programme of neglected works from the pens of Busoni, Pfitzner and Reger. At the time of these recordings Maestro Thielemann was chief conductor-elect of the Staatskapelle Dresden. All three composers were based in Germany and were popular in their lifetime but are known more today by reputation than by actual concert performances.
Congratulations are in order to the enterprising Profil label for releasing this disc recorded live across a pair of concerts from the Semperoper in 2011 at Dresden. Nine days after this Dresden recording of the Busoni and Pfitzner scores I reported at a concert at the Berlin Philharmonie with Maestro Thielemann and the Staatskapelle Dresden in which the same pair of scores were performed in a programme with the Brahms Symphony No. 1.
At the Staatskapelle Dresden chief conductor Thielemann has been exploring forgotten works from the period of development just prior to and after the First World War; the era of change from the late-Romantic to the modern era. Thielemann was surprised by the vast variety of works the orchestra had played in the concert seasons around 1900/30. It seems hard to imagine today in 2013 that the music of Busoni and Pfitzner had in Germany been considered “aesthetically incompatible” and rarely appeared together on concert programmes. Whatever the respective views of each composer whether it be on political or religious grounds, Thielemann holds the view that a composer’s opinions, no matter how odious, are not perceptible in the music and it is the music alone that interests him.
The first work on the disc Ferruccio Busoni’s Symphonic Nocturne for orchestra from 1912/14 was intended as a study for the opera Doctor Faust, his magnum opus. Considered a radical work at the time of composition, the score quickly fell into obscurity. To illustrate this, according to the Brockhaus list of concert programmes Furtwängler during his tenure as principal conductor with the Berliner Philharmoniker (1922/54) gave no performance of the Symphonic Nocturne. In fact he conducted only one Busoni score during that entire period. Given the finest advocacy by Thielemann and his Dresden players, the Symphonic Nocturne is revealed as a beautifully crafted, nocturnal tone painting, evocative of shadowy and mysterious woodland glades. I was struck by exquisite work from the Dresden strings matched by such sensitive horn playing. At the Berlin performance of the score that I attended, Thielemann who clearly greatly admires Busoni’s Nocturne, took the audience by surprise by stating that they were going to repeat the score and they played it again in the city where it had first been premiered in 1914 under the composer’s baton. The booklet notes state that Thielemann did the same at this Dresden performance. Here the sound engineers have edited out the audience applause.
During the 1920s/30s Hans Pfitzner’s scores were regularly found on concert programmes. Pfitzner’s difficult relationship with the National Socialist regime in Germany ensured diminished opportunities for performances. After the war and up to his death in 1949 his music never really received the same attention again. Pfitzner composed his Concerto for piano and orchestra in E flat major, Op. 31 in 1922 - a product of his time teaching at the Prussian Academy in Berlin. It was premiered in 1923 in Dresden by the Staatskapelle Dresden with Water Gieseking as soloist and the composer conducting. I noted that Furtwängler who frequently programmed Pfitzner scores conducted the Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic again with Gieseking as soloist at the Alte Philharmonie in 1923 and in 1934. A substantial score cast in four movements Pfitzner’s concerto is played here by Florida-born pianist Tzimon Barto. Opening in vigorous virtuosic style , rather in the manner of Brahms and Tchaikovsky, the writing soon develops a certain reserve, eschewing frothy showmanship. Clearly this is ‘love music’ poignant and passionate; if held somewhat in check. Maybe Pfitzner is depicting a love affair that could not be. Here the mellifluous oboe, so beautifully played, weeps a sensitive lament. Full of nervous vitality the second movement Scherzo pleads to be victorious yet the writing ensures that the soloist’s emotions are moderated. I was struck how the appealing melodies, especially the one at the opening, reminded me of Brahms. A plaintive horn joined by woodwind against an achingly beautiful and soft cushioning of strings opens the slow movement. Barto enters tentatively with an ever so gentle melody creating a safe and comforting atmosphere where everything is at peace with the world. In the exuberant Finale the piano is joined by the full orchestra for an uplifting climax, but before long the rather reticent and somewhat self-conscious mood returns. Thielemann assuredly brings this fascinating score to a rousing and powerful climax greeted with an enthusiastic audience reaction.
Described by The Max Reger Foundation of America as, “a progressive early modernist composer” Max Reger was not as controversial a figure as Busoni and Pfitzner. Consequently his music has not been tainted in the same way. The three movement Eine romantische Suite (A Romantic Suite), Op. 125 comes from Reger’s time as court conductor in Meiningen where he had the use of the Hofkapelle. It seems appropriate that the Staatskapelle Dresden is playing A Romantic Suite as Reger’s association with Dresden goes back a long way. It was Dresden general music director Ernst von Schuch who conducted the premiere at Dresden in 1912. Reger prefaced each of the three movements with poems by Joseph von Eichendorff and originally intended to give each movement the titles of the poems before settling on neutral music markings. Later Reger revealed titles for each movement to his publisher: Notturno: ‘A moonlit night in Thuringia’, Scherzo: ‘Elfin Dance!’ and Finale:‘Helios - sunrise!’ Exuding a convincing ethereal nocturnal atmosphere a dense blanket of strings dominates the opening movement with languorously flowing lyricism. Marked Vivace this is not a madcap Scherzo and under Thielemann the pace could hardly be described as lively. With an air of reserve both in mood and tempi the performance actually feels surprisingly stately if maybe a touch tongue-in-cheek. There's a variety of woodwind figures that feature prominently over lush strings. The Molto sostenuto writing feels highly romantic and intensely passionate with Thielemann allowing the attractively luxuriant orchestration to wash over the listener. Variations in both tempi and weight add to the interest with the ending of the work feeling gloriously ecstatic.
Recorded live in 2011 in the splendid acoustic of the Semperoper in Dresden the engineers have provided well balanced clear sound that reveals plenty of detail. Unfortunately the Reger performance wouldn’t fit on a single disc so a two disc set was needed. Part of the Profil’s continuing Edition Staatskapelle Dresden, the overall presentation of this vol. 34 is mightily impressive. The booklet notes are impeccable with a number of fascinating photographs. In penetrating and persuasive performances by the Staatskapelle Dresden this release on Profil contains three fascinating and rewarding early twentieth century works that deserve to be heard more often.
Michael Cookson