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Eugen d’ALBERT (1864-1932)
Overture to Grillparzer’s Esther, op.8 (1888) [12:45]
Die toten Augen (1916) Prelude – I. introduction [8:22]
Gernot (1897) prelude to Act II [4:54]
Der Rubin (1893) overture [9:11]
Die Abreise (1898) overture [7:54]
Aschenputtel suite, op.38 (1924) [15:34]
Das Seejungfräulein, op.15 (1897) [16:32]
Viktorija Kaminskaite (soprano)
MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra/Jun Märkl
rec. MDR Studio Augustusplatz, Leipzig, Germany; 27-28 January 2011 (op.38), 28 January 2011 (op.8), 5 December 2011 (Die toten Augen and Gernot), 6 December 2011 (Der Rubin and Die Abreise) and 7 December 2011 (op.15).
NAXOS 8.573110 [75:11]

One has to wonder whether Eugen d'Albert was his own worst enemy. After all, a man who got through no fewer than six wives and at least one mistress in a single lifetime must have had either very poor judgement or at the very least a pretty minimal attention span.

Following the same line of thought, one might also question the commercial sense of a jobbing composer who lumbered his substantial op.8 with the distinctly user-unfriendly title Overture to Grillparzer's Esther. Indeed, I note that some years ago Hyperion's canny marketing department clearly felt it advisable to simplify the title to Overture to 'Esther' on the front cover of an engaging BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra recording conducted by Martyn Brabbins ( CDA67387).

Thankfully, in the case of this overture, d'Albert's music is rather more fluent than its awkward title might suggest. Anyone who appreciates Brahms's sound-world will feel quite at home here, though the absence of a memorable "big tune" makes the overture a pleasant, rather than an especially striking, musical experience.

Of the other four shorter tracks, the introduction to the opening prelude of Die toten Augen is effectively atmospheric and suggestive of the drama to come - a religious epic surely worthy, in its combination of superficial piety and underlying prurience, of the attention of Cecil B. DeMille. The Act II prelude to Gernot, an opera set among barbarian tribes during the era of the Roman Empire, depicts a lively wedding celebration and would, I suspect, have made a rather better choice for the disc's opening track than Grillparzer's Esther.

D'Albert's eclecticism in the choice of subject matter for his 19 operas is demonstrated by the conjunction of Der Rubin and Die Abreise. The overture to the former, set in Abbasid Baghdad, is enjoyable enough in a conventional late 19th century way, though the composer's apparent determination to steer clear of "oriental" musical clichés means that it could just as easily be introducing a drama taking place in medieval Iceland. Meanwhile, the domestic comedy Die Abreise boasts a light-hearted, chirruping overture that sets an appropriate tone for the jolly japes that occur when a husband suspects his neglected wife of some extra-marital flirtation – a storyline no doubt reflective of widespread male paranoia in an era of increasing women's emancipation.

That takes us to the two most substantial items on the disc, the Aschenputtel suite, consisting of five movements depicting incidents from the familiar story of Cinderella, and the earlier Das Seejungfräulein, written by d'Albert for soprano and orchestra and premiered by his third wife, the singer Hermine Finck.

The comparatively late Aschenputtel suite marks a significant change in style from what we have heard so far on this disc. The far more expressionist score is, in places, somewhat reminiscent of Debussy, a composer whose music certainly featured in d'Albert's pianistic repertoire (see here). Whereas the Aschenputtel suite's five movements are each comparatively brief, the substantial Das Seejungfräulein provides d'Albert with the opportunity to explore the far wider range of moods appropriate to its familiar "redemption through the power of love" storyline. As a result, this is the most complex, rounded and involving work on this disc. Lithuanian soprano Viktorija Kaminskaite rises well to the challenge of what I imagine will have been a less than familiar score and gives a moving, atmospheric account.

D'Albert's orchestral music remains very much on the fringes of the repertoire and only occasionally appears on disc. Although these well played and expertly recorded accounts from Jun Märkl and his Leipzig players certainly fill in some useful gaps, it is fair to say that their most striking single feature is their sheer diversity. I wonder whether, having heard them, we may begin to suspect that d'Albert concentrated rather too much effort on accumulating all those wives, when his time might have been better spent establishing a more consistent and readily identifiable musical personality.

Rob Maynard