Once again Toccata Classics has brought out a CD from a composer whose name will surely be unknown to the vast majority of listeners, academics and musicologists alike.
American cellist Stefan Koch has provided an excellent set of liner-notes about Austrian composer Richard Stöhr and his music. These also include some interesting art-work. Clearly Koch emerges more as an out-and-out devotee than a mere enthusiastic fan, since he writes: ‘I consider Stöhr to be a very important and almost completely unknown figure in the late Romantic German composing tradition. Why then is he so completely unknown? This is a bit of a mystery to me’.
Clearly there are some biographical implications which have meant Stöhr not getting the acclaim he might otherwise have deserved. Like a number of composers throughout history who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, Stöhr and his Jewish compatriots suffered greatly because of the Nazi oppression at the end of the 1930. He might well have suffered the same fate as his sister, Hedwig, who died in a transit camp in Poland in 1942, after he had earlier fled Austria. It’s also to do with the musical quality.
Born Richard Stern in Vienna, 1874 – the same year as Arnold Schoenberg – Stöhr’s Jewish parents came originally from Hungary. He first obtained a degree in medicine, but immediately entered the University of Music and the Performing Arts as a composition student of Robert Fuchs. At the same time he changed his surname and as with many other Jewish composers, like Mahler, converted to Christianity, because of the difficult times ahead. Then followed a successful time as teacher and academic – as well as being called up to serve locally as a doctor in the Austrian army. After the Anschluss in 1938, he was immediately identified by Nazi officials as a Jew, and emigrated the following year to the USA. There he continued his successful teaching career where his students numbered Karajan, Leinsdorf, Samuel Barber, Rudolf Serkin, and even Marlene Dietrich.
When I first heard a sample, and subsequently the complete track of the first of the four Fantasiestücke
– a poignantly-expressive outpouring of melody marked ‘Andante espressivo’, I thought I was going to be smitten by the whole CD in particular, and Stöhr’s music in general. Conceived in a style that encompasses the worlds of Schumann, Brahms and Robert Fuchs – with some gently-persuasive chromaticism to give just that hint of a somewhat later era – this opening gambit is indeed some six-and-a-half minutes of pure delight in every respect.
The next three pieces in the set – ‘Andantino espressivo’, ‘Andante con moto’ and ‘Prestissimo’ – provide good variety and are well-crafted, both harmonically, and structurally. For example there is an effectively-wrought canon in the third piece. They’re all very easy on the ear. However, are we really hearing a truly individual voice here? Are we in fact listening to something of the same intrinsic musical eminence as that of any other better-known composer born that same year – Josef Suk, Reynaldo Hahn, Charles Ives, Arnold Schoenberg, Franz Schmidt or Gustav Holst? I think not, though this is certainly no reason to condemn it out of hand, or to question the obvious time and effort spent initially in researching the composer’s music and then recording it on CD.
Stöhr wrote some fifteen sonatas for violin and piano, but managed just one for cello, a piece written in 1915 while he was working as a doctor in the Austrian Army. Koch reads into the work a World War I ‘programme’. According to him, ‘Hints of martial music may be detected in the Allegro con brio
first movement, reflecting the ongoing war. The second movement, Andante sostenuto
, is a deeply-felt statement about the world in which it was created. The Allegro
finale at times hearkens back to the more idyllic world of the Fantasy Pieces
but is tinged with more melancholy’. Koch also points out, ‘Interestingly, as with all the Fantasy Pieces
, all of the movements of the Sonata end softly. It took a mature composer, sure of his aesthetic, to completely eschew the grand forte
ending that conventionally ends a work of such scale’.
Liszt, we know, eventually did the same with his Sonata in B minor, arguably the greatest Romantic work for solo piano, but while we’re not quite talking ‘chalk’ and ‘cheese’, the two works just aren’t cast from the same musical block. True there is abundant lyricism in Stöhr’s slow movement, and it’s well constructed overall, but thematically and organically, it falls a little short of the mark.
As a dedicated Stöhr aficionado, Koch feels that the composer’s music was largely forgotten in Europe after the Second World War, because the composer was then in the States – unable to champion it himself in his homeland. While Koch’s devotion is admirable, his own comment that as soon as he started playing through the cello parts, he could tell that this was ‘romantic, melodic music and quite well written and constructed’, does, I feel, rather sum up what can be heard on the present CD.
Koch goes on to say that he actually tried to interest a number of ‘famous cellists’ in Richard Stöhr in the hope that they would take up his cause and even make the recordings in his place. The fact that those whom he asked, apparently passed up the opportunity, perhaps says a little about the quality of music, given the not-overly-virtuosic demands it makes on the cellist. It is certainly idiomatically written for the instrument.
In the final analysis, Koch does a good job, and the fact that he really believes in the music and the cause itself, often proves as important as pure technical mastery. Pianist Robert Conway provides excellent accompaniment throughout, and again shows a real empathy both with his co-performer, and with the spirit of the music itself.
The recording is exemplary, and will definitely have an appeal to those who just like to dabble in the unknown, even if it’s really all been heard before, just under another name.
Toccata Classics are nevertheless to be commended for bringing Richard Stöhr and his music to our attention. However, when compared with another recent Toccata release of piano music by Anatoly Alexandrov
(1888-1992), himself another largely-unknown composer outside his native Russia, the latter’s music would somehow seem to offer so many more cogent musical reasons for making his music, rather than Stöhr’s, eminently better known to the musical public.
Philip R Buttall