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Adolf JENSEN (1837-1879)
Wedding Music Op.45 (orch. Reinhold Becker) (1873) [20:28]
On the Road to Emmaus - Sacred Piece for Large Orchestra Op.27 (1862) [20:07]
The Heiress of Montfort - orchestral excerpts (1858-1865) [25:41]
Philharmonie Baden-Baden/Pavel Baleff
rec. Weinbrenner-Saal, Baden-Baden, Germany, 2014

Recently I reviewed a disc of early Dvořák - written the same year as much of the music presented here - and expressed an opinion that clumsy youthful work by that composer tends to be infinitely superior and interesting than the best endeavours of many a minor composer. If proof were needed along comes this thoroughly pleasant, wholly well-crafted ultimately forgettable music by Adolf Jensen.

Jensen was born in Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) in 1837 - the eldest son of a music teacher. His talents were precocious enough that he was already concertising on the piano by eleven years old. By nineteen he had the post as music teacher to the children of the Russian Governor of the province of Brest-Litovsk. His hope to study with Robert Schumann came to nothing due to the senior composer's illness and death. By twenty-three he was a sought-after piano teacher in his home town and within six years was of sufficient repute to be 'head-hunted' by Carl Tausig as one of his piano teachers for his newly-founded school for Advanced Piano Playing in Berlin. After two years he moved to Dresden to concentrate on composition but his final decade was dogged by ill-health and a nomadic lifestyle trying to find a climate which would ameliorate his painfully damaged lungs. To no lasting avail and he died in Baden-Baden in early 1879 aged just forty-two.

His musical legacy is not large aside from 180 songs. That apart there is one opera, one symphonic poem, several choral works and 24 compositions for piano and six for piano/four hands. That being the case, this disc which gives us the orchestral interludes from the opera, the afore-mentioned tone poem and an orchestration - by Reinhold Becker - of a piano/four hands work, would seem to give us the bulk, or at least a good overview of Jensen's work for orchestra.

For a composer aspiring to learn from Schumann and latterly impressed by Wagner, Liszt and the New German School the music sounds pretty much as one would expect. The disc opens with an easily attractive suite entitled Wedding Music. Cast in four movements and effectively scored by Becker this has the feel of a collection of 'mood' pieces. The four movements are titled Procession, The Bride's Song, Roundelay and Nocturne. For sure there is more than a hint of Mendelssohn here too and not just in the familiarity of the movement's titles. The style of the music lies somewhere between the admired Schumann and Raff. It is elegant and instantly appealing - but also instantly forgettable. Credit to Becker because this does not sound like an orchestrated piano work. The opening Procession is bold and strides confidently forward in a very foursquare and harmonically unchallenging way. The second movement Bride's Song reminded me of a similarly lyrical movement in Goldmark's Rustic Wedding Symphony - again very tastefully orchestrated with an appealing gentle lilt to the assuming main theme shared between strings and solo wind. The closing Nocturne is the longest section of the suite and also the most understatedly effective.

The next work on this disc is also the most substantial. By title alone it is rather unusual - subtitled "Sacred Piece based on the Gospel according to Luke 24: 13-24" - it is in effect a religious tone poem. The passage from Luke's Gospel referred to is the journey by two of Jesus' disciples from Jerusalem to Emmaus after finding the empty tomb. They are joined - initially unrecognised - by the risen Christ - who consoles them in their sorrow and ultimately is recognised. Jensen dedicated the work to Berlioz - who wrote congratulating Jensen on the score - but it is modelled on Liszt's new concept of Symphonic Poem. The liner makes a good case for the work but I must admit I found it rather over-extended. That being said the more I listened to this disc the more I appreciated the simple skill of Jensen's work. Berlioz's praise is generous - from such a master of the orchestra - because Jensen uses instruments in effective but usually predictable ways. There is a conservative stuffiness about this tone-poem that makes it feel rather pious albeit in a wholly sincere fashion. The opening comes as something of a shock though because the tutti unison phrase sounds for all the world like a near-direct lift from the opening of Schumann's Spring Symphony although given a rather religious flavour. Throughout the work Jensen seems keen to underline the 'Christian message' by resorting to hymn-like themes, plagal [amen] cadences and an atmosphere of sombre piety. In the closing pages of the work - following the revelation of the risen Lord - the music lifts upwards - as the liner puts it - towards "redemption and transfiguration" which it does but without the sense of exaltation or release that would seem appropriate.

The disc is completed by three extended excerpts from Jensen's only opera The Heiress of Montfort. The liner writer Joachim Draheim says that this suffered from a clumsy text (supplied by the composer himself) and unconvincing dramaturgy. Very curiously, as the work was neither staged or published in Jensen's lifetime, his daughter - with help from composer Wilhelm Kienzl - took the existing music pretty much untouched, reordered it, added a wholly new text and called it Turandot! Given that the spirit of Jensen's music does seem appropriate to the concept of the original - a typical German/Romantic opera set in mid-18th Century France - this transposition to fairytale China seems quite a leap. The three excerpts are an extended Overture, a pastoral Prelude to Act II, and some nominal ballet music also from the second act. Draheim in the liner rightly points to a lineage which includes Weber and Nicolai although on the evidence presented here without the drama of the former or the melodic memorability of the latter. Again the pervading sense is of all-round competence with little if any genius.

All of the music here is given world premiere recordings from conductor Pavel Baleff and his Philharmonie Baden-Baden. The Weinbrenner-Saal proves to be a warm and generous recording location and the orchestra make exactly the kind of rich and dynamic sound that typifies many German orchestras. Certainly they are more than capable of coping with the technical demands the music makes of them. The Genuin production is good - a booklet in just German and English which includes a good essay on the composer and his works, the usual artist/orchestra biographies and a couple of interesting photographs including the composer's tombstone. Indeed, this disc makes as good a case for these minor works as I can imagine. I see that Toccata Records are being their usual intrepid selves and releasing Volume 1 of a series of piano works by Jensen. I suspect that these might prove more interesting - my instinct is that Jensen was not naturally suited to larger-scale forms such as symphonic poems and operas.

Worthy but minor.

Nick Barnard


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