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Ludwig THUILLE (1861-1907)
Sonata for Cello and Piano in D minor, Op. 22 [25:01]
Trio for Violin, Viola and Piano, without Op. number [38:20]
Sonata for Violin and Piano in D minor, Op. 1 [23:32]
Sonata for Violin and Piano in E minor, Op. 30 [26:37]
Mark Gothoni (violin), Ulrich Eichenauer (viola), Peter Hörr (cello), Frank-Immo Zichner (piano)
rec. 2011, Siemensvilla Berlin-Lankwitz, Germany
CPO 777 967-2 [63:21 + 50:09]

Ludwig Thuille was born in Bozen – then part of South Tyrol. Today it's part of Italy under the name of Bolzano. Thuille's surname is Rhaeto-Romance - a sub-family of the Romance languages - in origin. This language is spoken in north and north-eastern Italy and Switzerland.

Losing both his parents when he was eleven, Thuille moved in with his step-uncle in Kremsmünster, Austria, where he sang in the Benedictine choir, and studied organ, piano and violin. His musical abilities were exceptional, so in 1876 the widow of composer and conductor, Matthaus Nagiller, took him to Innsbruck for more advanced musical training. Here, in the summer of 1877, he met the young Richard Strauss, whose family was visiting the town and the two became lifelong friends. Thuille was recommended to well-established composer, Josef Rheinberger, whose student he became at Munich’s Hochschule für Musik und Theater München, graduating with honours in 1882. He actually succeeded his erstwhile professor in 1893. Lasting success came with his ‘Harmonielehre’ – a harmony treatise which survived into the 1930s. This helped contribute to Thuille’s success as a composer, pianist, conservatory-teacher, and choral conductor, until his untimely demise at the age of forty-five.

A prolific composer, Thuille concentrated on chamber music, and is principally remembered for his Sextet for Piano and Wind Instruments, essentially his only work to have kept a precarious hold on the repertoire. Despite his friendship with Strauss — which extended to making a two-piano arrangement of the latter’s tone poem ‘Don Juan’ — and notwithstanding his devotion to music-drama, Thuille remained a fairly conservative composer during his relatively brief life.

The comprehensive German sleeve-notes are by Andreas Wehrmeyer. They have been translated into English by J. Bradford Robinson. He has done an idiomatic job save for the somewhat strange anomaly that, while on the back of the jewel-case all four works are titled in English, in the insert the works on CD 2 are shown in German.

Wehrmeyer writes that ‘Thuille’s music proceeded from Viennese classicism and the conservative academician of the Rheinberger School, while incorporating elements from the New German School and Richard Strauss. This conflict is evident in various forms in virtually all his works – it also defined his activities as a teacher, as he saw his task primarily as conveying to his students a proper sense of balance between tradition and exaggerated novelty. Thuille felt at home in the canon of classical forms, which he enriched with certain expressive devices from the New German School’. He is not miles apart from Brahms in this.

In terms of Thuille’s works, Wehrmeyer further adds: ‘Pride of place goes to his chamber music, with the works of his maturity representing the zenith of his output’. The above-mentioned Sextet is relatively well-represented on CD, but it is essentially an early work, written in the years 1886-88.This latest double CD from CPO features another two early works from the composer, but also includes two from his last few years. All his chamber music is beautifully written, full of vitality and rich in thematic and harmonic invention. As such it is still more than capable of captivating its listeners. But where this quite superb CPO disc scores heavily is with the two late works – the Sonata for Violoncello and Piano in D minor, Op. 22 and Sonata for Violin and Piano in E minor, Op. 30 respectively.

Disc 1, in fact, opens with the Cello Sonata, while the late Violin Sonata ends Disc 2. Given that this is a 2-CD set, this is probably the most sensible way to order the four works involved. Without having read the chronological detail in the sleeve-note, the listener would no doubt be taken aback by the sheer musical quality of the Cello Sonata, and then expect this to be maintained throughout the set. While the Trio for Violin, Viola and Piano, and the early Violin Sonata in D minor, Op. 1, which separate the two late works on the two CDs, are thoroughly enjoyable, and not mere carbon copies of what Thuille’s contemporaries were penning at the time, the late works are on an altogether different platform, which makes CPO’s adoption of a time-honoured formula – a good start and finish – perfectly sensible.

The Violin Sonata in D minor and Trio in E flat clearly reveal Thuille’s study of Beethoven’s Viennese classicism, the former with some assistance from Rheinberger, to whom the work is dedicated. The English translation renders the original ‘Unterstützung’ as ‘intercession’, whereas ‘help’ or ‘assistance’ might be considered slightly more apt. Both pieces are four-movement works, the inner ones of the Sonata being a sprightly Scherzo and a melodious Adagio, while the Trio favours a march-like Andante and a Minuet and Trio (quaintly rendered in the sleeve-note as ‘minuet cum trio’) – terminology rather more akin to an American degree-.classification. The opening movements are cast in sonata-form with distinct groups of themes, while the finales are conventional sonata-rondos, with a dance-like lilt. Of passing interest is the fact that Thuille prefers the somewhat unusual combination of Piano, Violin and Viola, rather than Piano, Violin and Cello for his Trio. This does slightly colour the string tessitura, now deprived of the cello’s sonorous bottom octave under the viola. Whether Thuille was specifically adopting the mould used by German composer and conductor Ignaz Lachner (1807-1895) in his Six Piano Trios, or experimenting with some different shading, as Brahms did in his earlier Horn Trio (1865), remains to be seen. It certainly doesn’t detract in any way from the immediacy and success of the writing.

More than fifteen years separate Thuille’s two works above from the D minor Cello Sonata (1901-02) and the E minor Violin Sonata (1904). According to Wehrmeyer: ‘Both were written in a fresh burst of creativity, following several stage works. Their language is more heavily indebted to ‘New German’ idioms, as can be heard in their harmonic acerbities and an inclination toward fluid formal designs and declamatory expressive gestures. The opening of the Cello Sonata recalls Strauss in its vivacious breakaway gesture, as does the Violin Sonata with its characteristic motivic rhythm of dots [i.e. dotted-rhythms] and triplets. Both works are laid out in three movements, and both focus on essentials, as is apparent not least in their more tightly unified thematic material. The finale of the Cello Sonata, for example, returns conspicuously to a motif from the slow movement’.

If you were initially just to read the opening sentence of the final paragraph, you might begin to question whether Wehrmeyer is actually writing about the four works presented on this CD set, and especially the two late works included, when he states that Thuille’s music has ‘an aristocratic restraint that apparently drew accusations of conservatism and lack of individuality’. Listen to any of the slow movements, but in particular the simply gorgeous Adagio of the Cello Sonata, and you may well feel at odds with this pronouncement, too. Granted, as Wehrmeyer further postulates, that Thuille did not place great store in appearing progressive and individual — although it is not easy to hazard an accurate guess as to the composer of the two late works, from a cursory audition — it was therefore more in keeping with Thuille’s temperament to avoid the debates and ideologies of his day and to counter them with noblesse. Viewed in this light, he concludes, that even today Thuille’s works offer a distinct and self-sufficient world of inner harmony and beauty.

The 2-CD set is beautifully played, and faithfully recorded, and makes a most welcome addition to the catalogue. It's a thoroughly enchanting and captivating insight into a composer whose music definitely deserves to have a far wider audience. Quality German label CPO has already released CDs of Thuille’s Symphony and Piano Concerto (CPO 7770082 - review) and Piano Quintets (CPO 7770902 - review), so this new offering from them further strengthens the case for this currently still decidedly-underrated composer.
Philip R Buttall



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