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Ernst RUDORFF (1840-1916)
Symphony No.3 in B minor Op.50 (1911) [34:41]
Variationen über ein eigenes Thema Op.24 (1875) [25:36
Bochumer Symphoniker/Frank Beermann
rec. Ruhr Congress, Bochum, Germany, 8-11 March (Symphony), 5-7 October (Variations) 2011
CPO 777 458-2 [60:17]

Symphonies by forgotten German Romantic composers are meat and drink to CPO. Over the years they have reintroduced dozens of works by composers who are often little more than foot-notes in reference books. More often than not these revivals have been triumphantly vindicated. They have given the listening public the chance to hear music that, often quite conservative in outlook and mode of expression, if not extraordinary certainly deserve better than oblivion.

This disc of music by German composer Ernst Rudorff fits that template exactly. Unfortunately, try as I may, I struggle to retain any over-riding impression of this music except one of some rhythmic interest and a general competence. Rudorff was born in Berlin in 1840 into an artistically cultured upper-middle class family. He followed a traditional training in Leipzig before working in Cologne for some years and eventually returning to Berlin in 1869 to take up the professor of piano at the newly founded Hochschule für Musik. He regularly conducted the Berlin Philharmonic from its foundation in 1882. He was known as a meticulous scholar who produced editions of Mozart, Chopin and Weber. Perhaps most interestingly, away from his musical duties he was an early environmentalist who early on identified the negative impact man was having on his surroundings - in 1904 he founded the Environmental Protection Federation. The good CPO liner cites Weber and Schumann as over-riding influences which is undoubtedly true to which I would add more than a dash of Brahms.

Rudorff is neither the first nor the last composer to be stuck in an artistic time-warp. The Third Symphony recorded here was first performed - by the Berlin Philharmonic - in 1911 but in all regards it could easily have been composed fifty years earlier. The main note I made was Rudorff's fascination for switching between compound time - 6/8 - the quaver or eighth notes 2 groups of 3 and then 3 groups of 2. Its a very common hemiola effect found in music for centuries. In 1911 - the year of Petrushka - it does not seem so revolutionary. To me that would not matter in the slightest if the rest of the material; melodically or harmonically was memorable. Sadly, this steadfastly is not. Reinecke, Rudorff's teacher, writing in his memoir singled him out as more significant a musician than his other pupils; Grieg or Sullivan. Perhaps that says more about Reinecke's expectations and musical standards than it does anything else. Certainly, Rudorff would benefit hugely from even a fraction of the melodic ability of either of those two composers.

The Symphony is in four movements with the slow movement - a funeral march - second. The opening Allegro con brio has the aforementioned rhythmic shift that does create initial interest even with its Schumannesque echoes but he uses it so frequently in the movement that it soon palls. Just to be clear, this is by no means bad but with so much music to discover or delve deeper into I find it hard to justify spending too much time on the modest achievement that this is. Even the orchestration itself is remarkably conservative - again nothing a mid-19th Century composer would have raised their eyebrows at. The second movement 'in modo di marcia funebre' is more interesting - all the more so for avoiding just being a foursquare slow march. However, consider that another essentially conservative work - Elgar's Symphony No.2 was completed just over two weeks after this work's premiere and also contains a funeral march of infinitely greater emotional range, melodic power and orchestrational genius. Again this Rudorff Symphony falls by the wayside. The third movement 'quasi Andantino' again features shifting meter combined with the gentle lyricism much in the spirit of a Brahms Serenade. This contrasts with a dynamic central section which clams and blends back seamlessly to the opening lyrical melody. In many ways this is the most wholly successful movement in the work. The closing Allegro giocoso has to try too hard to bring proceedings to a satisfactory close. There is motivic relationship between sections but unfortunately the sense is of them being academically worked out rather than returning in an emotionally satisfying manner. There is a ghastly passage towards the end with bass drum and cymbals marking every quick-march beat - thankfully brief.

Much the same criticism can be levelled at the Orchestral Variations which predate the Symphony by a full 35 years. The best variations it seems to me, take an often simple theme and then find depths and character in it that reflect more on the composer than the theme itself - which after all is little more than a point of initiation. Here Rudorff goes through the prescribed full range of variation form with varied tempo, metre, orchestral colour and emotion but it feels like more of an exercise than compelling exploration of thematic potential. Again, nothing that could be termed 'wrong' or 'bad' but so many other similar works spring to mind that are infinitely 'better'. Interestingly, the liner quotes a letter to the composer from Brahms who mentions these Variations. Certainly, the influence of Brahms more than Schumann is clearly apparent. Both works are well crafted in terms of scale and thoroughly competent. The score of the Symphony can be followed on IMSLP and on the page the orchestration looks clean and sensible but to the eye as to the ear - nothing surprises.

Again true to CPO form, the orchestra used here is a lesser known German ensemble, the Bochumer Symphoniker. Both their playing and the engineering are reliably good - there are so few poor orchestral recordings these days. That being said, the Bochum strings just occasionally lack the last degree of unanimity that another take or extra session might have ensured. Much as with the music, nothing bad enough to get upset by but not out of the topmost drawer. Likewise with the interpretation, with no comparable version it is very hard to judge conductor Frank Beermann's contribution. My instinct is that there is not much more he could have done with the works - certainly the playing has energy and commitment, there is a good wide dynamic range and the woodwind solos are attractively played. Something about a purse and a sow's ear springs to mind.

I often say that CPO are one of my favourite labels and many of their enterprising releases have entertained and informed me hugely. This one might just stay in a bottom drawer gathering dust.

Nick Barnard