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Paul GRAENER (1872-1944)
Orchestral Works - III
Klavierkonzert Op.72 (1925) [17:45]
Symphonietta Op.27 for Harp and Strings (1904-08) [19:54]
Drei Schwedische Tänze Op.98 (1932) [7:36]
Divertimento Op.67 (1924) [18:28]
Oliver Triendl (piano),
Münchner Rundfunkorchester/Alun Francis
rec. BR Studio 1, Munich, Germany, 2011
CPO 777 697-2 [63:43]

Will the real Paul Graener please stand up? I have come rather late to the Paul Graener party; this is the third volume of his orchestral works from CPO (review of Vols 1 & 2) but the first of any of his music ever that I have heard (. My confusion stems from the fact that the style and musical content of this CD is very diverse and, to be honest, not quite what I was expecting.

Take the A minor Piano Concerto that opens the disc. Its 1925 composition gives some clue as to its character. From the opening bars this is a perkily optimistic work with cake-walk rhythms and jaunty orchestration. Instead of being part of that distinctly Germanic strain of Jazz-influenced composition - think Weill or Toch or Braunfels - this sounds much more French. Even then not overly so - no novelty instrumentation for Graener - and he keeps his harmony crisp and tart rather than having much if any blue-note moodiness. Even more curious is that the closing Allegro repeats the French influence but without any twentieth century influence reaching back instead towards the light-hearted bon-bons of Saint-Saëns. The central Adagio is a rather lovely Bachian movement - the highlight of the work. This opens with a neo-classical lilting melody first for solo piano and then accompanied by flute before the orchestra takes over. The whole concerto is played with an appropriately deft directness and effective simplicity - it does not need heavy-handed interpretation - by Oliver Triendl.

As is my wont with wholly unfamiliar music I tend to listen first without reading any liner-notes. This made the contrast between the cool poise and good humour of the concerto and the sustained grief of the Symphonietta that follows something of a shock. It's not a Symphonietta as one might expect. Instead of a multi-movement work we are given a single twenty minute span written for strings and harp. Graener almost exclusively explores the potential of strings as lyrical instruments. He does this with long sustained lines and arching melodies being the enduring characteristics.

The Symphonietta predates the concerto by a good two decades - exactly when it was written is unclear but its premiere was in 1908 in London. The piece was written as an 'In Memoriam' for the composer's son Heinz who died in 1904 aged eight. Indeed Graener wrote a string quartet given that exact name, now lost, from which the Symphonietta evolved. It really is a rather wonderful piece - streets ahead in emotional impact and seriousness of intent of any of the other works on the disc. Stylistically it shares a similar impassioned lyricism with Strauss' Metamorphosen or Schoenberg's Transfigured Night. In contrast to those two masterpieces Graener writes with far greater simplicity both harmonically and contrapuntally. The message of elegiac grief benefits from this directness.

The structure of the work is simple but subtle. It is framed by a group of four chords - Tallis Fantasia-like in their gentle rapture. Cunningly they also contain ten of the twelve semitones in the chromatic scale with Graener providing the two 'missing' notes in the fifth bar. The score is dedicated "to the memory of my son Heinz" and is prefaced by a quotation from a poem by Ludwig Uhland written in 1859 entitled "On the Death of a Child". Uhland wrote; "You came, you went, with quiet footfall, A fleeting guest in our Earth's land: Whither? Whence? All we know is this: From God's hand into God's hand." Hard not to hear "God's hand" in the framing chordal sequences of the work. Graener tempers any excessive emotionalism with a sure control of form and effect. The harp's first entrance is held until nearly half way through the work (track 4 9:23) where it accompanies one of several telling and beautifully expressive violin solos. Mentioning the solo strings brings up another of Graener's subtle skills. Even though he has deliberately limited the potential palette of instrumental colour in this work he husbands his resources with understated brilliance. Wide-spaced, multi-voiced sections contrast with those of chamber-like intimacy or indeed solo lines. Another feature is his referencing - echoing almost - music of other times. In the liner he is quoted as saying; "for among the youngest our hope is for the preservation of what their predecessors have created and for the continuation of their work." This should not be read as a wholly reactionary stance but rather one that sees the past as the foundation of the future - evolution rather than revolution. In the Symphonietta this can be heard as an echo of a baroque aria. From the harp's entry Graener uses it to mark significant way-points in the work. Just before another 'baroque' section - a rather elusive fugue based on the lullaby-like main motif - Graener gets the harp to toll a 'midnight bell': 12 low Es. I suspect that this is of even more poetic than musical significance. The Aria section emerges around the 15:00 mark and with it comes a real sense of acceptance and release. The harp writing, which has been a model of simplicity and restraint, becomes even simpler. Just straight chords in the middle register giving the effect of a continuo instrument over which the violins sing a song of consolation. This builds to the work's most emotional climax at around 17:20 before ebbing away. It's marked by a simple harp arpeggio ushering in the closing violin solo in alt. This is the most Straussian passage in the work and is here quite beautifully and movingly played by the un-named leader. At 17:37 the music floods with a 'lux eterna' and some degree of acceptance and release is found. Slowly the music unwinds towards its close wrapped in gentle harp arpeggios. These move up and down the instrument until at 19:15 "God's Hand" returns and the work reaches its end.

By the way CPO cannot decide if it's a Sinfonietta - on the CD cover - or a Symphonietta everywhere else.

I have written at some length regarding this work because its technical skill allied to its emotional impact came as something of a happy shock. Fascinatingly, its date of composition is almost exactly that of the Elgar Introduction and Allegro and two years before Vaughan Williams' Tallis Fantasia. Worth remembering too that the string orchestra version of Transfigured Night did not appear until a decade or so later. In that sense I am not sure I can think of any string orchestra work pre-1910 that treats the orchestral strings in such a consistently high-Romantic style. This is not the first or last work of Art to be created in direct response to the loss of a child. Howells' Hymnus Paradisi and the also-contemporaneous Asrael Symphony by Suk instantly spring to mind and both are magnificent works I love deeply. Graener, by working on a smaller scale with a more limited palette, concentrates and focuses the emotions to telling effect.

I recommend pausing the disc at this point. Otherwise the quite charming and thoroughly frothy Swedish Dances rather break the spell. Graener is in time-travelling mode again. The three dances are really very lovely indeed - but could have been written by Grieg in Norway anytime around 1880. What spurred Graener to write them in 1932 remains unknown. I assume some kind of publisher's commission since they exist in a piano solo version too. In their own right they are a very pleasant listen and they are played here with just the right combination of bounce and wit.

Much the same can be said of the Divertimento that closes the disc. Here Graener travels further back in time to the Classical period and the Mozartian style of divertimento. Here we have five contrasted dance movements which are not neo-classical as such but are 'in the style of' a Classical Divertimento. The opening Allegro Vivace is good naturedly energetic. The music is lucid and clear in both construction and execution. The harmony is likewise gently astringent but no more - probably less in fact - than Prokofiev's Classical Symphony. I rather like the ghostly waltz of the second movement Allegretto Scherzando which has the nice effect of antiphonal muted and unmuted string groups. This is written for strings and timpani along with a solo trumpet. Not for the only time Nielsen's Little Suite for Strings sprang into my mind. Although not described as such I did wonder if this was ever conceived as incidental music. The contrasts between movements is very marked. The third movement Larghetto is very beautiful with a 'Wind Serenade' group alternating with the strings in answering paragraphs. The penultimate Un poco Allegretto has the feel of a naive rustic dance. Again conductor Alun Francis finds an unaffectedly apt tempo which allows this essentially good-natured music to be just that. The closing allegro is the longest in the work and in the spirit of some kind of adventure the horns and trumpets lead the 'happy ever after' conclusion to the work.

If it were not for the presence of the Symphonietta - and remember this is the first time I have ever listened to any of this composer's works - I would have said that he was a polished miniaturist who wrote very appealing, well-crafted compositions of a resolutely conservative nature. With that one work I would promote his art to a much higher plane and want to hear more of his music. Alun Francis and his Münchner Rundfunkorchester prove to be reliable guides. The two earlier volumes were both with Werner Andreas Albert and the NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover. Aside from the Symphonietta this is recorded in CPO's usual clear and detailed manner and certainly all the wind and brass solos are well-played ... as is the solo piano part by Oliver Triendl. The piano concerto is the piece that lingers least in my memory simply because it seems to fall between the profundity of the Symphonietta and the light good humour of the other works. I can imagine the Symphonietta having an even greater impact with a top-top string section and a more generous recording. The score can be followed on IMSLP which rather betrays the fact that the Munich strings do not push the full dynamic envelope from ppp to fff as much as they might. As mentioned, though, the string solos are very beautifully played here and Francis' pacing of the work feels both wholly natural and convincing. Certainly this is a work that should be in the repertoire of any and all adventurous chamber and string orchestras. For some, Graener's reputation will be forever tarnished by his association with the National Socialists. Putting that to one side for individuals to make their own decision about, the Symphonietta alone determines this is a disc of considerable worth and value.

Nick Barnard

Other reviews
Graener's chamber music (CPO)
Graener's orchestral music (Sterling)