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Robert HERMANN (1869-1912)
Symphony No. 1 in C major op. 7 (1895) [36:09]
Symphony No. 2 in B minor op. 11 (1905) [38:29]
Württembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen/Christopher Fifield
rec. no location specified, 13-14 May 2008 (1); 16-17 February 2009 (2)
STERLING CDS1081-2 [74:42]

As rarities go, they don’t come more unknown or unsung than Robert Hermann. Search the internet and there’s hardly anything, save a two line entry in Wikipedia. Sterling’s accompanying notes, lifted from a 1909 article by a certain Dr Walter Niemann, fill in some of the gaps. Hermann was born in Bern and initially began studies for a career in medicine, but then focused his attention on music at the instigation of Grieg. In 1891 he commenced musical studies at Frankfurt Conservatory with Engelbert Humperdinck. He then spent the remainder of his short life in Marienhöhe, Leipzig-Stötteritz. As far as I can see, this is the only recording of his music, though he did compose pieces for violin and piano, songs, a concert overture in D minor, quintets and trios.

I have very mixed feelings about this release and many reservations. Hermann is the master of conventional harmonies, and his modulations are unadventurous, breaching no new terrain. Late Romantic chromaticism doesn’t seem to interest him, at least not in these two Symphonies. The First from 1895 is unremarkable and sounds pretty four-square, with hackneyed clichés seeming to be the order of the day. The slow movement at 16 minutes is overlong for the amount of material, and tends to meander and outstay its welcome. I felt myself losing interest halfway through. The cymbal clashes, two minutes in, sound commonplace and prosaic.

Ten years later Hermann composed his Second Symphony and, though not earth-shattering, it’s in a different league. The opening movement’s pastoral flavour, with its birdsong and country landscapes, is enchanting. The slow movement, with Hermann again in bucolic mode, is melodically generous, and the Allegretto third movement, with its lilting rhythms, basks in sun-soaked lyricism. The finale is the weakest, lacking the inspiration of the three previous movements.

So, it all adds up to a mixed bag. Having said that, there is no faulting Christopher Fifield and the Württembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen, whose committed playing is commendable. Sterling’s well-recorded sound has warmth and definition.

Stephen Greenbank
And another review ...

The above review has provided background on Hermann’s life, such as is known. Sterling presumably used the 1909 article, as so little else is available. There is certainly no Wikipedia page, and this CD appears to be the only recording of his works. The notes say that he turned to music after medical studies, but also that he wrote very little in an admittedly short life. We can only assume that he was independently wealthy.

Both symphonies look backwards through the nineteenth century, but Hermann can hardly be accused of being alone in that. That said, there is not an obvious role model among the great names. These are not intensely dramatic late-Romantic works, more genial than driven. As one who seeks out the little known composer, I don’t build my hopes up for discovery of forgotten masterpieces or geniuses.

The opening movement of the First Symphony features a number of graceful dances, which are interrupted by stormy bursts. It has grown on me each time I have listened to it. The second movement Grave has a number of episodes of varying character, each with its own appeal. The harp-driven section, for example, has distinct Wagnerian resemblances. I agree with my fellow reviewer that it is too long. The problem is not the nature of the content but that there are too many themes. It needed to be divided to give an extra movement; the work is only in three, so could have easily accommodated one or two of the episodes as a Scherzo. The brass writing for the funeral march that closes the Grave is very stirring. The Finale is rather a let-down.

The opening movement of the Second Symphony is graceful and genial, and features a lovely waltz, which may not be of Tchaikovskian quality, but is still worth hearing. The Andante has a wistful pastoralism that would not go astray in many a British symphony. A gentle Allegretto follows; perhaps Hermann needed to make this a little more energetic to provide contrast. Dark-toned brass fanfares begin the finale, which is a distinct improvement on its equivalent in the first symphony.

The orchestra play very well; they cannot have had too many rehearsals for music they had never seen and of which there was practically nil chance they would play again. The recording quality is perfectly fine.

These are certainly not major discoveries, but as long as you don’t start with unduly high expectations, you should find a good deal to enjoy. I would certainly like to hear his piano trio and quartet, the latter described in the booklet as having “a sweetly rhapsodic and mournful Intermezzo”.

David Barker
Previous review: Rob Barnett



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