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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers

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Xaver SCHARWENKA (1850-1924)
Overture (1869) [9:20]
Symphony in C minor op.60 (1882) [41:21]
Andante religioso op.46a (1881) [7:36]
Gävle Symphony Orchestra/Christopher Fifield
rec. Gävle Concert Hall, Sweden, 20-22 October 2003 (Overture and symphony) and Church of the Holy Trinity, Gävle, 23 October 2003 (Andante religioso)
STERLING CDS1060-2 [58:22]

If Scharwenka's name is recalled these days, it's almost always for his piano concertos. Many readers will know, in particular, the first of them, memorably described by critic Harold C. Schonberg as "a wing-ding of a romp" and spectacularly performed in a high profile pioneering 1969 recording by Earl Wild and the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Erich Leinsdorf (review). Nowadays, thanks to the enterprise of independent producers, we have a couple of complete sets of all four. Hyperion's widely acclaimed Romantic Piano Concerto series has the first played by Marc-André Hamelin (review), the second and third by Seta Tanyel (review) and the fourth by Stephen Hough (review). Chandos has more recently released a box set of all four concertos played by Alexander Markovich (review). Meanwhile Naxos, a label that often produces ongoing composer-based series, might reasonably have been expected to follow suit but, having dipped a tentative toe in the water five years ago with a recording of the youthful François Xavier Poizat playing the fourth concerto (review), has since seemed disinclined to submerge the rest of the corporate foot.

The fact that Scharwenka wrote piano concertos is hardly surprising, given that he was one of the most famous virtuoso soloists of his time (his handful of recordings have been collected together - review). But he composed other music too. Most of his works are limited in scale, written for solo piano or chamber ensembles, and although, over a 12 years span, he produced three works for full orchestra, even when presented together they can comfortably be performed within a single hour. The most substantial and sophisticated of the three, the well-crafted Symphony in C minor, was the last to have been written and displays a degree of skill and professionalism that isn't always apparent in the many other long-overlooked Romantic era symphonies that resurface from time to time. In his enthusiastically couched and very useful booklet notes, conductor Christopher Fifield writes admiringly of "absorbing complexities of detail awaiting the analyst", picking out in particular "[a] unifying element to the whole in the continual reappearance in one shape or another throughout this work of motifs which appear in the first movement... [and] always adapt to the context in which they are placed, according to the mood or texture... Sometimes they are clear, at others they are buried deep in the textures of other melodies or camouflaged... almost to defy recognition." The trained professional musician may, then, approach this symphony as something of a cleverly constructed detective puzzle. For the rest of us, however, it will probably come across as something that's better and more simply regarded as 40-odd minutes of enjoyable pleasure - by turns dark and dramatic, bucolic and, at times, rather moving.

The symphony's shifting moods certainly encompass a broad range of musical styles. Writing on this website more than a decade ago, my colleague Rob Barnett referenced not only a "touch" of the composer's early mentor Liszt and a "dusting" of Tchaikovsky but also hints of Bruckner and Dvorak, as well as a glance or two back at Beethoven and Schumann and even a premonition of Elgar. Yet, even with such seemingly disparate components, Scharwenka creates a convincing and satisfying whole that, as I can now vouch, repays repeated listening. Because this was the only symphony that he produced, it is impossible to describe the score as in any meaningful way characteristic of Scharwenka's musical idiom: for all we know, he - like many others have done - might have changed direction completely in subsequent ventures in the form. This symphony, however, will delight anyone who appreciates the musical world of the very productive third quarter of the 19th century.

Scharwenka wrote the concert overture that opens this disc when he was a youthful 19 years old. As a recent graduate - and newly appointed member of the teaching staff - of Berlin's New Academy of Arts, he presumably intended it to announce his arrival on the Prussian capital's musical scene. Christopher Fifield picks out the clear influence of Beethoven and Schumann, to which I'd add that of Mendelssohn. I suspect, though, that even the 381 members of the Scharwenka Society (http://www.scharwenka.de) would be hard pressed to describe this unpublished overture as much more than, at best, surprisingly accomplished. Once we are past a rather portentous opening section (00:00-03:16) where the young composer was no doubt trying to establish his "serious" credentials, it actually becomes something of an enjoyable - if not especially memorable - musical canter, if not quite yet a Schoenbergian romp. Perhaps, had the teenage composer offered an early demonstration of his subsequent skills in self-promotion by marketing it with a programme or, at the very least, a title suggestive of a story, it might have caught on as a stand alone piece.

The Andante religioso of 1881 was actually the composer's own orchestration of part of his cello sonata op. 46 written four years previously. He clearly felt that he could get further mileage from what Mr Fifield describes as its "gorgeous tune". Having expected, from the piece's title, to hear a typically syrupy piece of Victorian sentimentality, I was pleasantly surprised by its genuine dignity and restraint. Scharwenka's orchestration is really rather beautifully done, too. The prominent roles for an organ and a harp could easily have sounded clichéd in that religioso context but both instruments are actually deployed with exquisite taste and balance. While I think that Mr Fifield carries his enthusiasm just a little too far when he relates the Andante religioso's combination of solemnity and beauty to Albinoni's Adagio and Pachelbel's Canon, I can certainly understand where he's coming from.

Although I am generally critical of CDs that fall substantially short of utilising their full 80:00 potential capacity, this one, as already noted, contains everything that Scharwenka wrote for the resources of a full orchestra - apart from those piano concertos and an 1896 opera Mataswintha. As such it is a valuable disc that should be heard by anyone who has enjoyed that famous performance of the composer's first piano concerto by Earl Wild or, indeed, any of the others that have followed since in its groundbreaking wake.

Rob Maynard

Previous review: Rob Barnett ~ Bob Stevenson
 

 

 



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