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Hans HUBER (1852-1921)
Symphonies Nos. 1-8
Stuttgart Philharmonic Orchestra/Jörg-Peter Weigle
rec. 2001/02, Stuttgart, Germany DDD
recordings made with assistance from the Czeslaw Marek Foundation, Kantons Solothurn, Friends of the Stuttgart Philharmonic
STERLING CDS5000-2 [5 CDs: 335:55]

Huber's grounding came from his father, a skilled amateur musician. He became a chorister at Solothurn but made such astounding progress with his piano studies that he switched from an ecclesiastical learning environment to a secular college. From 1870 to 1874 he attended Leipzig Conservatory studying with Reinecke. He then taught in the Alsace until, in 1877, he came to Basel. Denied a place at the Basel Conservatory until 1889, once there he soon made rapid progress as his works gained performance and recognition. By 1896 he had been appointed Director. He died in Locarno.

In addition to the eight symphonies Huber left behind him a concerto apiece for violin and cello and three for piano; Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 3 have been recorded by Sterling. Add to this much else, including nine violin sonatas and five cello sonatas. There are five Huber operas (six if you count the unfinished Der Gläserne Berg). The overture to Der Simplicius, and several other works, are on these Sterling discs which we have reviewed separately over the years; those reviews have been quarried very directly for this overview.

The overture Der Simplicius is Mephistophelian - buzzing with whippy impetuosity. It will appeal to those who like Elgar's Froissart and Smetana's Haakon Jarl and Richard III. Eine Lustspiel-Ouverture is very attractive: calming but also with the slaloming vigour of Schumann's Rhenish. The Huber Serenade is in the spirit of the Mozart cassations. The first movement's sun-warmed uplands are of the same marque as the Brahms Haydn Variations. The second movement - especially in its woodwind contributions - suggests a Czech heritage and some of dash of Beethoven's Eroica. 'The idle hill of summer' seems to be the alma mater of the Nocturne. The finale is a furious and dappled rush.

Huber's symphonies are not monuments to heaven-searing conflict or vertiginous tragedy. His is a beaming, smiling muse. The heritage and activities of this Swiss composer straddled the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His music is resoundingly nineteenth century and positively romantic. It stands in the same cooling pictorial mainstream as the symphonies of Brun and Raff.

The First Symphony's four movements bounce and lilt their way through a mixture of the dramatic and the bucolic. As a rule of thumb think in terms of early Mahler and the Schumann of the Fourth Symphony and the Overture, Scherzo and Finale. Add in festive elements from Dvořák and Smetana and an infusion from Brahms' Third Symphony; the latter a work yet to be written at the time Huber finished this symphony. In the last movement the sense of direction is only fitfully sustained but this is surely down to the composer rather than conductor, Weigle. I did not find anything specifically Tell-like about the music except that the comparatively mild dramatic episodes might well reflect Tell's nationalist struggle against the Austrian invaders.

The first and second movements of the Second Symphony, Böcklin, blaze with activity ignited by the same drive as the Dvořák symphonies 5 and 6. When the fires burn on a lower flame a honeyed Brahmsian tone tempers the Dvořákian element. The third movement Adagio has a willowy fluency with pointillistic effects from harp and solo violin ending in an autumnal sunshine familiar from Brahms' Third Symphony. The finale is a free fantasy inspired by a gallery of paintings by Arnold Böcklin; yes, the same Böcklin whose Isle of the Dead inspired Rachmaninov and Max Reger's Four Böcklin Tone Poems. The movement is, by turns, jaunty, passionate and butterfly textured. So airy is some of the orchestration that it approaches Berlioz at his most impressionistic as in Symphonie Fantastique. The performance is excellent - suffused with flammable temperament and an impressive unanimity of attack.

Among the sea-sweep and flow of first movement of the Heroische Symphonie (3) you will find a Brahmsian approach (especially Brahms’ First Symphony) and touches of Elgar (Enigma) and Richard Strauss (solo violin). The measured and ponderous tread of the Funeral March is punctuated by tubular bells and given a somewhat ambivalent ghoulish air. The Totentanz movement has a nicely alcoholic sway with horn and trumpet solos over a pizzicato string pasture. You can add this symphony to the long list of Dies Irae appearances in classical music. The finale features a concert organ and a soprano (Barbara Baier) singing the Sanctus.

The Akademische (4) is in four movements spanning about thirty minutes. It is a work of high individuality playing like a sextet for the usual string quartet plus piano and double bass counterpointed with discreetly balanced double string orchestra and a more prominently placed organ. The sub-title is in Form eines Concerto Grosso. It's good humoured and full of the sort of chuckling brilliance you come across in the Saint-Saëns Septet, the Stanford Serenade and the Ireland Sextet. The Cavatina has the honeyed string textures of Schoeck's Sommernacht though the Stuttgart strings are not fully up to the consummate idyllic opulence that would make this music sing … and sing it can. This Symphony remains quite a discovery and it is very fairly put across by Weigle and the Stuttgarters. Scott Faigen's piano glints and glitters its way through the Symphony.

The Fifth Symphony's programme is fully treated in the notes but I suggest that you take no notice of the quaint story. Just take this for what it is: an unfamiliar symphony for orchestra with violin solo. The mature solo violin part is Brahmsian, emphasised by woodland birdcalls, and recorded with definition but without an undue jut. Several times violinist Schneeberger's travels through this score made me think of the middle movement of the Tchaikovsky concerto although it is not a concerto. The Adagio is a sort of fantasy-idyll with a cousin in the shape of Josef Suk's 1903 Fantasy for violin and orchestra. The Allegro is loyal to the sound of that sunniest of lyrical violin concertos, the Dvořák, although, towards the close, it becomes a slightly ghoulish nocturnal pilgrimage. The finale is regal and plays out to some classically grand-manner flourishes.

The Sixth Symphony announces itself in raucous exuberance and as it progressed reminded me of Siegfried Wagner's orchestral music, especially in its naïve playfulness. In the second movement the stahlspiel tinkles graciously but the movement is undermined by a rather stop-start progress. The adagio is romantically 'slippery' with a strong Lisztian element. The effervescent spring of the woodwind writing marks out the finale. There is yet more Lisztian influence in the wheedling solo violin. The rhythms engagingly developed in this movement are decidedly terpsichorean mating this movement with Smetana's Festive Symphony and Bizet's Symphony in C. The warmth of the closing bars links the work with Dvořák's Symphony No. 8 and Mendelssohn's Scottish Symphony.

The Seventh Symphony was written as the Great War moved crushingly forward and the Russian Revolution opened up new and threatening possibilities. Like many works of that era the music seems oblivious or deliberately opposed to the spirit of the times. Rather like the Tellsinfonie, this work, subtitled The Swiss, lays claim to a nationalist theme. According to Dominick Sackmann's outstandingly useful notes the programmatic inspiration of the four movements is concerned with the mountains. The 14-minute first movement Auf den Bergen has some tempestuous moments which are tougher than anything to be found in the Tellsinfonie. There is also a swirling grandeur which again might suggest the alpine peaks. The gruff and brusque close to the first moment is quite masterly. The second movement, a Ländlischer Hochzeitszug, is bright and spirited. The music is celebratory with some whooping work for the horns - a touch of Mahler and Goldmark here and even Ludolf Nielsen in his orchestral suites. This is not the mountain music of Delius or even Richard Strauss but has about it far more of the atmosphere of the high places than either Hakon Børresen's Second Symphony or Rubinstein's Ocean has of the sea. The third movement runs the risk of sinking into turgidly mellow string and brass textures but overall it works well. The sunset fade of the third movement ties in, most aptly, with the movement's title Abendstimmung in den bergen. The finale shows that Huber had absorbed the language of Schumann and Mahler. Huber ends the symphony well and freshly. No standard farewell gestures for him.

The Eighth, which turns its face completely from the slaughter that ended only two years previously, is more of a grand serenade than a symphony. It is a confection of Dvořák from the Seventh and Eighth symphonies, of Tchaikovsky (the suites), the avuncular orchestral Reger and the beaming Brahms from the quieter reaches of the Second and Third Symphonies.

The usual tributes are due to the creativity and sheer grit of Sterling's proprietor, Bo Hyttner, whose energy would be an example to CERN and its particle accelerators.

Rob Barnett

Links to individual reviews of the Huber symphonies
No. 1 William Tell (1882) & No. 7 Schweizerische (1917) - review
No. 2 Böcklin (1900) & Der Simplicius; Eine Lustspiel-Ouverture - review
No. 3 Heroische (1902) & No. 6 (1911) - review
No. 4 Akademische (1918) & No. 8 Frühlings-Symphonie (1920) - review
No. 5 Der Geiger von Gmünde (1906) & Erste Serenade - review



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