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Hans HUBER (1852-1921)
Symphony No.1 in D minor Op.63 'Tell Symphony' (1882) [31.05]
Symphony No.2 in E minor Op.115 'Böcklin Symphony' (1900) [42.56]
Symphony No.3 in C minor Op.118 'Heroic' (1902) [42.35]
Symphony No.4 in A major 'in the form of a Concerto Grosso for two string orchestras, piano and organ', 'Academic' (revised version: 1918) [32.34]
Symphony No.5 in F major with solo violin 'Romantic, The Fiddler of Gmünd' (1906) [45.36]
Symphony No.6 in A minor Op.134 (1911) [34.51]
Symphony No.7 in D minor (1917) [39.34]
Symphony No.8 in F major (1920) [28.56]
Symphonic Prelude to the opera Der Simplicius (1898) [10.19]
A Comedy Overture Op.50 (1879) [8.40]
Serenade in E major Op.86 'Summer night' (1885) [19.47]
Hansheinz Schneeberger (violin) (No.5), Barbara Baier (soprano) (No.3)
Stuttgart Philharmonic Orchestra/Jörg-Peter Weigle
rec. Phiharmonie, Gustav Siegle Haus, Stuttgart, 1996-2002
Notes in German, English and French
STERLING CDS5000-2 [5 CDs: 335.55]

Swiss composer Hans Huber was a pupil of Carl Reinecke and was an exact contemporary of Irish composer Charles Villiers Stanford, also a pupil of Reinecke. They were both born in 1852 and died just three years apart in the 1920s. Huber composed eight symphonies, plus one early work he rejected, and Stanford composed seven. They were both fond of naming as well as numbering their symphonies and both achieved the unenviable characteristic of being almost completely forgotten after their deaths. In the case of Huber the obscurity was total. This was not so with Stanford but his symphonies, highly praised internationally in his lifetime, certainly slipped from the repertoire. Listening to the present set triggered the feeling that one had heard this sort of music before, but only two names came to mind, Stanford, as noted, and the slightly younger Alexander Glazunov who wrote nine symphonies. Huber isn't really like either but his music, as represented by these symphonies, is of the same sort: romantic, tuneful, occasionally dramatic, a touch old-fashioned but usually well constructed. If one looks at the recognised originals in symphonic writing, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky for example, both a little older, they have very strong characters of their own. Turning to the likes of Mahler, Nielsen and Sibelius, a little younger, their originality stands out sharply. I have to admit that after over six hours of listening I was still no wiser about Huber's 'style', but I had to accept that here was a voice worth the occasional listen. Having thus damned him with faint praise, let me get to a bit of detail.

As a result of being a boxing of five separate discs there are three works used as CD fillers which are not among the symphonies. A Comedy Overture composed in 1879, the 1st Serenade Summer Night of 1885 and the Symphonic Prelude from the opera Der Simplicius of 1898. The Overture is appropriately jolly and very listenable. The Serenade contains four movements of which the Scherzo, an attractive bubbly piece, is markedly the best. The grandly titled Symphonic Prelude is lively and forthright and full of festive feelings plus passages of lyrical relaxation. Parts sound oddly like Nielsen’s 1st Symphony which Huber is hardly likely to have heard since its first performance was in Copenhagen in 1894. It must be said that Huber's piece does not exhibit the characteristic of a “wild child playing with dynamite” that one of Nielsen's early critics suggested. Huber is always very safe.

Huber’s 1st Symphony was composed in 1881. It is subtitled ‘Tellsinfonie’, Wilhelm Tell being the Swiss national hero, and appears to have bewildered its early critics by not being as dramatic as the title suggests it should be. The first movement is full of good tunes and some grand gestures, all very much of its period. The slow movement has a strong central climax. This is followed by an allegretto which has some rhythmic grace but not a lot of character. The dramatic central climax seems to arise from nowhere but it does serve the vital role of providing contrast. The allegro con fuoco finale takes us back to the grand gestures but cannot rescue this early work from the feeling of being more competent than inspired.

The 2nd Symphony of 1900, originally entitled ‘Böcklin-Symphonie’, started life with a detailed programme that Huber soon abandoned. Its dramatic first movement is full of contrasts but ends quietly. The allegro con fuoco second movement is much more enjoyable and is probably the best part of this uneven work. The adagio starts with a soulful clarinet theme which promises much but Huber seems to hurry the development and reaches a climax too soon to my ears. The Finale seems to have been intended as a sort of ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ of Böcklin's paintings, and has inspired the engineers to give this movement eleven tracks often lasting only a minute or so, but the torrent of ideas does not exhibit much continuity. Sadly the coda is a passage of almost comical bombast and left me feeling that this piece just doesn't cut it. I know some critics have been more positive.

The ‘Heroische’ 3rd Symphony written just two years later seems better overall. It starts with a dark adagio molto where the harmonic language is a bit more challenging and there is perceptible tension in the flow of ideas. British ears will be disconcerted by the apparent appearance of our National Anthem at one point, but this tune has been used all over Europe and indeed the world for about three hundred years and was used for the Swiss National Anthem during Huber’s lifetime. This first movement has more than a touch of early Richard Strauss about it particularly in the orchestration. This is followed by a funeral-march second movement climaxing with drums, bells and an organ. After this the bucolic third movement, a waltz-like totentanz, sounds a bit ironic. He goes on to include a set of tiny variations on the ‘Dies Irae’ using the full range of his orchestra. This all fades away in a clever dissolving coda. In the allegro con fuoco finale (Huber likes this marking) there continue to be hints of the ‘Dies Irae’ but it is much more angular, indeed turbulent and angry. Into this refreshingly energetic mix Huber brings back music from earlier in the work and after an exciting accelerando he broadens the tempo bringing in organ and bells plus a soprano soloist singing the Sanctus. He chooses to allow this to subside to a point where the organ plays the ending alone. To my ears this sounded like a miscalculation which weakens an otherwise quite impressive work.

The 4th Symphony of 1919 gained its final form well after the 5th, 6th and even the 7th. It appears to be the only one of the eight to have been subjected to such lengthy reconsideration. In many respects it benefitted markedly from the delay. This is a radical new direction for Huber. He entitled it ‘Academic, Concerto Grosso for two strings orchestras, piano and organ’. The dramatic thinning of textures in the first movement is entirely beneficial and this piece tickles the ear in a way nothing had before. There is plenty of activity in this neo-classical prelude and fugue with much work for section principles. The following cavatina becomes quiet and delicate, an attractive pastorale with just a touch of acidity. The Humoreske is the sort of stuff we expect from Honegger and Martinů but Huber makes it softer with gentle organ chords and it loses some of its strength. The finale is a passacaglia involving the organ to start proceedings. Huber shows considerable skill in varying the textures and gives this longest movement more interest. Unfortunately the coda, in which the organ restates the opening, comes close to undoing all this good work by draining energy away, just as he did in the Third.

The 5th Symphony, of 1906, ‘Romantische, Der Geiger von Gmünd’ was never published and thus lacks an Opus Number. It is explicitly programmatic and reflects episodes in the story of the Fiddler of Gmünd. The insert notes, rather disorganised throughout these five CDs, here fail us completely by never clearly explaining the events of this little legend, without which it is hard to understand what is going on. Fortunately our friend 'Mr Google' came to the rescue with the whole poem in English translation from a booklet of 1894 published in the USA! From this I gleaned the following outline: a statue of St Cecilia, patron saint of music, is moved by the Fiddler's musical account of his sad life, and sheds a golden shoe. The Fiddler, amazed at his luck, picks up the shoe and hastens to the local goldsmith who promptly shops him to the Gmünd authorities for stealing the shoe off the statue. He is sentenced to hang and marched in procession through the town past the same statue. The Fiddler once again plays his newest woes for St Cecilia who sheds the other shoe in sympathy. The townsfolk celebrate the miraculous event with copious alcohol and whilst they are all drunk, the fiddler, wisely I feel, slips out of town never to be seen there again. From this Huber creates his longest symphony mit solovioline. In this recording the esteemed violinist Hansheinz Scheenberger plays his obligato part extremely well. It should be added that this Swiss musician premiered both the Violin Concerto of Swiss compatriot Frank Martin and also, more famously, Bartok’s Violin Concerto No.1. The First Movement is a theme with five variations. The violin plays an important role not so much as a virtuoso but as the figure of the legendary Fiddler of Gmünd. There are analogies with Rimsky’s Scheherazade. The final variation is a storm with all the usual orchestral paraphernalia. The Second Movement is a dance and a funeral march and the Finale involves more grandiose music to depict the miraculous elements of the tale. Unfortunately, again, for the coda Huber introduces the organ in another purple passage but one which is blessedly short. It is still enough to leave me feeling that he never cracked the famous ‘symphonic finale problem’ posed by Beethoven, whose choral Ninth challenged all future composers to provide a suitably satisfying conclusion to their symphonies.

The 6th Symphony of 1911 has no title. This four movement work avoids pitfalls and is encouragingly more coherent. The opening allegro con spirito is cheerful and possesses plenty of contrasts and energy plus a real sense of direction. The second movement is a relaxed but rhythmic grazioso just under five minutes long. It prepares the listener for the adagio non troppo slow movement which, like the opening movement, has direction plus a contrasting rapid central section. These three successful creations would be for nothing if Huber had not achieved a finale of coinsequence. This is a theme and fourteen variations. These are generally rhythmic and lead effectively into each other without disruptive transitions. The orchestration adds to the rather balletic feeling of this movement which perhaps needed to be stronger to act as a good finale. However Huber does here seem altogether more sure of his craft.

The 7th ‘Schweizerische’ Symphony might have been a pale imitation of Strauss' Alpine Symphony but in his depiction of his homeland he chooses not to paint epic mountainscapes but to reflect the homely ease of Swiss culture. The first movement, ‘in the mountains’, is mostly energetic and has a strong sense of continuity combined with some welcome contrasts. This is the bustle of people going about their lives, not about the rocks themselves. We have here a confident composer, one even prepared to abandon his initial programme and just go with the symphonic flow. The scherzo, which was intended originally to depict a rural wedding manages to combine very rhythmic dancelike music with a rather lovely slow central section. The slow movement contains a long-drawn melody on the full orchestra which gains intensity before precipitating some small crisis which leads to the relaxed close. The finale is one of the most successful. A lively opening, positively cheerful open-hearted music, perhaps depicting a village celebration. The tempo broadens and the textures thicken momentarily before lightness takes us right to the end.

With the knowledge of previous symphonies the presence of an organ in the instrumentarium of the 8th Symphony gave me reason to draw a sharp breath, but no, Huber has this under control. The opening allegro moderato is an utterly old-fashioned but nonetheless lively and cheerful piece which effectively ignores the sort of music being composed by his contemporaries in the 1920s. The allegretto scherzando is a crisper version of the same sort of mood with some uplifting string passages as a central contrast. The adagio ma non troppo continues the mood and, as is now expected, he has a dramatic moment as the central section. There is some felicitous horn writing near the end. The Finale hints at an even older composer, Franz Berwald, in its slightly angular jollity, but it is clear we are building up for something. The organ makes the appearance I had been dreading but Huber exerts control and whilst loud and a touch grandiose, the coda is not at all bathetic. I felt this final symphony was rather a good piece and reflects the character of an easy-going old gentlemen, far from the inward angst of a Mahler.

Returning to my opening attempt to put Huber in context: there can be no doubt that Stanford was a stronger and more serious symphonist whose neglect is a bit of a mystery. It is also worth noting that Stanford did not enjoy his time in Leipzig with Reinecke, declaring “Of all the dry musicians I have ever known he was the most desiccated”. There is no record of Huber being similarly distressed by his teacher. Glazunov hasn’t been neglected in the record catalogues but good luck in finding a live performance in our concert halls. His character is much more colourful and he could write great tunes. His neglect too, is a mystery. Huber on the other hand does display a lot of uncertainty in the earlier pieces and really only gets it right towards the end. Even there his inspiration is a bit pale. The line between grandeur and bathos is too fine for comfort in the early works. He may have been the best Swiss composer for a while but nowadays it has to be accepted that the inspirations of Arthur Honegger and Frank Martin put Hans Huber in the shade.

Swedish company Sterling are very brave to record all this and the Stuttgart Philharmonic have done good work in performing material that they are unlikely to present much in the future. The engineering is very satisfactory. The five booklets have been well translated by Andrew Barnett but I don't envy him the task of decoding the disjointed originals which, inevitably, have to repeat some general background each time. Sterling are offering the box, which simply packages the original CDs into a slipcase, at about half price compared to the five separate discs so those interested will get something of a bargain.

Dave Billinge

Previous review: Rob Barnett



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