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. October 2003, Gävle Concert Hall; Church of the Holy Trinity, Gävle, Sweden
STERLING CDS1060-2 [58:22]

Xaver was the younger of the two musical Scharwenka brothers who made fairly significant contributions to musical composition, teaching and editing/publishing in the latter half of the nineteenth century and beyond. A child prodigy as a composer (he had already written, amongst other works, a piano trio and a violin sonata by the time he was fourteen) he attended the New Academy of Musical Arts in Berlin in his mid-teens. This institution was becoming increasingly famous for training virtuoso pianists and Scharwenka graduated ahead of the normal schedule and, after military service, set out on his career as a composer-pianist. During his period of study he came under the enthusiastic influence of Liszt and this influence was reinforced during the summer of 1875 when Scharwenka sought a further opportunity to work with the master in Weimar. Indeed, many readers will be familiar with Scharwenka’s youthful First Piano Concerto (possibly in the glittering RCA performance by Earl Wild) which was dedicated to Liszt and recommended by him for inclusion in a composers’ forum in Hanover in 1877.

Scharwenka’s compositions number about one hundred – of which some eighty-nine were published. The present disc is a reissue of a 2003 Sterling recording of the three works that represent the composer’s entire output of purely orchestral music. Warmly received though it was at the time, I should perhaps point out that anybody expecting the kinds of riches to be found in the First Piano Concerto from the music on this disc may be slightly disappointed.

We begin with Scharwenka’s Overture of 1869 – a student work. This is a piece that harks back to Mendelssohn or Weber and sounds, at times, like a heavier version of something Sullivan might have written. The ominous tread of its opening Adagio is transformed into a minor-key Allegro non troppo that bowls along almost merrily.

Scharwenka had also made a youthful attempt at a symphony in E Flat major but, in 1875, he was to deem this unworthy of publication. It took him a further seven years to produce its successor in C Major - the principal work on the present disc. This work is in the standard four-movements – although the conductor, Christopher Fifield, indicates in his interesting booklet notes that several motifs appearing in the first movement reappear in various guises throughout the work and provide a unifying element. This all seems to be achieved with a degree of subtlety because, even after a couple of hearings, I was only occasionally aware of the reappearance of the motifs.

The first movement has a wistful Andante introduction (surely played as more of an Adagio here?) with an opening horn call that is answered by the woodwind, providing the first of the motifs. This leads to a vigorous Allegro non troppo. My immediate impression was of the strong influence of the Liszt of the Symphonic Poems and there are also some similarities of mood with Grieg’s early symphony of 1864 – although Scharwenka’s style is less rustic and more Germanic. This movement is followed by a fairly memorable, gentle, dance-like Scherzo (marked Allegro molto) in triple time – possibly inspired by a mazurka – with a contrasting Trio. The third movement is a lyrically Wagnerian Adagio, with one or two surprisingly Brahmsian moments, that otherwise meanders a bit without doing very much. The last movement, Allegro molto, has a tumultuous start that, frustratingly, keeps getting reined back and pausing (shades of Bruckner), with a theme that brings to mind the opening movement of Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” symphony. This jogs along fairly dramatically, finally shifting into an optimistic major theme. In spite of the moments referred to above, the overall work bears little other evidence of the looming influence of Brahms at the time and it harks back to the musical world of thirty to forty years earlier. All this is listenable and workmanlike stuff, fairly typical of an eclectic composer of the second or third rank but, whilst there is nothing to set the musical world on fire, I found that the music improved with acquaintance.

Finally, we are given the “Andante Religioso” – a transcription for orchestra (flavoured with organ and harp) of the middle movement of the composer’s ‘Cello Sonata, Op. 46. As Fifield’s notes, suggest this has a lovely cantabile melody that could have come from the pen of Bruch and it is also reminiscent of “Albinoni’s Adagio” or Pachelbel’s “Canon” – although I can’t quite see it achieving a comparable degree of popularity.
As is so often the case with unknown repertoire that is being given its first outing for a century or so, the performers are an orchestra I have not come across before. Whilst they are not of the first rank (there is a lack of string body and the brass occasionally sound coarse) they are not at all bad and the performances are lively, enthusiastic and obviously well-rehearsed. The recording is vivid, with a wide dynamic range and a slight tendency to blare – several instruments being given a bright halo. The acoustic is reverberant and the strings are occasionally overpowered by brass and timpani. That said, this is not too distracting and the overall effect is enjoyable enough when you get used to it.

No masterpieces here, then, but this undemanding and accessible music certainly merits a hearing in these enjoyable and enthusiastic performances.

Bob Stevenson

Previous review: Rob Barnett
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