Moritz MOSZKOWSKI (1854-1925) From Foreign Lands - Rediscovered Orchestral Works
Torch Dance, Op. 51 [6:19]
From Foreign Lands, Op. 23 [26:32]
Habanera, Op. 65 No. 3 [5:05]
By the Cradle, Op. 58 No. 3 [2:17]
Six Airs de Ballet from “Don Juan and Faust” [14:33]
Gondoliera, Op. 41 (orch. Langey) [4:53]
Spanish Dances, Op. 12 (orch. Scharwenka/Frank) [14:40]
San Francisco Ballet Orchestra/Martin West
rec. 4-5 March, 2014, Skywalker Sound, Marin County, California, USA REFERENCE RECORDINGS RR-138 [74:18]
Moritz Moszkowski’s piano music consists of delightful, well-crafted miniatures which make for perfect encores. Invariably, they add color and joviality to a recital. It’s no surprise, then, that his orchestral music functions in much the same way. This disc, containing a half-hour of premiere recordings, will be much enjoyed by those who enjoy Viennese light music or ballets by the likes of Adam, Minkus, and Delibes.
The major piece, and the one you’re most likely to have heard before, on its Naxos recording, is From Foreign Lands, a suite of character pieces not unlike the world tours Tchaikovsky inserted into his ballets. The San Francisco Ballet, and choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, took this Moszkowski suite as the inspiration for a new ballet in a recent season, which became the impetus for this disc. Ratmansky says in the booklet that with this music, “you can almost switch your brain off and just let your body do the choreographing.” Like the Spanish Dances at the end, From Foreign Lands trades in amiable stereotypes about national styles, and contains a fair number of melodic and orchestrational clichés. But the result is good fun, especially the German dance and the csárdás. The Italian tarantella is a little underwhelming, compared to those by Mendelssohn or Liszt, for example.
The other pieces are charming too. There is a set of dances from a staging of Don Juan and Faust, a play by Christian Grabbe which is exactly what it sounds like. Grabbe decided to bring the two iconic characters into a tragedy, part of a career in which, the booklet says, “everything he turned his hand to, whether literary, professional or personal turned into failure.” I’m thankful for the background information about this peculiar-sounding play, and Wikipedia reveals even more sad trivia about the short, miserable life of Grabbe. An alcoholic, he was spurned by his first fiancée and then divorced by his first wife, dying of general paresis in his mid-thirties with, according to a lithograph, the added insult of dramatic premature hair loss.
Anyway, Moszkowski makes no attempt to equal Mozart, Gounod, or Liszt in his depictions of Don Juan and Faust. In fact, it’s mainly slow music, including a nocturne with muted strings and solo oboe, another with flute duet, and a dance scored almost entirely for solo woodwind players.
The opening Torch Dance would fit right into a Viennese New Year’s concert. Nobody will mistake the Habanera for Ravel’s, but the San Francisco Ballet’s lead trumpeter, John Pearson, delivers an idiomatic, vibrato-laden solo to perk up the atmosphere.
On a two-channel stereo or headphones, turn the music up a few notches; at my usual volume level the recording sounded distant and the instruments even sounded distant from each other. Things do snap into focus when the volume is satisfactory. One more odd note: the back cover of this disc systematically undercounts track timings; my computer claims the CD is a full 90 seconds longer than advertised. And, frustratingly, there is no full track listing anywhere in the booklet; to find out which movement of From Foreign Lands is which, you have to read the essay. Even more frustrating, the movements of the Don Juan piece are listed out of order—important, since this is a world premiere recording.
Those concerns should not be enough to deter light music fans, or lovers of 19th-century ballet. Only one of these works was really intended for ballet by the composer, but they’re all dance works of such easygoing charm that the San Francisco Ballet was clearly right to see the connection. Their performances are excellent. This might be a trifle, but hey, trifles are delicious, too.