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Woldemar BARGIEL (1828-1897)
Symphony in C Op.30 (1880) [31:36]
Overture on Medea inspired by Euripide's tragedy Op.22 (1861) [10:38]
Intermezzo for Orchestra Op.46 (1880) [7:02]
Overture inspired by Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet Op.18 (1859) [14:54]
 Orquesta Sinfónica de San Luis Potosí/José Miramontes Zapata
rec. live, Teatro de la Paz, San Luis Potosí, Mexico 27-29 June 2014
STERLING CDS1105-2 [64:14]

Over the years I have been indebted to the Sterling label for introducing me to much unfamiliar repertoire often by unfamiliar composers and many times the neglect of that music is a mystery. This disc of music by the German composer Woldemar Bargiel does not fulfil these criteria or inspire such admiration. Sadly this is efficiently composed but ultimately uninspired music that is interesting to hear ..... once.

Perhaps a little background is valuable. As so often with this type of composer, Bargiel followed the well-heeled route of training in Leipzig (apparently at Schumann's suggestion), and then a succession of teaching posts in Germany and around Europe culminating in twenty three years up to his death as director of the composition class at the Royal Höchschule für Musik in Berlin. If that would lead you to expect music strong on a certain academic correctness and lacking in much individual genius you would be right. The German Musical Times from 1860 is quoted as saying he had "... a mimetic predilection for Schumann" which does not bode well, but in fact most of the time you spend hearing not just echoes of contemporaries from Brahms to Tchaikovsky but positive pastiches.

When listening to such unfamiliar music for the first time I tend to avoid reading the liner notes or doing any preliminary background research. In that way I can come to the music purely on its own terms with no expectations. The Sterling disc opens - perhaps not wholly wisely - with the 'biggest' work here - the 1880 Symphony. Pretty much everything about this work is standard; from its four-movement form, very standard double wind, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones orchestration and more deadeningly the wholly predictable arc of the music. This really must be one of the least original works I have heard in some time - as the liner notes, Schumann and Beethoven are the overwhelming influences but there's a smattering of Tchaikovskian scalic writing in the Finale and Brahmsian instrumentation along the way. I am an avid fan of the obscure and little-known but for whatever reason this left me wholly cold. Well I say for whatever reason but there is one significant reason. The interpretation by the Orquesta Sinfónica de San Luis Potosi under conductor José Miramontes Zapata is mediocre at best. The orchestra play reasonably well in a kind of nothing-special way. The live performance means that ensemble is rougher than would normally be expected.

The main failing has to be laid at the feet of Zapata who allows the orchestra to power its way through the work with seemingly little regard for dynamic gradations let alone an occasionally sympathetic turn of phrase. This sounds like the first read through just to get the notes before any work is put into shaping the music. Quite probably there is a better piece lurking here than this interpretation suggests. It actually makes me quite cross to hear this kind of performance, so lacking in any kind of nuance or subtlety. In turn it leads me to wonder if it is better to hear a work however inadequately played than to let it languish in anonymity - by the measure of this disc I would suggest languishing would be preferable. Courtesy of IMSLP it is possible to view the composer's own piano 4 hands arrangement of the work which would seem to reinforce the impression that dynamics and articulations are given short shrift in this performance. Although not overly 'loud', as such, there is something very fatiguing as well as dispiriting in such unrelentingly insensitive playing. This is absolutely the responsibility of the conductor and if he felt as little sympathy with this music as the performance would suggest he really should have passed the baton to someone else.

The remainder of the disc consists of two 'tragic' overtures based on Euripedes' Medea and Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. The latter is of interest to make the comparison to the famed Tchaikovsky work which the Bargiel predates by a good fifteen years. But of course he was neither the first nor last to be so inspired. Rather than Tchaikovsky, perhaps Svendsen's Romeo & Juliet - curiously also Op.18 - is a fairer comparison; relatively unknown, similar scale, similar Romantic aspirations. Of course because it was written some twenty years later than the Bargiel the musical vocabulary is more obviously later 19th century than the other, but putting that to one side, the level of drama and fluency of the writing is in a different league. The Medea overture is probably the most interesting work here and generates a degree of atmosphere missing elsewhere but that is not saying a whole lot. The final work - an Intermezzo for orchestra is an orchestration of the second movement of Bargiel's Op.34 piano sonata. It is pleasant - no more - but again the suspicion is that in more sensitive hands this could flatter to deceive.

The engineering is the final nail in a fast-closing coffin. As a consequence of the live setting there seem to be quite a lot of extraneous sounds - more seemingly from orchestral chairs and creaking stands than a consumptive audience. But also there is an edge to the recording quality which removes what little tonal allure this Mexican orchestra might have had in the first place. The violins are placed antiphonally although there is little in the writing that indicates any real independence in the upper string parts in the way that Elgar does to such stunning effect.

In fairness I should say that individual reviews on Amazon of this disc are much more enthusiastic about the music and performance than I am. Most of the programme was duplicated on a Toccata disc released some three years ago, these being the world premiere recordings. Reviews of that disc would suggest a mixed response to the music but uniform comments on another sub-par orchestra. So perhaps that is to be Bargiel's fate until performers of insight and stature can reveal unsuspected depths.

Deeply underwhelming in every respect. Mediocre music subjected to the bish-bash-bosh school of interpretation.

Nick Barnard

Previous reviews: Rob Barnett ~ Michael Wilkinson



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