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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 Czesław Marek Foundation, Kantons Solothurn, Friends of the Stuttgart Philharmonic
STERLING CDS5000-2 [5 CDs: 335:55]

The Reinecke student Hans Huber has been reasonably well represented on disc, but his symphonic cycle, augmented by a sequence of orchestral music, sits at the core of his contribution to the music of his native Switzerland. This box is not new and has been reviewed before, either in its 5CD slipcased edition or singly.

His Symphony No.1, subtitled William Tell, dates from 1882 and was therefore written when he was 30. It reveals solid compositional strengths, with allied felicities of orchestration and a defined ability to characterise movements to the advancement of the symphonic argument. There are hints of Beethoven’s Ninth in the first movement, funereal breadth in the slow movement – almost Slavic at points – and a slow, evocative Wedding March as an Allegretto. The music has a Schumannesque freshness and in the finale form is confidently, indeed expertly handled.

The Second Symphony, Böcklin, is propelled on its way by a powerful, brassy opening Allegro, though its second movement more than hints at acquaintance with the Furiant – those earlier Slavic hues in the First Symphony bear more fruit here stylistically, though they are far more cosmopolitan. The clarinet’s hymnal theme in the Adagio is taken up by the brass whilst the finale is a theme and variations – a free fantasy in effect – on paintings by Arnold Böcklin, whose art was so influential on Rachmaninov, for one. This movement is especially compelling – a stirring theme, diaphanous scoring, Grieg-like wind writing, skirling strings, deft portraiture, almost balletic wit, a propensity for chamber-scaled incident and a gift for extreme compression.

The Third Symphony is the Heroic and dates from 1902. By turns stern and malleably lyric, there are hints of Brahms as well as Dvořák and curiously, in places, Elgarian elements, too, though these are presumably coincidental and based on a shared heritage in the German repertoire. Huber, like other Swiss composers, has an ability to evoke vista in his brass calls – a quality of Alpine drama that is a feature of his symphonic writing, as it is in those of his compositional countrymen. He alludes to the Requiem aeternam in this symphony, where power and an almost frantic quality also play their part. In the finale he introduces a soprano soloist and the organ, and these elements are both powerful and surprising; Huber, for all the seeming conventionality of form, is ever ready to spring these kinds of surprises. An Academic Symphony is the subtitle of No.4, composed in 1918. It’s cast for two string orchestras, which evokes the concerto grosso, piano and organ. It’s an avowedly late-Romantic work, so one must forget any prefigures, given its form, of – say- Bloch or Martinů. The opportunities for solo strings are plentiful, the writing remaining expressive and warm and full of deft turns of phrase.

For the Fifth Symphony of 1906 Huber reserves a role for solo violin, a responsibility undertaken by the veteran Hansheinz Schneeberger with no little skill. There’s a lovely pastoral introduction, which later burgeons in the Adagio with variations, where bird calls illuminate the sound world. One of the variations plays to the composer’s strengths in that it’s a rather mock-heroic folk march. In the last of the five variations one encounters a mountain storm, though it’s more Berlioz than Strauss, stylistically speaking, but the movement itself does end bathed in a Straussian sunset at least. The finale is a long 16-minute movement replete with a sequence of characteristically Huberesque episodes.

Rarely does even Huber open a symphony with more verdant distinction than in the case of No.6. This is one of his most genial and unassuming symphonic statements. It has suite-like elements, in fact, that perhaps suggest it might be better experienced as a pleasing set rather than striving for greater unity and significance. The slow movement is too long for its material, a fact noted by contemporary critics, though here, too, Straussian harmonies intrude from time to time. Symphony No.7 dates from 1917 and has a Nationalist theme. It was intended to be a vocal symphony but The Swiss (its subtitle – Huber was big on subtitles) evokes instead a plethora of detail and incident, from almost Mahlerian string cadences to urgent drama, from an exultant folk dance to ripe late Romantic drama. The finale has witty development, the themes are interesting, and Huber’s binding together of these disparate elements is impressive.

The final symphony was composed in 1920 and retains a trusty four-movement form. It also has another quintessential Huberesque quality – that of verdant exuberance. Its elysian slow movement bathes in warmth, but doesn’t especially court expressive depth. This is certainly no symphonic requiem for the recent War. In fact, it seems to be unburdened by extraneous matters, preferring instead to propound Huber’s own belief in the resonance and continuing relevance of the four-movement symphonic form. But even here, he introduces the organ, once more, to bolster, enrich and deepen the orchestral sound palette, ending the work – and his whole cycle – with nobility and breadth.

To add to the pleasures of the cycle there are also a few solely orchestral pieces. The First Serenade is a delightful affair, where the wind writing is deliciously dexterous, and where hints of Brahms are never too far away. There’s a confident, almost braggadocio quality to the brass writing in the overture to the opera Der Simplicius, whereas there’s a robust, yet still Grieg-like quotient to Eine Lustspiel-Ouverture.

The Stuttgart Philharmonic Orchestra under Jörg-Peter Weigle undertook this project between 2001-02. It’s been well worthwhile. It’s restored a most intriguing symphonic cycle in committed performances, finely directed and warmly recorded. The booklet annotations are excellent, and precisely what’s needed. Full marks all round.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: Rob Barnett ~ Dave Billinge

Reviews of individual releases
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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