The music of Russian-German-Swiss composer Paul Juon is still in the rara avis category - even more so if you are looking for Juon in the concert hall rather than on disc. He was a student of Arensky and Taneyev and then moved to Woldemar Bargiel in Berlin. He became a teacher at the Berlin School of Music and had Philipp Jarnach and Stefan Wolpe among his student charges. He moved to Switzerland in the late 1930s. There are three violin concertos as well as two intriguing twenty-minute pieces: Jotunheimen (1924), a tone poem for two pianos, and Mysterien (1928), a symphonic poem for cello and orchestra after Knut Hamsun. Both are unrecorded as far as I can see.
The Rhapsodische Symphonie was written not long before Juon's death. Its two predecessor symphonies dating from around the end of the 19th century have been recorded fairly recently by the heroic Swedish Sterling label but there are two other Juon symphonies (unnumbered): a 1905 Chamber Symphony and a 1929 Small Symphony for student string orchestra. Add to these the Sinfonietta Capriccioso again from the late 1930s and recorded here. I first heard the Rhapsodische Symphonie live; unusual for a work written in the late 1930s. That was at a studio concert at Salford Quays last year courtesy of the BBC Philharmonic and John Storgards.
'Rhapsodic Symphony' or 'Symphonic Rhapsody': either way these two terms do not coexist comfortably - more of a contradiction than complementary partners. It’s best to ignore that aspect and concentrate on the experience of the music which is free-ranging and discursive. The Symphony is in two large twenty-two minute movements: Commodo and Allegro Marziale. The Commodo is eventful and opulently orchestrated by comparison with the more delicate sound-web spun in the second movement. Stark brass fanfares soon give place to a busy vertically crowded experience with ideas jostling cheek by jowl in a luxurious skein. A dreamy Mahlerian tenderness takes the high road towards the end of the Commodo and there are moments when Juon sounds like Miaskovsky. The Allegro Marziale begins with a bucolic lšndler. This has a fugal feel, which reappears - and is mixed with Tchaikovskian flavouring. Veils of sleepy sound coil and uncoil, mesh and separate in music that suggests a sympathy with Ravel and with the more exotic realms of Russian middle-Asian exotica. This is indeed a work with rhapsodic tendencies frankly indulged as well as moments of delightful light-footed dance, skittish Korngoldian writing, silvery Straussian luxury and bell carillons. There’s a tellingly magnificent peroration from the brass who seem at times on the point of quoting the Dies Irae. The horns are heard in full flood.
The Sinfonietta capricciosa - another 'unnatural' pairing - was Juon's last major composition for orchestra. This is in three movements: 1. Moderato, 2. Adagio molto, 3. Allegro. The Moderato proves a meeting place for some stirring euphoric music and for woodland reveries carried by the woodwind. The Adagio tends towards the static and is in marked contrast to both the first and last movements. The latter is a lively Straussian confection and by no means as light in mood as the work's title might suggest.
The performances by the Bamberg orchestra under Graeme Jenkins - a pupil of Del Mar and Willcocks at the RCM in London - seem exemplary There's no suspicion of Juon's creations being underplayed. Audio treatment is also good with some lovely touches such as the bosky woodwind in the first movement of the Sinfonietta. CPO have done Juon proud and this is their first orchestral disc following their three chamber issues: Piano Sextet and Quintet 777 507-2; Piano Quartet and Rhapsody 777 278-2 and String Quartets 777 883-2.
The nine page liner-note by Eckhardt van den Hoogen is accessibly readable. It's in German and English.
Juon - no iconoclast - is unlikely to conquer your respect and affection on a first listen. However, as with all promising works there is a sufficiency of attractive and even magical episodes here to draw you back to explore and deepen your knowledge and pleasure.