Franz SCHREKER (1878-1934)
Vorspiel zu einem Drama (Prelude to a Drama) (1914) [18:03]
Der Geburtstag der Infantin (The Birthday of the Infanta)—Suite (1923) [20:28]
Romantische Suite, Op. 14 (1903) [25:20]
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta
rec. 2017, Großer Sendesaal des Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg, Berlin, Germany
NAXOS 8.573821 [63:34]
Franz Schreker, known primarily for his operas in his lifetime and still highly respected in that genre, wrote music in a rich post-Romantic vein that exhibits the influence of Richard Strauss and to a somewhat lesser degree, Richard Wagner. The earliest work on this disc, the 1903 Romantische Suite, actually gives a few nods to Tchaikovsky, especially in its orchestration. That said, Schreker developed a style that you would not likely confuse with any of these three, and while you may also notice similarities to the works of other composers of his time like Alexander von Zemlinski, Eric Wolfgang Korngold and even Ottorino Respighi, he was largely his own man. I cite these three contemporaries of his to give you an idea of Schreker’s style rather than to suggest he was beholden to them in any significant way.
Schreker was a master of orchestration and his scoring here is very colorful and varied. The most striking of the works on this disc is the headlined Birthday of the Infanta Suite. This composition started out as a pantomime based on the Oscar Wilde novella of the same title. Schreker achieved considerable success with the 1908 premiere, but took until 1923 to derive this multi-movement suite from it. The story involves a dwarf, unaware of his abject ugliness, who is taken to the royal palace near Madrid to perform before the Infanta of Spain on her birthday. He dances for her and in response she tosses him a white rose, causing him to fantasize naively that she loves him. He later looks into a mirror in the palace, for first time seeing his homely looks and realizing the Infanta was mocking him. He is devastated and suddenly fatally stricken, the Infanta coldly observing his demise and departing with guests. Despite the tragic nature of the story, the music is mostly very light and chipper. It is also quite tuneful and brilliantly crafted.
From the opening moments this is one of those works that many post-Romantic minded listeners will find utterly infectious. True, it can be a little bombastic, as in No. 2, Aufzug und Kampfspiel. But it is also disarmingly beautiful (No. 3, Die Marionetten), deftly witty and playful (No. 5, Die Tänze), irresistibly happy (No. 7, In blauen Sandalen überdas Korn) and quite touching (Nos. 9 and 10, Im roten Gewand im Herbst and Die Rose der Infantin). Actually, every one of the ten movements here is attractive in one way or another, and there isn’t a moment of note-spinning anywhere in the score. In the end, one must assess this as a very compelling, perhaps outstanding work whose light character should not keep it from becoming better known.
The disc opens with Vorspiel zu einem Drama, an expanded version of the Prelude to Schreker’s opera Die Gezeichneten (1911-15). I have this fine opera on DVD and oddly its story is also about an ugly man. I don’t know what this says about Schreker in his choice of subjects for his theater works, but whatever the case the music he provides isn’t as light as that in the Infanta Suite. Indeed, but its serious moments are more lush than dark, more dreamy than dreary. Moreover, the work has a healthy quotient of happy or optimistic music and there’s really nothing ponderous in its eighteen minutes. Near the end the music turns very delicate and sparse in texture and just when you think the mood is darkening, the music brightens but only to fade into an ethereality of either pleasantness or mystery. This is another strong work then, but not as catchy or quite as appealing as the Infanta Suite.
The four-movement Romantische Suite is a composition also of a slightly lesser caliber. Again, the music is mostly cheerful and light, and even if its orchestration looks backward to the previous century, it is well crafted nevertheless. The music is also quite tuneful, though the melodies are not particularly outstanding, not the kind that stick in the mind well after listening. Still, this is a piece that listeners of a post-Romantic bent will find enjoyable.
The performances of all three works are excellent. JoAnn Falletta draws out highly nuanced and spirited playing from the very fine Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. Dynamics and rubato are subtly applied, everything sounding natural and fluent. Just try the first two tracks in the Infanta Suite and notice the seemingly perfect violin, clarinet and trumpet solos, the vibrancy and spirit of the strings, and take note of how everything comes together with a sense of naturalness, as if the music could be played no other way. In the end, one observes that Falletta captures utterly the lighter expressive nature of these works. She is certainly a talented conductor, not just in this repertory but in a broad range of music. Yet, she has been, for the most part, exploring the byways of the repertory on her many recordings for Naxos.
Naxos provides vivid and well balanced sound in all three works. My library is not deep in Schreker’s music, but the competition in this trio of compositions is very thin anyway: you’d be lucky to find two or three other available recordings of these works by others, and no disc as far as I can determine features these three together. I believe there is only one other currently available recording of the Infanta Suite—Lothar Zagrosek on Decca, who is interpretively similar and quite fine. But Falletta would be the choice here: she offers a presumably more ‘complete’ version as she includes a repeat in the first number, Reigen, that Zagrosek does not; moreover, Zagrosek’s Infanta Suite is coupled with works by Schulhoff and Hindemith, not necessarily music Schreker fans would like, and Decca provides six tracks for Zagrosek to Naxos’ ten for Falletta. In the Romantische Suite Vassily Sinaisky on Chandos is good, the performance quite sumptuous, but over two minutes longer than Falletta’s, and just a bit too expansive for my tastes. If you’re already an admirer of Schreker, or if you’re interested in post-Romantic music of a light character, you certainly won’t be disappointed by this fine new recording.