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Josef LABOR (1842-1924)
Quintet for piano, violin, viola, cello and double-bass in E minor, Op.3 [37:18]
Quartet for piano, violin, viola and cello in C major, Op.6 [29:58]
Nina Karmon (violin); Pauline Sachse (viola); Justus Grimm (cello); Niek de Groot (double-bass)
Oliver Triendl (piano)
rec. 2018 Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, Germany CAPRICCIO C5390 [67:18]
It’s a never-ending pleasure to get to know the music of composers, who, for whatever reason, have not stood the test of time, and have to rely on a kind of entrepreneurial Prince Charming – in the guise of an enlightened record company and usually a musicologist, as the driving force – to reintroduce such music and their composers to modern-day performers, audiences, and CD-buyers alike.
The well-documented CD booklet starts by spelling this out in no uncertain terms, when it states that Labor was a ‘pianist and organist recognized throughout Europe, and a celebrity of the Viennese music scene’, yet then follows this with the considerably less glamorous ‘after his death, he fell into oblivion’.
Labor was born in the town of Hořovice in Bohemia, and was left blind after contracting smallpox at the age of just three. He attended the Institute for the Blind in Vienna, as well as the Conservatory of the Society of Friends of Music, where he studied composition with Bruckner’s teacher, as well as the piano. He toured Europe as a pianist and, in the process, formed a lasting friendship with King George V of Hanover, who also happened to be blind. The king named him Royal Chamber Pianist in 1865 and, the following year, they both settled in Vienna, where Labor began organ lessons, and became a teacher, while still continuing to compose and perform. He taught many notable musical personalities, including Mahler’s wife Alma Schindler, Arnold Schoenberg, and pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who, having lost his right arm in the First World War, commissioned works for the left hand from Ravel, Britten, Prokofiev, and Schmidt. Paul’s brother, philosopher and writer Ludwig Wittgenstein, even went as far as praising Labor as one of ‘the six truly great composers’ – along with Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms. No pressure, then, for this new release featuring two of Labor’s chamber works – though, to be fair, they both appeared long before the composer’s association with Wittgenstein.
For his Piano Quintet in E minor, which was premiered in 1880, Labor still favours the same combination as Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet – piano, violin, viola, cello, and double bass – which was the norm until the middle of the nineteenth century. However, following the success of Schumann’s E flat Quintet in 1842, where the piano was paired with a conventional string quartet, this set-up then dominated during the second half of the nineteenth century, and into the twentieth.
The opening Allegro is particularly eloquent, and certainly speaks from the heart at the very outset. There is no grand opening gesture, a gently undulating passage from the strings is answered by the piano, in a higher octave, before a more agitated passage leads to the soothing strains of the second theme. Despite contemporary music critics considering Labor as a performing musician, and not as a composer, the high quality of his invention and pure craftsmanship is evident throughout and nowhere more so than in the understated close, where the temptation could have been to end on a somewhat higher note – no pun intended.
The ensuing Scherzo in the relative major key, livens things up considerably, although the overall melancholic mood is never that far off, which the first of two Trios confirms, as the music returns to E minor – an especially attractive section before a rapid scale leads back into the lively Scherzo opening. The second Trio, in the major key, certainly gives the double bass a good work-out, in a quasi-solo role, complemented by some delightful piano figurations over the top. In fact the double bass part is relatively more difficult in the work as a whole, than that of the other strings. The Scherzo then returns to finish the movement in high spirits.
The Andante slow movement is the longest part of the Quintet, and opens with a somewhat meandering ‘song’ from the cello. As the music unfolds, the use of the strings individually or paired, rather than as a body, becomes an attractive feature of Labor’s writing. The CD booklet suggests that the movement ‘would have gained from a somewhat more succinct form’, and up to a point I tend to agree, although, at the end of the day, it’s effortless listening. The finale, marked Allegro ma non troppo, opens with a decidedly contrapuntal feel to it. Some two minutes before the end, following a short pause, the composer nods in the direction of cyclic form, by briefly reintroducing the lilting theme from the Quintet’s opening. Following another pause, Labor includes a short, yet powerful fugue, again confirming his technical prowess as a composer. After that, it’s a fairly brisk race to the finish.
In the English version of the sleeve notes, the second work is incorrectly referred to as the ‘Piano Quintet in C major’, whereas the original German version confirms that it should be ‘Piano Quartet’ – piano with violin, viola, and cello. The work was published in 1893, and opens with a lyrical theme in octaves from the piano, supported by hushed strings, where the presence of Brahms (1833-1897) is initially quite palpable. But, within less than twenty-five seconds, a half-close on the dominant chord (G). whisks us away to pastures new, as the key of E flat is established, and another melodic section follows, over a pleasantly undulating piano accompaniment. The writing then takes a more aggressive and impassioned turn, after which it subsides once more, with Labor creating some especially lush textures along the way. He also has evident skill in thematic development, rather than mere directionless repetition, and this is particularly apparent, for example, in the extensive build-up to the recapitulation. The first movement, in fact, is nearly twice the length of the other three respectively, but Labor just about manages to hold the listener’s attention as he skilfully moves towards its close which, as before, is not drawn out, just simple yet resolute.
The Adagio ma non troppo slow movement is in the key of E major, a mediant relationship (C major – E major), which was not overly uncommon in the Classical Era, and something which Beethoven particularly favoured. Yet again, the music, even when ostensibly happy-sounding, is so often tinged with melancholy at times. This is followed by a Quasi allegretto, which, while assuming the role of minuet, or scherzo, has a Brahmsian lyricism, emotionally continuing where the slow movement proper finished, but at a somewhat faster pace – not unlike the third movement from Brahms’s Third Symphony (1883). In Labor’s example in the relative minor, there is some greater movement in the Trio, which again shows a stylistic affinity with the German master, as does the return of the opening material to an even greater extent. The finale – Allegro ma non troppo – opens with an almost regal-sounding melody, which, because of the key and shape, again owes a debt to Brahms, this time the finale of his First Symphony, after the introduction. Furthermore, at times there is almost a Handelian feel to the somewhat spritely march-like melody, with its intermittent contrapuntal texture. At about a minute or so before the close, there is a somewhat awkward-sounding accelerando, culminating in a heroic statement of the opening, now in triple metre. Labor opens up his harmonic palette as the Quartet reaches its close, which then is nothing more than a simple dominant – tonic perfect cadence. Essentially it’s still an effective finale, but there is always the feeling that, for whatever reason, he wasn’t quite as comfortable in this one movement, perhaps because the over-arching design is march-like which, by its very nature, does not readily lend itself to abundant expressive inflection.
There can be nothing but the highest praise for the players, in particular the extremely-assured contribution from pianist Oliver Triendl, which the close-range recording faithfully captures.
In summing up, Wittgenstein’s world-ranking of Josef Labor was always going to be speculative, rather than realistic, but the Austrian Capriccio label has done this hitherto-forgotten composer a great service by making these two delightful works available for us all to relish.
True, he was essentially writing in the musical language of his time and, like Brahms, expressing his eminently melancholic form of romanticism effectively in classical garb. But equally there emerges is a real sense of originality from this new release, which has already been the subject of a recent review by Rob Barnett.
If nothing else – and like me, you appreciate good tunes, rich invention, and well-honed musicianship – then Josef Labor is well worth getting to know. Philip R Buttall
Previous review: Rob Barnett