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Heinrich von HERZOGENBERG (1843-1900)
Columbus, dramatic cantata for soloists, chorus and orchestra, Op. 11 (1870) [88:43]
Andrè Schuen, baritone (Columbus)
Michael Schade, tenor (Fernando)
Markus Butter, baritone (Bootsmann)
Chor der Oper Graz
Grazer Philharmoniker/Dirk Kaftan
rec. 2017, Stefaniensaal, Graz, Austria
Text and translations included
CPO 555 178-2 [44:33 + 43:58]

One has to raise one’s titfer to CPO and the pioneering work they do in restoring neglected composers of all eras to some sort of currency. This apparent modus operandi has especially applied to Central-European composers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Thus it is that names such as (in no particular order) Graener, Reznicek, Reinecke, Woyrsch, Bargiel, Ries, Hausegger, Georg Schumann et al. crop up on the first page of the CPO release schedules from the last twelve months or so. While I admit to being an unabashed ‘anorak’, I do not actually keep comparative statistics about such matters. I am happy to stand corrected, but the single composer whose (not short) name seems to crop up most often in this regard is Heinrich von Herzogenberg, whose rehabilitation seems to be primus inter pares among the label’s priorities. I think the ‘dramatic cantata’ Columbus is the twentieth (!) issue of his music on the label. Previous issues have included symphonies, concertos, lots of chamber music, piano works, songs, choral works big and small, and dramatic works. Somebody at CPO clearly likes Herzogenberg. Entering his name (carefully given its length) into the MWI search engine will yield a considerable number of reviews of these discs. The reviews are mostly kind, all constructive, and most of them address the salient points of his biography. I suggest, howver, that it is not difficult to find critical consensus in terms of the qualities one will find. Herzogenberg’s music is pleasant, sincere, workmanlike. It often aspires to Brahmsian heft, but the general verdict is ‘worthy’ rather than ‘inspired’.

For my part, I have heard a few of the chamber discs – string quartets, piano trios and quartets and a couple of violin sonatas – and the first two symphonies. I have found all of this repertoire undemanding and well-crafted but ultimately pretty undewhelming. While some of these discs remain on my shelves, however, I really cannot imagine feeling the need to play them again in preference to other things, which raises the question: what actually happens to this music once it has been recorded? I do not claim to keep tabs on all the concerts that take place across the globe, but I have yet to see Herzogenberg’s name in this context. I would be interested to know other readers’ habits – am I missing something with this composer (and others)? Of course it is a heroic enterprise to convert obscure names in the Grove into actual sound, but is the point merely to provide a sonic document for reference purposes?

I mention all this, because the vast majority of the works alluded to above emerged in Herzogenberg’s most Brahmsian phase. CPO’s own notes have often reinforced the narrative of a composer who came almost to idolise, if not fawn over, the older composer, a man who indulged Herzogenberg up to a point, seemingly because he had married one of Brahms’s favourite piano students. In fact, Brahms seems to have been economical with even faint praise. Columbus, however, is an early work from Herzogenberg’s twenties, which owes more to Wagner and the ‘New German’ aesthetic fashionable at the time. It features elements of opera (without the action) and oratorio, but is patently neither one thing nor the other. The plot is not even wafer thin, and would barely justify a work a third of this (90 minute) length.

An ‘Ideal (mixed) Chorus’ sets the scene at the outset of Part One, reflecting on how ships ‘connect home with unknown lands’, and anticipating how future generations will revere pioneers like Columbus, but warning that there are obstacles yet to overcome, most pressingly that, as we join the crew of the Santa Maria (presumably), after ages at sea, there is no sign of land. This mixed choir acts as a kind of moral compass and philosophises at key points of the ‘narrative’. This is pleasant if rather uninspired sea music. In its midst is a rather unsubtle hint of fugue, while the silences that are reiterated prior to the onset of the ‘woe’ are clichéd in their projection of ominousness. After a rather sub-Wagnerian interlude, the sailors’ chorus nostalgically recall their Spanish home and convey their anxieties about the void they currently inhabit. This section features derivative orchestral and choral gestures that are no more than superficially exciting. The first of the soloists to contribute is the boatswain in the person of Markus Butter, a strong, assertive if rather raw baritone, although his voice is actually a perfect fit for this role. He reminds his crew of the man responsible for their predicament, and goads them toward mutiny. The sailors’ chorus implore Columbus to turn tail and head back home in an episode which evolves from a gentle 6/8 tread into a more accomplished and exciting fugue; both singers and players acquit themselves well in spite of a rather dry recording which does its best to blunt the dramatic impact.

At this point the baritone Andrè Schuen introduces his Columbus, and attempts to reassure the sailors that their goal is glorious, and that this will be their final trial before they achieve it. Schuen has a splendidly oaken tone, rugged and flexible, and his voice is appropriately front and centre in the mix. At this point the sailors’ chorus divides into a call and response section while the boatswain again encourages them to ‘do the dirty’. The sailors decide to give Columbus 72 hours to come good, or they will throw him overboard in music which is rather limp and anonymous, before the final solo character Fernando, Columbus’s ever loyal lackey contends that these traitors are not fit to lick Columbus’s boots. This role is sung by the fine dramatic tenor Michael Schade. While I found Herzogenberg’s music here to at least have some rhythmic interest, it is otherwise unmemorable. Part One concludes with a tender solo where the explorer accepts his fate but predicts that this New World will be found at some point, before the Ideal Chorus returns in a chorus that reflects on divine power and fate. While the singing of the Graz forces is certainly committed and impassioned, the music tends towards the cheesy, and would perhaps have been more appropriate in a Riefenstahl propaganda film.

To my ears Herzogenberg’s chamber music is easily superior to his attempts at larger forms, and the solo string textures that begin Part Two perhaps provide the most interesting music in the whole work, although intonation is a little suspect. This first section is a soliloquy for Columbus, as he contemplates his imminent demise on his final night under the Southern Cross with no land in sight. While Schuen is not really required to do anything remotely taxing or virtuosic, his diction at least is crisp and clear, and his emotional projection credible and convincing. Herzogenberg provides some telling effects for flutes, harp and finally solo viola. Fernando now implores his friend to return to Spain. Michael Schade’s voice strikes me as somewhat reedy and nasal here, but certainly not ugly. I find this the most ‘operatic’ episode in the work, auguring as it does a mutually fawning duet between Fernando and Columbus. It is worthy but only modestly satisfying. But now the time has also run out, the Boatswain’s recitative summons Columbus and Fernando to face their fate, the sailors grab them and with a crash of cymbals prepare to throw them overboard, at which point a distant cry of ‘Land Ahoy’ is heard. Readers will not need me to tell them how this ends. Weirdly, Herzogenberg’s music begins to sound more like Bruckner than Wagner from hereon. There is another rather clumsy fugue and a less-than-cinematic final summary from the Ideal Chorus.

Despite Dirk Kaftan’s taut direction and some really committed singing from soloists and choirs alike, I found Columbus cumbersome and overlong. It lacks the elegance of some of Herzogenberg’s later, more Brahmsian chamber music. While some readers will doubtless perceive that description as a rather lazy epithet, to my ears at least even those works ultimately lack melodic memorability and individuality, and do indeed resemble heavily diluted Brahms. In this account of Columbus the Graz Orchestra at times sound a little underpowered, Kaftan’s best efforts notwithstanding. There is a jolly photograph of the conductor with the soloists on the back of the leaflet. Reassuringly, they all look as though they had a lot of fun recording this work, but I’m afraid this listener found Columbus derivative and rather dull.

Richard Hanlon



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