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Franz SCHREKER (1878-1934)
Ekkehard - Symphonic Overture Op.12 (1902-3) [11:49]
Vom ewigen Leben (2 Lyrical songs for Soprano & Orchestra) (1923 orch. 1927) [14:46]
Fantastic Overture Op.15 (1904) [10:17)
Four Little Pieces for large Orchestra (Four Sketches for film) (1930) [9:34]
Prelude to a Grand Opera - Memnon (1933) [22:06]
Valda Wilson (soprano)
Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz/Christopher Ward
rec. 2018, Ludwigshafen Philharmonie, Germany
CAPRICCIO C5348 [68:32]

I enjoyed this disc very much. These are idiomatic and impressive interpretations, played with the requisite orchestral brilliance, and caught in unfussily revealing but high quality sound.

Franz Schreker’s music can be seen as embodying the style of late-Romantic music pushed to the ecstatic edge of tonal collapse. Although a close personal friend of Arnold Schoenberg, Shreker stared into the ‘abyss’ of atonal/serial composition but never made that musical leap of faith. Perhaps his relatively early death at the age of 55 meant that he was yet to explore those outer limits, but his late works offered here including the epic Vorspiel zu einer grossen Oper suggests that he was entrenching himself in the genre of extended but essentially tonal music.

For those new to this composer, this disc provides an ideal point of entry. For those already smitten with the lush and visionary music he wrote, there will be substantial duplication to consider of the main orchestral works to be traded off against some rather wonderful new discoveries – for me at least. The catalogue, while not exactly groaning with discs of Schreker’s music does contain a substantial number of discs from various labels and conductors, most of which focus on a handful of orchestral works or orchestral excerpts and overtures from his once-famous operas. This new disc avoids the operatic option and focuses instead on three of Schreker’s big orchestral overtures alongside a delightful pair of orchestral songs and a fascinating set of four orchestral pieces – intriguingly subtitled “four sketches for film”.

Although many of the available discs feature German orchestras, for some years the most reliable choice in the orchestral works has been a pair of Chandos discs from the BBC PO under Vassily Sinaisky. Volume 1 included the two Overtures and the Prelude offered here so the comparison is valuable and direct. It is remarkable to realise that that disc is now nearly 20 years old – it was recorded in 1999 in New Broadcasting House, Manchester in classic opulent and powerful Chandos sound. Running to 77 minutes it represents excellent value too. I must admit that I started listening to this new disc expecting it to be trumped by the older one. Make no mistake, the Chandos disc is excellent, with playing and engineering conjuring up exactly the right headily dramatic sound-world of turn of the century Germany. Still, this new Capriccio disc matches all of those values, yet adds an extra quality that at least equals but to my ear supplants the older disc. My sense is that while Sinaisky’s performances are excellent first encounters with these scores, the new performances hint at a greater, deeper, more nuanced familiarity. A lot of the credit for this must go to the young British conductor Christopher Ward – a name quite new to me. From the liner biography it is clear that he has gone down the old-style kapellmeister route which has clearly helped immerse him in this genre of music as well as providing a really solid training in the effective preparation of complex and unfamiliar scores such as this.

The disc is well-planned in addition to being well performed. The early Op.12 Ekkhard Symphonic Overture opens the disc. The liner usefully outlines the narrative of the work and its eponymous hero, “a pious monk” who is appointed as teacher to a Duchess in a castle and promptly falls passionately in love. Schreker finds music to illustrate this in all its slightly salacious glory and it certainly makes for a colourful piece. What I enjoy about this particular performance is that Ward manages to find some subtle musical insights in the midst of all the technicolour gaudiness. As the liner again points out, this work shows Schreker’s natural inclination towards musical illustration and narratives which would eventually lead him to the world of opera.

Indeed, any survey of Scherker’s work does need to include singing, not just an orchestral excerpt from an operatic work. Which makes the inclusion here of the pair of orchestral songs Vom ewigen Leben [On Eternal Life] both valuable and interesting. I had not heard this work before – and it proves to be something of a revelation. Schreker set these two poems for soprano and piano in 1923 and orchestrated them in 1927. More of a surprise is the source of the texts; a German translation made in 1922 of Walt Whitman’s famous Leaves of Grass. Apparently there have been over 530 settings of Whitman’s poetry and aside from the well-known works by Vaughan Williams, Holst and Delius the list includes Weill, Hindemith and Hartmann, amongst many others. But I have not heard any other settings by a composer such as Schreker. There would appear to be an aesthetic tension between the simple directness of Whitman’s poetry and the convoluted musical complexities of Schreker’s musical style. On paper, the songs appear an unbalanced pair; the opening Wurzeln und Halme [Roots and leaves - Book V] being just a four-minute setting leading to Das Gras [A Child said; what is the Grass - Book III] which takes over ten. However, the liner points out that the songs are to be performed ‘attacca’ and as such have the feel of a brief solo cantata in two parts.

By 1922 Schreker’s fame had peaked and he was at the height of his creative powers. Certainly, he was able to command a wider expressive range and was more willing to pare back the opulence of his orchestral palette. This is immediately evident from the very opening bars with gently scintillating harp, celeste and strings. The orchestra is joined by Australian soprano Valda Wilson and she combines ideally an operatic power with a controlled lyrical line which makes easy work of Schreker’s angular writing. If you respond to the orchestral songs of Zemlinsky or early Schoenburg then these are very much for you. Great credit too to the Capriccio engineers who find an excellent balance between the voice and the detailed orchestration. I must admit that I like Schreker most in this slightly more reflective, ‘held’ vein. He still writes for a substantial orchestra which includes a bass clarinet and saxophone as well as a harmonium, but he uses the instrumentation as colouring rather than piling texture on texture. The closing bars of the first song achieve a gently rapturous ecstasy that I have not heard in Schreker before and it is beautifully realised here. This continues into the extended second song with both the harmonium and saxophone making subtly telling contributions. There appears to be at least one other recording of this work – Eva Marton in Budapest on Hungaraton – which I have listened to as a consequence of receiving this Capriccio disc. Marton has a famously powerful and dramatic voice, but I have to say I prefer Wilson/Ward’s more graduated approach which is an utter delight. Ward’s handling of the orchestra is again exemplary, with an ideal pliability in the ebb and flow of this complex score, reflecting a profound empathy with this genre; this is very impressive conducting. Full texts in English and the German translation by Hans Reisiger that Schreker sets are included.

There follows the Fantastic Oveture, which is very much a companion piece to Ekkehard and again shows the younger Schreker exploring the possibilities of a large Romantic orchestra. There is no specific narrative here, rather we have Schreker experimenting with textures and sonorities at the same time as he was working on his break-through work the opera Der ferne Klang. This is another work that appears with relative regularity on discs of Schreker’s music. Again, Ward’s interpretation matches all and betters most. The old Marco Polo/Naxos performances from Edgar Seipenbusch and the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra pale in comparison. They were valuable as trail-blazing recordings, but this is a different class in every respect. Outside of Germany, Schreker struggles to make much of an impact in the concert hall but this overture would make an attractive concert opener. It is not Schreker at his most individual but it is one of his most accessible works.

There follows another unexpected gem, the relatively brief Four Little Pieces for Large Orchestra (Four sketches for film). This is Schreker in illustrative mode, but using a musical language more akin to Hindemith and other more modernist rather than late-Romantic composers. It is worth remembering that before the ‘purpose-built’ soundtrack there was a sub-genre of mood-music whereby Silent Movie orchestral directors could stitch together from a library of pre-written pieces accompaniments to the action on the screen. Although there is no suggestion that Schreker imagined these specific pieces being used in that utilitarian way, I imagine that was his inspiration. Hence the titles of the four movements suggest differing ‘moods’; ‘Timoroso’, ‘Violente’,‘Incalzando’ [a chase] and ‘Gradevole’. Before being completely surprised at this seeming change of creative direction it should be considered that Schreker was one of the composers who contributed music for the project by German Radio in the late 20’s to provide a repertoire of works written specifically for the medium. These Four Pieces are similar is idea to the Kleine Suite für Kammerorchester that Schreker wrote in 1928. Compared to the large sprawling scores that are the more usual Schreker fare, these are emotionally terse, compact works. Possibly they signpost the direction Schreker’s music might have taken if he had lived longer. Again the version recorded here is my first encounter with this work and I find it fascinating and very effective, occupying a completely different sound world from other scores by this composer. Excellent and effective playing by the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz here as throughout the disc. [One big black mark to the proof readers at Capriccio - they manage to spell the name of the orchestra wrong – ! – on the back of the jewel case and the inside front cover of the booklet – Rehinland-Pfalz – in both cases].

Curious that just when Schreker seemed to be stepping out ‘Toward an Unknown Region’ [pace Whitman] musically, his very last major orchestral work hearkens back to the big sprawling scores of twenty years previously. The piece in question is the Prelude to a Grand Opera - Memnon. He never got wrote the opera itself, but given that this overture lasts over twenty minutes on its own one imagines it was conceived on an epic scale. This is a big work in every respect – it requires 10 percussionists for a starter. After the skilfully handled treatment of the Whitman settings this does feel like a slightly cruder score right down to the cinematic exotica of the percussion. But I have to say this is the most effective version of this score I have heard – again it is more nuanced and subtle than Sinaisky – and roughly two minutes longer to boot. This extra time Ward uses to allow basic tempi to expand, the slow sections becoming more seductive and languorous, the faster passages grander and more epic. The early Naxos/Marco Polo version, this time from Uwe Mund and the NOe Tonküestler Orchestra Vienna, is almost identical in length to Ward but somehow rather literal and foursquare and can be safely ruled out of contention. On one level this work slightly disappoints me as it seems a step back by Schreker, but that said Ward makes as good a case for the piece as I have heard.

So overall, a really fine disc where the familiar works match or supersede known versions and the 'new' pieces prove to be exceptionally interesting and superbly performed to boot. The production quality is very high – I do like this style of engineering which provides the listener with a clear and detailed sound picture neither inflating or diffusing the sound. Over the years Capriccio have been stalwart promoters of Schreker’s cause, and this disc is a valuable addition to that catalogue of recordings.

Nick Barnard

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