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Carl LOEWE (1796-1869)
Piano Trio, Op.12 (“Grand Trio”) [32:18]
Schottische Bilder, Op.112 for Clarinet and Piano [8:35]
Duo Espagnóla for Viola and Piano [12:32]
Henning Lucius (piano)
Marietta Kratz (violin)
Jakob Christoph Kuchenbuch (cello)
Christian Seibold (clarinet)
Lena Eckels (viola)
rec. Rolf Liebermann Studio, Hamburg, 2018
CPO 555 256-2 [53:31]

Carl Loewe is mostly remembered today for his lieder, of which he composed over six hundred, rivalling Schubert in output – and sometimes in quality. According to the booklet notes Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was of the opinion that Loewe’s setting of Goethe’s “Erlkӧnig” was finer than that of Schubert. As well as songs and ballads, Loewe produced at least two symphonies, two piano concertos, five operas and seventeen oratorios. In terms of chamber music there appear to be a number of works for piano solo and piano four hands, four string quartets and the miscellaneous other works recorded on the present disc.

We start with the so-called “Grand Trio” Op. 12. This dates from 1821, so it is a fairly early work, although it was published as late as 1830. The Allegro first movement opens promisingly, in a very classical style (which reminds me of contemporaneous early Mendelssohn) but rather degenerates into note spinning after a while. For the second movement the music stays in the same key and, in spite of the marking being Allegro molto agitato, the principal change is merely to triple time. The composer was reputedly a fine pianist (he partnered Mendelssohn in a performance of the latter’s A flat Concerto for Two Pianos) but the writing for the piano here is often pretty basic, simple repeated chords accompanying the strings. There is a central trio but this provides little contrast. The short Larghetto third movement sounds like variations on a theme in places and one “variation” has a filigree piano episode which requires a bit more effort on the part of the pianist. The last movement (Allegro assai vivace) again belies its marking and starts with a gentle trotting theme on the piano. This doesn’t develop into anything particularly interesting but it’s all pleasant enough.

Performances give no cause for complaint and the recording is fine, in a pleasantly airy acoustic. The work has been recorded at least once before, by the Gӧbel Trio on the Christophorus label, coupled with a trio by de Beriot. (You can check this version out on YouTube if the fancy takes you.) The timings for the individual movements of the rival performance are significantly longer than those on the present disc, so that the work’s complete duration is over six minutes longer. Given that the “grand” length of the Trio is not really justified by its modest musical material, slower tempi are a bit problematic and the performances tend to sound pedestrian by comparison with the relatively fleet renderings on the present disc. My impression was also of a less subtle and less euphoniously integrated trio sound, with the piano sometimes sounding a little more like a period instrument, so my feeling is that the CPO group have the edge here.

Apparently the first edition of the score contained a lot of mistakes (proof-reading errors?) as well as string passages that the present artists felt were written in the wrong register – despite the composer also having been a professional violinist. Phrasing markings were also somewhat approximate. As a result the artists had to devote a lot of effort to making appropriate corrections – so their version of the music may differ in several details from that on the rival disc.

Second on the disc comes the “Schottische Bilder”, Op 112, three brief pieces for clarinet and piano. Loewe toured England on two occasions and – following in the footsteps of Mendelssohn – ingratiated himself with the royal court. He never got to Scotland but he seems to have been inspired by Scottish themes to write these works – which sound rather like transcriptions of some of his compatriot’s more minor Songs Without Words. They are beautifully played here.

The third work on the disc, the Duo Espagnóla for Viola and Piano, dates from 1857 but next to nothing is known about the background to its composition. That said, the notes indicate similarities between the introduction to the work and that to Beethoven’s ‘Pathetique’ piano sonata, as well as elements of Loewe’s own Grand Sonata Elegique, Op.32. In the free sonata movement that follows there are, supposedly, also similarities with an early version of one of Liszt’s Transcendental Studies, ‘Chasse Neige’. Finally, the viola part in places resembles elements of Loewe’s ballad ‘Der Nӧck’, which dates from a couple of years later. Like the score of the trio that of this duo also required some additional work because the last page of the nineteenth-century copy used here was missing. The author of the booklet notes, Cord Garden, used twenty five measures from the material at the end of the exposition to round off the piece.

All very interesting but what does it sound like? Well, I found it difficult to detect any of the similarities suggested above. As might be expected from the multifarious supposed influences, this agreeable but rather lightweight addition to the viola repertoire doesn’t sound particularly Spanish either. The violist is splendid, with a lovely nutty tone.

Booklet notes are not particularly informative and are clunkily translated from the German.

I wish a little more compositional genius was evident but, if you like modest early nineteenth century salon music this well-played and recorded disc could be for you.

Bob Stevenson

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